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Naval Disaster at Honda Point

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DEPARTMENT OF THE NAVY -- NAVAL HISTORICAL CENTER
805 KIDDER BREESE SE -- WASHINGTON NAVY YARD
WASHINGTON DC 20374-5060

Honda (Pedernales) Point, California Disaster, 8 September 1923

On the morning of 8 September 1923, thirteen destroyers of Destroyer Squadron (DesRon) 11 departed San Francisco for a two-day cruise to San Diego. They were returning home after a escorting Battle Division 4 from Puget Sound to San Francisco. The DesRon comprised the five ships of Destroyer Division (DesDiv) 33, with Delphy (DD-261) out front, followed by S.P. Lee (DD-310), Young (DD-312), Woodbury (DD-309) and Nicholas (DD-311); six ships from DesDiv 31, with Farragut (DD-300) followed by Fuller (DD-297), Percival (DD-298), Somers (DD-301), Chauncey (DD-296) and Kennedy (DD-306); and three ships from DesDiv 32, Paul Hamilton (DD-307), Stoddert (DD-302) and Thompson (DD-305). The warships conducted tactical and gunnery exercises en route, including a competitive speed run of 20 knots. Later in the day, as weather worsened, the ships formed column on the squadron leader Delphy.

That evening, around 2000 hours (8 p.m.), the flagship broadcast an erroneous report--based on an improperly interpreted radio compass bearing--showing the squadrons position about nine miles off Point Arguello. An hour later, the destroyers turned east to enter what was thought to be the Santa Barbara Channel, though it could not be seen owing to thick fog. Unfortunately, a combination of abnormally strong currents (caused by the extremely severe earthquake in Japan on 2 September which destroyed much of Tokyo and Yokohama) and navigational complacency led the squadron onto the rocks off Pedernales Point, near Honda, just north of Point Arguello.

Just after turning, Delphy struck the rocks at 2105, plowing ashore at 20 knots. She was followed by S.P. Lee, which hit and swung broadside against the bluffs. Young piled up adjacent to Delphy and capsized, trapping many of her fire and engine room crew below. While Woodbury, Nicholas and Fuller struck reefs and ran aground offshore, Chauncey ran in close aboard Young. Alarm sirens slowed Somers and Farragut enough so they just touched ground before backing off while the five other destroyers steered completely clear.

Although seven destroyers were eventually wrecked by the pounding surf, the slow, cumulative damage gave the crewmen time to escape. Rescue parties were organized, small boats and local fishing boats picked up swimmers, and life lines strung to shore allowed the rest to wade to safety. The last sailors were not rescued until the afternoon of 9 September--
23 men were lost, 20 in Young and 3 in Delphy.

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

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.

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.

USS Woodbury (DD-309) turned to starboard, but ran into an offshore rock.

USS Nicholas (DD-311) turned to port and also hit a rocky outcropping.

USS Fuller (DD-297) piled up next to Woodbury.

USS Chauncey (DD-296) made an attempt to rescue sailors atop the capsized Young. She ran aground nearby.

Light damage was recorded by:

USS Farragut (DD-300) ran aground, but was able to extricate herself. She was not lost.

USS Somers (DD-301) was lightly damaged.

The remaining five avoided the rocks:

USS Percival (DD-298)

USS Kennedy (DD-306)

USS Paul Hamilton (DD-307)

USS Stoddert (DD-302)

USS Thompson (DD-305)

Honda Point today

"Honda Point", also called "Point Pedernales", is located on the seacoast of Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. Its land for over six decades has been part of the Air Force Base. There is a plaque and a memorial of the shipwrecks at the site. The memorial includes a ship's bell from one of the destroyers. A propeller and a propeller shaft from one of the wrecked destroyers is on display outside of the Veterans' Memorial Building, in the nearby town of Lompoc, California.

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Honda Point disaster not forgotten at Vandenberg

by Senior Airman Steve Bauer
30th Space Wing Public Affairs


9/7/2010 - VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- On any given day, a weathered plaque, resting on top of a cliff, well-above sea level, overlooks the Pacific Ocean's rough waters as they pummel against the protruding rocks below near the Western Launch and Test Range here.

The sun-stricken plaque is part of a memorial site dedicated to the Honda Point disaster of 1923 - the largest peacetime loss of United States Navy ships.

Vandenberg's historical background is mostly composed of joint-service personnel, said Jay Prichard, curator of the Vandenberg Heritage Center.

"Events such as the Honda Point Disaster are a reminder that military heritage is a common thread that binds us together, one team, one fight," Mr. Prichard said.

On Sept. 1, 1923, a magnitude 8.3 earthquake struck Sagami Bay, Japan, creating unusual currents that rippled across the Pacific Ocean.

One week later, despite the irregular currents trickling across the Pacific, the U.S. Navy Destroyer Squadron 11 deployed 14 Clemson-class destroyers from San Francisco Bay to San Diego Bay for training.

Led by Navy Cmdr. Edward H. Watson, the former DESRON 11 commander, the 14 ships set sail to simulate wartime conditions and their ability to navigate by using dead reckoning. Dead reckoning is a method to estimate the ship's maritime position by calculating the ship's heading, speed and propeller turns.

During the early 1920s, Sailors favored the dead reckoning system over radio navigation aids. This was because radio navigation aids, which checks ocean depth measurements, were still new and had not gone through an extensive amount of testing for accuracy. Therefore, even though some of the destroyers of the DESRON 11 were equipped with radio navigation receivers, the radios were not used, said Mr. Prichard.

As the destroyers trained throughout the night Sept. 8, the ships turned east in the direction of the Santa Barbara Channel. Maintaining a swift course, the destroyers headed toward Honda Point unaware of their surrounding environment, which is an area often called the Devil's Jaw because of its rocky outcroppings.

At 20 knots, the U.S.S. Delphy was the first of seven destroyers to run aground at Honda Point that September night. However, before the other seven ships were led into danger, the U.S.S. Delphy sounded its sirens, saving the trailing ships from tragedy. Twenty-three Sailors were killed in the Honda Point Disaster.

"As in any event, it is our responsibility to reflect what works and what doesn't," said Mr. Prichard. "Understanding our heritage gives us an opportunity to evolve as leaders and prevent future tragedies by making more informed decisions. In so doing, the lessons provided by the tragic loss of the 23 Sailors and seven ships, while painful, will not be in vain."

Fragments remaining from the Honda Point Disaster can still be found around the local area today. A downed destroyer's propeller and propeller staff sits outside the Lompoc Veterans' Memorial Building, and steel debris from the wreckage can also be seen wedged in-between the rocks at Honda Point.

The Honda Point Memorial site is currently off-limits. Due to erosion from the Pacific surf, the surrounding cliffs are severely undermined, which has led base safety officials to declare it off limits to all base personnel. However, the site of the wreck can be viewed safely from the roadside, said Mr. Prichard.

More than 87 years later, a plaque and memorial remain intact approximately 100 feet above the site where the historic Navy tragedy occurred. Although weathered, the memorial is still serving its purpose - remembering the loss of 23 Sailors and seven destroyers at Honda Point.


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VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- A weathered plaque resting on top of a cliff here overlooks the Pacific Ocean at the location known as Honda Point. This memorial site was enacted to remember the 23 Sailors who lost their lives when seven U.S. Navy destroyers crashed in 1923 off of the shore here. (U.S. Air Force Photo/Senior Airman Heather Shaw)

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Author and publisher, Joe Silva, describes the 60th and 61st anniversary ceremonies taking place on September 8, 1983 and September 8, 1984 at the Lompoc Veterans Memorial Building. A screw from the DELPHY, retrieved by divers, was dedicated at the 60th anniversary, while a plaque honoring the survivors was dedicated at the 61st anniversary.

At the 61st ceremony, Captain Gerald Fulk, USN, Commanding Officer, Naval Ship Weapons Systems Engineering Office, Port Hueneme, CA, told approximately 150 people that the screw from the DELPHY dedicated in 1983 in the courtyard of the Lompoc Veterans Memorial Building 'honors all destroyer men', and the plaque dedicated in 1984 'will remind future generations of the courage, heroism and honor of the crews.'

At the 75th memorial service, which took place at Point Honda, Vandenberg Air Force Base, on Sept. 8, 1998, at the site overlooking the wrecks, a plaque donated by the Lompoc Valley Historical Society was dedicated. It lists the names of the 23 sailors who perished at Point Honda on that fateful night on Sept. 8, 1923.

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Laird Hail, Bagpiper

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On the shores of Honda Point

Air Force and Navy personnel, under the skillful direction of Chaplain Colonel Stephen L. Frick, USAF, Honda Point Project Officer, participated in a program which included an invocation; reading of the scriptures; meditation by Chaplain Lt. Ronald P. Stake, USNR, from Pt. Mugu, CA; singing of the Navy Hymn by Chaplain Capt. Patrick A. Genseal, USAF; reading of the names of the deceased; a navy honor guard which rendered a rifle salute; a bugler who played taps; and a bagpiper, Mr. Laird Hail, who played "Amazing Grace" while a helicopter dropped a wreath into the Pacific, between Woodbury Rock and the shore.

Thank you to the Point Honda Memorial website at http://www.pointhondamemorial.org/

Donations are requested. Since the Lompoc Veterans Memorial Building Foundation consists of all volunteers and does not incur any Administrative Expenses, all donations are used for the restoration and preservation of the Lompoc Veterans Memorial Building.