One of the worst peacetime disasters in the history of the U.S. Navy occurred on September 8, 1923. Within five minutes, seven destroyers plowed into the jagged rocks at Honda, just north of Point Arguello.
Early on the morning of the 8th, the destroyer group, commanded by Captain Edward H. Watson, steamed out of San Francisco Bay, heading for home in San Diego. The group had participated in Fleet Week, which had included a review by President Warren G. Harding. These “Greyhounds of the Sea” were among the fastest in the fleet, capable of speeds up to 34 knots. The squadron was to steam south at the high cruising speed of 20 knots and maintain radio silence, except for the flagship, the Delphy.
As the squadron approached the Santa Barbara Channel, thick fog made navigation difficult. Navigating by dead reckoning was tricky, and the overcast made celestial navigation impossible. Radio navigation was fairly new and not yet completely trusted, so Watson disregarded transmitter readings from Arguello that the ships were still north of that point. Additional calculations that included estimates of speed, propeller revolutions, and factored in currents yielded the ascertainment that the ships had come farther than the radio signals indicated.
Watson believed he was south of Point Arguello where the coastline turned to run west to east. So he ordered the fateful signal to turn to the east that was intended to head them into the channel. He also chose not to slow the column and take depth soundings. The squadron was now heading straight for shore. Five minutes after the course change, shortly after 9 p.m., the Delphy smashed into the rocks. Within an hour, powerful waves would break the ship in two.
The destroyers following the Delphy had little chance. Engines were thrown into full reverse, helms brought about, all to no avail, and six more ships followed the flagship onto the unforgiving rocks.
Given the magnitude of the disaster, the death toll was small. Three crewmen on The Delphy lost their lives; 20 were trapped and died when the U.S.S. Young turned on its side. In addition, more than 200 sailors overall were injured. There were numerous acts of heroism as crewmen helped their comrades through the turbulent and frigid waters. Sixty-seven officers and men were cited for bravery by the Navy in the aftermath of the tragedy. The captain of the U.S.S. Fuller swam to a large rock near his stricken ship, got a line secured, and supervised the off-loading of his entire crew to relative safety.
There were also some lighter moments. One of the cooks on board the U.S.S. Nicholas, while waiting for daylight on his doomed ship, found a Victrola and spent the time strumming his ukulele while playing a selection of records. Another of the Nicholas cooks managed to make coffee for his shipmates in the partly submerged galley.
Eleven officers stood for court martial. The harshest assessments came against Watson and Lt. Commander Donald Hunter, captain of the Delphy, both found guilty of culpable inefficiency and negligence. Their careers were effectively ruined, and a cloud would hang over many of the other officers.
Today, the ships still rest on the ocean floor, but there is no sign of them above the surface of the turgid waters at Honda.
Michael Redmon, director of research at the Santa Barbara Historical Museum, will answer your questions about Santa Barbara’s history. Write him c/o The Independent, 122 W. Figueroa St., Santa Barbara, CA 93101.