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In Memory of

Chief Yeoman of Signals George Smith, DSM, Royal Navy 1904-28 (Part 5 of 7)

UNITED STATES NAVY'S DISASTER at POINT HONDA 1923
from his scrapbook

by his grandson, Gordon Smith, Naval-History.net

as Chief Yeoman of Signals, at Niagara Falls
1924 (click to enlarge)
 
 

My grandfather served in British light cruiser HMS Curlew (below) from 1922-25 when it was part of the 8th Cruiser Squadron on the America & West Indies Station. After visiting several Pacific islands, his ship was due to arrive in San Francisco on 7 September 1923 and actually left on 11 September.


HMS Curlew, as originally built, at speed (courtesy Alister Greenway)

Just two days before departure, on the 9th, seven United States Clemson-class destroyers went ashore in poor visibility further down the coast to the north of Los Angeles. Amongst my grandfather's photo collection - he was apparently ship's photographer on HMS Curlew - were a number showing the US ships ashore. How he obtained them, I have no idea, but what follows is the sad story of these seven vessels and their crews.

 
 

 
 

THE POINT HONDA DISASTER

8th September 1923

In memory of the men lost and the lives & careers ruined

 

1. Summary
2. The Photographs
3. The Extent of the Disaster
4. The Seven Ships Lost
5. Aftermath

 
 

1. Summary

 

"On the night of 8 September, the ships of Destroyer Squadron (DesRon) 11 were on a 24 hour run from San Francisco to San Diego, cruising at 20 knots. The flagship, USS DELPHY (DD 261) was in the lead, followed by Destroyer Divisions 33, 31 and 32; ships as follows:

DesDiv 33: S. P. LEE (DD 310), YOUNG (DD 312), WOODBURY (DD 309), NICHOLAS (DD 311

DesDiv 31: Farragut (DD 300), FULLER (DD 297), Percival (DD 298), Somers (DD 301), CHAUNCEY (DD 296)

DesDiv 32: Kennedy (DD 306), Paul Hamilton (DD 307), Stoddert (DD 302), Thompson (DD 305)"

Those in bold ran aground and were all lost

(from the Haze Gray & Underway site)

 

2. The Photographs
Numbers in brackets are the order in column of those destroyers that grounded

 
 
     
     
 
     
 
 

3. The Extent of the Disaster

 
Photographed from a biplane, dated 13 September 1923 (Courtesy, National Archives)

Key:
(1),(2) ... Order in column of those ships that grounded.
"Bridge Rock" etc - names given to the rocks

 

4. The Seven Ships Lost - in order of running aground

The following excerpts are taken from the online version of the "Dictionary of American Fighting Ships":

 
(1) DD-261 DELPHY - "leading, crashed broadside and broke in half, her stern below the surface"

"Launched 18 July 1918 by Bethlehem Shipbuilding Corp., Squantum, Mass.; commissioned 30 November 1918, Commander R. A. Dawes in command. ...........

Between 22 July 1921 and 20 March 1922 Delphy operated from San Diego with 50 percent of her complement, then was overhauled. She cruised with the Battle l Fleet for exercises off Balboa from 6 February to 11 April 1923, then carried out experiments with torpedoes off San Diego. On 25 June she got underwater with Destroyer Division 31 for a cruise to Washington for summer maneuvers with the Battle Fleet on the return passage. Delphy was the leading destroyer of seven which were stranded on the rocks of the California coast near Point Pedernales in inclement weather on 8 September. Delphy crashed broadside and broke in half, her stern below the surface, suffering three dead and 15 injured. She was decommissioned as of 26 October 1923, and sold as a wreck 19 October 1925."

(2) DD-310 S. P. LEE - the ship was abandoned the following day

"The first S. P. Lee (DD-310) was laid down on 31 December 1918 by the Bethlehem Shipbuilding Corp., San Francisco, Calif.; commissioned on 30 October 1920, Comdr. G. T. Swosey, Jr., in command. .......

S. P. Lee sailed for her homeport at 0830, 8 September, in company with most of DesRon 11 under Captain E. H. Watson in Delphy leading the way. Engaged in a high-speed engineering run down the Pacific Coast, the squadron changed course 95 at 2100 to make the approach to Santa Barbara Channel. At 2105, Delphy stranded on the rocks of Point Pedernales, known to sailors as Honda, or the Devil's Jaw. Though warning signals were sent up by the flagship, the sheltering configuration of the coast line prevented their recognition by the remaining ships of DesRon 11- and, in the ensuing confusion, six other destroyers, S. P. Lee, Young, Woodbury, Fuller, Chauncey, and Nicholas ran aground also.

Valiant efforts by the crew to save the ship proved futile, and the ship was abandoned the following day and declared a total loss. S. P. Lee and her sister destroyers were struck from the Navy list on 20 November. Her wreckage was sold on 19 October 1925 to Robert J. Smith of Oakland, Calif. He removed some of the destroyer's equipment but was unable to salvage her hull."

(3) DD-312 YOUNG - "Her hull torn by a jagged pinnacle, she swiftly capsized heeling over on her starboard side within a minute and a half ...... Chauncey (DD-296) providentially grounded between Young and Bridge Rock"

The first Young (DD-312) was laid down on 28 January 1919 at San Francisco, Calif., by the Union Iron Works Plant of the Bethlehem Shipbuilding Corp.; launched on 8 May 1919; commissioned on 29 November 1920, Lt. H. J. Ray in command. ......

Following a brief period moored at Pier 15, San Francisco, Division 11 got underway to return to San Diego on the morning of 8 September. As the ships made passage down the California coast, they conducted tactical and gunnery exercises in the course of what was also a competitive speed run of 20 knots. Ultimately, when the weather worsened, the ships formed column on the squadron leader, Delphy (DD-261) . Unfortunately, through an error in navigation, the column swung east at about 2100, unaware of the danger that lurked in the fog-shrouded reefs dead ahead of them.

At 2105, Delphy still steaming at 20 knots ran hard aground off Padernales Point followed, in succession, by the other ships steaming in follow-the leader fashion. Only quick action by the ships farthest astern prevented the total loss of the entire group.

Young, however, became one of the casualties. Her hull torn by a jagged pinnacle, she swiftly capsized heeling over on her starboard side within a minute and a half, trapping many of her engine and fire room personnel below. Lt. Comdr. William L. Calhoon Young's commanding officer, knew that there was no time to launch boats or rafts as the ship's list increased alarmingly following the grounding. Calhoun accordingly passed the word, through his executive officer, Lt. E. C. Herzinger, and Chief Boatswain's Mate Arthur Peterson, to make for the port side, to stick with the ship, and to not jump.

While the survivors clung tenaciously to their precarious, oily, surf-battered refuge, Boatswain's Mate Peterson proposed to swim 100 yards to a rocky outcropping to the eastward known as Bridge Rock. Before he could do so however, Chauncey (DD-296) providentially grounded between Young and Bridge Rock, shortening the escape route considerably. The two ships were about 75 yards apart.

At that juncture, Peterson unhesitatingly risked his life, diving into the swirling sea and swimming through the tumbling surf with a line to the nearby Chauncey also aground but in a far better predicament since she had remained on a comparatively even keel. Eager hands from Chauncey hauled Peterson aboard and made the line fast. Soon, a seven-man life raft from the sister ship was on its way to Young as a makeshift ferry. The raft ultimately made 11 trips bringing the 70 Young survivors to safety. By 2330, the last men of the crew were on board Chauncey; at that point, Lt. Comdr. Colhoun and Lt. Herzinger (the latter having returned to the ship after having been in the first raft across) left Young's battered hull.

In the subsequent investigation of the "Point Honda Disaster" the Board of Investigation commended Lt. Comdr. Calhoun for his "coolness, intelligence, and seamanlike ability" that was directly responsible for the "greatly reduced loss of life." The Board also cited Boatswain's Mate Peterson for his "extraordinary heroism" in swimming through the turbulent seas with a line to Chauncey; Lt. Herzinger drew praise for his "especially meritorious conduct" in helping to save the majority of the ship's crew.

Rear Admiral S. E. W. Kittelle, Commander, Destroyer Squadrons, subsequently cited Lt. Comdr. Calhoun's display of leadership and personality that saved "three quarters of the crew of the Young" and Lt. Herzinger for his "Coolness and great assistance in the face of grave danger." Also commended by the admiral was Fireman First Class J. T. Scott, who attempted to close off the master oil valve to prevent a boiler explosion, volunteering to go below to the fire room and go below the floor plates. The water, rapidly rising through the gashes in the shin's hull, however, prevented Scott from completing. the task. He survived.

Twenty men were lost in Young, the highest death toll of any of the ships lost in the disaster at Point Honda. Decommissioned on 26 October 1923, Young was stricken from the Navy list on 20 November 1923 and ordered sold as a hulk.

(4) D-309 WOODBURY - "came to rest alongside a small island"

"The third Woodbury (Destroyer No. 309) was laid down on 3 October 1918 at San Francisco, Calif., by the Union Iron Works plant of the Bethlehem Shipbuilding Corp., launched on 6 February 1919; commissioned at the Mare Island Navy Yard, Vallejo, Calif., on 20 October 1920, Lt. Comdr. Frank L. Lowe in command. ......

Woodbury remained at San Francisco for a week. She got underway on the morning of 8 September 1923 with other destroyers of Squadron 11, bound for San Diego, and while skirting the coast over the ensuing hours conducted tactical exercises and maneuvers. In addition, the ships were making a 20 knot speed run.

Led by the leader, Delphy (DD-261), the squadron steamed into the worsening weather. Later that evening, Delphy - unfortunately basing her movements on an inaccurate navigational bearing - made a fateful turn, believing she was heading into the Santa Barbara Channel. In fact, she was headed - as were all of the ships astern of her in follow-the-leader fashion - for jagged rock pinnacles and reefs off Point Arguello.

Shortly after 2105, tragedy struck Squadron 11's ships, one by one. Seven ships, led by Delphy and including Woodbury, ran hard aground. Some of the destroyers farther astern saw what was happening and managed to avoid disaster by quick-thinking seamanship.

Woodbury came to rest alongside a small island later nicknamed "Woodbury Rock" that she used as a permanent anchor. Volunteers took across four lines and rigged them across the gap of tumbling surf between the destroyer and the rock that would later bear her name. Meanwhile, although water was pouring into the forward boiler room and engine room spaces, Comdr. Louis P. Davis, the ship's commanding officer, ordered full speed astern. Ens. Horatio Ridout, the engineer officer, and his men worked with great courage to try to produce the horsepower necessary to get the ship out of her predicament, but their efforts were brought to nought when all power failed, due to the flooding, at 2230.

As the floodwaters below engulfed and drowned out her power supply and it became impossible to move the ship, Comdr. Davis turned to his reserve plan. While Woodbury settled astern, the thundering breakers struck her full force, causing her bow to rise and fall rythmically. The hawsers tenuously connecting the ship with "Woodbury Rock" stretched taut and then sagged with the movement of ship and sea. Nevertheless, one by one, Woodbury's crew clambered across the chasm, monkey fashion, in a well-organized abandon ship operation. Later, men from the stranded sistership Fuller (DD297) reached "Woodbury Rock."

Ultimately, all of Woodbury's crew reached safety, some taken off to Percival (DD-298) by the fishing boat Bueno Amor de Roma, under the command of a Captain Noceti. The rough log entry for Woodbury, dated 9 September 1923, sums up the ship's status as of that date: "Woodbury on rocks off Point Arguello, Calif., abandoned by all hands and under supervision of a salvage party composed of men from various 11th squadron ships."

Officially placed out of commission on 26 October 1923 the ship was struck from the Navy list on 20 November of the same year. She was simultaneously ordered sold as a hulk, but a subsequent sale, on 6 February 1924 to a Santa Monica (Calif.)- based salvage firm, the Fryn Salvage Co., was never consummated. Yet another sale, to a Robert J. Smith of Oakland, Calif., is recorded as having been awarded on 19 October 1925, but whether or not the hulk was scrapped is not recorded."

(5) DD-311 NICHOLAS - "the ship was taken by currents and drifted slowly astern, coming to a stop stern high on a clump of rocks with a 25 list to starboard."

The first Nicholas (DD 311) was laid down 11 January 1919 by Bethlehem Shipbuilding Corp., San Francisco, Calif.; launched 1 May 1919; commissioned at Mare Island Navy Yard 23 November 1920 Lt. Comdr. H. B. Kelly in command. .......

Nicholas sailed for her homeport at 0830, 8 September, in company with most of DesRon 11 under Captain E. H. Watson, Delphy leading the way. Engaged in a high speed engineering run down the Pacific Coast, the squadron changed course 95 at 2100 to make the approach to Santa Barbara Channel. At 2105, Delphy stranded on the rocks of Point Pedernales, known to sailors as Honda, or the Devil's Jaw. Though warning signals were sent up by the flagship, the sheltering configuration of the coast line prevented their recognition by the remaining ships of DesRon 11 and in the ensuing confusion six other destroyers, S. P. Lee, Young, Woodbury, Fuller, Chauncey, and Nicholas ran aground also. Nicholas skipper Lt. Comdr. Herbert Roesch, did his utmost to prevent the loss of the destroyer as the heavy seas broke over her and Honda's rocks pushed into her hull, but the ship was taken by currents and drifted slowly astern, coming to a stop stern high on a clump of rocks with a 25 list to starboard.

Throughout the night, the four stackers crews strove valiantly in the face of Honda's heavy odds, but in the morning as the waves mounted and Nicholas' situation became critical, the Captain ordered "Abandon Ship" Accomplished without loss of life, the order brought the entire crew ashore safely. The discipline and performance of duty was so outstanding that of the seven destroyers, only 23 lives were lost to the treacherous sea. Considered out of commission 26 October 1923, Nicholas was struck from the Navy List with her six squadron mates 20 November. After a number of abortive bids, the destroyer was finally sold 19 October 1925 to Robert J. Smith of Oakland, Calif. Though some equipment was salvaged from the wrecked ship her hull was left to the mercy of the sea in the "graveyard of the Pacific."

(6) DD-297 FULLER - "last in the column*, was abandoned, ..... later broke in two and sank."

"The first Fuller (DD 297) was launched 5 December 1918 by Bethlehem Shipbuilding Corp., San Francisco Calif., sponsored by Miss Gladys Sullivan, and commissioned 28 February 1920, Lieutenant Commander R. E. Rogers in command.

After a brief cruise to the Hawaiian Islands Fuller arrived at her home port, San Diego, 28 April 1920 and at once took up the schedule of training which took the Pacific destroyers along the west coast from California to Oregon. In February and March 1923, she joined in Battle Fleet maneuvers in the Panama Canal Zone, and returned to experimental torpedo firing and antiaircraft firing practice off San Diego. In July 1923, with her division, she sailed north for maneuvers and repairs at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard. While making their homeward-bound passage from San Francisco to San Diego on the night of 8 September, the division went on the rocks at Point Honda when position calculations erred in the foggy darkness. Fuller, last in the column, was abandoned, all of her crew reaching safety, and later broke in two and sank. She was decommissioned 26 October 1923."

* According to the Haze Gray & Underway site (extract above), "Fuller" was ahead of "Chauncey" in DesDiv 31, and thus last but one in the column

(7) DD-296 CHAUNCEY - "stranded upright, high on the rocks, near Young (DD-312), which had capsized." "..... remained on a comparatively even keel .... " (compared with DD-312)

"The second Chauncey (DD-296) was launched 29 September 1918 by Union Iron Works, San Francisco, Calif.; commissioned 25 June 1919, Commander W. A. Glassford, Jr., in command; and reported to the Pacific Fleet. ...........

On the evening of 8 September 1923, Chauncey in company with a large group of destroyers was sailing through a heavy fog from San Francisco to San Diego when a navigational error on board the first ship in her column turned that destroyer and the six that followed toward the rocky California coast rather than on a reach down Santa Barbara Channel. All seven destroyers, including Chauncey, went aground on the jagged rocks off Point Pedernales.

Chauncey stranded upright, high on the rocks, near Young (DD-312), which had capsized. With none of her men lost, Chauncey at once went to the aid of her stricken sister, passing a line by which 70 of Young's crew clambered hand-over hand to Chauncey. Swimmers from Chauncey then rigged a network of lifelines to the coastal cliffs, and both her men and Young's reached safety by this means. The abandoned Chauncey was wrecked by the pounding surf, and was decommissioned 26 October 1923. All the hulks were sold for salvage and removal as of 25 September 1925."

 

5. Aftermath

 
  Cliff-top campsite used to support the survivors after the accident and then as a base for the salvage effort (with thanks to Bob Frank, President, California Wreck Divers)
 

 


see also

1. Naval Service Record of Chief Yeoman of Signals George Smith 1904-28
2. North Russian Expeditionary Force 1919
3. HMS Vanquisher, Baltic Cruise 1921
4. HMS Curlew, America & West Indies 1922-25
6. HMS Durban, China Station 1926-28
7. Royal Naval Shore Signal Service 1929-48

 
 

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revised 4/9/11