A Naval Tragedy's Chain of Errors

By Noah Andre Trudeau

Kittelle's order was the first link in the tragic chain of events. The issue was not the order itself, but how it was interpreted. When DesRon 11 departed San Francisco on 8 September, it was joined by Destroyer Squadron Twelve (DesRon 12), commanded by Captain James H. Tomb, who had received the same directive. Tomb's flagship was the USS McDermut (DD-262), whose skipper recollected that Tomb considered Kittelle's instructions to be "permissive rather than a requirement."1 In contrast, Captain Watson viewed the orders in a peremptory light. Even if he shared Captain Tomb's interpretation, Watson wanted to make the San Diego passage in record time. A collision during the recent fleet maneuvers involving a DesRon 11 ship had cast a shadow over the squadron that Watson perhaps hoped to erase by executing an exemplary speed trial.

Watson also discussed radio direction-finding (RDF) protocols for the two-year-old electronic navigational aid system. Before its invention, plotting a ship's location depended heavily on topographical or astronomical sightings. If none were available, the navigator calculated the ship's position through dead reckoning (DR) with careful estimates of distance covered since the last solid fix and the course followed, allowing for his ship's speed as well as the effect of winds and currents. RDF held the promise of greater accuracy.

A series of long dashes was transmitted from the shipboard radio and received by a land-based RDF station. Rotating a loop antenna, the RDF technician aligned the device to receive the greatest transmitted energy (loudest signal). Visually, this put the loop perpendicular to the strongest part of the signal. A compass card at the base of the loop provided a bearing to the transmitting ship. A weakness in the new technology was that, in 1923, there was no means of determining from which side of the loop the signal originated. The operator thus had two bearings-180 degrees apart-to relay to the transmitting ship.

In a perfect world, a ship out of sight of land would have simultaneous access to at least two RDF stations. The intersection of their two bearings would indicate the ship's position. Coverage along the southern California coast in 1923, however, was thin, with just one RDF station available at any given point. RDF service was open to all shipping-commercial, private, or military-so Watson instructed his officers that only his flagship, the Delphy (DD-261), would handle that communication. The others would maintain their watches over the squadron and general command frequencies, but avoid that used by the RDF station. Given the high traffic volume and the fact that the RDF staff could only manage one call at a time, that was not an unusual request. However, on this particular operation, Watson's stipulation would have unexpected and fatal consequences.

The Squadron Sets Out

As DesRon 11 prepared to depart San Francisco on the morning of 8 September, its 18 ships was reduced to 15. Two had left at midnight in the company of the squadron tender because of engine problems that prevented them from working up to 20 knots. A third destroyer, the Reno (DD-303), had permission to add smoke prevention to the testing program and was proceeding independently. Once at sea, the 15 destroyers were divided into three divisions.

When DesRon 11 sortied shortly before 0700, the Delphy was operating without her gyrocompass, which had broken down, forcing the officers to rely solely on the magnetic compass. Later analysis determined that this resulted in a two-degree course error on the landward side, by itself not a critical matter. Also, the Delphy was playing host to a civilian guest passenger, Eugene Dooman, a career diplomat who had known Captain Watson since they were posted to Japan. Watson would later insist that Dooman traveled with the full knowledge of Admiral Kittelle, although stories persist that he was on board without proper authorization. Dooman had insights into the current state of the Japanese Navy that greatly interested the captain. Their long conversations would prove to be a serious distraction once the squadron headed for San Diego.

From 0900 to 1100 DesRon 11 and DesRon 12 engaged in short-range battle practice, after which they set course for home. DesRon 11 was in Squadron Cruising Formation #5, each division in column, the three columns running abreast with the flagship leading from the center. On departure, Lieutenant Commander Donald T. Hunter, the Delphy's captain, had assumed primary navigational responsibilities in addition to conning the ship. His action relegated the navigator, Lieutenant (junior grade) Lawrence Blodgett, to an uncomfortable supporting role. Hunter was a highly regarded navigator who had taught the subject for two years at the U.S. Naval Academy. But all his training and experience had matured before RDF appeared, and he viewed the first-generation technology with great skepticism. Hunter also shared Watson's commitment to completing the 20-knot run. Blodgett quickly discovered that any navigational suggestions erring on the side of caution would not be welcomed on this trip.

Down the Coast by Dead Reckoning

Masters of vessels traveling between San Francisco and San Diego memorized the five lighthouses marking the course: Pigeon Point, Point Sur, Point Piedras Blancas, Point Arguello (with the Navy's nearby RDF station), and Point Conception. Besides fixing a vessel's position with certainty, visual sightings of two successive lighthouses provided navigators with a critical check of their dead-reckoning calculations. Estimating the influence of winds and currents on any particular day was as much an art as a science, so comparing a DR computation with a position established by visual sightings helped more accurately to assess the error factor. On this day, Pigeon Point was sighted one mile to port at 1130. What no one realized then was that this would be the last solid fix obtained on the journey.

For the next two hours DesRon 11 pounded southward. One of the reasons for the exercise became apparent when two of its members dropped out of formation, although both were able to rejoin their divisions after completing repairs.

At around 1330 the airwaves began to crackle with urgent messages after the detached Reno encountered a lifeboat with survivors from the steamer SS Cuba, which had driven onto the rocky shore of western San Miguel Island, 23 miles south of the Santa Barbara Channel. The Reno's division chief, Commander Walter G. Roper, promptly called Watson on the radiotelephone for authorization to assist with the rest of his group. When Watson refused (deciding that one destroyer was sufficient), Roper pressed the point, and the discussion grew somewhat heated. Eventually Roper yielded, knowing that many of his fellow captains were listening on the ship-to-ship party line. This put Roper, a voice of authority among the squadron's officers, in something of a huff.

At 1415 Commander Hunter called the Point Arguello RDF station for a bearing and was told he bore 167 degrees from the location. If he was looking for a reason to disparage the RDF system he found one, as the operator's reading put the Delphy south of Point Arguello when she was still on approach from the north. A requested repeat produced a bearing of 162 degrees. A call for the reciprocal correctly put the ship to the northwest at 326 degrees. The Point Sur lighthouse was passed as this was happening, but the distance and a coastal haze prevented its sighting. That made verification of the next lighthouse, Point Piedras Blancas, even more important. When Lieutenant Blodgett suggested, however, that the inshore division be authorized to move closer to the coast for that purpose, Hunter did not allow it, presumably since it would force that division to reduce speed. The squadron was now proceeding solely based on Hunter's dead-reckoning calculations.

The commander knew the route well and was certain he could guide the squadron into the Santa Barbara Channel. A number of factors, however, undermined his calculations. The destroyers were operating in a heavy following sea, whose surges constantly pitched the sterns up, causing the propellers to broach. This prevented an accurate accounting of the prop revolutions, which were the basis for calculating the ships' speed. At points in the journey, Hunter would work with an estimate of 21 knots, when the actual passage through the water was closer to 19. Also, the winds were blowing more briskly than usual from the west-southwest which, coupled with a strong onshore current, added to the steadily accumulating navigational errors.

With Lieutenant Blodgett relegated to muttering his complaints to silent subordinates, Captain Watson became the best check on Hunter's estimates. But the commander, fully engaged in his discussions with his civilian passenger, made only brief visits to the bridge. Such was his respect for Hunter's navigational acumen that he merely received the information given him and did not process it. Hunter, for his part, took Watson's silent nods as affirmation of his calculations.

Throwing Caution to the Wind

Following receipt of the reciprocal reading at 1438, nearly four hours would pass before Commander Hunter called for a fresh RDF bearing. In that time DesRon 11 lost another ship when the John Francis Burnes (DD-299) had a boiler problem that forced her to drop out of formation, not to rejoin. During the same period, Commander Tomb in the McDermut (whose DesRon 12 trailed DesRon 11) requested three bearings and was concerned enough about the difference between his DR estimates and the RDF data that he slowed his squadron to 15 knots.

Almost two hours later, at 1627, the Delphy signaled Squadron Cruising Formation #18, which put the unit into a single, line-ahead column formed on her. Additional instructions set the cruising order: Division 33 followed by 31 and then 32. Around 1700 the sun made a brief appearance through the overcast, but when Hunter tried to use his sextant he could not locate the horizon because of haze. At 1700 Watson ordered the running lights turned on.

Denied all visual checkpoints since Pigeon Point at 1130, Watson and Hunter had one more tool available that would have indicated a problem-the fathometer. A 50-fathom line marked the beginning of shoaling to the coast, but this meant slowing down because the equipment could not operate at 20 knots. It would have been possible to instruct the trailing destroyer to do this and rejoin the formation, but neither Watson nor Hunter gave it serious consideration. Watson was focused on setting the speed record, while Hunter was thoroughly satisfied with his DR calculations.

At 2000 Hunter radioed the squadron position to Admiral Kittelle, but the commander neglected the standard practice for the lead navigator to check his calculations beforehand with the squadron division commanders. Nevertheless, other calculations were being made. The individual ship captains and division commanders following the Delphy had an obligation to protect the safety of their charges, so the prohibition against monitoring the RDF channel was widely ignored.

In some cases the radio operators broadly tuned their units to cover the RDF frequency as well as the pair they were supposed to monitor; in others, one of the two channels was ignored. On several bridges the estimated positions differed by miles from that submitted to Kittelle, but no one officially questioned the reading. The discrepancies were deemed insignificant, and there was an assumption that the flagship had access to better data. So the column rushed on, blindly angling closer to the coast and not progressing as far south as imagined.

The Stoddert (DD-302), of Division 32, broke protocol at 2011 and 2032 by requesting RDF bearings and was given readings of 326 and 330 degrees, which put her northwest of Point Arguello. The fact that the flagship did not reprimand the Stoddert implies that permission had been granted. One theory is that the Delphy's radiotelephone was then in use, which could interfere with her radio signals, so Lieutenant Blodgett (Hunter being momentarily absent) called on a colleague for help. What is known is that the Delphy monitored the information given the Stoddert.

At 2039 Commander Hunter sought a new bearing and was given 330 degrees. Convinced that once again the RDF technicians had gotten it wrong, he demanded the reciprocal and received 168 degrees. (Curiously, the station log does not mention providing this reverse bearing, but it was heard and logged by a Division 32 ship.) Above Point Arguello the coast fell away to the northeast, while below it bent to the southeast, so it was possible for a southward-passing vessel to receive a bearing in the 300s as it approached, changing to the 160s as it moved away. That led credence to Hunter's acceptance of the reciprocal reading. In fact, he was so convinced that they were well south of Point Arguello that he voiced a worry that the squadron might be heading for San Miguel Island, which had already claimed the Cuba. Lieutenant Blodgett tried anew to express concerns but was overruled by Watson and Hunter. Believing Hunter's estimates to be correct, Watson determined that the squadron would reach the Santa Barbara channel entrance at 2100, at which time they would make a 95-degree turn, pivoting the column to the east at 20 knots.

The Fatal Turn

Commander Hunter's dead reckoning put the squadron south of Point Arguello at the Santa Barbara Channel entrance when, in fact, the line of destroyers was three miles north of the station and just 1 1/2 miles offshore. At 2058 another bearing gave a reading of 323 degrees. Since this placed the ships north of Point Arguello aimed right at the station, Hunter ignored it.

Promptly at 2100 the Delphy made the eastward turn. For reasons never explained, the flagship did not signal the course change, causing momentary confusion as her 13 consorts hurriedly replicated the maneuver. A fog bank blanketed the coast, and about two minutes later the flagship was swallowed by the murk. Running 300 yards or so behind was the S. P. Lee (DD-310), followed next by the Young (DD-312). Unknown to all on board, they were heading directly to the rocky cliffs marking a rugged stretch of shore known variously to the locals as Point Honda, Honda Head, Honda Mesa, or just plain Honda.

On sea charts the area was marked Point Pedernales, taken from the early Spanish description of the area, como un pedernal (like flint). Composed of hard igneous rock, this coastal stretch consisted of a steep 60-foot bluff that allowed little beach area. Scattered seaward were a devil's brew of rough-surfaced boulders, knife-like submerged pinnacles, and intermittent reefs. Wave action along the exposed point was constant, and with the wind and current this day, the breakers were especially powerful. Honda had claimed ships before, but always one at a time. On 8 September the victims arrived in a neat and orderly queue.

Although the Delphy and the S. P. Lee were the first to enter the fatal zone, it was the Young that became the first casualty when, at 2104, she sliced along a submerged pinnacle reef, ripping open her starboard side, causing her to capsize in a matter of minutes. At 2105 the Delphy crashed bow-first into the unyielding stone, forcing the S. P. Lee to sheer to port and shudder to a stop. In an instant, Hunter's worst fear-that they had struck San Miguel Island-seemed to have been realized. Watson ordered two radio signals sent: "Keep clear to the westward" and "Nine turn" (a simultaneous 90-degree turn to port). His intent was to direct the rest of the ships to the north, where he believed the deep Santa Barbara Channel lay. It was followed by a blinker signal, barely visible for a short distance: "Delphy aground."

The warning came too late for the Woodbury (DD-309) and the Nicholas (DD-311), which successively grounded on the Honda rocks. That accounted for all of Division 33. Next into the chute was Division 31 with the Farragut (DD-300) leading. Startled by the sight of the vessels ahead suddenly skewing wildly and stopping short, the Farragut's skipper slowed, stopped, and then went emergency full astern. This caused a sideswipe collision with the next in line, the Fuller, which careened past and slammed against several rocks, killing all power. The damaged Farragut managed to work her way to deeper water. Behind them the Percival (DD-298) and Somers (DD-301) took frantic action to avoid the trap. Each got out, although the Somers suffered serious damage clearing the area. Less fortunate was Division 31's tail-end Charlie, the Chauncey (DD-396). By the time her escape measures began to take hold, the ship was gripped by a powerful outgoing undertow that shoved her against the upturned Young, whose port propeller blades ripped into the Chauncey's engine room, causing an immediate loss of power. In that instant the Chauncey, too, was doomed.

Next in line was Division 32, with the Kennedy (DD-306) followed by the Paul Hamilton (DD-307), Stoddert, and Thompson (DD-305). Still nursing a bruised ego over Watson's refusal to let his ships assist the Reno, Roper paid close attention to the final intercepted bearings sent to the Delphy and had already opened the distance from the rest of the squadron when he saw the confusion ahead. Something bumped the Kennedy's bow, which caused her captain to back full and take a sounding. They were at seven fathoms, dangerously close to the shore. For a moment it seemed that the Stoddert would join the ships on the rocks as she made to pass the Kennedy, but Roper bellowed through his megaphone for her to resume station astern of the flagship. None of Division 32's ships suffered any damage, except for taut nerves and shock. It should be noted that DesRon 12, whose commander had no compunctions about slowing to take soundings and who trusted the RDF bearings, made an uneventful transit to San Diego.

Rescue and Survival

Seldom had so many seamen been subjected to such an abrupt transition from calm to crisis. One moment the crews were at normal duty stations in a standard cruising formation, and the next they were fighting for their lives. It is a tribute to the training, discipline, and courage of the U.S. Navy Sailors on those seven doomed destroyers that the next phase of the story was, in many ways, their finest hours.

For most of the skippers the first response was to preserve their ships, efforts that quickly proved futile. The next measures taken were to save the crews, not an easy proposition with the seas running high and a heavy fog blanket. The captain of the Nicholas, stern-first near the shore and pinned against rocks on her starboard side, made the decision to keep his crew on board until daylight. For all the other skippers the moment came sooner or later to abandon ship as the grinding of wave and rock flooded more and more compartments. There were numerous acts of heroism and sacrifice as men struggled against a surging sea slicked with leaking oil to fix rescue lines to the nearest solid ground.

The crews of the Woodbury and Fuller, aground the farthest from shore, found a temporary refuge on large boulder-like chunk of lava afterward called Woodbury Rock. It was a miserable perch; most of the Sailors were in their skimpy sleeping gear, the water was cold, and the wind bitter. A few fires were started as much to raise spirits as to spread heat. The crews of the Delphy and Chauncey found precarious succor on a narrow ledge at the foot of a seemingly impassable cliff. Somehow a few bold Sailors clawed their way up, dropped lines, and began the backbreaking process of hauling their mates to the relatively flat top, which daylight revealed was linked to the mainland by a narrow natural bridge. It was a story repeated with variations a short distance to the north, where the S. P. Lee's crewmen were able to establish a raft ferry to the shore, followed by a difficult ascent.

The men of the capsized Young carried out the most desperate battle for survival. Already there were fatalities; several Sailors were trapped below when the ship rolled, and others washed to their deaths as they emerged on deck. The survivors found themselves clinging to the ship's slippery port side, many holding desperately to openings created by smashing porthole windows. Lines were fashioned to knit the survivors together, all in an area six- to eight-feet wide and 25-feet long. The closest land was 100 yards away, the same jagged rock that was providing dubious sanctuary to the Delphy crew. When a wall of returning water bore the powerless Chauncey past the Young and cast her hard ashore, it created a desperate chance for the stranded men, since the Chauncey's stern was now just 25 yards distant. Eventually, and after great efforts, the Young's crew were brought on board the Chauncey and then transferred to the rocky isthmus.

The disaster took place along a remote area whose principal improvement was a branch of the Southern Pacific Railroad. Fifteen miles to the northeast was Lompoc, the area's largest population center. The RDF station and lighthouse at Point Arguello were just south of the incident. Once a railroad work crew based at a Honda mesa section house was alerted to the developing tragedy, word was spread by human courier and telegraph. The scope of the suffering was overwhelming with nearly 800 weary, shocked, and exposed Sailors, almost every one badly gouged after crawling across the sharp lava rock. Over the next two days the destroyermen were fed, clothed, treated, and sent by special trains to their home port at San Diego.

'The Price of Good Navigation'

When the final roll calls were taken, 23 squadron Sailors had perished, three from the Delphy, the rest from the Young. Given the circumstances, the miracle was that the number had not been much higher. Adding to the mystery surrounding these events, Watson's civilian guest was surreptitiously transported from the site and lost to history for 40 years. Then, for 19 days beginning 17 September, a Court of Inquiry sifted through testimony and evidence. It recommended 11 officers be bound over for a general court-martial: Watson, Hunter, and Blodgett from the Delphy; the two commanders of the divisions suffering losses; and the captains of each wrecked ship. At the same time the court cited 23 officers and men for their outstanding performance saving lives after the groundings.

The court-martial convened in early November, charged with hearing the largest number of cases ever brought before a single naval judicial body. After weeks of hearings and testimony, the court found three officers guilty: Captain Watson, Lieutenant Commander Hunter, and Lieutenant Commander H. O. Roesch, skipper of the Nicholas. Rear Admiral S. S. Robison set Roesch's conviction aside, but Watson and Hunter each lost their chance for any future promotion. Politics muddied the waters when Secretary of the Navy Edwin Denby, under a cloud for corruption, played to the public galleries by officially disapproving the not-guilty verdicts, though his action had no force of law.

We now know that Blodgett's testimony was a careful tissue of half-truths. Omitted from the official record were his rising concerns over the squadron's navigation. In return, Hunter publicly accepted sole responsibility for charting the fatal course. Much more was left unsaid. No explanation was ever given for the Stoddert's two improper bearing requests. Small discrepancies between the log kept by the RDF station and several DesRon 11 ship logs remain unreconciled. There were also mishandlings of official documents, including the disappearance for many years of Blodgett's trial transcript.

Watson and Hunter closed out their naval service in minor posts before each retired in 1929. Of the six other captains who lost their ships at Honda, two eventually commanded battleships and the others went on to valuable careers. No major changes were made to operational procedures because of the accident. Ironically, because of treaty restrictions, a large number of Clemson-class destroyers were in mothballs, so the Navy easily reconstituted the decimated squadron.

As for the wrecks, after stripping the stranded ships of critical weapons and records, the Navy put them up for salvage, managing to engage several amazingly inept companies who failed to clear the coast of the once lethal warships. Finally, the sea and naval engineers removed the major debris from view, although odd pieces remain to this day. Presently overlooking the disaster site is a modest memorial consisting of a salvaged anchor from the Young and a small plaque listing the ships that were lost.

While it would be easy to lay the entire blame on Hunter's shoulders, he was not alone in inviting the tragedy. Watson's fixation on making a record 20-knot passage along with his badly divided attention and failure to supervise the navigation, Blodgett's inability to convincingly express his growing concerns, and the silent acquiescence of the other squadron officers to course positions some believed in error all played a part. So, too, did uncertainties surrounding the new RDF technology, the effect of unusual weather conditions, and minor equipment problems.

At virtually any point along DesRon 11's track from San Francisco to the jagged Honda cliffs some intervention might have changed the outcome, but there was none. In the end, we are left with the caution voiced by a naval officer who reviewed the case: "The price of good navigation is constant vigilance."



Sources:

Charles A. Lockwood and Hans Christian Adamson, Tragedy at Honda (Philadelphia: Chilton Company, 1960).

Elwyn E. Overshiner, Course 095 to Eternity (Arroyo Grande, CA: Helm Publishing, 1990).Charles Hice, The Last Hours of the Four Stackers (Miamisburg, OH: The Ohioan Company, 1967).http://pointhondamemorial.org/research/

Mr. Trudeau is the author of many books about the American Civil War, including, more recently, Robert E. Lee: Lessons in Leadership (Palgrave, 2009), Southern Storm: Sherman's March to the Sea (HarperCollins, 2008), and Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage (HarperCollins, 2002).
 

Mr. Trudeau is the author of many books about the American Civil War, including Southern Storm: Sherman's March to the Sea (HarperCollins, 2008); Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage (HarperCollins, 2002); Like Men of War: Black Troops in the Civil War, 1862-1865 (Little, Brown and Company, 1998); and Out of the Storm: The End of the Civil War, April-June 1865 (Little, Brown and Company, 1994).

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