Sunday, January 15, 2012

Paradise writer recalls life on a carrier


"I approached the gangway of the slumbering attack carrier, adjusted my cumbersome olive-drab sea bag, and trudged upward to salute the colors." Richard Clark, who had just turned 21, was now aboard CVA-20, the U.S.S. Bennington. It was June 17, 1953 at the New York Naval Shipyard in Brooklyn. Clark's two year stint would turn into quite a ride.

Quoting from his letters home as well as historical sources and the official Big Benn newspaper, the Jet Blast, Clark presents a series of vignettes focused on the carrier's "Mediterranean cruise" in 1953-1954. "Back to the Bennington: Tales in the Wake" ($18.95 in paperback from Merriam Press, contains dozens of black and white photographs, many from the author. There are also reminiscences from other crew members and an overview of Bennington history.

Clark will talk about his service aboard the Bennington on Tuesday, January 17 at 4:00 p.m. at the Butte County Public Library, 1820 Mitchell Avenue in Oroville. Also presenting is Ralph Clark, (no relation), the current national vice-president of the Bennington Association who also served on Big Benn (1962-1964). The public is invited.

Commissioned in 1944, the Bennington served in World War II, the Cold War and Vietnam (see and only in 1994 was sold for scrap. When Richard Clark joined the crew, the carrier was on its way to the Arctic Circle to participate with NATO forces in "Operation Mariner" exercises. Then it was on to Europe for something of a goodwill tour. For the crew (Big Benn was designed for 3400) it meant only two words: "Shore leave."

Clark worked on the arresting gear crew, responsible for the cables that approaching jets had to hook onto in order to land. Sometimes pilots didn't even get a chance. "We lost a jet and a pilot yesterday," he wrote at the end of 1953. "For some reason the plane crashed while he was circling the carrier. They never did find him."

A boiler explosion took eleven lives months before Clark joined the Bennington, and soon after his tour with the carrier ended, early in 1954, a horrendous fire broke out below decks, killing 103. "It was one of the Navy's worst peacetime tragedies."

Those who gather to honor their ship will never forget.

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