Honda Point Disaster

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Honda Point Disaster
NH 66721 Honda Point.gif
Aerial view of the disaster area, showing all seven destroyers. Photographed from a plane assigned to USS Aroostook. The ships are Nicholas and S. P. Lee at the top left. Delphy, capsized and broken in the small cove at left; Young, capsized in left center; Chauncey, upright ahead of Young; Woodbury on the rocks in the right center; and Fuller on the rocks at right.
Time 21:05 local
Date September 8, 1923
Location Honda (Pedernales) Point, near Lompoc, Santa Barbara County, California
Coordinates 34°36′11″N 120°38′43″W / 34.60306°N 120.64528°W / 34.60306; -120.64528Coordinates: 34°36′11″N 120°38′43″W / 34.60306°N 120.64528°W / 34.60306; -120.64528
23 dead[1]
Numerous injuries[2]

The Honda Point Disaster was the largest peacetime loss of U.S. Navy ships. On the evening of September 8, 1923, seven destroyers, while traveling at 20 knots (37 km/h), ran aground at Honda Point, a few miles from the northern side of the Santa Barbara Channel off Point Arguello on the coast in Santa Barbara County, California. Two other ships grounded, but were able to maneuver free of the rocks. Twenty-three sailors died in the disaster.

Geography of Honda Point[edit]

The area of Honda Point—Point Pedernales is extremely treacherous for central California mariners, in that it features a series of rocky outcroppings, collectively known as Woodbury Rocks by locals (one of which is today named Destroyer Rock on navigational charts) sticking out about one and a quarter miles. Called the Devil's Jaw, this area has been a navigational hazard since the Spanish explorers first came in the 16th century. This area is also near the entrance to the sometimes treacherous Santa Barbara Channel, a popular shipping shortcut for vessels going to and from the ports of southern California. The channel is 12 to 25 miles (19 to 40 km) wide between the coast and the Channel Islands. The problem with the entrance to the channel is that it is one of the windiest places for mariners to go through on the west coast. Often winds and waves are so severe that vessels will ride the storms out at the San Miguel Island's small harbor. Waves ranging up to 30 feet (9.1 m) high have frequently forced the closure of the small harbors at Santa Barbara, Ventura, Port Hueneme and Oxnard.

The entrance to the channel acts like a vortex, sucking the winds and waves of Pacific storm systems into the passage. The most dangerous area is from Point Pedernales eastward, along the stretch of south-facing coast (much of which is now part of Vandenberg Air Force Base's Western Launch and Test Range), to Gaviota Creek, where U.S. Highway 101 meets the coast from the Santa Ynez Valley. Sea vessels can be blown ashore, or with the dense fog that is common on the California coast, ships can simply run aground when they lose track of their location.

Captain Edward Howe Watson[edit]

Captain Edward H. Watson was the man placed in command of Destroyer Squadron Eleven. Watson graduated from the United States Naval Academy in 1895. Watson then took on naval duties in the Spanish-American War, the Philippine Insurrection, and the First World War. Due to the credit and accolades he accumulated during his service, Watson became a captain in the year 1917. Captain Watson was then put in command of Destroyer Squadron Eleven in July 1922 and he became a fleet commander for the first time.[3]

The incident[edit]

The fourteen ships of Destroyer Squadron 11 (DESRON 11) made their way south from San Francisco Bay to San Diego Bay in the late summer of 1923. The squadron was led by Commodore Edward H. Watson, on the flagship destroyer USS Delphy. All were Clemson-class destroyers, less than five years old. The ships turned east to course 095, supposedly heading into the Santa Barbara Channel, at 21:00. The ships were navigating by dead reckoning, estimating their positions by their headings and speeds, as measured by propeller revolutions per minute. At that time radio navigation aids were new and not completely trusted. The USS Delphy was equipped with a radio navigation receiver, but her navigator and captain ignored its indicated bearings, believing them to be erroneous. No effort was made to take soundings of water depth. These operations were not performed because of the necessity to slow the ships down to take measurements. The ships were performing an exercise that simulated wartime conditions, hence the decision was made not to slow down. In this case, the dead reckoning was wrong, and the mistakes were fatal. Despite the heavy fog, Commodore Watson ordered all ships to travel in close formation and, turning too soon, went aground. Six others followed and sank. Two ships whose captains disobeyed the close-formation order survived, although they also hit the rocks.[4]

Earlier the same day, the mail steamship SS Cuba ran aground nearby. Some attributed these incidents in the Santa Barbara Channel to unusual currents caused by the great Tokyo earthquake of the previous week.

Navigational errors[edit]

The fourteen Clemson-class destroyers of Destroyer Squadron Eleven formed up behind the flagship USS Delphy in column formation on their way from San Francisco Bay, through the Santa Barbara Channel, and on to San Diego. Destroyer Squadron Eleven was on a twenty-four hour exercise run from northern California to southern California..[5] The flagship, USS Delphy, led by Captain Edward H. Watson, was responsible for the navigation of the fleet on their run down the California coast. As the USS Delphy steamed down the coastline, poor visibility ensured that the navigators aboard the USS Delphy would be navigating by the age-old technique of dead reckoning. This meant that the ship was navigating by using estimation of speed and heading in order to determine position based on chart work. The navigators aboard USS Delphy were also using RDF, or radio direction finding, transmitted from a station at Point Arguello. The RDF technology transmitted bearings to the USS Delphy but the technology was new and therefore dismissed as an unreliable source for navigation. The USS Delphy was then ordered to turn east into the Santa Barbara Channel. However, the actual position of the ship was a number of miles northeast of where the navigators believed it to be based on dead reckoning. This error of navigation caused the formation to run aground on Honda Point.[6]

Ocean conditions[edit]

The main cause of the navigational errors experienced by the crew of the USS Delphy can be attributed to the earthquake in Japan and the underestimation of the subsequent ocean conditions that it resulted in. On September 1, 1923, seven days before the disaster, the Great Kanto Earthquake occurred in Japan. As a result of this earthquake, unusually large swells and strong currents arose off the coast of California and remained for a number of days.[7] Before Destroyer Squadron Eleven even reached Honda Point, a number of ships had encountered navigational problems as a result of the unusual currents.

As DESRON 11 began their exercise run down the California coast, they made their way through these swells and currents. While the squadron was traveling through these swells and currents, their estimations of speed and bearing used for dead reckoning were being affected. The navigators aboard the lead ship USS Delphy did not take into account the effects of the strong currents and large swells in their estimations. Since the navigators in the lead ship USS Delphy did not account for the current and swells in their estimations, the entire squadron was off course and positioned near the treacherous coastline of Honda Point instead of the open ocean of the Santa Barbara Channel. Coupled with darkness and thick fog, the swells and currents caused by the earthquake in Japan made accurate navigation nearly impossible for the USS Delphy. The geography of Honda Point, which is completely exposed to wind and waves, created an extremely deadly environment once the unusually strong swells and currents were added to the coastline.

Once the error in navigation occurred, the weather conditions and ocean conditions sealed the fate of the squadron. The weather surrounding Honda Point at the time of the disaster was windy and foggy while the geography of the area and the earthquake in Japan created strong counter-currents and swells that forced the ships into the rocks once they entered the area.[6]

Ships involved[edit]

USS S. P. Lee (DD-310) prior to grounding
USS Woodbury on beach
USS Chauncey

The lost ships were:

  • USS Delphy (DD-261) was the flagship in the column. She ran aground on the shore at 20 knots (37 km/h). After running aground, she sounded her siren. The siren alerted some of the later ships in the column, helping them avoid the tragedy. Three men died. There was one civilian aboard the Delphy. Eugene Dooman, an expert on Japan with the State Department, was aboard as a guest of Captain Watson, whom he had first met in Japan.
  • USS S. P. Lee (DD-310) was following a few hundred yards behind. She saw the Delphy suddenly stop, and turned to port (left) in response. She ran into the coast.
  • USS Young (DD-312) made no move to turn. She tore her hull open on submerged rocks. The water rushed in, and capsized her onto her starboard (right) side within minutes. Twenty men died.
  • USS Woodbury (DD-309) turned to starboard, but ran into an offshore rock.
  • USS Nicholas (DD-311) turned to port and also hit a rocky outcropping.
  • USS Fuller (DD-297) piled up next to the Woodbury.
  • USS Chauncey (DD-296) made an attempt to rescue sailors atop the capsized Young. She ran aground nearby.

Light damage was recorded by:

The remaining five avoided the rocks:

Rescue efforts[edit]

Once the accident occurred, rescue attempts promptly followed. Local ranchers, who were alerted by the commotion caused in the disaster, rigged up breeches buoys from the surrounding cliff tops and lowered them down to the ships that had run aground. Fishermen nearby that had seen the tragedy picked up members of the crew from USS Fuller and USS Woodbury. The crew aboard the capsized Young was able to climb to safety on the nearby USS Chauncey via a lifeline.[5] The four destroyers in Destroyer Squadron Eleven that were able to avoid running aground at Honda Point were also able to contribute to rescue efforts by picking up sailors that had been thrown into the water and by assisting those that were stuck aboard the wreckage of other ships.[7] After the disaster, the government did not attempt to salvage any of the wrecks at Honda Point due to the nature of the damage each ship sustained. The wrecks themselves, along with the equipment that remained on them, were sold to a scrap merchant for a total of $1,035.[5] She, and her wrecked sister ships, were still not moved by late August 1929 for they may be clearly seen in film footage taken from the German airship Graf Zeppelin as she headed towards Los Angeles on her circumnavigation of the globe; the film footage is used in the documentary film Farewell (2009).

Court martial[edit]

Captain E.H. Watson, shown here as a commander, 1915

Ultimately, a Navy court ruled that the disaster was the fault of the commodore and the ship's navigators. They also assigned blame to the captain of each ship, following the tradition that a captain's first responsibility is to his own ship, even when it is part of a formation. In the aftermath of the Honda Point Disaster, eleven officers involved in the incident were summoned to be brought to trial by general courts-martial on the charges of negligence and culpable inefficiency to perform one’s duty.[7] This was the largest single group to ever be court-martialed in US Navy history. The court ruled that the events of the Honda Point Disaster were "directly attributable to bad errors and faulty navigation" by Captain Watson.[3] Watson was relieved of his seniority while three other men were admonished. The other officers who were court-martialed were acquitted.[5] Captain Watson, defended by Admiral Thomas Tingey Craven during the proceedings,[8] was commended by his peers and by the government for assuming full responsibility of the events that transpired at Honda Point. While he could have blamed a variety of factors for the disaster, such as the strange currents produced from the Japan earthquake, Captain Watson was said to have set a great example for those under his command by allowing the blame to be set upon his shoulders.[3]

Honda Point today[edit]

Honda Point, also called Point Pedernales, is located on the seacoast of Vandenberg Air Force Base, near the city of Lompoc, California. Its land has been part of the air force base for over six decades. There is a plaque and a memorial of the shipwrecks at the site. The memorial includes a ship's bell from the Chauncey. A propeller and a propeller shaft from the Delphy is on display outside the Veterans' Memorial Building, in Lompoc, California.

Photograph of the plaque commemorating the US Navy Honda Point Disaster of September 8, 1923.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ NHC. Honda casualties.
  2. ^ 15 injured on Delphy alone. DANFS - Delphy.
  3. ^ a b c McKee, Irving. (1960). Captain Edward Howe Watson and the Honda Disaster. Pacific Historical Review, 29 (3), 287–305.
  4. ^ Baker, Gayle, Santa Barbara, HarborTown Histories, Santa Barbara, CA, 2003, p. 76 ISBN 9780971098411 (print) 9780987903815 (on-line)
  5. ^ a b c d Blackmore, David. (2004). Blunders and Disasters at Sea. Barnsley: Pen & Sword Maritime. ISBN 1-84415-117-4
  6. ^ a b Honda Point Disaster, 8 September 1923, Naval History and Heritage Command. Department of the Navy (USA), 2002 
  7. ^ a b c Point Honda Research, Point Honda Memorial, 2006 
  8. ^ "Craven, Thomas T. (Thomas Tingey), 1873-1950", Social networks and archival context project (Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities, University of Virginia) 

Further reading[edit]

  • Anthony Preston Destroyers (1998)
  • Elwyn Overshiner Course 095 To Eternity (1980)
  • Charles Hice The Last Hours Of Seven Four-Stackers (1967)
  • Charles A. Lockwood (RADM USN, Ret.) Tragedy At Honda (1960)

External links[edit]