In a curtain of nighttime fog off the rocky coast of California, the worst peacetime disaster in US Naval history was about to unfold. A captain who trusted his instincts over radio reports ordered the lead destroyer in a flotilla to make a sharp turn into what he thought was the Santa Barbara Channel.
One by one, nine destroyers in a squadron of 14 cruising south from San Francisco rammed into a rocky shoreline reef near Lompoc, considerably north of the channel. On 8 September 1923, seven ships were lost and 23 sailors died - but 800 survived amid tales of courage.
Gene Bruce, believed to be the last-known survivor of what came to be called the "Tragedy at Honda Point," died 11 December 2005 of natural causes at his home in North Hollywood, said his stepson, Robert Hubbard. Bruce was 98.
When they first hit what Bruce called "California real estate," the sailors thought they had run into San Miguel Island, one of the Channel Islands, until a train whistle made them realize they must be near the mainland.
They had come aground at Point Pedernales, a rocky promontory known locally as Point Honda. It is at the heart of a section of the coastline known to mariners as "the graveyard of the Pacific," wrote retired ViAdm. Charles A. Lockwood and Air Force Col. Hans Christian Adamson in their 1960 book Tragedy at Honda.
Spanish sailors considered the area so treacherous they called it la quijada del diablo- the devil's jaw-and at least 50 shipwrecks are said to lie within its grasp.
Bruce, then a 16-year-old seaman, had just ended his watch and was relaxing on deck when his ship, the Chauncey, drove into the reef. The sailors were close enough to shore to jump or ride lines to safety.
The Chauncey, the last destroyer to crash, had been sliced open by the propeller of the Young. It managed to remain upright against the rocks.
"The boat played a pivotal point in saving 70 sailors' lives," said Robert Schwemmer, maritime heritage coordinator for the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary. "It became a platform for a swimmer to run a lifeboat over to the Young. …