FAIRFIELD — Even when the Navy hospital ship Benevolence was sinking under him in the thick fog off San Francisco or when the Viet Cong attacked the air base where he was, Navy boiler tender Jesse Letterman expected to live.
“I had a lot of faith in my maker that I was destined to do other things in my life. I guess because of my faith, he pulled me through a lot of critical times,” Letterman said.
Letterman grew up in Springfield, Mo., and lied about his age to get into the Army in 1946 when he was 15.
He got through basic training and was standing on the dock in Oakland, ready to ship out for Japan, when his mother managed to catch up with him and bring him home.
Two years later, in 1948, with his parents’ permission, he put on a uniform again. This time it was Navy blue and he trained in San Diego to become a boiler tender.
“It was a hot job,” Letterman said of the high temperatures he and the boiler crews endured to power that era’s naval ships.
His first assignment was the light cruiser USS Tucson, where he stayed until 1949 when the ship was put out of commission at Mare Island, where he also met his wife.
While at Mare Island, he was made part of a crew whose job it was to take the Benevolence out of mothballs and ready it for service in the Korean War, which broke out in June 1950.
On the morning of Aug. 25, 1950, he was part of the Navy engineering crew, along with a staff of medical personnel and merchant marine sailors, who took the Benevolence out of San Francisco Bay for sea trials in heavy fog and rough waters.
“My job was to check out all equipment pertaining to the operation of the main propulsion system, located on the lower deck,” Letterman said.
At about 5 p.m., after the ship turned around to return to Mare Island, Letterman was manning the pumps when “all of a sudden it felt like we hit something on the port side,” Letterman said.
The Benevolence had been rammed by the freighter Mary Luckenbach. The freighter suffered only minor damage, but ripped open the side of the Benevolence, which went down in 25 minutes, taking 23 members of its crew with it.
Unaware of the ship’s fatal wound, Letterman stayed at the pumps until the ship started to list to the port side and “everything started flying off the bulkheads.”
Letterman and others then climbed up a level to the control station to find it abandoned. They climbed another three decks to find the engine room crew waiting to evacuate.
Letterman continued to climb until he reached the top and saw the port side was about to go under water. He and others collected life jackets and started to pass them out.
“When I got down to the last one, I had to fight to keep it. I’m not a good swimmer and I knew I had to keep it for survival,” Letterman said.
No abandon ship order ever came and the water was high enough that Letterman simply waded into the water and swam away from the ship.
“The water was clear and calm. It had been rough before. We could see the screws at the rear, bottom of the ship turning slowly,” Letterman said.
Letterman spent five hours in the water, most of the time tied to a group of 10 merchant marines who passed the time singing songs and making as much noise as they could to help rescuers find them in water that was “so cold I was frozen from the waist down.”
A small Coast Guard whale boat picked them up and transferred them to a tug boat, which brought the survivors ashore.
Letterman was then transferred to the heavy cruiser USS Baltimore, where he spent the next three years, which included a trip to London for the queen’s coronation.
When the Baltimore went to the scrap yards, he was put on the destroyer USS Samuel Moore, which included duty off Korea sweeping mines.
“It was scary. You could see them (the mines) popping up behind us and they would shoot them with rifles,” Letterman said.
After nine years in the Navy, Letterman got out, only to find there were few jobs. So he signed up again, this time with the Air Force, which sent him to Travis Air Force Base to service the boilers at the old David Grant Hospital.
After that, he did a stint in Thule, Greenland, “where one day, it got up to 50 degrees,” and then Washington, D.C., working on boiler plants, some of which he estimated dated all the way back to the American Civil War, which “they still shoveled coal into.”
His last year in the Air Force was spent at Tan Son Nhut Air Base, South Vietnam, “which was good for the first nine months until Tet (the 1968 Tet Offensive).”
Letterman was sleeping elsewhere on base when the Viet Cong attacked and one of the rockets they fired landed in his bunk.
“I never feared getting killed, even when my ship was sunk. I just knew enough to take care of myself,” Letterman said.
His tour in Vietnam wrapped up his military career. After getting back to the states, he paused long enough to get a good night’s sleep, a shower and then turned in his retirement papers.
Letterman stayed in the area, going to work as a civilian at David Grant Hospital until he retired for a second time.
Reach Ian Thompson at 427-6976 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ithompsondr.