Seven Destroyers Lost at Honda Point
By: Garland Davis
During the early years of the Viet Nam War, a U.S. destroyer, USS Frank Knox ran aground on Pratas Reef in the South China Sea. This was attributed to poor navigation and training.
A few years ago, a Pearl Harbor based Guided Missile Cruiser grounded on a reef near the entrance to Pearl harbor. An investigation attributed the incident to poor training and poor navigation practices.
Not very long ago a U.S. Navy Minesweeper was grounded on a reef in the Philippine Islands and was lost when the vessel had to be dismantled. The grounding was attributed to navigational errors and over dependence on electronic navigational technology.
Earlier this year, two patrol boats were surrendered to Iranian forces, again, poor training and navigational errors resulted in the boats crossing into Iranian waters.
As any seafarer knows, navigation is an exact science. It is also unforgiving. Poor training, laxity, and inattention to detail will bite you in the ass every time.
These were all incidents that resulted in a single ship being damaged or lost. The greatest peacetime loss of U.S. Navy ships happened at Honda Point, California (now known as Pedernales Point). The area is extremely treacherous for central California mariners. It features a series of rocky outcroppings collectively known as Woodbury Rocks. One is named Destroyer Rock on navigational charts.
Fourteen ships of Destroyer Squadron 11 (DESRON 11) were steaming south from San Francisco to San Diego 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 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, 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, 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 Kanto 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 navigator 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 Doorman, a State Department expert on Japan, who survived, was aboard as a guest of Captain Watson, whom he had met in Japan.
- USS 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) struck 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)