In honor of the 100th anniversary of the Honda Disaster, the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum is currently showing an exhibition of photographs depicting the aftermath.
On September 8, 1923, 14 Clemson-class destroyers from Destroyer Squadron 11 left San Francisco for San Diego, on an engineering speed run designed to test the endurance of their crews. Little did the men know that within hours, they would be involved in the greatest Naval peacetime disaster in United States history. On its 100th anniversary, SBMM is featuring 10 photos highlighting the aftermath of what is now known as the Honda Disaster.
Commodore Edward H. Watson led the squadron out to sea that morning for gunnery drills until 11 a.m., after which they started steaming south down the coast at 20 knots. Issues started to arise shortly after, starting with the order from Watson that the USS Delphy would be responsible for navigating the entire squadron. The other destroyers were barred from contacting radio stations for bearings, leaving formation to sight the coastline, or slowing to take a depth sounding. One would expect Commodore Watson to be involved in the command of his ship, but ultimately command was left to Lieutenant Commander Hunter.
Hunter was a skilled officer, but as the fog closed in he relied primarily on dead reckoning from the last landmark sighted nine hours prior. Three radio bearings received between 6 and 7 p.m. all indicated the squadron was still to the northwest of the Santa Barbara Channel. However, Hunter was distrustful of the new radio technology and flipped the bearings to justify his own speed estimates, based on the propeller rotations. He failed to account for the forward momentum that was lost as the rudder fought the wind and sea to stay on course, nor made any attempt to sight land and confirm actual speed. His incorrect dead reckoning calculations placed the squadron in danger of hitting San Miguel Island, as SS Cuba had done earlier that day, if they didn’t turn into the channel soon. After some discussion, Watson approved the fatal decision to turn to the east without slowing or radioing the other ships, as that would ruin the speed run.
At 9 p.m. the Delphy turned 90 degrees hard to port. Plowing through thick fog at 11 yards per second, she was only five minutes on this new course when she fell prey to the Jaws of Honda Point. Fast aground, sailors tried to make radio contact with the ships behind them, breakdown lights and sirens were activated, and the engines were reversed in an attempt to back off the rocks. It was all in vain as surging waves dragged the ship over the reef, ripping the hull open, causing a loss of power and a large oil slick to form. Trusting their flagship to navigate them, six more destroyers followed in close formation and ran aground within minutes including the S.P. Lee, Young, Woodbury, Nicholas, Fuller, and Chauncey. The Farragut and Somers hit offshore reefs and suffered light damage but were able to stay afloat. The back of the squadron – Percival, Kennedy, Paul Hamilton, Stoddert, and Thompson – narrowly avoided disaster.
Through the night and following day, crews stood by their posts until ordered to abandon ship by their captain, even as power failures plunged them into darkness and radio silence. Then came the treacherous task of making it through the oily, surging sea to jagged rock cliffs, where they were eventually discovered and aided by the townspeople of Lompoc. Many mistakes were made leading up to the disaster, and ultimately 23 lives were lost. Even with countless extraordinary acts of bravery that night, seven ships were declared a total loss estimated at $13 million.
The exhibition will be on view in SBMM’s Munger Theater from September 15, 2023 to January 21, 2024.