Biography of Captain Claude Albert Bonvillian, U.S.N.:

From Houma, Louisiana to the Manhattan Project


By William Boone Bonvillian of Great Falls, Virginia, his grandson, 7/30/13


Claude Albert Bonvillian, born October 22, 1885, was descended from his grandparents Norbert Bodin (son of Gregoire Bodin) and Emma Bonvillain; his parents were their daughter Antonia Bodin and her husband Albert William Sterling Bonvillian.  He grew up in and around Homa, Louisiana. His father was an engineer involved in building and operating sugar refineries.  Claude did not obtain much formal schooling but was largely tutored at home. He grew up with an interest in attending West Point, but his father had served a term in the Louisiana legislature and heard of a possible appointment from the local Member of Congress to Annapolis, so Claude switched careers from army to navy and obtained the appointment. 

He arrived at Annapolis at age 15 and found his home tutoring had not prepared him for the rigors of the Naval Academy, so he took a year at a special preparatory course nearby.  He started the Naval Academy in 1902 and graduated in the class of 1906.  While a midshipman, he marched in Teddy Roosevelt’s inaugural parade.  One of his friends at the Academy was the football team’s quarterback Steve Decatur, a descendant of the War of 1812 naval hero. He recalled in later years that Decatur’s approach to Spanish class was to add an “o” to words – my grandfather’s example from him was, “Passo the soupo.” Apparently some academic latitude was allowed to quarterbacks.  There were frequent formal dances at the Naval Academy, and his scrapbooks have engraved dance cards from this time. He told me once that at as a midshipman from Louisiana he was frequently required to dance with the daughters of U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Edward Douglass White, who was from Lafourche Parish, Louisiana; the daughters were known as the “White Mountains.“

After the Academy he went to The Fleet as a “Passed Midshipman” awaiting an opening as a commissioned officer and serving in the Atlantic Fleet on the cruiser USS Columbia (C-12), an unarmored but “protected” cruiser launched in 1892. Teddy Roosevelt was building up the American Navy to try to match the expanding European navies and make the U.S., which had obtained oversees possessions in the Spanish American War in the Caribbean and Pacific, a global presence. One of Roosevelt’s plans was to consolidate the new battleships as “The Great White Fleet” and have it show the American flag around the world in 1907-08, sailing from Norfolk, Virginia around South America to the West Coast, then across the Pacific and home. Claude joined the battleship U.S.S. Alabama (BB-8) working in the engineering division manning the huge coal-fired piston-driven ship’s engines.  I saw photos he had from that period of his sailor teams, black-faced and covered in coal dust from shoveling coal to fire the great steam boilers. I believe he became fascinated with mechanical engineering from this period.  After this experience sailing around the world, he was assigned to the Asiatic Fleet in the Far East. 

USS Alabama, with the Great White Fleet:

He was given command, as an Ensign in his early 20s, of the 119 foot gunboat U.S.S. Callao (PG-37) on the Yangtze River in China, China’s greatest and longest river with the port of Shanghai near its mouth.  I have a photo of the Callao which he inscribed “My first command.” The “Callie–Ow” as he and his sailors called her, had been captured from the Spanish in Philippines during the Spanish American War, and his primary duty was maintaining the peace on the Yangtze, along with gunboats from the Royal and Japanese navies, protecting U.S. businesses and missionaries from battles between regional warlords along the river. This was a period of the decline and fragmentation of China in the closing years of the Manchu Empire, just before the rise of Sun Yat Sen and the Nationalist Chinese revolutionary movement.  Although it is about a somewhat later period, Richard McKenna’s noted novel The Sand Pebbles must have reflected many of his experiences.  I remember scrapbooks with his Kodak snapshots of Chinese warlords, officials and their retainers in Mandarin gowns at their banquets he attended in cities along the Yangtze, as well as of teas with missionaries and their families.  

USS Callao-class gunboat

I remember he told me as a child that it was too hot in the summer on the river to sleep below decks, so the crew would take their hammocks and sleep topside.  He did too, but began to suffer from stomach aches until he realized he needed to sleep with an extra undershirt to stay warm in the cool early morning on the river.    

He went on to other duties in the Far East, on the USS Charleston (C-19, a protected cruiser launched in 1902), and USS Maryland (ACR-8, a 4-stack armored cruiser launched in 1903), spending time in Japan and the Philippines.  He developed a great respect for the Imperial Japanese Navy and got to know a number of Japanese officers, appreciating the IJN’s discipline, formality, naval skill and technical expertise, as well as Japan’s remarkably rapid industrial advance.  He sent home to his family in Louisiana presents of silks, silver work, and lacquerware from the Far East; I still have some of these items.

Throughout this period he developed an intensifying interest in engineering and ship engines and systems.  In parallel, the U.S. Navy was not only rapidly growing its fleet but it was becoming more technology dependent, and developed a need for a corps of officers with the most advanced engineering skills to manage the new  powerplants, long range gunnery, and ship designs.  He applied for the Navy’s new postgraduate engineering program at Annapolis, and studied for a year there. He met my grandmother at the time, Laura Isabel Doughty, a young New Yorker from old New York families who had studied art at New York’s Art Student Institute. I recall photos from this time of sailing parties when she would visit Annapolis and they and their friends would go off in wooden sailboats on the Chesapeake Bay with picnic baskets.

Around 1910, the Navy selected him to study for his Masters degree in Mechanical Engineering at Columbia University.  Columbia had perhaps the nation’s outstanding steam turbine program led by the noted Samuel Pupin, for whom one of Columbia’s major science buildings is now named.  This was the time when the U.S. Navy, following Admiral Jacky Fisher’s leadership in the Royal Navy, began to build “all big gun” dreadnaughts – big new battleships – powered by much more advanced and higher speed turbine engines fueled by oil, replacing the less efficient in-line piston reciprocating engines powered by coal.  The British and the Germans were caught up in a naval armaments race, and the U.S. Navy, by then the world’s third largest, was working to keep pace. Intense work on development of advanced, high-pressure turbine engines would be at the heart of Claude’s career for the next thirty years.  

He and Laura were married in a small, quiet ceremony in a chapel in St. John’s the Divine Cathedral on 110th Street in Manhattan just south of Columbia. They lived in a white stone apartment building on 116th Street between Broadway and Riverside Drive across from the new Columbia campus, with its great architecture by McKim, Mead and White, the most famous N.Y. architecture firm of the time. Laura had great affection for New York City, her hometown, and they were quite happy there.  They acquired a car, and I recall stories about my Grandfather’s difficulty, despite his mechanical engineering expertise, in learning how to drive and especially park it.

As the Navy built its Engineering Corps to meet its ever-increasing technology needs, he was later designated solely for “engineering duty” as opposed to general “line” duty.  But he still had a great deal of service at sea - by 1931 Navy records show he had compiled over 13 years at sea. Official Navy registries of its officers indicate that in 1913 he was serving in Annapolis; he served on the battleship USS Utah (BB-31), in 1916 he was serving as a Lieutenant as Engineer Officer on the battleship USS Michigan (BB-27) during World War I in the Atlantic Fleet; that in 1925 he was serving in the Brooklyn Navy Yard (and living in officers’ quarters there); that in 1928 he was a Commander and Force Engineer on the staff of the Admiral commanding the Navy’s Scouting Fleet; that in 1933 he was a Captain in charge of the Operations and Maintenance in the Navy’s powerful Bureau of Engineering in the Navy Department in Washington, D.C.  

I also recall his telling me that during World War I he worked on rebuilding the interned German ocean liner SS Vaterland, which was recommissioned in 1917 as a Navy troop transport, renamed the USS Leviathan by President Wilson, and shipped some 119,000 U.S. soldiers to France; I recall that my grandparents went to Europe on her after the war ended.

Claude also worked on the design of the turbine engines for the battleship USS Idaho (BB-42), launched in1919.  He then served as Engineer Officer on the Idaho for her early sea trials and operations; her advanced turbines enabled the ship to set a speed record between New York and Rio.  Idaho sailed on April 13, 1919 for shakedown training out of Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and after returning to New York received President of Brazil Epitácio Pessoa for the rapid voyage to Rio de Janeiro. Departing on July 6th with her escort, the battleship arrived Rio on July 17th. From there she set course for the Panama Canal, arriving in Monterey, California, in September to join the Pacific Fleet. She joined other battleships in training exercises and reviews, including a Fleet Review by President of the United States Woodrow Wilson on September 13th.  Claude was proud of the Idaho – my brother John still has a model of the Idaho my grandfather gave him.  The Idaho later received 7 battle stars during WW II.

Battleship USS Idaho in her early years:

Claude was a fine chess player, and taught my brother and I to play chess as little boys. I recall that he became chess champion of the Atlantic Fleet, and that when the fleet anchored in Havana Bay, Cuba, he played the Russian chess masters who were wintering there.

He served for an extended period in Philadelphia working as the Navy’s advisor and supervisor – his title was Inspector of Machinery - at Westinghouse in its South Philadelphia Works, overseeing the development of new turbine engines.  His family lived in a comfortable home on the Philadelphia Main Line.

While he was on duty in Washington, D.C. in the 1930s the family lived in a white, colonial-style home in the famous Cleveland Park area of NW Washington.  My father went to Western High School there – and headed the schools’ training corps of cadets.  Then at 16, a year early, he obtained an appointment to the Naval Academy class of 1939, and went on to a Navy career.  Their daughter Isabel was a striking redhead, and attended Wellesley College. She later married a naval officer, Henry A. Renken, of Waynesboro, Virginia, who became a Rear Admiral, serving on surface ships, and they had two daughters (Marian and Rosalyn).

In the late 1930s Claude was Industrial Manager of the Bremerton Naval Shipyard, on the Pudget Sound in Washington State. It was a major command at one of the Navy’s three great west coast shipyards.  The Navy, in the period between WW I and the end of WW II built many of its own ships, sharing this responsibility with private shipyards.  So he was extensively engaged in both shipbuilding as well as repairing and maintaining a sizable portion of the Pacific Fleet.  My parents met there; my father, William D. Bonvillian, visited his parents there on vacations as a Naval Academy midshipman, and met Elizabeth Boone, daughter of the Navy doctor, Capt. Horace Boone, MD, USN, who commanded the shipyard naval hospital, while she was a student at the University of Washington. I have photos of their visits together, often picnicking in the striking Pacific Northwest landscape. They had three children, William (me), John and Anne, and my father later became an aviator and a Captain, retiring from the Navy in 1964.

By 1941 before the war broke out, Claude was back in Philadelphia, in command as Director of the Naval Boiler and Turbine Lab, an R&D center. It was the focal point for the advanced high pressure steam turbines and boiler systems that enabled a fleet of high speed ships for WW II that could travel at a high enough speed for aircraft carriers to launch aircraft, and for their destroyer, cruiser and battleship escorts to keep up – well over 35 knots an hour. The Lab also trained great numbers of men to operate this advanced equipment. I recently found a photo of Claude during this time when he is part of the construction team for the ship that became the most noted battleship of WW II, the USS Washington (BB-56), which almost singlehanded sank a Japanese battleship and destroyer in a critical fleet action that help turn the tide of the intense naval battles off Guadalcanal in 1942.  Claude is pictured with the construction department leaders below; he led the ship’s testing and evaluation process, presumably because of is engine expertise.

In the photo below, Admiral A. J. Chantry, Manager of the Industrial Department at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard, discusses a blueprint for the construction of the battleship USS Washington, with his department managers, left to right, Capt. E. F. Enright, Planning; Capt. Gaylord Church, Public Works; Capt. H. A. Seiller, Planning; and Capt. C. A. Bonvillian, Testing (on far right).


On December 7, 1941, his only son, my father, was at Pearl Harbor on a destroyer, the Farragut (DD-347).  When the news of the Japanese attack came in, not knowing what happened to his son, Claude sat in front of his home’s fireplace and burned one after another all the artifacts he had brought back years before from Japan.  Only one small item escaped his deep anger, a small red-orange lacquer box painted with three gold emblems of chrysanthemums, which I still have, and whenever I see it I think of that terrible day.

While leading the Lab, he filed a patent for work on a highly efficient smoke emitter to hide ships from enemy gunnery in a fog of smoke – which proved its worth in the action by “Taffy 7” jeep carriers and destroyers in turning back the main body of the Japanese fleet during the Battle of Leyte Gulf.  He also patented (with Lab colleagues) turbine engine design advances. [See Patents,  2,581,353 for an apparatus for the production of smoke fog, ; Patent 2,500,925 for an apparatus for the combustion of fuels at high temperatures in turbines,; and Patent 2,707,493 for conduit designs for conducting high temperature gasses for high pressure turbines, -- these were still being cited by major firms as recently as 2009.]  

While at the Lab he also undertook important work for the famous Manhattan Project to develop atomic weapons.  His Lab worked on building and operating one of the very first nuclear particle accelerators, for separation of U235 through liquid thermal diffusion.  The design for which he helped lead the construction and initial operation, developed at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, DC, was selected and scaled-up to become the S-50 separator accelerator at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and played a critical part in the Manhattan Project.[i]  The Naval Boiler and Turbine Lab’s separator continued in operation until 1946, producing over 5000 lbs. of partially enriched uranium used in the Manhattan Project. This was a fascinating step and a truly American story: a young man who educated by tutors in rural Louisiana grows up to sail around the world in the Great White Fleet, and to be a participant in the development of nuclear power. I remember him telling me about several men working at the accelerator when they didn’t fully grasp the dangers of nuclear particle exposure, who were terribly burned in a serious accident despite all their safety precautions.  This led to new attention to nuclear safety requirements. For his work on this top secret project (which he only discussed with me once), as well as on his other projects, he was awarded one of the Navy’s highest non-combat medals, the Legion of Merit. Because the work was long held secret, the citation is deliberately vague about the “Research Laboratory Project”:

The President of the United States takes pleasure in presenting the Legion of Merit to Captain Claude Albert Bonvillian, U.S. Navy, for service as set forth in the following CITATION:                                                                                                                                                                            “For exceptionally meritorious conduct in the performance of outstanding services to the Government of the United States as Director of the United States Naval Boiler and Turbine Laboratory, Navy Yard, Philadelphia, throughout the conduct of World War II. Displaying exceptional foresight, judgment and professional ability in the discharging of the varied and complex duties of his assignment, Captain Bonvillian rendered distinguished service in the design and high degree of reliability of boiler installations in ships and the training of large numbers of inexperienced crews to operate them, in the development of the combustion type fog generators, in the success of the Naval Research Laboratory Project at the Naval Boiler and Turbine Laboratory, in the far-reaching developments in fuel oil and in the expansion of the Laboratory’s facilities for research and development work in main propulsion machinery. By his superb leadership, tireless efforts and conscientious devotion to duty, Captain Bonvillian contributed materially to the successful prosecution of the war and upheld the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.”                                             -- For the President, James Forrestal, Secretary of the Navy

With the war over, in 1946 he retired from the Navy. He was offered an engineering deanship at NYU, but despite my grandmother’s desire to return to New York, he turned it down to become Director of the Kreisinger Development Laboratory, at Combustion Engineering (CE), leading R&D there in the late 1940s and 1950s. CE was one of the several leading U.S. power plant engineering firms starting to work to turn nuclear energy into domestic electricity power plants, as well as building submarine nuclear engines.  This enabled him to start to apply his new skills to creating nuclear power plants as well as other power plant machinery.

The company’s headquarters were in Connecticut, with construction and engineering operations and his Lab in Chattanooga, Tennessee. I remember visiting his offices there where he supervised the teams of engineers working on designs and blueprints, in the same industrial buildings with huge plate glass windows overlooking the massive engineering construction projects that were ongoing in vast factory spaces below with great cranes for moving around the huge power plant components. My grandparents lived in a large white house with a long wooden porch on Missionary Ridge, outside Chattanooga on the side of the high ridge, on 200 South Crest Road.  My family would take the train to visit them – I can remember eating in the dining car of the streamliner.  As little boys, my brother and I would wake up early to go “fishing” with our grandfather – he would first treat us to what he called “Louisiana coffee” – a small dose of coffee heavy with milk and sugar – which we found delicious.  We would then walk down the steep slope in front of his large home, through his terraced rose gardens to the four fish ponds on the terraces full of goldfish, where we would tie a string to a branch and tie pieces of bread to the string, and feed the crowds of goldfish, moving from one pond to the next.  When we returned, we would swing on the cushioned wooden swing sofa on the large porch looking out over the ridge.  We loved these early morning adventures with him.   

When he retired, my grandparents would often visit my family.  Claude smoked cigars and when they left, our house always smelled of cigars for days. When my family lived in Rhode Island, they rented a lovely small, shingled cottage high on a narrow point in Wickford, Rhode Island, near the old lighthouse, with Narragansett Bay views on three sides.  My brother and I would often row our green rowboat, based there, around Wickford Harbor.  

Following my father’s death at age 49 in 1967 from a sudden aneurism, my grandparents died within months of each other while living at my family home at 165 Signal Hill North in Wilton, Connecticut. Claude died on April 7, 1968 and is buried with his wife, very near their son, on a hillside in Arlington National Cemetery.



Picture taken at Jeanerette, Feb. 13, 1961, 100th. Birthday of Antonia Bodin Bonvillain. L-R: Claude Bonvillain, Souide Hodges, Louise Mae Hoffman, Donald
Bonvillain and seated Antonia Bodin Bonvillain. All are children of Antonia.

[i] A 2002 article documents the critical role that the separation accelerator at the Navy’s Boiler and Turbine Laboratory in Philadelphia played in the Manhattan Project.  See, Joseph James Ahern, “The U.S. Navy’s Early Atomic Energy Research, 1939-46”, International Journal of Naval History, vol. 1, no. 1, April 2002, pp. 3-4, The S-50 facility at Oak Ridge, which was modeled on the Philadelphia project, is described at: