Monday, 21 September 2009

United States Navy and The Devil's Jaw, September 1924.

The United States Navy's greatest navigational tragedy took place in September 1923 at an isolated California coastal headland locally known as Honda Point, or The Devil's Jaw. Officially called Point Pedernales, Honda is a few miles from the northern entrance of the heavily-traveled Santa Barbara Channel. Completely exposed to wind and wave, and often obscured by fog, this rocky shore has claimed many vessels, but never more at one stroke than at about 9 PM on the dark evening of 8 September 1923, when seven nearly new U.S. Navy destroyers and twenty-three lives were lost there.

Just over twelve hours earlier Destroyer Squadron ELEVEN left San Francisco Bay and formed up for a morning of combat manoeuvres. In an important test of engineering efficiency, this was followed by a twenty-knot run south, including a night passage through the Santa Barbara Channel. In late afternoon the fourteen destroyers fell into column formation, led by their flagship, USS Delphy. Poor visibility ensured that squadron commander Captain Edward H. Watson and two other experienced navigators on board Delphy had to work largely by the time-honored, if imprecise, technique of dead reckoning.

Soundings could not be taken at twenty knots, but they checked their chartwork against bearings obtained from the radio direction finding (RDF) station at Point Arguello, a few miles south of Honda. At the time they expected to turn into the Channel, the Point Arguello station reported they were still to the northward. However, RDF was still new and not completely trusted, so this information was discounted, and DesRon 11 was ordered to turn eastward, with each ship following Delphy.

However, the Squadron was actually several miles north, and further east, than Delphy's navigators believed. It was very dark, and almost immediately the ships entered a dense fog. About five minutes after making her turn, the manoeuvre forced the Delphy straight into the jagged rocks of Point Pedernales, known to sailors as the Devil's Jaw. Delphy slammed into the Honda shore and stuck fast. A few hundred yards astern, USS S.P. Lee saw the flagship's sudden stop and turned sharply to port, but quickly struck the hidden coast to the north of Delphy. Following her, USS Young had no time to turn before she ripped her hull open on submerged rocks, came to a stop just south of Delphy and rapidly turned over on her starboard side.

The next two destroyers in line, Woodbury and Nicholas, turned right and left respectively, but also hit the rocks. Steaming behind them, USS Farragut backed away with relatively minor damage, USS Fuller piled up near Woodbury, USS Percival and Somers both narrowly evaded the catastrophe, but USS Chauncey tried to rescue the men clinging to the capsized Young and herself went aground nearby. The last four destroyers, Kennedy, Paul Hamilton, Stoddert and Thompson successfully turned clear of the coast and were unharmed. In the darkness and fog enveloping the seven stranded ships, several hundred crewmen were suddenly thrown into a battle for survival against crashing waves and a hostile shore.

The entire incident took only seven minutes and left hundreds of men stranded on the rocks, exposed to a pounding surf and frigid temperatures in a thick fog. Twenty three men drowned or died of injuries. Of fourteen ships, eight ran aground. A nearby railroad employee heard the collisions and saw the ships run aground. He sent an SOS through the telegraph service, and within a few hours, thousands of civilians from nearby towns descended on the scene, bringing blankets and warm food and drinks to the stranded sailors.

The crews of Delphy, Lee, and Woodbury fought desperately to free their ships from the rocks, but all were too badly damaged. By the next day the seven remaining beached ships had all been abandoned. In total, of the fourteen ships in the squadron, 9 were damaged, 8 beached, and 7 declared lost. What became known as the Honda Point Disaster was the worst peace-time disaster in all the Navy's history.

Several days after the incident, the Navy opened a 19-day series of hearings. Captain Watson and 10 more officers were court-martialed and charged with negligence. Blame was also assigned to each captain, following the tradition that a captain's first responsibility is to his own ship, even when part of a formation.

The lost ships





DD 310 USS S. P. LEE



Of the heroes of Honda, Chief Boatswain's Mate Arthur Peterson, who swam from the Young (DD-312) to the Chauncey (DD-296) to set up a line for his shipmates to ferry themselves across to the Chauncey which was is substantially better condition. Ultimately, 11 trips were made allowing nearly 70 sailors to escape the Young. He was recommended for a citation for his bravery.

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