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Vandenberg Commemorates 100th Anniversary of Honda Point Shipwreck Tragedy

  • Published
  • By Second Lieutenant Teah Gibson

On Sept. 8, 2023, the base commemorated the 100th anniversary of the tragic Honda Point disaster. This devastating incident unfolded off the base's coastline where seven U.S. Navy destroyers ran aground at Honda Point, resulting in the tragic loss of 23 sailors' lives.

Flags across the base were flown at half-staff, and Taps played at 9:05 p.m., aligning with the precise moment of the disaster.

During a presentation held at the base library on Sept. 7, Dr. Scott Bailey, deputy command historian for Space Operations Command, and former Space Launch Delta 30 historian, shed light on the historical context and significance of this event.

"The Honda Point shipwreck incident is a turning point in maritime history as it represents the largest peacetime loss of naval ships in American history and occurred on the coastline of present-day Vandenberg. More ships were lost at Honda Point than at the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941," said Bailey.

Spanish explorers nicknamed the waters surrounding Honda Point "Devil's Jaw" to explain the unforgiving rocky terrain and relentless currents therein, as stated by local author Maury Hoag in the book called "Jaws of Honda."

Even experienced locals in the area knowingly avoided the dangerous waters. However, caught in the intense and all too familiar "Vandenberg Fog," stuck between thrashing waters, and suffering from navigation errors, sailors aboard U.S. Navy destroyers navigated directly into the tragedy, as described by Hoag.

Just one week prior to the disaster, the Great Kantō earthquake in Japan struck, sending powerful currents through the Pacific Ocean and the California coastline. The disruption of ocean currents by the earthquake contributed to the navigational challenges experienced by the Naval task force that wrecked at Honda Point. Without knowing the increasingly dangerous conditions, the U.S. Navy deployed 14 Clemson-class ships belonging to Destroyer Squadron 11 for high-speed maneuvering training exercises simulating combat conditions. The squadron embarked from San Francisco Bay destined for San Diego Bay on Sept. 8, 1923, as noted by Charles A. Lockwood and Hans Christian Adamson in the book titled "Tragedy at Honda."

Led by Capt. Edward H. Watson, the ships simulated combat conditions by conducting radio silence throughout their bay-to-bay journey. Maritime technology of this time relied heavily on the preferred methods of the crew, as electronic radio navigation aids were still new and not yet trusted. Relying on the navigation skill known as dead reckoning and following the lead ship, the designated lead ship navigator was directed by Watson to turn the formation of ships east at 9:00 pm into what was believed to be the Santa Barbara Channel. Newly installed long-range radio navigation equipment (LORAN) along the coast was primitive and signaled the ship formation as being off course.

“However, due to a lack of training and understanding of electronic positioning from LORAN, the information was misinterpreted,” said Bailey.

These factors culminated in the final disaster that took place at Honda Point at 9:05 pm on Sept. 8, 1923. Traveling at increased speeds, unknowingly off-course, maintaining radio silence, experiencing unusual currents, and fog impairment, the sailors were unaware of the tragedy about to occur. After only five minutes from their journey traveling eastward, the ships collided with the California coastline, tearing apart the destroyers and trapping sailors aboard. The sounding alarms from the first seven ships warned the remaining destroyers of the perils; thus, the final destroyers were able to evade the fatal conditions.

In total, seven destroyers and 23 sailors were lost, while 745 sailors were saved.

During his presentation, Bailey also highlighted the contributions and advancements in technology that have since come from Vandenberg, associated with the Honda Point shipwrecks.

“The first 12 NAVSTAR global navigation satellites launched by the U.S. were placed into orbit from Vandenberg 55 years after the Honda Point shipwreck. The first launch occurred on Feb. 22, 1978, from Space Launch Complex-3E, which is located on South Vandenberg just a short distance from the Honda Point memorial,” he explained. “NAVSTAR GPS is the cornerstone of space-based navigational capabilities, operated by the U.S. Space Force, providing services to the global population, as well as to combatant commanders and American and Allied warfighters.”
Bailey also shared that on Dec. 8, 2020, the Honorable Kenneth J. Braithwaite, Secretary of the Navy, visited the Honda Point Memorial site, paying tribute to the historic significance of the location.

“For those interested in watching a documentary about the Honda Point tragedy, the Department of Defense Entertainment Liaison Office approved and facilitated the making of “Disaster at Devil's Jaw” which is available for purchase online. This underscores the authenticity and relevance in portraying this significant event in naval history,” said Bailey.