The Honda Point Disaster - The largest peacetime loss of U.S. Navy ships that you never heard of

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The Honda Point Disaster - The largest peacetime loss of U.S. Navy ships that you never heard of

On the evening of 8 September 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 the California coast.

Two other ships grounded, but were able to maneuver free of the rocks. Twenty three sailors died in the mishap.

The area of Honda Point / Pedernales Point is extremely treacherous for Central California mariners in that it features a series of rocky outcroppings (one of which is today named "Destroyer Rock") sticking out about one and a quarter mile, called the "Devil's Jaw", that has been a navigational hazard since the Spanish explorers first came in the 1500s.

Also, this is 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, that is 12 to 25 miles wide between the coast and the Channel Islands.

The problem with the entrance to the channel is it is one of the windiest places for mariners to go through on the West Coast. Many times winds and waves are so severe that vessels will ride the storms out at the San Miguel Island's small harbor, or waves ranging up to 30 feet high will force 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 forlorn 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 locations.

The Incident
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 leading the squadron. All were Clemson-class destroyers, less than five years old. The ships turned east to course 095, supposedly into the Santa Barbara Channel, at 2100 hours.

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. Those 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.

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 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.

The USS S. P. Lee (DD-310) was following a few hundred yards behind. She saw Delphy suddenly stop, and turned to port (left) in response. She ran into the coast.

The 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.

The USS Woodbury (DD-309) turned to starboard, but ran into an offshore rock.
The USS Nicholas (DD-311) turned to port and also hit a rocky outcropping.
The USS Fuller (DD-297) piled up next to Woodbury.
The USS Chauncey (DD-296) made an attempt to rescue sailors atop the capsized Young. She ran aground nearby.

Court Martial
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.

Wrecked destroyers on Honda Point, California, soon after the night of 8 September 1923, when they went ashore in a heavy fog. USS Chauncey (DD-296) is in the foreground, with USS Young (DD-312) capsized behind her. USS Woodbury (DD-309) in the center distance. USS Fuller (DD-297) is partially visible behind the rocks further to the left.

honda-point-disaster.jpg - 76.01kb
By netchicken: posted on 25-3-2010

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