Speech about Ensign Newman K. Perry

Given by Margaret Riddle on July 21, 2007

 

 

          It is indeed an honor to be here today to take part in this memorial service honoring the USS Bennington Gunboat-4. I am the grandniece of Ensign Newman Kershaw Perry, the only officer killed in the explosion of the Bennington on July 21, 1905. My grandmother, Laura Kershaw Perry Gunter, was Newman's older sister. I remember when I was a little girl seeing a brooch with two photos which my grandmother always wore. I asked her who was the man in the pictures and she told me it was her brother Newman, who had been killed in a ship explosion. She also said she had christened a ship named for him in 1945.

 

          That was enough information for me then, but as I grew older, and especially because she died when I was only 12, I wanted to find out more about the little brother she loved so much. I had learned from family members of the Navy destroyer named for him. A black and white photo of it always hung in our den. As a young adult, I became interested in genealogy, so I was given a family history compilation which contained, among other things, about 6 lines of information about Newman, and I was also given a photo of him.

 

          From that, I researched in old newspapers and found articles about the Bennington. Later, a cousin visited us and brought a box of family photos, including a photo album that had belonged to her grandmother Carrie, another of Newman's sisters. I soon realized that a set of photos in the album of a young couple had to be of Newman and his new bride Vipont. The box also contained a postcard sent from Newman to Carrie while he was serving on the USS Wisconsin in 1901. Each new discovery yielded new details, as did searches on my computer. I met a couple in the late 1990s at a meeting of the Theodore Roosevelt Association and discovered the husband had served on the USS Newman K. Perry destroyer. That led to my husband's and my involvement with the reunion group from that ship. Several years later, my husband and I visited Stockbridge, Massachusetts, and toured the home where Vipont had lived, which is now a museum house called Merwin House. I shared with them the photos of young Vipont and Newman and they gave me a photo of her in her 50s. The house caretaker also subsequently looked in the attic and found Newman's Naval Academy yearbook with several photos of him. We visited Newman's grave in the town cemetery across the street from Merwin House.

 

          A young cousin named for Newman had more information and memorabilia. He also had the remains of the bottle used to christen the destroyer and an old Navy uniform's belt buckle. Then, after my mother died in 2000, we found in her dresser drawer the Navy uniform's pin, buttons and buckle, which had been Newman's and also the brooch I had seen grandmother wear. They were all passed down to me.

 

          In May 2006, as I did from to time, I tried another computer search on Newman's name and found articles by Professor Broeck Oder and Karen Scanlon which provided precise details about the Bennington's tragic explosion and about how Newman had died. I telephoned Professor Oder, who led me to Ed Coffer, who led me to Karen Scanlon. I was thrilled to learn about the Memorial Service and was determined to come to San Diego to honor Newman and all of the wonderful young men who lost their lives 102 years ago today.

 

          I would like to share some information about Newman K. Perry, gleaned from all the discoveries I have made. He was born in Columbia, South Carolina, in November 1880. Following the death of his father, young Newman left the 9th grade and worked at the Columbia Post Office. He later won a competition for a scholarship to the US Naval Academy and graduated with honors in June 1901. Future Admiral Ernest J. King was a friend and classmate. Newman served on the USS Wisconsin from 1901 to 1903, when he was ordered to the USS Bennington, on duty along the Pacific coast. Later, in October 1903, he married Vipont Doane of Stockbridge, Massachusetts. While the Bennington was in Honolulu in 1905, Vipont joined her husband there. The Bennington returned to San Diego in July and Vipont followed it in a commercial ship which docked in San Francisco, since San Diego was not yet a commercial port. It was there in San Francisco she learned of the terrible explosion and that Newman had been severely injured.

 

          In fact, Newman, as officer of the deck, was standing right above the site of the explosion. He was found at the wheelhouse, terribly scalded by steam but conscious, his flesh cooked to the bone in places and in shreds, the outlook grim. However, in severe pain and between groans of agony, he dictated a telegram to his wife. "Keep a stiff upper lip, little girl, I'm all right." Three hours later he was dead.

 

          I'd like to quote a passage that appeared in a newspaper account about Newman after his death.

 

          "I've got Ensign Perry in here" said a man in a white apron. "Want to see him?" Six newspapermen entered the little stone floored room. There was a sickening odor of disinfectant in the place, a smell which lingers long in the memory. The man in the apron slowly unwound a towel and lifted the last covering. A grizzled old veteran of the press was first to speak. There was that about the tortured face that made it hard to speak of the way this brave man died.

 

          "He died like a hero" said the veteran slowly. "God rest his soul tonight. But I think Perry would have wanted to lie with his men on the floor. Death takes little note of shoulder straps."

 

          A tousled young seaman came down a steel ladder. "How's everything?" he asked. "Dead" said another sailor. "And Newman Perry?" persisted the youngster. "Died this afternoon" said another seaman.

 

          The boy twisted his cap in his hands. "My God, ain't it awful?" he murmured to himself as he stumbled up the ladder.

 

          Vipont reached San Diego by train, only to learn from Lt. Yates of the Bennington that her precious Newman had already died. She was inconsolable and collapsed for awhile. She was taken to the Hotel Robinson, and put into the care of Captain and Mrs. Robert Rolfe. Newman's funeral was held July 28th at St Paul's Episcopal Church in San Diego. Vipont shook with grief and sobbed throughout the service. She later took the hand of each surviving Bennington sailor who bore his casket and thanked each one individually. She asked that the flowers from Newman's service be taken to Fort Rosecrans to decorate the graves of the other Bennington victims. Then Vipont, her mother and sister accompanied Newman's body on the train back to Stockbridge, where he was buried August 4th. The grave is marked by a beautiful stone, with sculpted sea waves and an anchor, and it bears the inscription, "and we retain the memory of a man unspoiled, sweet, generous and humane."

 

          I regret so much that I never knew my grandmother's little brother, Great Uncle Newman. But his memory lives on, as do the memories of all the other victims, in the remembrance through which we pay tribute today. It is our obligation to keep alive these men who died so tragically, so cruelly, and so young.

 

          Thank you.