HMS Friday: Remembering the Honda Point Disaster
by Mark Lukach
As this week draws to a close, be sure to remember 9/11, but take a little time to remember the September disaster at Honda Point, California as well.
On September 8, 1923, seven US destroyers smashed into the rocky shore off the coast of Honda Point, California. The boats were bearing down on the coast in a dense fog at 20 knots as part of a military exercise. The seven were part of a 13-boat fleet called Destroyer Squadron 11, and all seven that crashed were destroyed. Twenty-three men died, twenty of them on a single boat. It was at the time, and continues to be, the largest peace-time loss suffered by the US Navy in its history.
And you’ve almost certainly never heard of it.
This collective forgetfulness is not your fault. National memories of loss and tragedy come and go, depending upon the story they tell us. We will always remember 9/11, the Alamo, the Lusitania, Black Hawk Down…or at least the calls to remember them. But some wounds fade with time, especially when they don’t serve a stirring national message of heroism and bravery.
Which is not to say that the disaster at Honda Point did not involve heroism, because it most certainly did. Men like Frank M. Moon, a Machinist’s First Mate Class aboard the wrecked Fuller, jumped overboard with a rope into the storm-tossed ocean, and swam through frigid, black water and towering waves to a nearby rock to secure it so that his crew members could climb to safety. No one aboard the Fuller perished.
But with the exception of a small plaque that sits atop the hill at Honda Point, land which sees almost no visitors as a part of the mostly restricted Vandenberg Air Force Base, the disaster has been almost completely forgotten. Because, well, who wants to remember a catastrophic mistake?
On the morning of September 8, 1923, Destroyer Squardon Eleven, comprised of fourteen mostly new destroyers, set sail from San Francisco Bay and bee-lined it south. Traveling mostly in formation at a pedal-to-the-metal speed of 20 knots, the destroyer crews had their game faces on under the command of Captain Edward H. Watson, who led the fleet aboard Delphy and was one of the most experienced navigators in the entire U.S. Navy. But this was 1923, not 1943. There was no war, instead just your run-of-the-mill drills and practice.
Conditions were unusually tricky for a speedy but routine race down the coast. As the ships approached their destination of Santa Barbara, they were blanketed in fog. Even more problematic were the lingering effects of the 8.2 Great Kanto Earthquake, which had devastated Japan by fire and giant tsunami and destroyed much of Tokyo a week earlier. Atypical swells and currents swirled across the Pacific and battered the California coastline in the weeks that followed the earthquake, and almost certainly were a factor on September 8.
Without visual aid, Watson and two other navigators relied on dead reckoning–fixing a known location on the map, and then calculating your next location based upon the variables of speed, current, wind and time. It’s a navigational technique long-used by sailors, but a single miscalculation could snowball as misreadings stacked on top of misreadings. When Watson believed that the Squadron had reached the Santa Barbara Channel, south of Point Conception, he ordered the ships to turn due east, while maintaining 20 knots. Big mistake.
When the ships made their sudden left turn, they were about 4 miles north of their target. At 9:05pm, at full speed, Watson and the Delphy smashed into the unexpected rocks at Honda Point. Delphy sounded the alarm, but that didn’t afford enough time for the all of the thirteen remaining ships to scatter. One by one, the S.P. Lee, Young, Woodbury, Nicholas, Fuller, and Chauncy piled up onto the dark reefs and bluffs to a sickening soundtrack of smashing waves and crunching metal. The seven other ships of the original fourteen managed to avoid the carnage.
Twenty of Honda Point’s twenty three fatalities were suffered aboard the Young, which was ripped from stem to stern and capsized, trapping sailors in her fire and engine room. The other destroyers, though pinned down and battered by waves, remained intact enough to allow time for the men to gradually escape to safety. Cold and terrified, men were still being plucked off the ships on the following afternoon.
Seven destroyers lost because of a wrong left turn. When you consider that the US Navy has only lost 80 destroyers in its history, the overwhelming majority of which occurred during WWII, seven lost ships due to a navigational mistake was a big deal. It still is a big deal – one that the Navy has been happy to mostly forget.
Sure, there’s a Point Honda Memorial tribute website, which is loaded with historical documents surrounding the disaster, including all the documents from the court of inquiry. (Watson shouldered full responsibility, and was court-marshaled accordingly, along with the two other navigators and the captain of each of the ships involved.) And the site is a desirable, if treacherous dive destination, but it is so heavily restricted as part of Vandenberg Air Force Base that few divers ever get to explore the wrecks. This definining moment in US naval history has been moved to the periphery of the American military narrative.
But it’s vital that that we remember the Honda Point Disaster. In my lifetime I’ve only ever known the United States to be the world’s superpower, with the strongest and most daunting military in the world. Our ranks are full of brave, unselfish heroes. We remember the Alamo and Black Hawk Down and the “let’s roll” of 9/11 in part because of these brave, unselfish heroes.
Honda Point reminds us that our ranks are actually full of human beings, fallible men and women just as capable of making catastrophic mistakes as they are of making heroic sacrifices. It’s a humbling reality to face, but an important one. Honda Point is a gutcheck that can help us avoid the trap of blind patriotism by forcing us to instead honor our country’s history for its richness, complexity and yes, even it’s mistakes.
There is still one place where the history of Honda Point still feels alive: the Jalama Beach Store and Grill. It’s a groovy little general store and burger shack in the heart of the beautiful Jalama Beach Park, Lompoc California, just up the road from Vandenberg. You can pull your RV into a campsite, grab a burger from the restaurant, and pore over the many newspaper clippings and photos that adorn the wall of the restaurant. Clippings such as this one, from the local Lompoc Record: “The ships were going at such terrific speed when they hit that they bounded on top of the low reefs and tore great holes in their bottoms.”