The Benwood was built in 1910 at Sunderland, England, but her home port was Newcastle, England and she was registered to Kristiansand, Norway. She has a length of 360 feet, a beam of 31 feet and a water displacement of 3,931 tons. Owned by Skjelbred Company, Norwegian Shipping and Trade Mission, this merchant marine freighter was powered by a steam engine yielding 1800 horsepower at 9.5 knots. She sailed with a crew of 38, and an armament of 12 rifles, one four-inch gun, 60 depth charges, and 36 bombs (Scott, 1994).
The sinking of the Benwood has been a controversy for many years with accounts of submarine involvement at the heart of the controversy. According to Scott's research, there is no documented evidence by the Americans nor the Germans of torpedo attack against the Benwood. The more likely explanation follows:
On the night of April 9, 1942 the Benwood, under command of Captain Torbjorn Skjelbred, was on a routine voyage from Tampa, Florida to Norfolk, Virginia carrying phosphate rock. Rumors of German U-boats invading the area forced the Benwood to travel the Key coastal lights three miles abeam and completely blacked out. On the same evening the Robert C. Tuttle, 544-feet long and 70.2-feet at beam, traveling to Atreco, Texas, under Captain Martin Johansen, was ordered to travel the Key lights one and one-half miles abeam and was also blacked out.
It is reported that at 12:45 a.m. of that same night the Robert C. Tuttle ordered right rudder to turn the vessel starboard due to a black object spotted just ahead of the ship. Captain Johansen sounded one whistle indicating to the object, "I intend to turn starboard." Her signal was not reported to be heard by the Benwood.
At 12:50 a.m., the Benwood reported to have sighted a blacked out ship just off starboard in her direct path. Captain Skjelbred sounded the whistle twice indicating, "I intend to turn port." Again, no acknowledgment was heard or reported. In an attempt by both ships to avoid an accident, they had unintentionally set a course for collision.
Just before the collision, Captain Skjelbred made final efforts to avoid the Robert C. Tuttle by ordering the engine full astern. It was too late. The bow of the Benwood crashed into the port side of the Robert C. Tuttle.
The Robert C. Tuttle was found to be in no immediate danger. The Benwood however, was flooding due to her crushed bow. Realizing this, Captain Skjelbred, in an attempt to ground and save the ship, turned the vessel toward land. The Benwood took on water too rapidly. A half an hour after the collision, Captain Skjelbred gave the order to abandon ship.
On April 10, 1942, the crew of the salvage tug Willet determined that the keel of the Benwood was broken and declared the ship a total loss.
Unreported salvaging on the ship over the years prompted John Pennekamp State Park to form a protection program in 1959 to prevent further damage to the wreck. Today, the Benwood is a protected resource under the Key Largo National Marine Sanctuary due to changes in the state parkÕs borders in 1973, and the formation of the Sanctuary in 1975.