Honda Point disaster
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.
|Date||September 8, 1923|
|Location||Honda (Pedernales) Point, near Lompoc, Santa Barbara County, California|
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
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The area of Honda Point (now known as Point Pedernales) is extremely treacherous for central California mariners, as 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). Called the Devil's Jaw, the area has been a navigational hazard since the Spanish explorers first came in the 16th century. It is just north of the entrance to the Santa Barbara Channel, which was the intended route of the destroyers involved in the disaster.
Captain Edward Howe Watson
Captain Edward H. Watson, an 1895 graduate of the United States Naval Academy, commanded Destroyer Squadron Eleven. He had served during the Spanish–American War, the Philippine Insurrection, and World War I. Watson was promoted to captain in 1917. Assigned command of Destroyer Squadron Eleven in July 1922, it was his first time as a fleet commander.
The fourteen ships of Destroyer Squadron 11 (DESRON 11) were steaming 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 positions from their course and speed, 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 depths due to the necessity of slowing the ships down to take the 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.
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.
The fourteen Clemson-class destroyers of Destroyer Squadron Eleven were to follow the flagship USS Delphy in column formation from San Francisco Bay, through the Santa Barbara Channel, and finally to San Diego. Destroyer Squadron Eleven was on a twenty-four-hour exercise from northern California to southern California. The flagship was responsible for navigation. As the USS Delphy steamed along the coastline, poor visibility meant the navigators had to go by the age-old technique of dead reckoning. They had to estimate their position based on their speed and heading. The navigators aboard USS Delphy did have radio direction finding (RDF) equipment, which picked up signals from a station at Point Arguello, but RDF was new and the bearings obtained were dismissed as unreliable. Based solely on dead reckoning, Captain Watson ordered the fleet to turn east into the Santa Barbara Channel. However, the Delphy was actually several miles northeast of where they thought they were, and the error caused the ships to run aground on Honda Point.
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 resulting ocean conditions. On September 1, 1923, seven days before the disaster, the Great Kantō 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. 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.
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. Eugene Dooman, a State Department expert on Japan, who survived, was aboard as a guest of Captain Watson, whom he had 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. As a result, she ran aground on the coast.
- USS Young (DD-312) made no move to turn. She tore her hull open on submerged rocks, and the inrush of water capsized her onto her starboard side. Twenty men died.
- USS Woodbury (DD-309) turned to starboard, but struck an offshore rock.
- USS Nicholas (DD-311) turned to port and also hit a rock.
- USS Fuller (DD-297) stuck next to the Woodbury.
- USS Chauncey (DD-296) made an attempt to rescue sailors from the capsized Young. She ran aground.
Light damage was recorded by:
- USS Farragut (DD-300) ran aground, but was able to extricate herself and was not lost.
- USS Somers (DD-301) was lightly damaged.
The remaining five ships avoided the rocks:
- USS Percival (DD-298)
- USS Kennedy (DD-306)
- USS Paul Hamilton (DD-307)
- USS Stoddert (DD-302)
- USS Thompson (DD-305)
Rescue attempts promptly followed the accident. Local ranchers, who were alerted by the commotion of the disaster, rigged up breeches buoys from the surrounding clifftops and lowered them down to the ships that had run aground. Fishermen nearby who 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. The four destroyers in Destroyer Squadron Eleven that avoided running aground at Honda Point were also able to contribute to rescue efforts by picking up sailors who had been thrown into the water and by assisting those who were stuck aboard the wreckage of other ships. 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. The wrecked 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).
The Navy court ruled that the disaster was the fault of the fleet commander and the flagship's navigators. They assigned blame to the captain of each ship, following the tradition that a captain's first responsibility is to his own ship, even when in formation. Eleven officers involved would be brought before general courts-martial on the charges of negligence and culpable inefficiency to perform one’s duty. This was the largest single group of officers ever court-martialed in the U.S. Navy's history. The court martial ruled that the events of the Honda Point Disaster were "directly attributable to bad errors and faulty navigation" by Captain Watson. Watson was stripped of his seniority, and three other officers were admonished. Those officers who were court-martialed were all acquitted. Captain Watson, who had been defended by Admiral Thomas Tingey Craven, was commended by his peers and the government for assuming full responsibility of the disaster at Honda Point. He could have tried to blame a variety of factors for the disaster, but instead he set a great example for those others by allowing the responsibility to be placed entirely on his shoulders.
Honda Point today
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.
- NHC. Honda casualties.
- 15 injured on Delphy alone. DANFS – Delphy.
- McKee, Irving. (1960). Captain Edward Howe Watson and the Honda Disaster. Pacific Historical Review, 29 (3), 287–305.
- Baker, Gayle, Santa Barbara, HarborTown Histories, Santa Barbara, CA, 2003, p. 76 ISBN 9780971098411 (print) 9780987903815 (on-line)
- Blackmore, David. (2004). Blunders and Disasters at Sea. Barnsley: Pen & Sword Maritime. ISBN 1-84415-117-4
- Honda Point Disaster, 8 September 1923, Naval History and Heritage Command. Department of the Navy (USA), 2002
- Point Honda Research, Point Honda Memorial, 2006
- "Craven, Thomas T. (Thomas Tingey), 1873-1950", Social networks and archival context project (Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities, University of Virginia)
- 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)
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Honda Point Disaster.|
- Center for Naval History's multipage text overview and photo gallery
- An account of the Point Honda Disaster from a British perspective
- Haze Gray and Underway's page on the disaster
- "Craven, Thomas T. (Thomas Tingey), 1873-1950". University of Virginia: SNAC: Social Networks and Archival Context Project. Retrieved 12 December 2013.