By: Skip Dreps
I have served on the Veterans Memorial Cemetery Advisory Board for more than 25 years and we proudly recognize the six Medal of Honor recipients buried here.
A short time ago, Evergreen Washelli Cemetery received a call from Ohio researcher Ray Johnston, who volunteers for the Medal of Honor Historical Society. He thought he might have discovered the burial place of a 1906 Medal of Honor recipient, who was buried in Evergreen Washelli Cemetery in 1950. The possibility that there might be another was staggering, and thrilling!
His name was Emil Fredreksen. He died in 1950 in Seattle, at the Marine Hospital. With no known next of kin, he was buried without a headstone. In January, when we went to investigate, grounds keeping personnel had to dig down about four inches to uncover the temporary marker used to lay out his plot. There it read: E. Fredreksen, 1867-1950. The only clues that he had served were a cryptic notation on his interment order and a faded receipt found in archives that he was eligible for a bonus in pension. He was buried quietly, without ceremony, and rested forgotten until now.
Research began to uncover records to tell a story of this man and his life. We were soon able to confirm it was the same Emil Fredreksen, United States Navy Watertender, who was one of the heroes of the USS Bennington (Gunboat #4) disaster that occurred in San Diego in 1905.
Eleven survivors were awarded our Nation’s highest honor that day, and it is the single event in military history where so many Medals of Honor were issued in peacetime. It also greatly impacted the city of San Diego. Citizens grieved the devastation of that day alongside the Navy. It is tragic that one of those brave men had been forgotten. As our team continued to investigate, more details began to emerge from the past about this overlooked hero.
Emil was born on January 5,1867 at Royal Laying-In Hospital in Copenhagen, Denmark. His mother was Birthe Marie and his father was Frans Edward Biener. While his parents were not married, he spent significant time with his father and step-mother, Kristine. He loved both his mother and step-mother deeply. He often combined both their names when referring to his mother, and called her Kristina Maria. He had a younger brother, Frederik, and a younger sister, Emilie.
In 1884, Emil immigrated to America. He had a spirit of adventure and was seeking a different life than he had back home in Denmark.
Emil arrived in New York at the age of 17 and began a lifelong career of a sailor. He started on a ship as a common deck boy and over the next 15 years learned a number of different jobs. He worked as a stevedore, a fireman, a quartermaster and a boilermaker. In 1897, at age 31, Emil enlisted in the US Navy and was assigned to the USC & GS Blake. Six ships and six years later, the Navy transferred him to the USS Bennington.
Emil is one of the eleven Medal of Honor recipients from the Bennington. Yet, there was only a single, un-detailed line in his award that described his heroism. His citation reads,
“Serving on board the U.S.S. Bennington, for extraordinary heroism displayed at the time of the explosion of a boiler of that vessel at San Diego, Calif., 21 July 1905.”
There had to be a story of Emil – and it was to be found in The San Diego History Center in Balboa Park. It was important for me to travel to San Diego to try to find information to remember him when the cemetery places a Medal of Honor headstone on his unmarked grave. Maybe it’s because I will be buried in the Veterans Cemetery, too, and it felt like a neighborly duty; or maybe it was because the story of eleven Medal of Honor awardees in peacetime in a single incident was worth finding the tale and to keep the story alive.
With the help of a San Diego History Archivist, and after viewing reels of microfilm and several old volumes of naval archives, we were able to piece together the details of that day.
It was July 21, 1905. Under a lightly overcast sky, the USS Bennington was preparing to set sail to escort the battleship USS Wyoming to Port Harford, California for repairs. The crew had finished unloading a delivery of coal, and most were below decks, cleaning up before getting underway. Unnoticed by the crew on duty, a valve on one of the forward boilers was malfunctioning. At 10:38 AM, there were two dull explosions that echoed across the bay. Lieutenant Yates, who was on duty, reported to the San Diego Examiner that:
“The explosion scarcely made an audible noise. I was knocked forward in my chair and did not know what happened.”
The New York Times stated that Captain Wentworth, who was on shore at the time of the explosion, said:
“…he saw human bodies hurled over 100 feet upward.”
Thirty nine men were killed instantaneously, and many drowned before they could be rescued.
Faulty pressure valves caused the forward boiler to explode and be blown backwards where it collided with the other boilers in the hold. Immediately a scalding cloud of steam and debris filled the forward compartment, killing all inside. Pandemonium broke and fear pervaded the decks. The New York Times reported that steam, soot and ashes filled the ship, rendering even the main deck uninhabitable. LT Yates rushed out into the passage and described the
“…steam as so dense that I could not get a breath of air.”
Eye witness accounts state that
“…some of the wounded men could hardly be recognized as human beings, so blackened were they, scalded by steam, or blasted by the explosion.”
Sailors’ screams filled the air as the steam continued to hiss on.
The survivors and the city rushed to offer aid. LT Yates called for uninjured to assist, yet only twelve men on board were able bodied enough to respond. Boats were launched from the deck to transport the survivors to shore, and civilians rushed to rescue the injured in the bay. An eyewitness later reported:
“The men bore their injuries with the greatest fortitude. Laid out in lines on the beach, they gripped one another’s hands and shut their teeth in their agony.”
The city of San Diego was devastated by the event. Hundreds of men and women stepped in to help care for the wounded. All events were canceled, and the Friday evening concert became a memorial service. Two days later the streets were lined with a silent, grieving population as the funeral procession filed past on its way to Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery. Forty seven men were buried that day, laid to rest at the hands of the surviving crew. Of the 179 men aboard, 66 died and another 46 were seriously wounded.
Shortly after the funeral, plans were made for a memorial to honor the dead. A sixty foot gray granite obelisk was dedicated in 1908 at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery. It is modeled after the Bennington Monument that stands in Vermont, erected to remember the Battle of Bennington. A fitting memorial to honor the lives lost that day. Thirty five white marble headstones stand in its shadow. Unlike the thousands of others that face toward the harbor, these headstones face south, looking out over the Pacific Ocean.
Emil went on to serve 33 years in the US Navy and Naval Reserve. When he was released from active duty in 1925, he moved to Keyport, Washington and continued to serve in the USNR. He was a man who worked hard his entire life. At age 75, he was still working, employed by Howard S. Wright & Co., a construction company in Bremerton. In 1944 he bought a small home in Seattle, just south of Capitol Hill. He lived the last years of his life there, dying of natural causes in 1950.
I went to San Diego to find more than just a story of heroism.
I went because no matter how long it takes, veterans have a sacred duty to honor their country by remembering its heroes.
The Cemetery has ordered and received a Veterans Affairs Department official Medal of Honor headstone. Today we will remember the act of bravery above and beyond the call to duty with full military honors, and tell more than a generic line and “…remember the Bennington.”
Soon a granite marker will mark the span of his full grave inscribed with an image of his ship and story for all to see.