Honda (Pedernales) Point, California, Disaster, 8 September 1923
Report of Grounding of Destroyers by Captain Nutting



Bethlehem Shipbuilding Corporation, Ltd.,
Union Plant
San Francisco, California

13 September 1923


From: Captain D.C. Nutting (CC) USN, Bethlehem Shipbuilding Corporation, San Francisco, California.

To: Commandant, Twelfth Naval District, San Francisco.

Subject: Grounding of Destroyers near Honda, California – Report of

1. In accordance with your orders on the 10th instant I proceeded that night to the location of the destroyers grounded on the beach near Honda, California, about two miles north of the Point Arguello Light. I arrived at Honda about 6:50 a.m., the 11th of September accompanied by Captain T.P.H. Whitelaw of the Whitelaw Wrecking Company whose services were arranged for under authority contained in the joint radiogram 5710-1330 from the Bureaus of Construction and Repair and Supplies and Accounts.

2. The grounded vessels lie about one mile south and a quarter of a mile west from Honda Station and about three-eights of a mile west northwest of the houses belonging to the Southern Pacific Railroad and assigned as living quarters for the foreman of the railroad section gang and the laborers under his charge. The foreman’s house is a story and a half with about four rooms, a living room and a kitchen, besides a storeroom being on the ground floor. The houses for his men consisted of the usual long one story wooden structures with single rooms with door front and back assigned to each man or family. The foreman had no family and turned almost all his of his quarters over to the Naval men for sleeping and office space. Both he and his men were Mexicans. They deserve commendation for their kindness to the sailors. There was a small barn behind the houses and a house for the hand car across the railroad track. The railway station is a one room wooden building about a mile north of the section house and no agent or operator is maintained. The quarters for the section gang are partly surrounded by small trees and there is a good well but no other fresh water except in a stagnant creek anywhere in the vicinity. There was no fuel except old railroad ties.

3. The Southern Pacific Railroad had done everything possible for the Naval men. A telegraph operator and a long distance telephone had been installed in the main room of the foreman’s house and the officer in charge of the patrol force had been authorized to flag all trains except the “Daylight Limited” each way.

4. The quarters of the section gang had been made headquarters for the patrol force partly because they were the nearest houses to the wrecks, partly because the only potable water was there and partly because there were sheltering trees and fuel available. When I left on the evening of the 11th of September preparations were under way to erect tents, cots, etc., for the patrol just west of these quarters accessible to the well and wood and between the track and the water front.

5. All of the personnel of the wrecked vessels except a patrol force of sixteen men under command of Lieutenant(jg) C.V. Lee, US Navy with Ensign Wm. D. Wright, Junior, US Navy, and his assistant, had been sent to San Diego on Sunday the 9th by special train. The bedding and food on the Chaucey and S.P. Lee were partially available for the patrol force and they had mattresses and blankets but no tents. Three cots had been installed in the main room of the foreman’s house on which the officers and petty officers slept as there was opportunity. No doubt the men might have slept in the rooms of the single men of the section gang but they preferred to sleep under the trees. On the 11th of September the first day since the accident on which a heavy boat could be safely laid alongside any of the stranded vessels additional supplies, clothes and equipment were sent ashore from the Melville together with a working party of about twenty men under supervision of Lieutenant Wm. O’Neill (CC), US Navy. Commander H.E. Odell (MC), US Navy, Medical Officer on the staff of the Commander Destroyer Squadron Battle Fleet was also sent ashore on that day to establish sanitary conditions in camp, attend to the medical needs of the force and to the preparation and shipment of any bodies that might be recovered.

6. The tugs Tillamook and Undaunted were sent from Mare Island on the 10th of September with a working party of about forty men under supervision of Lieutenant C.F. Osborn (CC), US Navy. These tugs anchored in Port San Luis during the night of the 10th and 11th of September and Lieutenant Osborn (CC), USN, and the commanding officers arrived at Honda, by automobile, about 3:00 p.m. He was under orders from the Commandant to report to the Commander Destroyer Squadrons who directed him to take charge of temporary salvage operations consulting me as to the best method of proceeding. He sent the commanding officers of the tugs back to their vessels that night and arranged that his working party should arrive the next day, the 12th of September.

7. Captain L. Curtis of the firm of Pillsbury and Curtis of San Francisco, agents for the Pacific Coast of the Merritt Chapman and Scott Wrecking organization was at Santa Barbara in connection with the wreck on San Miguel Island (about twenty miles from Honda) of the Steamer Cuba of the Pacific Mail Steamship Company. Under instructions of the Bureaus in the radiogram above referred to he came to Honda the night of the 10th and 11th of September and met me soon after my arrival. In company with him and Captain Whitelaw I inspected the stranded vessels going aboard the Chaucey and viewing the others from the bluff and from a boat supplied by the Melville. The Melville, Tern and Ortolan were anchored off shore in the vicinity of the stranded vessels and one destroyer cruised in the vicinity during a part of the day. The Melville got under way about 1:30 p.m. and proceeded to San Diego to permit Rear Admiral S.E.W. Kittelle, US Navy, to attend the Court of Inquiry ordered in connection with the grounding. In accordance with my orders from you and at the invitation of Rear Admiral Kittelle I went aboard the Melville about 11:30 a.m. and was sent ashore by him just prior to the Melville’s departure. On landing I met Rear Admiral W.V. Pratt, US Navy, on his way by automobile from San Francisco to San Diego to convene the Court of Inquiry. I told him what I had so far learned and the results of my conference with Admiral Kittelle. Admiral Pratt inspected the stranded vessels from the bluff and then continued his journey to San Diego.

8. I took Captain Curtis aboard the Melville with me and we spent some time in conference with Rear Admiral Kittelle, Commander of the Destroyer Squadrons and his staff. We told him of our conclusions relative to the probable outcome of salvage operations and also discussed with him means for insuring the comfort of the men and officers ashore and the prosecution of such salvage operations as might be practicable when the working parties arrived.

9. The vessels aground consisted of the Delphy (#261), Chauncey (#296), Fuller (#297), Woodbury (#309), S.P. Lee (#310), Nicholas (#311) and Young (#312). Their relative locations and the contour of the water front are roughly shown by the attached sketch which is not to scale. The bluffs referred to are of volcanic rocks, very rough and jagged and full of depressions and caves. The bottom seemed to be of the same material with numerous reefs and pinnacle rocks, some showing above water, and others submerged. There was a narrow sand beach in the small cove inshore of the forward end of the Chauncey also at the mouth of the creek north of the S.P. Lee and to the northward of the creek about 500 yards from the bow of the S.P. Lee, the engine and boiler of the old Santa Rosa was visible projecting above the sand. The S.P. Lee seemed to be resting in part at least on sand but all the others seemed to rest on the rocks. The bluff was almost perpendicular from the water’s edge and varied in height from about 20 feet to about 60 feet abreast the grounded vessels. Abreast the S.P. Lee the ground rises steeply to a rocky hill probably 300 feet high. To the north of this and well inshore it slopes gently enough to permit a little used wagon road to cross the creek and south of the hill it slopes at a grade of from 5 degrees to 15 degrees from the shore to the railroad track and section gang’s quarters about three-eights of a mile away. On the slope and generally back from the water front the ground is sandy and soft with a sparse growth of grass, cactus and desert plants.

10. The small island against which the Fuller and Woodbury lie is of the same volcanic rock as the bluffs ashore, very precipitous and jagged with several detached rocks and reefs.

11. The apparent condition of the various vessels is as follows:

“261 – Delphy. The Delphy was leading the column and apparently turned sharply left just before striking almost broadside on against the rocky point marked “a” on the map. This crushed her so badly that she broke in two about abreast the after end of the after engine room. The after portion sank almost immediately, the weight of the after deck house forcing it down through the deck which apparently tore away at the stringer angle leaving the bottom and side plating projecting up pretty well all about the house and with its top edge on the inshore side showing at low water. One of the propeller guards was also visible at low water to the southwest of the deck house. The deck house roof was just about awash at high water and was standing almost upright with the 4 inch gun and part of the life railing in place. The forward portion of the vessel was evidently carried forward by its momentum after she broke in two and sank with its after end about 75 feet north of the after deck house. It was listed heavily to port (about 60 degrees) and only the starboard midship gun and starboard forward torpedo tube and the portions of deck and deck houses’ well to starboard were above water. All compartments were undoubtedly full of water and only a comparatively small amount of salvage will probably be practicable. The starboard plating of the after part of the hull is close against the bluff of the small island. The starboard side of the forward portion is about 75 feet from the bluff on the main land. The gun on the after deck house could be reached by a long boom from a derrick on the islet against the main land.

#310 – S.P. Lee. This vessel was, I understand, second in column and sheared off sharply to port to avoid the Delphy. She struck the sharp projection marked “b” on the map on her starboard side over the after engine room after bulkhead denting the plating in about 3 feet over an area 8 or 10 feet in diameter but tearing the plating very little. She is parallel to the face of the bluff about 25 feet away and listed to port at an angle of about 35 degrees. The men escaping from the after boiler room reported that a sharp rock had been thrust up through her bottom in the fire room. She is believed to be full of water fore and aft. The crew escaped to shore by means of a line and breeches buoy which was still in place. She lies with her starboard wooden fender about parallel to the water and about 3 feet above it at high water. The port deck edge is a foot or two under water at high tide. A considerable amount of equipment and material could be landed from the S.P. Lee by means of a mast and a long boom mounted on the bluff abreast her but it would be difficult to work on her deck and the ground rises quite steeply inshore from her.

#311 – Nicholas. The Nicholas was, I believe, third in column. She sheared still further to port and grounded with her starboard side against the rocks and the ledges, with her length approximately at right angles to the length of the S.P. Lee, with her stern about 50 feet away and her bow toward the west. Statement was made that in the fog and darkness at the time of grounding she could not be seen at all from the S.P. Lee although so near. She lies in a rocky saddle listed about 25 degrees to starboard and resting against a ledge of rocks. At high water her starboard deck edge is awash to about amidships with her boot-topping just awash at the stem. She is believed to be full of water fore and aft. Ahead of her, off her port bow, the water is probably deep enough and clear enough of rocks so that she could be floated clear if she were lifted from the bottom. There is no information available as to the damage to the bottom. She is in an exposed position and though she might, under the most favorable conditions, be salvaged as a whole, neither Captain Curtis nor Captain Whitelaw considered the chances of success sufficient to warrant a contract on a “no cure no pay” basis.

The crew of the Nicholas was landed by trolley across to the S.P. Lee and thence ashore.

#296 – Chauncey. This was, I believe, the fourth vessel in column. She sheared off to starboard and went aground parallel to and about 40 feet away from the southwesterly face of the rocky islet connected to the main land. She is clear of water forward of the forward boiler room and moves gently with the swell. Instructions were given by me to flood her forward to keep her from working pending salvage operations. There is apparently a clear channel of open water on her starboard bow deep enough to clear her bottom when she is afloat. The small island against which the Woodbury and Fuller are aground and the hull of the Young form a lee for her which makes coming alongside her with a boat comparatively easy. She offers by far the best chance of salvage as a whole and Captain Curtis will probably submit a “no cure no pay” bid for taking her off. She is inclined to starboard at an angle of 6 or 7 degrees with her port propeller guard just awash at high tide and the forward end of her port wood fender also just awash at that stage of the tide. There was a small crumpled area of the bulkhead at after end of crew space (between it and #1 boiler room) outboard to starboard against the shell plating and a small seepage of water was coming through the bulkhead or side plating there. The main deck was not distorted anywhere but she was flooded from forward boiler room to stern. The men escaping from her after engine room stated that the propeller of some vessel (probably the Young) was seen to cut through her starboard side but how extensive the damage was I was unable to find out. Presumably the Young backed away astern (to the northward) to the position where she sank. There was a cable to the after port boat skid of the Chauncey and access was easy by trolley. The deck would be easily reached by a boom from a derrick on the islet to port of her.

#312 – Young. The Young was apparently fifth in column and sheared off to starboard apparently fouling the Chauncey’s starboard side with her port side, then backing astern until she cleared. Commander W. L. Calhoun, her commanding officer, was quoted as having said that he thought her whole starboard bilge was ripped open in backing and that she sank in one minute and thirty-nine seconds after she began to list. She was lying flat on her starboard side with her masts horizontal and about two feet below water at half tide. Her main deck being vertical and exposed to seaward except for slight protection by the Woodbury, all work of loosening guns, etc., would be very difficult. Salvage as a whole is considered impracticable. She lies about 250 feet from the off shore face of the small islet about as shown on the map.

#309 – Woodbury. The Woodbury was, I understand, sixth in column. She grounded on the north side of the small detached island at first with her forefoot (as shown by a picture published in the San Francisco Examiner of the 9th of September) barely in the saddle between the pinnacle rock (shown against her port side on the map) and the island itself. Prior to my arrival she had apparently been thrust ahead by the swell until the pinnacle rock was about abreast her forward smoke stack. She evidently had some buoyancy for at high tide she had a list of only about 20 degrees to port which increased to about 45 degrees at low tide which was the maximum list permitted by the rock against her port side. At high tide her port deck edge was awash to abreast the bridge with the after deck house roof awash to the middle line. As the tide fell the bow lifted through sinking of the stern as she balanced somewhere near amidships over the saddle of rock and at low water her forefoot was slightly above water. Her position is very much exposed and she is thrust so high into the rock saddle that salvage as a whole is not considered practicable. A very moderate sea which is likely to occur at any time would probably crush her badly.

#297 – Fuller. The Fuller was, I understand, seventh in column and came bows on onto the west side of the small detached island almost parallel to and to the south and west of the Woodbury with her bow about abreast the Woodbury’s stern. She was very nearly on an even keel and evidently open to the sea fore and aft as she did not lift at all as the tide rose. She is believed to lie on a nest of jagged rocks probably with a number of them projecting through her bottom. Her position is most exposed of all and there is no hope of salvaging her as a whole. Her deck being level the loosening of guns, etc., will be easy whenever the water is quiet enough to permit a boat or barge alongside.

12. Both Captain Whitelaw and Captain Curtis had been more or less connected with salvage operations on the SS Santa Rosa which went aground several years ago just across the mouth of the creek to the north of the S.P. Lee and the Nicholas at a distance of about 500 yards. They had also been up and down the Coast in that vicinity for many years and they stated that on the day we were there the sea was as quiet as they had ever seen it and much more quiet than could be expected except very rarely. The next six weeks will probably be the quietest period of the whole year but rough water and a heavy surf may occur at any time and probably would occur several times before salvage operations could be completed. For several hours while we were there boats and barges could have been laid alongside any of the vessels with very little danger of injuring but towards night the water became rougher. The day we were there was clear and still the first clear day since the grounding. Towards sunset fog began to come in. It had not been possible to land boats on the beach or alongside the stranded vessels until the day of our visit but on that day dories and whaleboats were alongside all of the vessels and men went on board. A large motor sailer, heavily loaded with supplies, etc., for the patrol force was laid alongside the Chauncey on the offshore side and unloaded to her decks, the supplies being then transferred ashore by trolley. It would not have been safe to land a heavy boat anywhere on the beach.

13. After consulting with Captains Curtis and Whitelaw and Admiral Kittelle I recommended that the working parties give first attention to salvaging the torpedoes as they were very valuable and being buoyant could be floated to one of the mine layers and loaded on her for transportation to San Diego or some navy yard. I also recommended that operations be concentrated on the most exposed vessels whenever it was possible to lay a boat alongside them. An oxyacetylene torch was sent from the Melville with the other materials and it was intended to cut holes in the port side of the Young on the following day (12th of September) in an attempt to discover whether any of the eighteen men still missing had been trapped within her when she capsized. The preponderance of opinion was that none were so trapped but it was desired to make sure.

14. I did not go aboard any of the stranded vessels except the Chauncey for the reason that the water was too rough to permit landing from a boat prior to the time I went off to the Melville. After my return from the Melville I might have gone aboard any of them but there was nothing special to be gained by doing so and the limited number of boats available were needed for other service.

15. The elevation of the main land at the shore would permit the use of cable and trolleys for landing material more or less effectively from all the stranded vessels except the Woodbury and the Fuller. The best means of landing material from the S.P. Lee, the Chauncey and the after section of the Delphy would be by long booms from derricks on shore. The exposure of the other vessels which might be reached by trolley cables is such that probably derrick barges could be laid alongside in any weather that would permit men to be employed on the vessels.

Return to list of Honda Point Disaster documents.