A Brief History
On September 8, 1923, the biggest peacetime disaster in U.S. Navy history occurred when commodore Captain Edward Watson of Destroyer Squadron 11 (abbreviated as Desron 11) ignored his radio navigation device and led 9 of his 14 ships to run aground at Honda Point in the Santa Barbara Channel in California, with 7 of the Clemson-class destroyers sinking. Not only were 7 ships wrecked, the remaining 2 were left damaged, and 23 men lost their lives, with many more injured. Capt. Watson accepted blame for the disaster and was punished with the removal of his seniority. Another 3 officers were “admonished,” but the 11 officers who faced court martial were acquitted.
It seems the navigation had been conducted the old fashioned way, by “dead reckoning,” where the ship’s position would be ascertained using compass headings and revolutions of the propeller to estimate the theoretical speed of the ship. Apparently, the old-school commodore did not trust the relatively new radio navigation equipment and ignored what turned out to be proper information about the ships’ location. The heavy fog that day did not exactly help, and the refusal of the commodore to slow down enough to take depth soundings cost a chance to correct the error. The close formation of the ships further aggravated the situation and made sharp turns difficult or impossible. As it was, the two ships that did not sink had ignored the order to follow in close formation.
The main reason for the navigational blunder, however, was likely the altered ocean currents, the result of the Great Kanto Earthquake off the coast of Tokyo, Japan just a week prior. It was these currents that took the lead ship, the USS Delphy several miles off course, causing her to lead 9 of the 14 ships to doom.
The Clemson-class destroyers had been developed after World War I and 156 of them were built in total. They were 314 feet long, manned by a crew of 120 and capable of speeds up to 35.5 knots. Their main armament were 4 x 4 inch and 2 x 3 inch guns and a whopping 12 x 21 inch torpedo tubes. These 4-stack destroyers served the U.S. until 1948, when many of them were turned over to allied navies, such as the UK and USSR.
Back on July 3, 2014, we published a list of “10 “Oops” Moments in Naval History.” This disaster at Honda Point was not included on the list, but maybe should have been. See our many other articles about Naval Oops Moments and blunders! Question for students (and subscribers): What other self-inflicted naval disasters would you add to the list? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Lockwood, Charles. Tragedy at Honda (Bluejacket Books). Naval Institute Press, 2012.
The featured image in this article, a U.S. Navy photograph from a plane assigned to USS Aroostook (CM-3) of the seven wrecked destroyers on Honda Point, is a work of a sailor or employee of the U.S. Navy, taken or made as part of that person’s official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, it is in the public domain in the United States.
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