German U-boats stalked the dark waters of our eastern shores like a shark stalking its prey.
A ship’s greatest defense was to remain as dark and quiet as the seas surrounding it. Completely blacked out with only the lights from the Florida shore to guide them, a merchant ship and American tanker steamed through the night. Perhaps in a time of peace or simply with a fuller moon, they would have passed each other in the night as ships do. But it was a time of war, and all that could be seen was a dark figure approaching ahead. The large American tanker, Robert C. Tuttle, reportedly risked a single loud whistle to signal their intention to turn starboard. They heard no response from the other ship.
A mere five minutes later, the merchant steamer Benwood sighted a black object off her starboard. She, too, risked sounding the whistle but this time twice, signaling her turn to port. No response was reported.
Each ship attempted to avoid an accident yet unwittingly set a new collision course. When Captain Martin Johansen of the Robert C. Tuttle realized the new danger, he ordered the engine full astern, trying to stop his 544-foot long tanker in its watery tracks. But it was too late. The bow of the 360-foot Benwood smashed into the port side above the waterline of the Robert C. Tuttle.
The large Robert C. Tuttle was not in immediate danger, but the smaller yet formidable merchant ship was quickly taking on water. Captain Torbjørn Skjelbred immediately turned toward shore, hoping to save the ship by running it aground. A half an hour later, his hopes sank with the ship as he ordered his crew to abandon ship.
The following day, on April 10, 1942, the salvage tug Willet observed the Benwood’s broken keel and declared it a total loss. The crew survived, and its cargo of phosphate rock is believed to have been recovered.
The Benwood rests on a sandy slope off the shores of Key Largo between Dixie Shoals and French Reef. The stern was considered a navigation hazard and was intentionally destroyed, seemingly by explosives. To prevent further damage and salvaging of the historical wreckage, John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park formed a protection program in 1959. The Benwood is still a protected resource under the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.
Now a high-profile artificial reef, the Benwood is one of the most popular shipwreck dives in the Keys, particularly as a night dive site. She lies in 25-55 feet of water with her hull plates scattered around the perimeter of the wreckage. Divers enjoy abundant and varied marine life throughout her debris field.
Though the Benwood was lost that April in 1942, a greater loss occurred only two months later. The Robert C. Tuttle unknowingly entered a minefield set by German U-701. A mine struck the #2 tank on her starboard side, blowing oil over the whole length. Worse, the explosion launched the second assistant engineer overboard, and he drowned.
The remaining crew of the Robert C. Tuttle was able to abandon ship in three lifeboats. The 46 men were rescued by a US Navy patrol craft. The Robert C. Tuttle was repaired and returned to service.
The Benwood shipwreck serves as a reminder of the dangers these two ships and countless others faced during one of the worst periods in American history. The Benwood did not find her way through the darkness, yet she is still a representation of hope. The colorful coral and abundant marine life that inhabit her wreckage show that life and beauty persever.
Whether you’re looking for wrecks or reefs, Islamorada Dive Center has your ticket. We are one of the top dive destinations in the world. Visit IslamoradaDiveCenter.com to book your dream dive today!
–Jerrica Mah is a writer, Army wife, and freelance book editor, who loves to travel with her family.