Medal of Honor Recipient Emil Fredreksen 1/5/1867-6/24/1950. Emil Fredreksen was the recipient of extremely rare peacetime Medal of Honor for his extraordinary heroism during the boiler explosion on July 21, 1905 aboard the USS Bennington (Gunboat #4). Fredreksen was born in 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 is 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, Fredreksen immigrated to America. He had a spirit of adventure and was seeking a different life from the one he had back home in Denmark.
He arrived in New York at the age of seventeen and began a lifelong career as a sailor. He started on ships as a common deck boy and over the next fifteen years learned a number of different jobs. He worked as a stevedore, a fireman, a quartermaster and a boilermaker. In 1897, at age 31, Fredreksen 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.
is one of the eleven survivors who were awarded our Nation's highest honor as a result of their response to the events that occurred on the USS Bennington. It is the single event in military history where so many Medals of Honor were issued in peacetime. The disaster also greatly impacted the city of San Diego.
Citizens and the Navy grieved together at the devastation that took place 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 (BM-10) to Port Harford, California for repairs. The crew had finished unloading a delivery of coal, and most of them 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, two muffled explosions echoed across the bay. They were scarcely audible but rocked the entire ship. Eyewitnesses on shore reported they saw bodies tossed over 100 feet in the air.
Thirty nine men were killed instantaneously, and 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 out and fear pervaded the decks. The New York Times
reported that steam, soot and ashes filled the ship, rendering even the main deck uninhabitable. The density of the steam made the air unbreathable. Witnesses said that "some of the wounded men were barely recognizable 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. Officers called for the 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. As 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 by 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 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 the harbor, these headstones face south, looking out over the Pacific Ocean.
For this contribution to the events of that tragic day, Emil Fredreksen received the Medal of Honor. 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."
Fredreksen 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 and lived his last years there. He passed away of natural causes in 1950 at Seattle Marine Hospital.