The Navy's night to remember Disaster: On a fogbound night in 1923, faulty navigation and blind obedience sent nine destroyers plowing aground in a fatal accident at sea.

Sun Journal

July 30, 1998|By Ernest F. Imhoff | Ernest F. Imhoff,SUN STAFF

It happened one foggy night at a rocky Pacific bluff called Honda. One after another, nine destroyers of the United States Navy rammed the state of California.

Seven of the "four-stackers," or "tin cans," eventually broke up. Two backed off and limped away. Twenty-three sailors were killed. Almost 800 officers and crew members survived. Some officers were penalized and many men commended for their rescue efforts in treacherous seas.

Largely forgotten, the accident Sept. 8, 1923, remains one of the darkest -- and most heroic -- in peacetime Navy history.

In simple terms, the incident occurred when the lead ship in a group of 14 destroyers, USS Delphy, made a wrong turn. Its navigators, in those days before radar, thought they were farther south and in deeper water. The trailing ships responded in the "follow the leader" fashion of destroyer tactics. Five saw danger in time to veer seaward to safety.

"Incomprehensible" was the reaction of Secretary of the Navy Edwin Denby, as reported in The Sun. The nation seemed to agree. For weeks, the naval disaster was front-page news in almost every paper in the country.

Three-quarters of a century later, an anniversary memorial service will be held Sept. 8 at Honda to honor the dead and the living. Veterans, military personnel and families will gather for lunch at Vandenberg Air Force Base, north of Los Angeles, then drive for the ceremony to nearby Honda, which is now part of the base.

At least two survivors of the accident are alive, but are unable to attend because of ill health. Both wished the gathering well. Their memories remain vivid.

Harry C. Crawford, 94, of Forest Grove, Ore., was a fireman 3rd class on the USS Farragut. "I was in the fire room when we hit the rocks," he says. "I thought we had hit another ship. We were able to pull away."

Gene Bruce, 91, of North Hollywood, Calif., was a seaman 2nd class on the USS Chauncey. "Our ship hit another ship," he says. "It was ripped open when it hit the Young. It got washed up on the rocks. We had a comparatively easier time than the others."

Stan Golowski, 67, a retired Marine Corps captain from Gilbert, Ariz., hopes to preserve memories as a member of the Point Honda Memorial Search Committee. He is searching nationally for survivors, kin, friends and interested parties who know about the incident.

"There may be more survivors," he says, "since over 800 escaped and lived to sail another day."

Golowski enlisted in the quest to honor the 23 dead after he learned that their names were omitted from Honda memorials, which preserve the anchor of the Chauncey and a plaque naming the seven lost ships. One of the dead, August Zakrzewski of Omaha, Neb., a fireman 2nd class aboard the USS Young, was Golowski's distant cousin.

"The names stirred me; we must remember them," Golowski says.

The tragedy's setting, west of Santa Barbara, holds the remains of hundreds of broken ships. The site, locally called Honda, is listed on maps as Point Pedernales, a rocky promontory jutting into the sea three miles north of another, Point Arguello.

Spanish sailors called Honda "the devil's jaw" and the area offshore "the graveyard of the Pacific." Others refer to the "jinns of Honda," referring either to supernatural spirits inhabiting the forbidding volcanic cliffs, or the wind, waves, fog, current and rocks that imperil mariners.

"Wreckage is everywhere," says diver Tim Waag, who has written that the destroyers' propellers, deck guns, boilers and twisted wreckage can be seen below the surface.

After a summer of maneuvers along the northern California coast, the 14 destroyers in Squadron 11 left San Francisco at 8: 30 a.m. Sept. 8, 1923, bound for their home port of San Diego 427 miles away.

The destroyers -- each 314 feet long, 32 feet wide and displacing 1,250 tons -- were fast. They could make 32 knots, and on this voyage would cruise at 20 knots (23 miles per hour). In wartime, they fought submarines, escorted convoys and made torpedo attacks as "the cavalry of the sea."

They steamed in columns, the ships at least 250 yards apart. On the bridge of the Delphy, the flagship and lead vessel, were Capt. Edward H. Watson, the commodore of the squadron, and Lt. Cmdr. Donald T. Hunter, commanding the ship.

In their 1960 book, "Tragedy at Honda," one of at least four about the incident, Charles A. Lockwood, a retired Navy vice admiral, and Hans Christian Adamson, a retired Air Force colonel, wrote of the final minutes.

Fog had reduced visibility to just over a mile, a condition that was not unusual. The Delphy took bearings at 6: 30 p.m. and 8 p.m. from the new radio direction-finder station at Point Arguello. The signals put the ships northwest of Arguello and Honda.

However, the officers did not believe the bearings. Dead reckoning told them they were to the south of Point Arguello and west of Point Conception, where the coast veers to the east, or left, toward the Santa Barbara Channel, which they planned to enter to proceed to San Diego.

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