|Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery in San Diego, California, USA. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)|
July 17, 2005
A century ago, on a slightly overcast Friday morning, San Diego
was visited for the first time by catastrophe. A Navy gunboat,
the Bennington, blew up in the bay, and 65 sailors were killed.
The city had known death before, of course, but it was a stranger
to the kind of disaster that makes national headlines and alters
a community's physical and emotional landscapes.
Today, the Bennington is the stranger. Not many people know its
story, or how, amid the horror and the suffering, a bond was
formed, helping San Diego become a Navy town.
A few years after the explosion, a 60-foot-tall granite obelisk
was built on Point Loma to honor the fallen, at what later became
Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery. The monument was a city
landmark then, discernible for miles and featured on post cards.
But it, too, has been obscured by time and all that has grown up
around it. You have to look for it now.
This Thursday marks the 100th anniversary of the Bennington
explosion. Some local veterans have organized a ceremony at the
monument, where 35 of the dead rest beneath simple white
headstones marked with individual names and a shared identifier:
At 10:38 a.m., the exact time when the Bennington's boilers
exploded, there will be a moment of silence. Then the names will
be read, speeches made, and for a while, anyway, people will
"Never let it be said that we failed to do the obvious and
recognize the souls lost on the Bennington," said Ed Coffer, who
is coordinating the ceremony.
Up the coast, at the private Santa Catalina prep school in
Monterey, a historian named Broeck Oder will be looking at his
watch for the exact moment, too. He grew up in San Diego hearing
tales of the Bennington from his father, a Navy hospital
corpsman, and when he went to the University of San Diego, he did
his master's thesis on the event and its aftermath.
"Proportionally, Bennington is still the worst disaster in San
Diego history, because we're talking about 65 deaths in a town
with about 20,000 people," he said.
"If a proportionally similar accident struck San Diego today, God
forbid, the death toll would be approximately 4,000 people,
greater than the number of souls lost in the World Trade Center
on Sept. 11."
Oder said when he encounters people who know about the
Bennington, they tend to remember certain myths – that the
explosion was caused by drunken sailors, for example. He thinks
So even though work commitments will keep him from attending
Thursday's ceremony, he's glad it's happening.
"For some years, I've thought that just a few of us historians
might be the only ones who knew the centennial of the disaster
was approaching, so I am happy beyond expression that
Bennington's men are now being remembered and honored in the city
which so embraced them."