One of the worst ship disasters not involving enemy action took place off the coast of Newport on May 26th, 1954.

USS Bennington, a 24 Essex-class aircraft carrier built during World War II for the United States Navy, was cruising off Narragansett Bay when the fluid in one of her catapults leaked out and was detonated by the flames of a jet, causing the forward part of the flight deck to explode. A series of secondary explosions occurred, killing more 103 crewmen and injuring approximately 201 others.

While a helicopter responded to the ship and returned victims to shore, Bennington proceeded under her own power to Naval Air Station Quonset Point to land her injured.

This tragedy caused the Navy to switch from hydraulic catapults to steam catapults for launching aircraft.

A monument to the sailors who died in this tragic event was erected near the southwest corner of Fort Adams State Park and dedicated on May 26, 2004.

USS Bennington Memorial at Fort Adams State Park

On 22 April, the Secretary of the Navy came aboard and presented medals and letters of commendation to 178 of her crew in recognition of their heroism on 26 May 1954.

Moving to New York Naval Shipyard for repairs, she was completely rebuilt from 12 June 1954 – 19 March 1955 and eventually became an Antisubmarine Aircraft Carrier (CVS). In her second career, she spent most of her time in the Pacific, earning five battle stars for action during the Vietnam War. She served as the recovery ship for the Apollo 4 space mission.

She was decommissioned in 1970, and sold to be scrapped in India in 1994.

Additional Reading

Fire Down Below (U.S. Naval Institute)

26 May 1954 Explosion – HISTORY – USS BENNINGTON

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