On 8 September 1923, 14 ships of Destroyer Squadron 11 raced southward along the California coast. The flush-deck, four-piper “greyhounds” were small by today’s warship standards, but they had weathered great tempests, endured skirmishes and a few battles with German U-boats in World War I, and had gotten used to making do with less. By the summer of 1923, they were 25 percent undermanned, suffering from reduced training opportunities made necessary by fuel constraints, and operating with increasingly junior personnel in critical billets. When notified of a pending high-speed training run, some of the skippers welcomed the opportunity, while others were concerned about the strain it would put on their debilitated engineering plants.
Under way, the ships proceeded in a “Form 18” (single file, the bow of each ship approximately 150 yards from the stern of the one ahead). The lead destroyer and flagship, the USS Delphy (DD-261), was navigating, with the other ships following her movements. There was no moon, and a blanket of fog hugged the nearby coast, preventing visual fixes. The Delphy was relying primarily on dead reckoning as she led the squadron southward at 20 knots.
Radar would not find its way on board a warship until 1938. Fathometers had been installed in British ships, but the U.S. Navy had not yet made the investment. The Delphy did have a primitive radio-direction-finding system, but her navigator mistakenly believed the one radio signal they were receiving was the reciprocal of the actual bearing.
Following seas were causing the Delphy’s helmsman to steer somewhat erratically, and the ships were unaware that the tidal effects of a recent earthquake in Japan were pushing them eastward. Consequently, when the Delphy turned left into the fogbank at 2100 to head into what the navigator thought was the Santa Barbara channel, the hapless ship—and the other destroyers dutifully (and blindly) following her—actually was heading into an area known as Honda Point or—perhaps more accurately—La Quijada del Diablo, “the Devil’s Jaw.” The jagged volcanic rocks that formed the teeth of the jaw had claimed many ships, giving the area the additional sobriquet of “graveyard of the Pacific.”
Within five minutes of putting her rudder over, the Delphy slammed into the rocks, careening broadside and breaking in two. Her after half quickly submerged, claiming 3 dead and 15 injured.
The closure rate between the first and second ships allowed only 13 seconds to react, and the second ship in the column, the USS S. P. Lee (DD-310), turned sharply to port to avoid running into the Delphy, only to be crushed against another set of jagged rocks. Submerged rocks tore into the side of the third ship, the USS Young (DD-312), as she followed her sisters into the nightmare. Tons of water rushed into the gashed ship, and she quickly capsized. Before the night was over, 20 of the Young’s crew would perish.
Six more ships entered the Devil’s Jaw; two managed to extricate themselves, but seven ships—half the squadron—were lost that terrible night. Until the attack on Pearl Harbor nearly two decades later, it was the worst disaster in U.S. Navy history.
Death and chaos reigned as sailors extricated themselves from their mangled ships. Some clung to the slippery sides, while others were claimed by the sea raging against the rocks. Some swam for their lives, and some moved hand-over-hand along suspended lines that intrepid sailors had risked their lives to rig. Some sought shelter on the rocks, some found their way to a few life rafts, and still others disappeared without a trace. As often occurs when sailors are faced with tragedy, there were many heroes as well as victims. Several saved their shipmates as well as crewmen from other ships, and a few sacrificed themselves for the good of others. The subsequent court of inquiry recommended 23 individuals for citations recognizing their heroism.
Eleven officers were brought before general courts-martial, including the captains of each of the ships lost and the flagship’s navigator. The squadron commander, Captain E. H. Watson, accepted full responsibility and lost 150 numbers on the captain’s seniority list.
The government left the seven ships on the rocks, eventually selling them and all their remaining equipment to a private scrap dealer for $1,035.