Honda Point disaster
The Navy's greatest navigational tragedy took place in September 1923 at an isolated California coastal headland locally known as Honda Point. Officially called Point Pedernales, Honda is a few miles from the northern entrance of the heavily-traveled Santa Barbara Channel. Completely exposed to wind and wave, and often obscured by fog, this rocky shore has claimed many vessels, but never more at one stroke than at about 9 PM on the dark evening of 8 September 1923, when seven nearly-new United States Navy destroyers and twenty-three lives were lost.
Just over twelve hours earlier Destroyer Squadron Eleven left San Francisco Bay and formed up for a morning of combat maneuvers. They were returning home after a escorting Battle Division 4 from Puget Sound to San Francisco. DesRon 11 comprised the five ships of Destroyer Division (DesDiv) 33, with Delphy (DD-261) out front, followed by S.P. Lee (DD-310), Young (DD-312), Woodbury (DD-309) and Nicholas (DD-311); six ships from DesDiv 31, with Farragut (DD-300) followed by Fuller (DD-297), Percival (DD-298), Somers (DD-301), Chauncey (DD-296) and Kennedy (DD-306); and three ships from DesDiv 32, Paul Hamilton (DD-307), Stoddert (DD-302) and Thompson (DD-305). The warships conducted tactical and gunnery exercises en route, including a competitive speed run of 20 knots. Later in the day, as weather worsened, the ships formed column on the squadron leader Delphy.
Poor visibility ensured that squadron commander Captain Edward H. Watson and two other experienced navigators on board Delphy had to work largely by the time-honored, if imprecise, technique of dead reckoning. Soundings could not be taken at twenty knots, but they checked their chart work against bearings obtained from the radio direction finding (RDF) station at Point Arguello, a few miles south of Honda. At the time they expected to turn into the Channel, the Point Arguello station reported they were still to the northward. However, RDF was still new and not completely trusted, so this information was discounted, and DesRon 11 was ordered to turn eastward, with each ship following Delphy.
However, the Squadron was actually several miles north, and further east, than Delphy's navigators believed. It was very dark, and almost immediately the ships entered a dense fog. About five minutes after making her turn, Delphy slammed into the Honda shore and stuck fast. A few hundred yards astern, S.P. Lee saw the flagship's sudden stop and turned sharply to port, but quickly struck the hidden coast to the north of Delphy. Following her, Young had no time to turn before she ripped her hull open on submerged rocks, came to a stop just south of Delphy and rapidly turned over on her starboard side. The next two destroyers in line, Woodbury and Nicholas, turned right and left respectively, but also hit the rocks. Steaming behind them, Farragut backed away with relatively minor damage, Fuller piled up near Woodbury, Percival and Somers both narrowly evaded the catastrophe, but Chauncey tried to rescue the men clinging to the capsized Young and went aground herself. The last four destroyers, Kennedy, Paul Hamilton, Stoddert and Thompson successfully turned clear of the coast and were unharmed. In the darkness and fog enveloping the seven stranded ships, several hundred crewmen were suddenly thrown into a battle for survival against crashing waves and a hostile shore.
For the hundreds of shipwrecked crewmen on board the seven destroyers, the immediate situation ranged from uncomfortable to nearly catastrophic. Nobody knew where they were, the best estimate being San Miguel island, on the other side of the Santa Barbara Channel entrance, and everyone was stunned by the suddenness of the calamity. Off-duty sailors came topside ill-dressed for what awaited them: chilly air, damp fog and drenching waves breaking over the ships. Oil, released from punctured fuel tanks, added to the misery, and to the danger. Most ships' boiler and machinery spaces were flooded, extinguishing all electrical power. Darkness thus dominated nearly the entire area. Fortunately, disciplined crews were able to release steam before they abandoned their posts, preventing boiler explosions from compounding the tragedy.
On board Young many men were swept away as the ship rolled over. Some were rescued or landed alive further down the coast, but twenty died in the water. With only inches of freeboard, waves easily swept over the wreck, threatening the rest of her crew as they clung to the now-horizontal port side, holding on to portholes broken open for the purpose or lashed to deck edge fittings. A particular terror was the sight of the oncoming Chauncey, seemingly bound for a collision. However, she went aground nearby, put her crew ashore with relative ease and soon became a route to safety for Young's survivors. In a heroic swim, Chief Boatswain's Mate Arthur Peterson carried a line from Young to Chauncey's stern. One of the latter's life rafts was then pulled back to the capsized destroyer, and some two-and-a-half hours after she was wrecked, all the men on Young had been brought over.
Woodbury, the only ship that retained power for more than a brief time, was firmly stuck near a little offshore islet. As a precaution, few men and a line were sent there while the ship tried to back free. Following over an hour of fruitless effort, her captain decided to abandon ship, and the remainder of his crew hauled themselves along the line to the uncomfortable security of the islet, which was soon rechristened "Woodbury Rock".
Settling fast on that rock's outskirts, Fuller tried to send a whaleboat, and later a rubber raft, to rig a line between her bow and Woodbury, but this proved impossible. Swimmers finally established a connection to the as yet unchristened Woodbury Rock, to be followed by the rest of those on board Fuller. There they joined the Woodbury sailors in trying to keep warm. All were rescued the next morning, most by the Santa Barbara fishing boat Bueno Amor de Roma.
At about the time the closest-in ship's crews had reached land, the sound of a train whistle revealed that they were really on the mainland, and not miles away on San Miguel island. In fact, the Southern Pacific's coastal railway line, with a well-staffed maintenance section house, was less than a half-mile inland. Workers from that facility were soon on the scene to lend assistance and a call had been sent out for more. Bonfires were built from used railroad ties to warm the shivering Sailors. More helpers came in by rail from the village of Surf and city of Lompoc, some miles up the line, and these brought medical aid, food and blankets. A special train, sent from San Francisco, arrived in mid-afternoon to carry more than 550 shipwrecked sailors down to the naval base at San Diego, where they arrived the following night.
When the special train took hundreds of survivors from Honda Station on the afternoon of 9 September 1923, eighteen Navy men were left behind as a "Wreck Patrol", assigned to protect the seven stranded destroyers from looters, watch for the bodies of the dead and recover them if possible. Ultimately, seventeen bodies were found. Another six had been swept out to sea or were otherwise unaccounted for.
Though the ships themselves were damaged beyond recovery, serious efforts to salvage their weapons and equipment were quickly undertaken. Saved equipment included torpedoes, many of the ships' torpedo tubes and guns, radios, documents and whatever else was worth the effort. Some guns and other heavy items had to be left behind, particularly on the wrecks furthest from the mainland, where recovery was simply too dangerous.
A special Court of Inquiry investigated the loss of twenty-three irreplaceable lives and seven expensive destroyers. A subsequent Court Martial adjudicated the issue of blame and punishment. Squadron Commander Edward H. Watson and the commanding officers of Delphy and Nicholas were found guilty, though the latter's conviction was set aside by the reviewing admiral.
Other "tin-cans", from the vast surplus of destroyers built under the World War I building program, soon replaced the lost ships in the operating forces. Heavy waves rolling in against the California coast began to break apart the fragile hulls of the seven wrecks within weeks of the Honda Point disaster. By the end of 1924, every one of these once-valuable fighting ships had been reduced to scattered components, few of them recognizable to any but the most knowledgeable eye.
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