La Honda Canyon is a valley formed by Cañada Honda Creek that enters the Pacific Ocean 0.4 miles (0.6 km) north of Point Pedernales, about 56 miles (90 km) west-northwest of Santa Barbara and 11 miles (18 km) west-southwest of Lompoc, California. Cañada Honda Creek drains a watershed of 7,537 acres (3,050 ha) in the San Ynez Mountains and flows west for 9 miles (15 km) through Vandenberg Space Launch Complex 6. The area was inhabited for thousands of years by the Chumash people. In 1769, the Portola Expedition camped by a Chumash rancheria somewhere near Point Arguello and found flints for their weapons, and the point was called Punta Pedernales, or ‘Point of Flints’, but the name did not appear on charts until after 1923. In 1787, Fermín de Lasuén established Mission La Purísima in an area the Spanish called Lompoco, after the Chumash ‘Lum Poc’ meaning ‘stagnant waters’ in the local Purisimeño language. In 1837, a Mexican Land Grant of 42,085 acres (17,031 ha) called Rancho Lompoc was given by Governor Juan B. Alvarado to Joaquín Carrillo and José Antonio Carrillo. The grant extended from present-day Lompoc west to the Pacific coast, south to Point Arguello including Point Pedernales. Another brother, Anastasio José Carrillo was granted the adjoining Rancho Punta de la Concepcion that extended along the Pacific coast from Point Arguello south to Cojo Creek just east of Point Conception. By 1855, the California cattle industry began to decline, and in 1860, the Carillos sold Rancho Lompoc to the More brothers, who were the largest landowner in Santa Barbara County. The droughts of the early 1860s forced the More brothers to dissolve their partnership and divide up their lands. In 1863, Rancho Lompoc and Rancho Punta de la Concepcion were purchased by the midwest sheep barons Colonel W.W. Hollister, W.H. Hollister, and Joseph W. Cooper, along with Thomas Dibblee. In 1941, the U.S. Army acquired approximately 86,000 acres (35,000 ha) of open ranch lands along the Central Coast of California for a training facility called Camp Cooke. In 1957, this was transferred to the U.S. Air Force and renamed Cooke Air Force Base, which became Vandenberg Air Force Base in 1965.
In 1923, Point Pedernales was called Honda Point after the nearby creek. The area features a series of offshore reefs and rocky outcroppings that were well-known navigational hazards since the Spanish explorers first came in the 16th century. Destroyer Squadron Eleven had successfully participated in summer Pacific Battle Fleet maneuvers in Puget Sound, and the 18 squadron ships were due to return to their homeport in San Diego following a brief stop in San Francisco. The ships were all Clemson-class vessels laid down between 1918 and 1919, averaging 314 feet (96 m) long, with a beam of 32 feet (10 m), displacing 1,250 tons, and driven by two high-power and two low-power steam turbines at speeds up to 32 knots (59 kph). As the squadron prepared to depart San Francisco on the morning of 8 September, its 18 ships were reduced to 15. Two had left at midnight in the company of the squadron tender because of engine problems. A third destroyer was testing new equipment and was proceeding independently. Once at sea, the 15 destroyers were divided into three divisions and steamed south in column formation. At some point south of the lighthouse at Pidgeon Point, the USS John Francis Burnes had a boiler problem and dropped out of formation, leaving 14 destroyers following the flagship USS Delphy. The flagship was responsible for the navigation of the fleet. As Delphy steamed along the coastline, poor visibility meant the navigators had to go by dead reckoning, estimating positions from their course and speed, as measured by propeller revolutions per minute. Delphy was equipped with a radio navigation receiver, but her captain, Lieutenant Commander Donald T. Hunter, who was also acting as the squadron’s navigator, ignored its indicated bearings, believing them to be erroneous. No effort was made to take soundings of water depths using a fathometer as this would require the ships to slow down to take the measurements. The ships were performing an exercise that simulated wartime conditions and squadron commander Captain Edward H. Watson also wanted the squadron to make a fast passage to San Diego, so the decision was made not to slow down. Despite the heavy fog, all ships were in close formation. Based solely on an estimate of their position the ships turned east supposedly heading into the Santa Barbara Channel; however, Delphy was several miles northeast of Point Conception and shortly after turning east ran aground at full speed at Honda Point. Six other destroyers followed and sank. Two ships whose captains disobeyed the close-formation order survived, although they also hit the rocks.
The disaster took place along a remote area whose principal improvement was a branch of the Southern Pacific Railroad. Fifteen miles to the northeast was Lompoc, the area’s largest population center. The radio direction finder station and lighthouse at Point Arguello were just south of the incident. Once a railroad work crew based at a Honda mesa section house was alerted to the developing tragedy, word was spread by human courier and telegraph. Rescue attempts promptly followed the accident. Local ranchers rigged rescue lines from the surrounding clifftops and lowered them down to the ships that had run aground. Fishermen nearby who had seen the tragedy picked up members of the crew from USS Fuller and USS Woodbury. The crew aboard the capsized USS Young were able to climb to safety on the nearby USS Chauncey via a lifeline. The five destroyers in Destroyer Squadron Eleven that avoided running aground at Honda Point were also able to contribute to rescue efforts by picking up sailors who had been thrown into the water and by assisting those who were stuck aboard the wreckage of other ships. Two other ships that grounded were able to maneuver free off the rocks. The scope of the suffering was overwhelming with nearly 800 survivors and almost everyone badly gouged from crawling across the sharp rocks. Over the next two days the sailors were fed, clothed, treated, and sent by special trains to their homeport at San Diego. Twenty-three sailors died in the disaster. The wrecks were stripped of critical weapons and records, and the U.S. Navy put them up for salvage, but much of the wreckage remained until the sea and naval engineers removed the debris from view, although odd pieces remain to this day. Presently overlooking the disaster site is a modest memorial consisting of a salvaged anchor from the USS Young and a small plaque listing the ships that were lost. Read more here and here. Explore more of Point Pedernales here: