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Honda Point disaster not forgotten at Vandenberg

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif.  -- A weathered plaque resting on top of a cliff here overlooks the Pacific Ocean at the location known as Honda Point. This memorial site was enacted to remember the 23 Sailors who lost their lives when  seven U.S. Navy destroyers crashed in 1923 off of the shore here.  (U.S. Air Force Photo/Senior Airman Heather Shaw)

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- A weathered plaque resting on top of a cliff here overlooks the Pacific Ocean at the location known as Honda Point. This memorial site was enacted to remember the 23 Sailors who lost their lives when seven U.S. Navy destroyers crashed in 1923 off of the shore here. (U.S. Air Force Photo/Senior Airman Heather Shaw)

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. - Twenty-three Sailors lost their lives as seven U.S. Navy destroyers wrecked against the rocks near the Vandenberg shores here in 1923. This tragedy was later referred to as the Honda Point disaster. (U.S. Air Force photo)

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. - Twenty-three Sailors lost their lives as seven U.S. Navy destroyers wrecked against the rocks near the Vandenberg shores here in 1923. This tragedy was later referred to as the Honda Point disaster. (U.S. Air Force photo)

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. - Twenty-three Sailors lost their lives as seven U.S. Navy destroyers wrecked against the rocks near the Vandenberg shores here in 1923. This tragedy was later referred to as the Honda Point disaster. (U.S. Air Force photo)

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. - Twenty-three Sailors lost their lives as seven U.S. Navy destroyers wrecked against the rocks near the Vandenberg shores here in 1923. This tragedy was later referred to as the Honda Point disaster. (U.S. Air Force photo)

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif.  -- Hoping to capture the interest of the community, Bryan Walton, a photographer for the Santa Maria Times, photographs wreckage from the crash of U.S.S. Chauncey on the coast of Vandenberg here Friday, Feb. 26, 2010. The crash, which happened in 1923, involved seven Navy destroyers and resulted in 23 deaths. (U.S. Air Force Photo/Senior Airman Heather Shaw)

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- Hoping to capture the interest of the community, Bryan Walton, a photographer for the Santa Maria Times, photographs wreckage from the crash of U.S.S. Chauncey on the coast of Vandenberg here Friday, Feb. 26, 2010. The crash, which happened in 1923, involved seven Navy destroyers and resulted in 23 deaths. (U.S. Air Force Photo/Senior Airman Heather Shaw)

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- On any given day, a weathered plaque, resting on top of a cliff, well-above sea level, overlooks the Pacific Ocean's rough waters as they pummel against the protruding rocks below near the Western Launch and Test Range here.

The sun-stricken plaque is part of a memorial site dedicated to the Honda Point disaster of 1923 - the largest peacetime loss of United States Navy ships.

Vandenberg's historical background is mostly composed of joint-service personnel, said Jay Prichard, curator of the Vandenberg Heritage Center.

"Events such as the Honda Point Disaster are a reminder that military heritage is a common thread that binds us together, one team, one fight," Mr. Prichard said.

On Sept. 1, 1923, a magnitude 8.3 earthquake struck Sagami Bay, Japan, creating unusual currents that rippled across the Pacific Ocean.

One week later, despite the irregular currents trickling across the Pacific, the U.S. Navy Destroyer Squadron 11 deployed 14 Clemson-class destroyers from San Francisco Bay to San Diego Bay for training.

Led by Navy Cmdr. Edward H. Watson, the former DESRON 11 commander, the 14 ships set sail to simulate wartime conditions and their ability to navigate by using dead reckoning. Dead reckoning is a method to estimate the ship's maritime position by calculating the ship's heading, speed and propeller turns.

During the early 1920s, Sailors favored the dead reckoning system over radio navigation aids. This was because radio navigation aids, which checks ocean depth measurements, were still new and had not gone through an extensive amount of testing for accuracy. Therefore, even though some of the destroyers of the DESRON 11 were equipped with radio navigation receivers, the radios were not used, said Mr. Prichard.

As the destroyers trained throughout the night Sept. 8, the ships turned east in the direction of the Santa Barbara Channel. Maintaining a swift course, the destroyers headed toward Honda Point unaware of their surrounding environment, which is an area often called the Devil's Jaw because of its rocky outcroppings.

At 20 knots, the U.S.S. Delphy was the first of seven destroyers to run aground at Honda Point that September night. However, before the other seven ships were led into danger, the U.S.S. Delphy sounded its sirens, saving the trailing ships from tragedy. Twenty-three Sailors were killed in the Honda Point Disaster.

"As in any event, it is our responsibility to reflect what works and what doesn't," said Mr. Prichard. "Understanding our heritage gives us an opportunity to evolve as leaders and prevent future tragedies by making more informed decisions. In so doing, the lessons provided by the tragic loss of the 23 Sailors and seven ships, while painful, will not be in vain."

Fragments remaining from the Honda Point Disaster can still be found around the local area today. A downed destroyer's propeller and propeller staff sits outside the Lompoc Veterans' Memorial Building, and steel debris from the wreckage can also be seen wedged in-between the rocks at Honda Point.

The Honda Point Memorial site is currently off-limits. Due to erosion from the Pacific surf, the surrounding cliffs are severely undermined, which has led base safety officials to declare it off limits to all base personnel. However, the site of the wreck can be viewed safely from the roadside, said Mr. Prichard.

More than 87 years later, a plaque and memorial remain intact approximately 100 feet above the site where the historic Navy tragedy occurred. Although weathered, the memorial is still serving its purpose - remembering the loss of 23 Sailors and seven destroyers at Honda Point.