Benevolence Sunk!

This is the headline – emblazoned on a facsimile of a yellowed newspaper front page – that greeted me when I opened my home town newspaper, the Vallejo Times-Herald, yesterday morning.

USS Benevolence was  laid down on 26 July 1943 as a transport ship, SS Marine Lion, at Sun Shipbuilding and Drydock Company in Chester, PA. A year later, facing a surge in casualties in the Pacific Theater of Operations,the U S Navy designated her a hospital ship, AH-13. Todd Erie Basin Shipyard in Brooklyn completed her conversion to hospital functions, and she was commissioned on 12 May 1945. Benevolence transited the Panama Canal on 22 June, and after a brief stay in Hawai’i, made her way to the Eniwetok lagoon, where she provided care for war-wounded and sick Marines, sailors and soldiers until the end of hostilities. After a period of time at Yokosuka, where she gave care and comfort to liberated US POWs and civilian internees, she brought her first 1000 patients back to San Francisco in November. By 15 February 1946, she had completed her third “Magic Carpet” mission of bringing service personnel from Pearl Harbor back to  San Francisco.

USS Benevolence Anchored in Bikini Atoll for Atomic Tests, 1946 (Photo: NavSource Online: Service Ship Photo Archive, http://www.navsource.org/archives/09/12/1213.htm, accessed 26 August 2012)

From May to September 1946, Benevolence provided medical support for the Bikini atomic tests. After a 19 day rest in San Francisco, she deployed again, this time to serve as a station hospital off Tsingtao, China. After nearly six months, she returned to the US, this time to be decommissioned at Hunters Point Naval Shipyard in San Francisco. She was laid up in the Pacific Reserve Fleet until the outbreak of the Korean Conflict. She underwent refurbishment at the Mare Island Naval Ship Yard.

On her return from sea trials, with a small medical contingent and a large number of civilian technicians aboard, in heavy fog and zero visibility, Benevolence collided with the commercial ship SS Mary Luckenbach. The stricken hospital ship sunk within 25 minutes. Fortunately, all but 31 of her crew and passengers of more than 500 were able to get off the ship and into the frigid waters off San Francisco Bay. 18 people died or were lost. If she had had patients embarked, the tragedy could have been much worse.

USS Benevolence on her side off San Francisco Bay, 1950 (Photo: NavSource Online: Service Ship Photo Archive, http://www.navsource.org/archives/09/12/1213.htm, accessed 26 August 2012)

The ship lay in the shipping lane for 16 months while attempts were made to salvage her. When these were unsuccessful, salvage workers used three explosive charges to demolish her. She was stricken from Navy rolls on 20 December 1950.

I extracted the ship’s history  from Navy records, accessed 26 August 2012, http://www.history.navy.mil/danfs/b5/benevolence-i.htm
 
©2012 Thomas L Snyder
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  • HLP  On 10 Aug 2013 at 11:30

    Frank W. McIntosh was an orderly aboard the Benevolence at Kwajelein and then at Tsingtao. He used to tell the story of the last shore leave the Benevolence crew had before they left Tsingtao (3 March 1947). A town only 27 miles away was surrounded by the Communists and the US forces were slowly but inexorably withdrawing from the area. The roads were crammed with refugees trying to get into Nationalist-controlled Tsingtao, and the weather was bitterly cold in late February and early March that year. The night of the shore leave, the bar owners threw open the bars and gave the sailors free booze; they were sure the Communists would be there within days to take all of their stock, anyway. This resulted in some excessive drinking: Mac was 19 at the time. He said that the sailors were drinking Manchurian Vodka, and they would down a shot, feel incredibly drunk, walk outside and -boom- the cold air would sober them up immediately. So they would walk on to the next bar and repeat the performance. He did not remember returning to the ship that night. He remembered waking up, it was dark, and he felt the rail of the hospital ship’s infirmary bunk beside him, so he knew he was back on the ship. He was very, very thirsty. When an orderly came in, he found out he’d been at sea three days. He drank a big glass of water, and -boom- he was drunk again. That continued for the better part of a day, when the water re-entered his tissues, the alcohol would go back into his bloodstream. It’s probably a good thing that he was 19 and healthy, sounds like he nearly stayed in China for all time.

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