Ensign Wilfred Van Nest Powelson gained short-lived national fame for his service to the “Sampson Board,” the naval committee that first investigated the loss of the Battleship MAINE following her explosion in Havana harbor on February 15, 1898. Powelson was the first to report that the keel of the wrecked vessel had been displaced upward in the explosion to a point just below the water surface, a condition that was used as evidence of the ship being damaged by a mine. During the war, he served aboard the Auxiliary Cruiser U.S.S. ST. PAUL.
Wilfred Van Nest Powelson was born in Middletown, New York on September 15, 1872, the son of District Attorney A. Van Nest Powelson. He was appointed to the U.S. Naval Academy at the age of sixteen in 1889 as a cadet engineer, graduated first in the Class of 1893. Intending to join the Corps of Naval Constructors, Powelson was sent to Glasgow, Scotland for additional education, an honor given to top Naval Academy graduates pursuing this field of study. However, after a year, he decided to return to the U.S. as a line officer instead of as an engineering officer.
When he returned to the U.S., Powelson was stationed at the New York Navy Yard, where the Battleship MAINE was being constructed. As he waited for an assignment a ship, Ensign Powelson took the opportunity to examine the new battleship in detail as the construction was ongoing. Powelson expected to be assigned to the MAINE but, instead, he was assigned to the U.S.S. FERN, a small naval gunboat.
Following the destruction of the MAINE, the FERN was sent to Havana. Having light duty aboard FERN, Powelson busied himself examining the MAINE’s wreckage and conversing with the divers probing it. His background in naval architecture, familiarity with the MAINE and ability to communicate well with the divers resulted in his transfer to aid in the investigation being done by the Sampson Board. Lt. Cmdr. William S. Cowles, commanding the FERN, apparently found Powelson a bit too overzealous and readily agreed to the temporary transfer. In his new position, Powelson was charged with interacting with the divers, directing their work and interpreting their findings under oath before the board.
Powelson’s most important work involved identifying that the keel and adjacent steel plates - the structural backbone of the vessel that formed the lowest part of the ship - had been bent upward by nearly forty feet. The keel itself rested eighteen inches below the water surface, while portions of the adjacent plates actually protruded four feet above the water surface. This severe displacement of the keel was interpreted as a major piece of evidence that an underwater mine was the reason for the ship’s loss. The ensign shared the importance of the finding with one of divers, Charles Morgan. Morgan, in turn, excitedly shared the information with an old navy buddy, newspaper correspondent Walter Scott Meriwether of the New York Herald. This information enflamed those pushing for war, brought Powelson his national fame, and got Charles Morgan dismissed from his service to the Sampson Board. Powelson’s service with the Sampson Board was not all positive. Members of the board found him tedious and difficult to work with at times.
With the work of the Sampson Board completed, Ensign Powelson returned to the FERN, but was reassigned to the auxiliary cruiser U.S.S. ST. PAUL. This vessel was an oceanliner that was outfitted with guns for use by the Navy. His transfer to the vessel was not by chance. It was commanded by Captain Charles Sigsbee, the former commander of the MAINE, who had been very impressed by, and very appreciative of, Powelson’s testimony indicating that the MAINE was lost to a mine. Sigsbee had worked to have Powelson join his crew.
As part of the ST. PAUL’s crew, Powelson took part in various actions. Most notably, on June 22, 1898 the ST. PAUL severely damaged the Spanish torpedoboat destroyer TERROR in an action at San Juan, Puerto Rico. The shell that was believed to have put the TERROR out of action was from a five-inch gun under Powelson’s command. The ST. PAUL also had the unfortunate distinction of crusing off Santiago on patrol, but failing to notice the clearly visible Spanish Cruiser CRISTOBAL COLON in the harbor entrance. Not sighting the vessel meant that Admiral Cervera's squadron spend several days in the harbor, unblockaded, while the search contniued for the squadron's whereabouts elsewhere.
The ST. PAUL was decommissioned to be returned to a passenger liner in September, 1898. In June of the previous year, Powelson has met Margaret Olivia Millar, who was the sister of one of his friends. The two soon became engaged. When the ST. PAUL returned to New York City, Powelson met his fiancé, and proposed that they marry while he was in the city. Miss Millar, however, was insistent that the nuptials occur in her church near her family home in Wyoming, Ohio. Powelson did not believe that this would be possible because of his being the navy. The issue became irreconcilable, and Powelson departed with the ST. PAUL for Philadelphia.
While the vessel was in Philadelphia awaiting decommissioning in Philadelphia, Powelson suffered an accident. He fell through the hatchway of a supply elevator and into the ship’s hold, breaking his leg, spraining his ankle and injuring his back. Powelson was taken to Philadelphia’s Episcopal Hospital. The news of Powelson’s injury was soon in the newspapers, and was seen by Margaret Millar. She quickly departed New York for Philadelphia, even though the two had not been in communication with one another since their spat. In September of 1898, the two were married in the Episcopal Hospital. On his release from the hospital, Powelson reported to the Navy Bureau of Equipment, to which he was assigned just prior to the accident.
On March 3, 1899 Powelson was promoted to lieutenant junior grade, and then lieutenant on February 11, 1901. At the Navy Bureau of Equipment Powelson did find himself dealing with some of the seamier sides of the operation. One man, a contractor named E. C. Anderson, attempted to offer Powelson a bribe if he would approve partial deliveries of brass fittings as full deliveries. Because of Powelson's honesty Anderson found himself serving a year’s sentence in Sing Sing Prison. Powelson also served on the Board of Inquiry investigating a contractor who utilized naval personnel to complete parts of a contract, in essence having the Navy pay twice – both through the contract and by paying its own personnel for the same work.
Lieutenant Powelson was not able to fully recover from the injuries from the earlier accident. On July 3, 1902, he was retired from the Navy with the rank of lieutenant commander.
Powelson, however, continued to live for another fifty-eight years. He and Margaret had at least one child, Roger Van Nest Powelson. Powelson died in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, on May 20, 1960. He was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
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