Men who go down to the sea in ships know full well the hazards of their profession, and this week marks the 90th anniversary of what military historians believe is the greatest peacetime loss of ships in the history of the United States Navy.
The long-forgotten disaster occurred in Southern California on Sept. 8, 1923, when nine USN destroyers made a wrong turn during a heavy fog and high waves caused by the great Tokyo earthquake of the previous week.
The ships, less than five years old, rammed single file into a rocky shoreline reef about 45 miles north of Santa Barbara while en route from San Francisco to San Diego.
Seven of the ships were lost, 23 men died and approximately 800 survived amidst tales of heroism as well as outrage toward the fleet commodore and their ships’ commanding officers who had led them into harm’s way.
The catastrophe unfolded at 9:15 p.m. when the nine, 314-foot Clemson-class destroyers that were the first in a column of 14 ships assigned to Destroyer Squadron Eleven plowed one-by-one in “follow the leader” fashion into the rocks at Honda Point, a dangerous outcropping of rocks and above-water and underwater reefs that have been the graveyard of countless ships since Spanish sea captains began exploring the California coast in the 1500s.
The lead ship in the column, the flagship USS Delphy, which, like the other destroyers was traveling at 20 knots, was the first to hit the rocks. It was skippered by Lt. Cmdr. D. T. Hunter. Also on board was Capt. Edward H. Watson, the DESRON Eleven’s fleet commander who held the temporary rank of commodore.
Hunter and Watson were navigating the column by the age-old technique of dead reckoning which estimates ship positions, speed and headings by measuring propeller revolutions per minute.
Although the Delphy and the other four-stack destroyers, that were built between 1918 and 1920, were equipped with radio navigation aids, both Hunter and Watson believed the radio equipment was not to be trusted because of its newness and reputed unreliability, and thus they relied on dead reckoning to guide the column of ships through what they wrongly believed was the Santa Barbara Channel.
The dead reckoning proved to be fatal, and the Delphy was way off course when it plowed into the reef at near-full speed that frightful night 90 years ago.
Although the Delpy sounded its siren when it hit the rocks, six other ships — the S.P Lee, Young, Woodbury, Nicholas, Fuller and Chauncey — were unable to slow down and, like lemmings following their leader, also rammed into the rocks and reefs at high speeds.
Three men died on the Delphy and 20 were killed on the Young, which tore its hull open on submerged rocks. The water rushed in and capsized the Young onto her starboard (right) side within minutes.
The seven ships were eventually scrapped because their damage was too severe to repair. The two other ships in the column that also hit the reef but managed to back off, the Farragut and Somers, were only lightly damaged. They were repaired and returned to the fleet.
Crew members from the five other ships in the flotilla that managed to avoid the rocks, the Percival, Kennedy, Paul Hamilton, Stoddard and Thompson, assisted in daring rescues from the sea by diving into the churning surf to save sailors from the seven destroyers who had either jumped or had been thrown into the waters.
Local residents, including ranchers, fishermen, doctors, nurses and workers on a nearby Southern Pacific Railroad crew assisted Navy personnel in rigging breeches buoys between the surrounding cliff tops and the doomed ships to carry several hundred of the sailors to safety, and providing medical aid, food, clothing and blankets to the rescued men.
The government sold the seven condemned ships and the equipment that remained on them to a scrap merchant for only $1,035! The loss of the ships was estimated by the Navy at $13 million.
Within days of the disaster, the railroad began running special trains crammed with sightseers to the disaster site from Santa Barbara, Los Angeles and San Diego.
A Navy Court ruled that Commodore Watson, the Delphy’s navigator, and the skippers of the seven ships that plowed into Honda Point were guilty of negligence and that the disaster “was directly attributable to bad errors and faulty navigation.”
The seven captains were eventually acquitted. But Watson, Delpy skipper Hunter and the Delpy navigator, although they were allowed to remain in the Navy, never advanced in rank and retired a few years later.
The site of the wreck today is located on land administered by Vandenberg Air Force Base, and visitors may drive through the Vandenberg gate to view the site of the disaster and a memorial plaque adjacent to the site that is fashioned from the USS Young’s anchor. The ship’s bell from the USS Chauncey is adjacent to the plaque.
Pieces of the wreckage may be seen amidst the rocks at low tide, but visitors are prohibited from entering the site of the disaster.
At 4:20 a.m. the same day of the Honda tragedy, the Pacific Mail Line’s steamer SS Cuba that was carrying cargo and passengers went aground on nearby San Miguel Island. All aboard were rescued, but the Cuba was a total loss as was much of its cargo of coffee and silver bullion.
The last known survivor of the Honda disaster, Gene Bruce, died in 1995 at the age of 95.
At the time of the wreck he was a 23-year-old sailor serving aboard the USS Chauncey. Its hull had been sliced open by the propeller of the USS Young before it rolled over, but Gene Bruce, who was on deck at the time of the crash, managed to swim ashore to safety.
Bruce remained in the Navy for six more years and in civilian life became a ship’s painter.
In the mid-1930s he helped paint the upper reaches of the Golden Gate Bridge when it was under construction.
Bruce was paid $2 an hour for this dangerous task.
David. C. Henley is Publisher Emeritus of the LVN.
A Navy court ruled that Commodore Watson, the Delphy’s navigator, and the skippers of the seven ships that plowed into Honda Point were guilty of negligence ...