“Sailing into the Abyss: A True Story of Extreme Heroism on the High Seas,” by William R. Benedetto; Kensington Publishing Corp.; hardcover, 288 pages; $23.95

It happened in December of 1969 aboard the SS Badger State, chartered by the U.S. Navy to carry bombs to Vietnam.

Violent storms hammered the ship, rolling it over to a jaw-dropping 52 degrees. Bombs weighing 2,000 pounds broke out of their pallets and ran amok in the No. 5 cargo hold, looking like – as one fear-struck seaman put it – “a big pit of deadly, dangerous snakes.”

“Sailing into the Abyss” is the true story of a little known group of seafarers known as the U.S. Merchant Marine civilian seamen sailing aboard privately owned ships, carrying consumer goods in peace time, guns and ammo in war time.

Shortly after departing the Seattle area, a 500-pound bomb broke free of its wooden cage and wedged up tightly, metal-to-metal, with the hull of the SS Badger State.

The crew quickly jury-rigged new restraints for the errant bomb. But that proved to be only the beginning.

Bombs began to break out of their cages in other holds, a pattern which consumed the strenuous efforts of the crew night and day for most of the voyage – culminating in the breakout of the blockbuster bombs.

Fearing an explosion, the captain then broadcast an SOS.

The 2,000-pound monsters roamed beyond control. With a last gasp hope of smothering them, the crew quickly began pitching loose gear – mooring lines, mattresses and a whole menu of frozen beef, chickens, and what not – on top of the rampaging bombs.

It proved to be too little too late, as an explosion blasted a huge hole through the hull of the ship. The crew hurriedly abandoned ship only to find themselves in greater peril.

A 2,000-pound blockbuster bomb hurtled out of a hole in the ship’s hull into the laps of the seamen in the center of the lifeboat, throwing all hands into freezing water. A flock of albatrosses descended upon the men, trying to land on their heads and, for those helpless to resist, pecking at their eyes.

The final toll: the captain and 13 of his crew survived; 26 did not.

Raised in Livermore Falls (where family members delivered the Lewiston Daily Sun for 18 years), Benedetto served in the U.S. Coast Guard from 1946 to 1974 and as a Marine investigating officer. He earned a law degree in 1980 and pursued a second career for the ensuing 20 years.

The combination of a maritime and legal background served Benedetto well in researching and writing “Sailing into the Abyss.” He eventually accumulated an extensive library relating to the loss of the Badger State.

He sought out survivors of the tragedy as well as relatives of those who did not return home and tracked down the ship’s captain, Charles T. Wilson, who proved to be enormously helpful in describing key events related in the book.

Benedetto’s works have appeared in Harper’s Magazine and The USCG Magazine.

He is researching a second book, this one about the Coast Guard. The author and his wife, Barbara, reside in Wilsonville, Ore.


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