Santa Maria Sun / News
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 14, Issue 27
Prying open 'The Devil's Jaw'Ninety years ago, local residents responded to the largest peacetime loss of naval vessels in American history
BY AMY ASMAN AND PATRICK M. KLEMZ
On the evening of Sept. 8, 1923, Southern Pacific Railroad foreman John Giorvas was sitting in his second-story bedroom of the Honda Point Section House doing his weekly management reports. Shortly after 9 p.m., he heard two loud explosions at the base of the cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean.
Giorvas and some of his men went out to investigate the noise. When they reached the top of the cliff, recounted Spencer Duckworth in his book, Destroyers on the Rocks: Seven Ships Lost, they were met “by a din of voices in every direction calling for help, ‘God, mother, father, help me.’”
The foreman immediately returned to the station house and called his supervisor to report the shipwreck of what appeared to be a U.S. naval destroyer. That message was relayed to railroad officials in San Luis Obispo and San Francisco. In the next 24 hours, it was revealed that not one, but seven American destroyers crashed and sank in the waters off Honda Point, a viciously rocky formation the Spaniards called La Guijada del Diablo—“The Devil’s Jaw.”
“When the call came in from Honda on Saturday night that help was needed at that point, no one realized that one of the greatest naval disasters in history—one that would make the famed battle of Manila Bay look like a ten-cent side show—was happening at the moment at our door,” Duckworth wrote in his book, quoting extensively from articles written by Lompoc Record editor Ronald Adam. The reporter was one of the first people to respond to the disaster, along with the station house crewmembers and Lompoc law enforcement.
The U.S.S. Delphy, Young, S. P. Lee, Nicholas, Woodbury, Chauncey, and Fuller were part of a squadron of destroyers making its way from a Fleet Week celebration in San Francisco to its docking point in San Diego.
The destroyers drifted off course that September evening in heavy fog and abnormal ocean conditions. Contemporary accounts also speak of misleading radio signals the ships received prior to the accident. The destroyers were about 10 miles north of their intended bearing and moving toward a rocky coastline at 22 knots.
Expecting to cruise into Santa Barbara Channel, Commodore Edward H. Watson ordered the squadron to move into a tight formation. Around 9 p.m., his U.S.S. Delphy and eight other destroyers ran upon the rocks. Seven of the ships began to founder.
“All vessels are believed to be a total loss,” the Associated Press wrote in the first wire to go out from what would become the largest peacetime sinking of naval vessels in American history. “The wrecked destroyers are fast breaking up under the pounding of the surf.”
Foreman Giorvas, reporter Adam, and a handful of other local residents responded to a distress call from one of the ships (determined later to be the Nicholas). They found the S.P. Lee first. The rescue party decided to go back to the station house to get wood and kerosene to build a large bonfire near the shore. As the volunteers were walking to the section house, Duckworth wrote, they found the S.P. Lee’s captain, R. Morris, “wandering in a bewildered state” along the rocks. From Morris they learned that several vessels were in distress.
Eventually, bonfires were built on the bluffs and near the station house to provide light for the rescue effort and warmth for the sailors who made it ashore.
Giorvas and crew tossed ropes to the nearest ship, the Delphy, and helped pull it ashore. The rescuers and unharmed sailors spent hours dragging men out of the water. Giorvas’s efforts earned him the nicknamed “Honda John,” which stuck with him until his retirement from the railroad in the 1950s.
Two local doctors, M. S. Kelliher and L. E. Heiges, were the first medics on the scene. They treated the sailors’ cuts and gashes from the volcanic rocks, as well as broken bones, hypothermia, and other ailments. The section house was transformed into a hospital where the injured were kept until they could be transported to Cottage Hospital in Santa Barbara.
Members of the section crew, including Mexican laborers living close to the railroad, boiled up coffee for the sailors and offered them bunks and stools to sit on. Mrs. Charles L. Atkins, wife of the one of the telegraph operators at Surf Station House, took over the kitchen at Honda Point Station House and served the sailors sandwiches and coffee.
“[The station house kitchen] was stifling from the heat of the range and the steam from the garments of the sailors,” Duckworth wrote in his book. “Several of the boys who had been hurt were curled up on the floor and others who crowded within the room were driven there by the cold without.”
The Navy arranged for a special supply train to leave SLO for Lompoc. Trains continued to travel up and down the railroad throughout the night, transporting supplies, medical professionals, and wounded sailors to and from Lompoc.
Residents in Lompoc and SLO gathered clothes and supplies to aid the rescued sailors and response crews. Word apparently reached SLO that food stores in Lompoc appeared insufficient to feed everyone being rushed to Honda Point. One grocer and several restaurants across town went to work making sandwiches. SLO Mayor Louis F. Sinsheimer sent out taxis to move all the collected supplies and rations to the train station.
It wasn’t until sunup that the rescuers discovered four more wrecked destroyers.
The U.S.S. Delphy, S.P. Lee, Chauncey, and Young crashed near enough to the shore that most of their crews managed to fight strong ocean swells and swim to safety. The U.S.S. Fuller and Woodbury wrecked more than 100 meters offshore on a particularly nasty crag subsequently named Destroyer Rock.
A total of 23 sailors died at Honda Point, and all but three of them drowned when the breaking waves rolled the Young in less than 90 seconds. James T. Pearson, a seaman on the Delphy, reportedly went mad after swallowing crude oil and vigorously fought his shipmates’ attempts at rescue. They tied Pearson to the hull of the ship, which the violent waves split in half before help could arrive.
The crews of the Woodbury and Fuller survived with the aid of an amateur rescue crew. Fishing boat captain G. Noceti was nearby casting nets when the accident happened. He piloted the Breno de Roma through the break multiple times to rescue 150 sailors trapped on the two ships beached on Destroyer Rock.
“Had it not been for this Italian,” wrote one reporter, “it is thought the loss of life would have been far heavier.”
According to Duckworth, the U.S. Navy lost more ships in 10 minutes at Honda Point than it lost in all of World War I.
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