Field Guide to Coronado History: Who Was Willie Cronan?

William S. Cronan
William S. Cronan

Another in a regular series of fascinating, intriguing, or thoughtful tales about people and places in Nado history -- presented by your Coronado Historical Association

Do you know the story of Willie Cronan?  A hint … he’s notable in Coronado history, he earned a Medal of Honor within sight of Coronado (how unusual IS THAT!), and he’s the namesake for tiny Cronan Park at Pomona Avenue and Sixth Street.

Lieutenant Commander Willie Cronan should be better known in Coronado!  In 1905, then- boatswain’s mate Cronin was assigned to the steel gunboat USS Bennington.  On the morning of July 21st of that year, Bennington was anchored in San Diego Bay between the Coronado ferry landing and San Diego’s Market Street undergoing final preparations for leaving port with unexpected orders to escort a disabled ship at sea. 

Cronin was working on deck when suddenly Bennington suffered a huge boiler explosion.  Many were instantly killed; others were blown into the air or into the water as steam billowed high into the sky.  The explosion was heard as far away as Point Loma and the ship started sinking.

Over a third of Bennington’s crew of 180 would die that morning, many horribly scalded by live steam.  Only forty members of the crew survived uninjured.  Willie Cronan, injured in the explosion but blown into the water, saved many of his crewmembers from drowning.  Once Cronan finally swam ashore to receive medical attention, he leaped from his makeshift medic’s bed to save yet another sailor in the water.

It seemed like everyone in Coronado and San Diego rushed down to the waterfront that morning to provide aid to injured sailors.  Coronado ferry Ramona searched for sailors blown into the bay and Coronado jeweler Joe Jessop rowed his skiff to the scene as well.  Hundreds later would follow the funeral procession to Rosecrans Cemetery to bury the dead and later still to raise an 80-foot granite obelisk at the cemetery to memorialize the event.

The Bennington disaster in San Diego Bay ranks as one of the greatest peacetime disasters ever in American naval history. 

Willie Cronan retired from the Navy after thirty years and lived in Coronado for many more years and is, today, buried in Rosecrans Cemetery near the Bennington memorial.

Today, a bench at Cronan Park shares space with a 60-foot Torrey Pine Heritage Tree and contains a commemorative plaque honoring Commander Cronan.  Everyone in Coronado is proud of the city’s many veterans.  Willie Cronan’s Medal of Honor stands as another fitting example of Coronado’s uniqueness and is just one of the thousands of heroic tales that have been performed by those in our community. (BL)  www.coronadohistory.org

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