In the pre-dawn hours of 8 September 1923, fourteen destroyers of Destroyer Squadron (DesRon) 11 departed San Francisco following summer maneuvers up the coast. Cruising at 20 knots (23 mph / 37 kph) through dense fog, seven of the ships crashed onto the jagged rocks of Honda (Pedernales) Point in California and were lost. Twenty-three sailors perished in the darkness in the worst peacetime disaster in the history of the U.S. Navy. Yet despite the scale of the accident, only the squadron’s commander was formally disciplined due in large part to the highly unusual sea conditions off the Pacific West Coast at that point in time.
DesRon 11 was composed of Clemson
-class destroyers that each displaced 1,215 tons and could make 35 knots (40 mph / 64 kph). These vessels were the equivalent of high-performance sports cars in that they were exceptionally fast and agile for their day. They also carried twelve 21-inch torpedo tubes, allowing them to punch further above their own weight than what their diminutive 4-inch guns might otherwise suggest. This tricky combination of speed, power, and fragility meant that handling these vessels together required considerable practice and measured aggression; the proper employment of the torpedo required dashing to within a few thousand yards of the target to launch these unguided, straight-line missiles, before dashing back out to safety. Practicing maneuvers at speed whenever possible was therefore critical to the combat effectiveness of destroyers in a surface action, hence the high speed of DesRon 11 on its transit home.
That these ships ran aground was primarily due to critical errors in the squadron’s navigation which resulted from an unusual confluence of events. In the early 1920s, navigation at sea largely depended upon the age-old practice of visual sightings of landmarks, star measurements, and the careful art of dead reckoning—of measuring a ship’s propeller rotations
against the current to calculate speed and thereby determine distance travelled. World War I had touched off the spread of radio technology for navigation known as “radio direction finding” (RDF) that could serve as a powerful adjunct to these methods. By using a recently developed directional antenna, a shore-based receiver could detect the approximate compass bearing of a transmitting ship. When this information was combined with the known coordinates of the receiver’s position by the ship’s navigator, the ship’s own location could be deduced. The more often the navigator requested fixes, the more accurate his assessment of the ship’s position would be. But while the navy had a chain of RDF stations on the West Coast, the technology was still in its infancy and the fixes it produced sometimes proved unreliable. As a result, many officers in the fleet did not yet trust the technology. In this case, DesRon 11 proceeded south in poor weather solely under the dead reckoning of the captain of its flagship USS Delphy
(DD-261): Lieutenant Commander Donald T. Hunter, who in addition to commanding his own ship served as the squadron navigator for its leader, Captain Edward H. Watson. Neither of these men were willing to rely on RDF, and ordered the rest of the squadron not to use it.
Complicating matters further was the unusual state of the seas off the California coast in early September 1923. On 1 September, the Great Kantō Earthquake (7.9Mw) struck Japan, causing widespread devastation and disrupting ocean currents in the western Pacific. Within days, the oceanic effects had spread eastwards, leading to unusual currents and waves all along the Pacific West Coast.
On the evening of 8 September, DesRon 11 encountered powerful following seas and these unpredictable currents. These circumstances badly disrupted the squadron’s attempts to accurately measure propeller revolutions, as the ships’ screws were cyclically lifted free of the water. As a result, the squadron was in all likelihood actually travelling several knots slower than expected, placing it further north than LCDR Hunter’s estimates. At 2100, the destroyers, steaming in single-file, turned east into what its leader thought to be the Santa Barbara Channel, but in fact the turn pointed the squadron directly towards the area of the shore that locals called Honda Point.
At 2105, Delphy
smashed headlong into the rocks at 20 knots, followed quickly by S. P. Lee
(DD-310), which turned hard to port but could not avoid the same fate. Next in the column was Young
(DD-312), which continued on course and had its bottom ripped open by submerged rocks before quickly capsizing to starboard. The following three ships in the division, Woodbury
(DD-311), and Fuller
(DD-297) all struck reefs and stuck fast. Farragut
(DD-300) and Somers
(DD-301) did so as well, but were able to back off with negligible damage, while Percival
(DD-306), Paul Hamilton
(DD-302), and Thompson
(DD-305) managed to stop in time to avoid the rocks. Chauncey
(DD-296), however, seeing Young
quickly rolling to starboard, attempted to come to its sibling’s aid only to run aground as well.
Despite the sudden and catastrophic nature of the accident, the majority of the crewmen aboard the grounded ships had ample time to evacuate. The terrain at Honda Point was (and is) extremely treacherous, especially in poor weather. Nevertheless, quick and heroic action on the part of several strong swimmers among the wrecked ships’ crews to secure breeches buoys to the narrow beaches and cliffs gradually shifted the survivors to safety. This process took well into the afternoon of the day after the disaster, by which time it was clear that the cumulative damage of hours of the surf pounding the grounded destroyers against the rocks had doomed those unlucky ships to total destruction.
When all was said and done, twenty-three sailors had died: twenty on the capsized Young
and three on Delphy
. These losses, while tragic, could have been much greater, a fact that the court of inquiry convened to investigate the disaster acknowledged. In October, Captain Watson recommended five men for the Medal of Honor for their actions in saving their shipmates, and twenty-four more for life saving medals or letters of commendation for similar actions. Watson himself accepted the blame for the disaster without complaint. The circumstances surrounding the disaster, combined with the actions of the destroyers’ crews, led to the commander of DesRon 11 merely losing 150 places on the seniority list, which eliminated any chance of his attaining flag rank. While ten other officers were court martialed for losing their ships, only Watson was ultimately punished.
Efforts to salvage the wrecked destroyers grounded at Honda Point began immediately. The treacherous geography made the ships immensely difficult to safely reach, let alone recover. Nevertheless, in the first few days the navy removed the vessels’ ammunition, guns, furniture, paperwork, and expensive and dangerous torpedoes—the latter often by firing them out to sea, then retrieving them as they ran out of fuel. Within two weeks, the navy had done all it could as the destroyers gradually disintegrated on the rocks. While the salvage operation was turned over to a private company, Merritt Chapman and Scott Co., for a mere $1,035 on 25 September, removing the entirety of the ships themselves proved to be nearly impossible. Odd pieces of the seven grounded destroyers—as well as several other vessels wrecked at Honda Point over the years—are still visible at the site to this day.
Charles A. Lockwood and Hans Christian Adamson, Tragedy at Honda
(Clovis, CA: Valley Pioneer Publisher, 1997), 29–44; Noah Andre Trudeau, “A Naval Tragedy’s Chain of Errors,” in Naval History Magazine
24, no. 1 (February 2010).
“Honda (Pedernales) Point, California,” Naval History and Heritage Command, last modified 6 April 2015, https://www.history.navy.mil/content/history/nhhc/research/library/online-reading-room/title-list-alphabetically/h/honda-pedernales-point-california-disaster-8-september-1923.html.
Lockwood and Adamson, Tragedy at Honda
“Honda (Pedernales) Point, California.”
Edward Watson, “Recommendation for Medals of Honor: Honda (Pedernales) Point Disaster, 8 September 1923,” Naval History and Heritage Command, last modified 6 April 2015, https://www.history.navy.mil/content/history/nhhc/research/library/online-reading-room/title-list-alphabetically/h/honda-pedernales-point-california-disaster-8-september-1923/recommendation-for-medals-of-honor.html; Irving McKee, “Captain Edward Howe Watson and the Honda Disaster,” in Pacific Historical Review
29, no. 3 (August 1960): 287–305; Lockwood and Adamson, Tragedy at Honda
Charles F. Osborn, “Salvaging Operations: Honda (Pedernales) Point, California, Disaster, 8 September 1923,” Naval History and Heritage Command, last modified 6 April 2015, https://www.history.navy.mil/content/history/nhhc/research/library/online-reading-room/title-list-alphabetically/h/honda-pedernales-point-california-disaster-8-september-1923/salvaging-operations.html; Charles F. Osborn, “Ammunition on Wrecked Destroyers: Honda (Pedernales) Point, California, Disaster, 8 September 1923,” Naval History and Heritage Command, last modified 6 April 2015, https://www.history.navy.mil/content/history/nhhc/research/library/online-reading-room/title-list-alphabetically/h/honda-pedernales-point-california-disaster-8-september-1923/ammunition-on-wrecked-destroyers.html.