By Skip Dreps
Last month I received a message from the Veterans Cemetery in Seattle, Brenda Spicer (Office Manager) where I serve on the Advisory Board. They received a call from Ray Johnston who volunteers for the Medal of Honor Society. He thought he might have discovered the burial place of a Medal of Honor (MOH) recipient who was awarded in 1905 and buried in the Veterans Cemetery in 1950. I was stunned. I have been on the Advisory Committee for more than 25 years and we proudly recognized the 7 MOH recipients buried in Evergreen-Washelli's Cemetery in Seattle. The possibility that there was one more, and we missed him, was staggering, and thrilling!
His name is Emil Fredricksen. He died without next of kin in 1950 and was buried without a marker. He had paid for the plot and the only clue that he was even in the military was a note on faded receipt that he was in receipt of bonus for the MOH. He was buried Emil Fredrickson and had been forgotten until recently.
After a search of Washington State records in Olympia and a few calls to old friends in the Records Center in St. Louis I had enough information to confirm he was the same US Navy Watertender that was one of the heroes on July 5, 1905, when the USS Bennington exploded in San Diego harbor killing 57 and severely wounding 60 other shipmates. It was the worst disaster in San Diego's history at the time and rivaled September 11, 2001 tragedy in its relative scope of population/casualties.
USS Bennington Disaster 1905
241 Shipmates the Day of the Disaster
Ship's Rowing Crew the morning of the Disaster
Emil was one of 11 sailors to be awarded our Nation's highest honor that day, and is the single event in military history where so many Medal of Honors awards were issued in peacetime.
Procession through San Diego: Emil Fredricksen is third from left
Yet, here was only a single, un-detailed line in his award that described his heroism, and generic, as it was the same in all the others. There had to be a story of Emil and I was going to find it in San Diego's History Museum in Balboa Park.
Thanks to Jane Kenealy, a San Diego History Archivist, we were able to piece together the details of that day, and after microfilm reel after reel, and several old volumes of naval archives, we found Emil.
Emil was preparing the boilers to get under way when one exploded, and then another. There were near the bow and he was at the stern. Immediately steam poured through the ship and four members of his crew where burned into the open hatch that housed the ammunition. Without hesitation he went below to secure the hatch. Then he rescued 5 other badly burned sailors and carried them off the ship to the dock before the ship lost its anchor and was towed to burn in the harbor.
Survivors after explosion
I found more about Emil. His family came from Copenhagen, Denmark (courtesy of former Advisory Board Chairman Michael Eagan). My Father emigrated from Westphalia, Prussia. Emil was on the Ship's Rowing Team. He was a big man with a big smile. In finding him, I re- discovered myself. It was important for me to drive to San Diego and try and find a clue to remember him when the cemetery places a MOH headstone on his unmarked grave. Maybe its because I will be buried in the Veterans Cemetery too, and felt like a neighborly duty; or maybe it was because the story of 11 MOH awardees in peacetime in a single incident was worth finding the tale and to keep the story alive.
Above all, I remembered it is important to all of us that I went on this mission to find Emil more than 100 years ago. I went 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.
Soon the Cemetery will order a Department of Defense official Medal of Honor headstone and maybe 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".
We are eternally grateful to the San Diego History Center in Balboa Park who has enabled TWO Medal of Honor recipients to be afforded full military honors because of their compassionate professionalism.
Finally, I can't help feeling that there are other friends guiding this journey. Captain Jack Michaels seemed to whisper in my ear when he sees something important from his new home in Heaven and Colonel Phil Smart is sending Godwinks like sunbeams spotlighting what still needs to be done on my watch. I am thankful I still have good friends who guide me from an overhead platform that sees the battlefield of life and helps me choose my path in life.
Finding Emil was as entertaining as a movie, but it was more like going on a holy pilgrimage. Finding Emil helped me rediscover Skip, and for that I am eternally grateful.
I hope to invite you all to the dedication of Emil's MOH stone with full military honors. I look forward to seeing everyone there. It will be an historical event!!
The USS Bennington Monument is a 60-foot (18 m) granite obelisk in the Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, Point Loma, San Diego, California, United States. It serves as a memorial to the crew of the USS Bennington (PG- 4), a gunboat of the United States Navy, whose boiler exploded on the morning of 21 July 1905, in San Diego Bay. The explosion showered the vessel with live steam and scalding water, killing at least 60 men and burning an additional 46. It was the worst peacetime disaster for the U.S. Navy up to that time.
The dead were buried at Fort Rosecrans; some were later dis-interred and shipped home for burial by their families. The monument at the site of the graves was dedicated three years later, on 7 January 1908. One of the MOH sailors who died the day after the disaster is buried here.
By the side of the sea
The harbor bar
Where the white breakers
Roar and run
That each generation
Years come and go
Will remember the Bennington