Beyond black-and-white photos in a Santa Maria doctor’s office and a Jalama Beach restaurant or key components displayed around Lompoc, the Honda Point naval disaster doesn’t typically draw much attention.
However, the loss of 23 sailors and seven U.S. Navy destroyers is not forgotten, and the 100th anniversary will be remembered in Santa Barbara County with presentations this month.
“It’s a time for reflection. It was a big deal here,” said Lisa Renken, Lompoc Museum director.
Marking the anniversary and loss remain important because of the human element — lives lost and otherwise affected by the tragedy where more than 700 sailors escaped death and a community came to their aid, Renken said.
“And there’s the fact that it’s still considered the greatest peacetime naval disaster,” she said. “Seven ships were totally lost. That’s never happened since.”
“One hundred years later, the Honda disaster remains one of the least talked about accidents in our country’s history. Many naval officers are unfamiliar with this incident. But we should all be aware of this tragedy and try to learn from the lessons it can teach us,” Gorga wrote.
Retracing the Tragedy at Honda Point
Thirteen destroyers left San Francisco the morning of Sept. 8, 1923, traveling south with ships forming a column led by the USS Delphy.
The follow-the-leader approach would end in disaster, however, on a night filled with dense fog. Errant information led the ships to turn east for what was believed to the Santa Barbara Channel.
Instead, the destroyers ended up striking rocks at an area dubbed Devil’s Jaw because of its treacherous coastline.
USS Delphy struck the rocks at 9:05 p.m., plowing ashore at 20 knots with the USS S.P. Lee, the USS Young, the USS Woodbury, the USS Nicholas, the USS Fuller and the USS Chauncey also unable to avoid wrecking.
Alarm sirens slowed two destroyers, the USS Somers and the USS Farragut, enough so that they just touched ground before backing off. The five other destroyers avoided disaster.
“Although seven destroyers were eventually wrecked by the pounding surf, the slow, cumulative damage gave the crewmen time to escape. Rescue parties were organized, small boats and local fishing boats picked up swimmers, and life lines strung to shore allowed the rest to wade to safety,” according to a recount on a U.S. Navy website.
Officials put a $13 million price tag on the loss of the destroyers 100 years ago, or roughly $232 million in today’s costs.
As word spread, Lompoc Valley responded in a big way, providing coffee and sandwiches for hours. Moore Mercantile Co. cleared its shelves of blankets for the sailors.
“The whole community just turned out,” Renken said.
After the incident, Honda Point became a bit of a tourist attraction, with people traveling from Los Angeles and San Joaquin Valley areas picnicking on the cliff above the wreckage of destroyers, Renken said.
“I guess now we’d rely on social media to post it,” Renken said. “At the time, they just went out there.”
The names of the 23 killed sailors, six of whom were never found, can be found by clicking here.
A propeller, or screw, from a destroyer has been displayed since 1983 in front of the Lompoc Valley Veterans Memorial Building. An anchor once on a cliff near Honda Point has been relocated after the Lompoc Valley Historical Society.
The toll of time has affected the wreckage previously popular among divers. Additionally, the water there remains treacherous and the wrecked vessels sit off the coast of Vandenberg, an active military installation with restricted access.
Centennial Remembrances Planned
At Vandenberg Space Force Base on Friday, flags around the military installation will be flown at half-staff to mark the tragedy’s anniversary. “Taps” also will be played at 9:05 p.m. Friday, instead of 10 p.m., to note the historical moment.
In Lompoc, “The Price of Good Navigation Is Constant Vigilance” presentation by Renken and James Carucci, a retired cultural resources manager for the Air Force, will be offered at 7 p.m. Friday and 2 p.m. Saturday at Stone Pine Hall, 210 South H St.
“Disaster at Devil’s Jaw,” a documentary by Santa Barbara native Lee Abbott about Honda Point, came out this year and will be the focus of a presentation from 6 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Sept. 21 at the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum. The event will include a film screening and lecture by Abbott.
Admission is free for SBMM Navigators Circle members, $10 for all other members and $20 for the general public. Additionally, SBMM members will enjoy a pre-lecture reception from 5:15 p.m. to 5:45 p.m. To register, click here.
The documentary includes comments by Gorga, Navy retirees and grandchildren of sailors on the destroyers.
It also spells out some of many factors that contributed to the tragedy.
“There’s 10 different things, and a few different decisions that had they been made differently would have avoided it,” said Renken, who recently had read 100-year-old newspaper accounts of the wreck and aftermath to ready for the Lompoc presentation.
In his historical article and the documentary, Gorga also noted the moments of heroism among the crews.
“Although obviously there’s major errors that led to this tragedy, once it did happen there was nothing but stories of amazing bravey,” Gorga said.
Along with historical articles and a documentary, the tragedy also inspired the novel “Dead Reckoning.” Published in 2020 and written by Central Coast authors Michael Corbin Ray and Therese Vannier, “Dead Reckoning” uses both fictional and real people to tell the story. The historical novel can be purchased on Amazon or through other booksellers.