Chaos at the 'Devil's Jaw'

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On Sept. 9, 1923, Capt. E.H. Watson was leading his destroyer division on a run from San Francisco to San Diego. The weather was foggy and the waters rough nearing dangerous Point Conception, but the trip had been routine. The ships were cruising in formation, as usual, running a steady 20 knots in a line behind the flagship, the USS Delphy.

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Suddenly, Point Honda, on the iron-bound Southern California coast, loomed out of the fog. Delphy's helmsman spun the wheel, and the ship slammed broadside into shore, breaking in half as her siren sounded in desperate warning to the 13 ships behind - to no avail.

The S.P. Lee managed a turn to port and then drove onto shore. The Woodbury swung to starboard and tore open her hull on a rock. The Fuller nearly hit the Woodbury, coming to rest on the same rock, and surf began pounding both vessels.

The Young struck a "jagged pinnacle [and] swiftly capsized, heeling over on her starboard side within a minute and a half." Twenty sailors were trapped below, and survivors clung desperately to the port side, watching as the Chauncey slammed into the same rock not 75 yards away.

Boatswain's mate Arthur Peterson volunteered to swim a line through the pounding surf from the doomed Young to the less-stricken Chauncey, and a makeshift ferry was set up. It made 11 trips and likely saved the Young's remaining 70 sailors.

In all, 22 sailors were lost, as well as a civilian adviser aboard the flagship, and seven of 14 vessels, making it the greatest peacetime disaster in Navy annals. Watson took full blame. A Navy court-martial cited fog and a series of navigational errors that, compounded, put the fleet far from its plotted position - and right in the middle of what long had been called the "Devil's Jaw."

This article originally appeared in the the April 2011 issue.