Point Arguello, CA Honda Point Disaster, Sep 1923

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The Honda Point disaster was the largest peacetime loss of U.S. Navy ships. On the evening of September 8, 1923, seven destroyers, while traveling at 20 knots (37 km/h), ran aground at Honda Point, a few miles from the northern side of the Santa Barbara Channel off Point Arguello on the coast in Santa Barbara County, California. Two other ships grounded, but were able to maneuver free of the rocks. Twenty-three sailors died in the disaster.

The fourteen ships of Destroyer Squadron 11 (DESRON 11) were steaming south from San Francisco Bay to San Diego Bay on September 8, 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 great Tokyo earthquake of the previous week.

Rescue attempts promptly followed the accident. Local ranchers, who were alerted by the commotion of the disaster, rigged up breeches buoys from the surrounding clifftops and lowered them down to the ships that had run aground. Fishermen nearby who had seen the tragedy picked up members of the crew from USS Fuller and USS Woodbury. The crew aboard the capsized Young was able to climb to safety on the nearby USS Chauncey via a lifeline. The four destroyers in Destroyer Squadron Eleven that avoided running aground at Honda Point were also able to contribute to rescue efforts by picking up sailors who had been thrown into the water and by assisting those who were stuck aboard the wreckage of other ships. After the disaster, the government did not attempt to salvage any of the wrecks at Honda Point due to the nature of the damage each ship sustained. The wrecks themselves, along with the equipment that remained on them, were sold to a scrap merchant for a total of $1,035. The wrecked ships were still not moved by late August 1929 for they may be clearly seen in film footage taken from the German airship Graf Zeppelin as she headed towards Los Angeles on her circumnavigation of the globe; the film footage is used in the documentary film Farewell (2009).

The Navy court ruled that the disaster was the fault of the fleet commander and the flagship's navigators. They assigned blame to the captain of each ship, following the tradition that a captain's first responsibility is to his own ship, even when in formation. Eleven officers involved would be brought before general courts-martial on the charges of negligence and culpable inefficiency to perform one’s duty. This was the largest single group of officers ever court-martialed in the U.S. Navy's history. The court martial ruled that the events of the Honda Point Disaster were "directly attributable to bad errors and faulty navigation" by Captain Watson. Watson was stripped of his seniority, and three other officers were admonished. Those officers who were court-martialed were all acquitted.Captain Watson, who had been defended by Admiral Thomas Tingey Craven,was commended by his peers and the government for assuming full responsibility for the disaster at Honda Point. He could have tried to blame a variety of factors for the disaster, but instead he set a great example for those others by allowing the responsibility to be placed entirely on his shoulders.