HISTORY CORNER: The Captain, his ships and the 1923 disaster on the California coast

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  • NAVAL HISTORY AND HERITAGE COMMAND Cmdr. (later Capt.) Edward H. Watson (1874-1942).

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    LIBRARY OF CONGRESS Battleship USS Utah served in Spanish-American War, World War I and sunk at Pearl Harbor attack.

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    U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist John M. Hageman/Released Wreck of battleship USS Utah, now a national memorial in Pearl Harbor where it was sunk by Japanese torpedoes on Dec. 7, 1941.

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    NAVAL HISTORY AND HERITAGE COMMAND USS Celtic (c.1920)

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    NAVAL HISTORY AND HERITAGE COMMAND USS Utah capsizing off Ford Island, Pearl Harbor after being torpedoed by Japanese aircraft on Dec. 7, 1941.

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    LIBRARY OF CONGRESS Gunship USS Wheeling, commanded by Commander Edward H. Watson (photo c.1900).

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    GOOGLE IMAGES Honda Point Disaster route showing fleet turning too soon.

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    PUBLIC DOMAIN Destroyers USS S.P. Lee in foreground and USS Nicholas at Honda Point (1923).

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    NATIONAL ARCHIVES Fleet commander Captain Edward Watson’s flagship USS Delphy shown here was the first destroyer to hit the rocks at Honda Point, with the loss of three lives, and the other 20 lost on the USS Young lying upside down in this photo (1923).

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    NATIONAL ARCHIVES Destroyer USS Chauncey, shown here run aground at the Honda Point Disaster, all aboard saved (1923).

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    U.S. Air Force Photo/Airman 1st Class Heather Shaw Memorial to Honda Point Disaster at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., overlooking the site.

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    U.S. NAVAL HISTORY AND HERITAGE COMMAND Bombing of obsolete battleship USS Alabama used as a target, previously commanded by Captain Edward Watson, shown here in a demonstration by General Billy Mitchell in Chesapeake Bay, with Army Martin twin-engine bomber flying overhead and Navy Curtiss F5L seaplane in the water.

  • NAVAL HISTORY AND HERITAGE COMMAND Cmdr. (later Capt.) Edward H. Watson (1874-1942).

  • 1

    LIBRARY OF CONGRESS Battleship USS Utah served in Spanish-American War, World War I and sunk at Pearl Harbor attack.

  • 2

    U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist John M. Hageman/Released Wreck of battleship USS Utah, now a national memorial in Pearl Harbor where it was sunk by Japanese torpedoes on Dec. 7, 1941.

  • 3

    NAVAL HISTORY AND HERITAGE COMMAND USS Celtic (c.1920)

  • 4

    NAVAL HISTORY AND HERITAGE COMMAND USS Utah capsizing off Ford Island, Pearl Harbor after being torpedoed by Japanese aircraft on Dec. 7, 1941.

  • 5

    LIBRARY OF CONGRESS Gunship USS Wheeling, commanded by Commander Edward H. Watson (photo c.1900).

  • 6

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    GOOGLE IMAGES Honda Point Disaster route showing fleet turning too soon.

  • 8

    PUBLIC DOMAIN Destroyers USS S.P. Lee in foreground and USS Nicholas at Honda Point (1923).

  • 9

    NATIONAL ARCHIVES Fleet commander Captain Edward Watson’s flagship USS Delphy shown here was the first destroyer to hit the rocks at Honda Point, with the loss of three lives, and the other 20 lost on the USS Young lying upside down in this photo (1923).

  • 10

    NATIONAL ARCHIVES Destroyer USS Chauncey, shown here run aground at the Honda Point Disaster, all aboard saved (1923).

  • 11

    U.S. Air Force Photo/Airman 1st Class Heather Shaw Memorial to Honda Point Disaster at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., overlooking the site.

  • 12

    U.S. NAVAL HISTORY AND HERITAGE COMMAND Bombing of obsolete battleship USS Alabama used as a target, previously commanded by Captain Edward Watson, shown here in a demonstration by General Billy Mitchell in Chesapeake Bay, with Army Martin twin-engine bomber flying overhead and Navy Curtiss F5L seaplane in the water.

Eight ships that were part of Edward Howe Watson’s U.S. Navy career ended up on the bottom of the sea, including seven destroyers off the coast of California and a battleship at Pearl Harbor. The Japanese sank the battleship, and he was court-martialed for the destroyers.

Five other vessels he served on ended up in the scrap heap, while only two he commanded outlived him — warships Wheeling and Madawaska

Edward Howe Watson was born in Frankfort, Ky., in 1874, the son of U.S. Navy Cmdr. John Crittendon Watson. He graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1895, spending the next five years aboard ships at sea — starting on the light cruiser USS Detroit (CL-8) with duty during the Spanish-American War.

Next were assignments as aides to flag officers, recruiting and more sea duty.

His first ship command was the supply ship USS Celtic in 1912-13, followed by training at the Naval War College.

The Celtic was built in 1891 in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and purchased by the U.S. Navy seven years later and used to supply fleet vessels in Cuban and Florida waters with medical supplies, food and ice during the Spanish-American War.

Then she served in the Philippines, Europe, the Caribbean and then back to the Philippines, ending up in Japan as scrap in 1929.

Watson’s next blue water assignment was mostly in the Caribbean as executive officer of the 1909 battleship USS Utah (BB-31), the first American warship named after the state.

Just before America joined World War I, Watson commanded the gunboat USS Wheeling (PG-14), launched in 1897.

With the U.S. joining the fight in 1917, Watson was promoted to captain and given command of the passenger steamer USS Madawaska, and then the battleship USS Alabama (BB-8) which earned him the Navy Cross for “exceptionally meritorious service.”

The Madawaska was a German ship named König Wilhelm II built in Stettin, Germany in 1907 and seized by the U.S. when the ship was voluntarily interned in Hoboken, N.J., and renamed.

Then Capt. Watson was given command of the Alabama, a battleship that had already seen glory in 1909 as part of President Teddy Roosevelt’s Great White Fleet that sailed around the world promoting friendship and showing off America’s naval power.

The Alabama had to drop out in San Francisco due to maintenance problems, but after repairs embarked on its own tour around the rest of the world accompanied by another battleship, the USS Maine.

In 1919, Capt. Watson returned to shore duty as U.S. Naval Attaché in Japan.

In July 1922, he was assigned command of Destroyer Squadron Eleven (DesRon 11). It was his first time as a fleet commander.

Then came the most horrendous event of his life — the Honda Point Disaster.

A U.S. Naval Institute report summarizes: “A lean budget and distrust of new technology combined to help precipitate a naval tragedy at Honda Point, Calif. On an early fall night in 1923, the U.S. Navy lost more warships in ten minutes than it did to enemy action in World War I.”

In the summer of 1923, the U.S. Navy was holding training maneuvers in Puget Sound. After they ended, Capt. Watson was ordered to lead 11 Clemson-class destroyers from San Francisco back to home base in San Diego. There would have been more ships, but maintenance problems and other reasons caused some drop-outs.

Before leaving San Francisco, the fleet’s ship captains met with Capt. Watson to discuss the trip.

Because of budget restrictions, they had planned to sail slowly to save fuel costs, but at the last minute, they received the green light to sail at whatever speed they wished. Watson decided on fast, in order to set a speed record on the run and get brass attention.

The DesRon 11 fleet’s navigation was in the hands of Lt. Cmdr. Donald T. Hunter, a respected navigator, having taught the subject at the Naval Academy. He was also captain of Watson’s flagship USS Delphy (DD-261).

The fleet was testing the newly invented Radio Direction Finder (RDF) which was still not perfected and therefore considered unreliable.

Both Hunter and Watson knew that, but they still decided on sailing in tight formation at the high speed of 20 knots, confident in getting the course right by using traditional navigation procedures as well as the suspect RDF.

The trip from San Francisco was plagued by bad weather, heavy seas and dense fog.

With so many variables, much of the navigation had to be dead-reckoning. Hunter knew the route well and expected to navigate the course correctly.

On the evening of Sept. 8, 1923, the fleet entered what was believed to be the Santa Barbara Channel, north of Santa Barbara.

As they approached Hondo Point near Point Arguello and today’s Vandenberg Air Force Base they made their turn to the east to go around the bend in the coastline — still sailing dangerously fast at 20 knots and not realizing how close they were to the rocky coastline.

Here’s how the Naval History and Heritage Command described what happened next:

“That evening, around 2000 hours (8 p.m.), the flagship broadcast an erroneous report — based on an improperly interpreted radio compass bearing — showing the squadrons position about nine miles off Point Arguello. An hour later, the destroyers turned east to enter what was thought to be the Santa Barbara Channel, though it could not be seen owing to thick fog.

Watson’s flagship Delphy leading the formation was first to hit the rocks, followed by other ships. Seven ended up wrecked, while those further back saw what was happening and were able to avoid the obstacles in time.

Two of the ships grounded, but were able to maneuver free of the rocks.

Twenty-three sailors died in the disaster, and eight warships were lost.

At a general court-martial, Capt. Watson and Lt. Cmdr. Hunter, captain of the Delphy and also the fleet navigator, were found “guilty of culpable inefficiency and negligence.” So too was Lt. Cmdr. Herbert Roesch, captain of the USS Nicholas (DD-311) — his conviction later set aside.

At the same time, the court praised 23 officers and men for their “outstanding performance” in saving lives after the ships hit the rocks.

The Navy quickly replaced the destroyers, and all the officers resumed their careers.

Capt. Watson’s naval career wasn’t over because of the court-martial, but any chance of becoming admiral was doomed. He remained highly respected in the Navy and outside, and served six more years in Hawaii as assistant commandant of the fourteenth Naval District, a position he held until retiring in November 1929.

The captain was victim of a perfect storm of adverse circumstances. His decisions may have been flawed but were not bizarre, yet the consequences were horrendous. At his court-marshal, he refused to give any excuses.

His willing acceptance of responsibility showed great personal character, and it was duly noted.

He retired to New York City, and spent his summers with his wife, Hermine, in Jamestown, R.I., where he enjoyed membership in the Conanicut Yacht Club and continued his reading and study of Japan where he was once naval attaché.

Capt. Edward H. Watson died in Brooklyn, N.Y., exactly one month after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

The Army and Navy Journal praised Capt. Watson:

“Captain Watson has given a splendid example of the finest attributes of character overcoming the elemental instinct of self-preservation. Voluntarily waiving the fundamental right of a defendant to place the burden of proof upon the prosecution and…volunteered his opinion under oath that he was wholly responsible for the disaster, and that none of his subordinates should be blamed.”

The U.S. Naval Institute however remained less charitable:

“While it would be easy to lay the entire blame on Hunter’s shoulders, he was not alone in inviting the tragedy. Watson’s fixation on making a record 20-knot passage along with his badly divided attention and failure to supervise the navigation; (subordinate navigator Lieutenant, junior grade, Lawrence) Blodgett’s inability to convincingly express his growing concerns, and the silent acquiescence of the other squadron officers to course positions some believed in error, all played a part.

“So, too, did uncertainties surrounding the new RDF technology, the effect of unusual weather conditions, and minor equipment problems.”

The sea is a cruel master.

• • •

Contact Syd Albright at silverflix@roadrunner.com.

• • •

Stopping the looters…

A special train picked up hundreds of survivors from Honda Station, leaving eighteen sailors behind as a “Wreck Patrol” to protect the seven wrecked destroyers from looters, while also looking for bodies of the dead. Seventeen were found and another six forever lost.

Salvaging the wrecks…

The Navy destroyers were a total loss, but the Navy was able to recover some weapons and equipment, including torpedoes, torpedo tubes, radios and documents. Salvaging was so dangerous on wrecks in the deep water that no effort was made to save big guns or other heavy items.

Honda Point relics…

There’s not much left of the Honda point disaster ships. The pounding of heavy seas all these years has broken everything up, leaving only scattered remnants of the U.S. Navy’s worst peacetime disaster.

End of the USS Alabama…

In 1921, the aging battleship was used as a bombing target in Chesapeake Bay by General Billy Mitchell who was trying to convince military brass that aerial attacks on enemy ships should be used in future warfare. The Alabama was sunk and sold and salvaged for scrap.

Quake from Japan…

Adding to all the navigational problems faced by Captain Watson’s fleet of destroyers was the huge 1923 earthquake in Japan one week earlier that destroyed much of Tokyo and Yokohama, sending tsunami waves across the Pacific and causing the heavy swells and unusual currents encountered at Honda Point.

• • •

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