Disaster aboard the “Bennington”

Tanker "Bennington" off the Wilmington, NC coast, following explosion, 9/25/1946

Continuing the theme of somewhat obscure Wilmington-related disasters, I bring you the September 25, 1946 explosion and fire aboard the tanker “Bennington,” off the Wilmington coast.

According to Mrs. Julia Morton (if I remember the details correctly from my conversation with her on my visit to Grandfather about a year ago), when Hugh heard about the accident he immediately recruited someone he knew with a plane and flew out with his camera. The resulting images are quite dramatic, with the ocean’s waves visible through the gaping hole in the Bennington’s hull. Mrs. Morton told me that these were among what Hugh considered to be his best work (presumably in terms of photojournalism, rather than art).

Tanker "Bennington" off the Wilmington, NC coast, following explosion, 9/25/1946

The shots may have also been exclusive. Morton apparently sold them to the Associated Press, and the image above (or one very similar) appeared in a New York Times article (“Six Dead Landed After Tanker Fire,” 9/25/1946), which reported somewhat sensationally:

The vessel, owned by the Keystone Tankship Corporation, was rolling in heavy seas about 225 miles off Savannah when the explosion occurred. A member of the crew was blown over the ship’s bridge and died instantly. The forward lookout was burned to death . . . Three of the dead lived for several hours after they were injured.

I’m still unsure about the cause of the explosion, which was unknown at the time of the NYT report. A Google search conducted today yields little information except for some obituaries compiled online for one of the casualties, 22-year old Kenneth Plogger of Greenfield, IL.

Does anyone remember this event, or or know additional details?

7 thoughts on “Disaster aboard the “Bennington”

  1. Hugh was pleased with the picture of the Bennington. I think I am correct that he was the only photographer who “found” the ship and was able to photograph it. I bekieve he got there before the Coast Guard did. At least 50% luck. He had a hookup in his darkroom that allowed him to send photographs direct to the AP. This one may have gone out that way. Since you found the negatives (which he could never find) that is probably how this photograph was handled.

  2. About postcards… You could buy postcard sized paper with the postcard format pre-printed on one side. The other side was, of course, for the photographer to print his pictures on. They could then be mailed like any other postcard. I’m sure you knew that. The shot of Bill Currie you posted was used that way as a sort of “souvenier” of a fun week-end.

  3. Before I comment on this post, let me say what a joy and pleasure to read Julia Morton’s comments on these stories. Julia, I hope you will continue to add your first-hand account of the happenings as we proceed through Hugh’s magnificent work.

    I think many of us who have followed Hugh Morton’s photographic career through the years, are often caught up in his fantastic scenic vistas and his unforgettable nature photography…and we sometimes forget about his amazing ability as a photo journalist. The Bennington story gives us a chance to see Hugh Morton covering breaking news.

    Jay Jenkins, writing on the front page of the “Greensboro Daily News,” on September 26, 1946, started his story like this:

    “The crippled tanker Bennington crept up the Cape Fear River tonight, a gaping hole in her hull testifying to a terrific explosion at sea last night, which cost the lives of six seamen and critically injured a seventh…The 10,172-ton vessel, her American flag at half mast in honor of the dead, was proceeding on to Wilmington.”

    The following day (9/27), the “Daily News” featured a Morton/Associated Press photograph that showed the 15 x 40 foot gaping hole in the ship.

    Also on the 26th, the Daily News’ evening companion paper,”The Greensboro Record,” featured a different Morton/AP photo. “The Record,” and the “High Point Enterprise” focused on the personal stories of the lost seamen.

    As you say, Elizabeth, The “New York Times,” on September 26th, featured a Morton/AP Photo very much like the second image in this post. The “Times” photo and story were on page 28. (Can you believe a breaking news story on page 28?) I guess the “NYT” is big enough to place the story anywhere they want it. Brings to mind a favorite ad: Black background with small, simple, white letters. It reads: “You don’t have to read it all, but it’s nice to know it’s all there. The New York Times.”

    This particular week, in September of 1946, was a busy one for Photographer Hugh Morton. Three days after the Bennington disaster, UNC played Virginia Tech (known as VPI in those days) in Kenan Stadium. Saturday, September 28, 1946… the inaugural game of the Charlie Justice Era.

  4. I am in shock this morning as I am learning about a disaster aboard another vessel named Bennington. This makes four. Four vessels named Bennington where disasters have occurred. Unbelievable! Is there some truth to the old sea legend that using the name of a ship that has suffered disaster in future ships is bad luck/karma?

    I write maritime history and have been involved with the study of and commemorations of the explosion aboard USS Bennington PG-4 (a Navy gunboat) that suffered a dreadful event in San Diego Harbor in 1905.

    Who out there is reading this that might tell us more about the tanker Bennington? WHOA!
    Thank you very much.

    Karen Scanlon, San Diego

  5. Yes, my dad was on that ship when it happened. He manned the fire pump and had to identify a body on deck (a seaman on watch on the foredeck). My dad was an oiler in the engine room but was in the mess hall at the time of the explosion, but heard the explosion from the mess hall.

  6. Here are some more details from my dad’s account of the incident that night: It was late at night, around 22:30 EST, when the bosun (boatswain) realized that there were fumes in the forward dry cargo hold. This was apparently because the men had been cleaning the front tanks of the tanker and the dry cargo hatch had been left open. Because of the winds that night, the fumes found their way from the tanks into the dry cargo hold through the hatch. The bosun rushed into the mess hall to grab a pumpman to assist with the problem. When they arrived there, they could not see into the hold and the bosun ordered one of the men to turn the light on as he descended into the hold… and the switch ignited the fumes causing the explosion in the forward cargo hold. The pumpman was named David Schwartz and had just left the mess hall where my dad was… then he was blown apart and thrown overboard minutes later. A man nicknamed “Blackie” for his jet black hair was also involved, and he was the one spoken of in the NYT article as having been blown over the ship’s bridge — he had been standing on the hatch when it blew. My dad says there were actually 7 casualties that night… all horrific deaths. The fire blazed into the night, and my dad was manning a water pump almost the entire night until the fire was out. A terrible tragedy that could have been much worse had the remainder of the fuel tanks ignited.

  7. Wow, I’m just now seeing this post, Bev. After nearly nine years. Whoa, I’m sorry I didn’t see your posts about your father’s role on tanker Bennington. This is fascinating information. Such a horrible night for those on board. Thank you for this information.

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