Honda Point Disaster

From Academic Kids

The Honda Point Disaster was the largest peacetime loss of ships the U.S. Navy ever experienced. On the evening of September 8, 1923, nine destroyers, while travelling at 20 knots, ran aground at Honda Point, a few miles from the northern side of the Santa Barbara Channel off the California coast. Seven of the ships were a total loss. Twenty three sailors died in the mishap.

Nine US Navy ships ran aground off Point Honda on September 8, 1923.
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Nine US Navy ships ran aground off Point Honda on September 8, 1923.

The ships comprised Destroyer Squadron 11 (DesRon 11). The squadron, led by Captain Edward H. Watson, was heading from San Francisco to San Diego. Watson was on the flagship leading the squadron of fourteen destroyers. All were Clemson-class destroyers, fewer than five years old. The ships turned east, supposedly into the Santa Barbara Channel, at 21:00.

The ships were navigating by dead reckoning, estimating their position by their heading and speed, as measured by propeller turns. At the time radio navigational aids were new and not completely trusted. Delphy was equipped with a radio navigational receiver, but discarded the bearings, believing them to be errorneous. No effort was made to take soundings, or depth measurements, which was another navigational tool. This was not done, because it would require slowing the ships. In this case, the dead reckoning was wrong and the mistake fatal.

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

Ultimately, a Navy court ruled it was the fault of the Captain and 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 part of a formation.

In order the ships were:

  • USS Delphy (DD-261) Delphy was the flagship in the column. She ran aground on the shore at 20 knots. 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. She was eventually scrapped.
  • USS S. P. Lee (DD-310) S. P. Lee was following a few hundred yards behind. She saw Delphy suddenly stop and turned to port (left) in response. She ran into the coast. She was scrapped.
  • USS Young (DD-312) Young made no move to turn. She tore her hull open on submerged rocks. The water rushed in, and capsized her onto her starboard side within minutes. Twenty men died.
  • USS Woodbury (DD-309) Woodbury turned to starboard (right), but ran into an offshore rock. She was scrapped.
  • USS Chauncey (DD-296) Chauncey made an attempt to rescue sailors atop the capsized Young. She ran aground nearby. She was scrapped.

The remaining four completely avoided the rocks.

There was one civilian aboard Delphy. Eugene Dooman was aboard as a guest of Captain Watson; they had first met in Japan. Dooman was a Japan expert with the State Department.

Honda Point, also called Point Pedernales, is located outside of Lompoc, California. It now is part of Vandenberg Air Force Base. There is a plaque and memorial at the site.

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