Charles Grubbs of Port Charlotte, Fla. served as a structural airplane mechanic in Squadron VF-41 aboard the ill-fated aircraft carrier USS Bennington (CVA-20) in May of 1954 when she exploded killing 93 sailors and injuring an additional 113.
Lucky for him he and most of his unit had flown to Quonset Point, R.I. the day before the disaster aboard ship. When news of the tragedy made headlines throughout the country, Grubbs family back in Pittsburgh, Pa. had no idea about his fate.
“My family was very devout Catholic. After the accident I got leave to go home. One of my cousins told me my whole family was going to church lighting candles for me because they didn’t know whether I had survived or not,” he recalled 60 years later. “I wish I had the money they spent on candles for you,’ my cousin said.”
It was determined that hydraulic fluid in the Bennington’s deck catapult had leaked, caught fire and exploded below deck killing scores of sailors. The worst of the injured were helicoptered to the hospital at the Navy base in Quonset Point, R.I. The rest were treated aboard ship. Eventually the badly damaged carrier was sailed back to the Brooklyn Navy Yard where she had been built for repairs.
“While I was at Quonset Point, the day after the accident I tried to get a telephone out to tell my mother I was okay,” Grubbs said. “All the phone lines were tied up so I couldn’t call her.
“The next day I reached my sister by phone. I told her it was a real experience,” he remembered. “She misinterpreted what I said and told a local TV station I flew off the carrier moments before the explosion.”
Grubbs said he and several of his buddies went down to the dock at Quonset Point when the Bennington came in to find out what happened to the members of their squadron who had been aboard ship when it blew up.
“We found out we had five men from our squadron killed. One of the engine mechanics in our unit was killed as was a pilot in V F-41. The mechanic was found dead in the ship’s ‘Ready Room.’ The pilot died in his bunk from the blast. Three commissary guys assigned to VF-41 were also killed.”
Grubbs joined the Navy in 1951 in the middle of the Korean War. He signed up for a four year hitch, went to boot camp at Bainbridge, then trained to be a structural aviation mechanic at a school in Memphis, Tenn.
He had already served on several carriers before he went aboard the Bennington. Initially it was his job to help keep the squadron’s F4U “Corsair” gull-winged fighter planes from World War II in the air. Later on the squadron replaced the “Corsairs” with “Banshee” all-weather jet fighters that he also maintained.
The deck of an aircraft carrier can be a hazardous place for a crewman in the best of times. Part of his duties was to serve as a plane captain who was charged with making sure that an individual pilot’s airplane was ready to go when it flew off the deck of the carrier. This meant he worked on the deck much of the time.
“The ‘Corsairs’ is what I started working on when I first went aboard ship. Aboard the carrier their wings were folded up. There was a bar from the wing to the fuselage that held the folded wing in place. It was called a jury strut.
“As a plane captain it was my job to help the pilot check out his plane’s engine. He would start the engine and rev up the motor to check the plane’s magneto,” he explained.
“It just so happened this one day I was waiting for the plane captain who handled the plane in front of mine to go through his magneto check and give me a thumbs up. For some reason I never got the thumbs up. He just left.
“I couldn’t tell what was going on with the plane in front of me so I started to go up to find out what was happening. About that time, the pilot in the other plane in front of us turned on his engine and revved it up. I grabbed the jury strut on my ‘Corsair’ and held on for dear life. The prop wash from the plane in front blew me off my feet and straight out horizontally as I held on.
“Let me tell you about the ‘Banshees.’ We were out there on the flight deck and I was told there was a plane that needs its breaks bled. The entire squadron of jets were getting cranked up about the same time,” Grubbs recalled.
“I’m under one of these jets trying to bleed the brakes when a jet in front of the one I was working on started moving on deck. It turned in front of me and I got the full blast of the engine,” he said. “I’m holding on to my jet with one hand and trying to hold onto a can of hydraulic fluid with the other. At the same time I’m shielding my face from the jet’s exhaust with my arm and the can I was holding got so hot I let go of it and it blew of the carrier’s deck.”
After his squadron, VF-41, relocated from the Bennington to the Lake Champlain it left on a six months cruise to the Mediterranean. It wouldn’t return to home port until June. Grubbs’ enlistment was up in May 1955.
“They were letting guys stay behind who were due to get out before June. I had already made a couple of Mediterranean cruises so I went to my division officer and tried to get him to let me stay ashore until my discharge. He said, ‘I’m in the same boat. If I have to make the Med cruise you’re coming along, too.’”
Several members of the crew were getting discharged at the same time Grubbs was, so the captain of the ship held a ceremony on the carrier’s deck for those who were being discharged and leaving the carrier. The skipper thinked us for our service to the country. “
A Lt. Koch was among those leaving that day and the captain had a special present for him. He was a VF-41 pilot who had the distinction of twice landing his ‘Banshee’ on the deck of the carrier with his wheels up.
“He was awarded a special trophy by the skipper. It was a plane with a landing gear hanging from the top of the statue,” he said with a smile.
After getting out of the service, Grubbs went to work for the post office. He spent the next 32 years with the outfit and retired as a labor relations representative. He and his wife, Claire, retired and moved to their home in Port Charlotte in 1990.
They have seven children: Colleen, Larry, Dave, Mike, Chuck, Jim and Dawn.
Name: Charles Albert Grubbs
D.o.B.: 14 Jan. 1931
Hometown: Pittsburgh, Pa.
Currently: Port Charlotte, Fla.
Entered Service: April 1951
Discharged: June 1955
Rank: Airplane Mechanic 3rd Class
Unit: USS Bennington (CVA-20)
Commendations: National Defense Service Medal, Navy Ocupation Service Medal, Good Conduct Medal.
Battles/Campaigns: Cold War
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Monday, Sept. 5, 2016 and is republished with permission.
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