In a curtain of nighttime fog off the rocky coast of California, the worst peacetime disaster in U.S. 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 Sept. 8, 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 Tuesday 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 Vice Adm. 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.”
Twenty of those who died were on the Young, which rolled over in 90 seconds. Three men died on the Delphy, the lead destroyer whose captain, Edward H. Watson, made the ill-fated decision to turn prematurely into the California shore.
Within days, the Southern Pacific Railroad was running tourists to see where the $13-million worth of destroyers were lost.
Vendors sold postcards that showcased the catastrophe.
“It was a big embarrassment for the Navy,” Schwemmer said. “The Navy couldn’t hide it. They talked about bombing the area to get rid of the wreckage but Mother Nature was so aggressive, they didn’t have to.”
Fifty years after the crash, a memorial plaque fashioned out of an anchor recovered from the Young was placed at the site, by then a part of Vandenberg Air Force Base.
In 1998, Bruce participated in a 75th-anniversary ceremony organized by a group called Point Honda Watch, which had been created to pay tribute to the victims and heroes of the almost-forgotten disaster.
Capt. Watson and his lieutenant commander were found guilty of negligence but were allowed to remain in the Navy. They stayed for six more years.
Bruce, who found a way to join the Navy at 15, also served for six more years after the accident.
Born May 19, 1907, in Albuquerque, Bruce moved to the San Fernando Valley in 1921.
During the Depression, he painted the upper works of the Golden Gate Bridge. One of the few workers willing to climb that high, he earned $2 an hour, which was “a fortune back then,” Bruce once recalled.
Eventually, he worked as a sign painter and for a building materials company.
The widower married his second wife, Anne, in 1960 and they raised his twin daughters and her four sons, all of whom survive him.
Today, remnants of the destroyers can still be seen at low tide. Bruce kept a visible reminder in his living room -- a porthole from the Chauncey that an adventure club had given him.