Dead Reckoning

Dead Reckoning

Fourteen U.S. destroyers barreled down the California coast in a dense fog—until a wrong turn led to the largest peacetime disaster in American naval history.

The Atavist Magazine, No. 142

Robert Kolker is the author of the New York Times best-selling Lost Girls and Hidden Valley Road. He is a National Magazine Award finalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Wired, Bloomberg Businessweek, and New York magazine, and through the Marshall Project.

Editor: Jonah Ogles
Art Director: Ed Johnson
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Darya Marchenkova
Illustrator: Harry Tennant

Published in August 2023.

1.

There is a noise that, for a Navy captain, may well be the worst sound imaginable—worse than the boom of cannon fire, the whistle of a missile, or the whoosh of a torpedo. That noise is the long, piercing scrape of metal against rock. It’s the sound, quite simply, of everything going wrong.

Edward Howe Watson heard that noise on September 8, 1923, at 9:05 p.m., while sitting in his ship’s quarters, directly beneath the bridge of the United States Navy destroyer Delphy. Watson was a 49-year-old naval commander—a privileged and pedigreed, blue-blooded son of an admiral, Kentucky born and Annapolis trained. A year earlier, he’d taken command of the Delphy’s entire squadron of 19 destroyers. This had been a promotion, a welcome sign of forward momentum in a long and varied Navy career. Privately, Watson told his wife that he’d have preferred a battleship. But he seemed just one promotion away from getting that too, and after that perhaps an admiralty, like his father before him.

The Delphy had left San Francisco that morning and spent the day speeding south along the coast of California. Thirteen more ships in Watson’s squadron trailed behind. The destination was their home port in San Diego. This was a training exercise—a speed trial, the sort of thing the Navy, under considerable budget pressures, hadn’t tried since the war. All day the destroyers maintained top speeds in challenging conditions: bad weather, massive waves, a civilian vessel requiring rescue. By late afternoon, no one on any of the ships could make out the coastline through the haze. Watson wasn’t concerned; he had one of the Navy’s best navigators for the Delphy’s skipper, and he was using dead reckoning—the time-tested technique of calculating location from a ship’s compass direction, estimated speed, and the amount of time traveled—to ensure that they were where they needed to be. Best of all, a rival squadron of destroyers, part of the same training exercise, were making worse time. Watson was winning the race.

By nightfall, the Delphy was coming close to the Santa Barbara Channel, with San Diego in reach by dawn. A few minutes before 9 p.m., Watson ordered a turn east toward the coast for the final approach into the channel. The entrance was a risky place for a squadron traveling at 20 knots—littered with rocks, reefs, and shipwrecks just beneath the water’s surface—but it was the shortest route, and using it all but guaranteed that Watson would win. The other ships would follow, and they’d all be home in record time.

That was when Watson heard the noise—first the scrape, and then a thunderous boom. In that flash of a moment, Watson knew. They were running aground. Careers would be destroyed, reputations and legacies wiped away—and, worst of all, lives could be lost. But he could not have known that what happened next would become the greatest peacetime disaster in the history of the U.S. Navy. That it would prompt a court-martial of 11 officers, also the largest of its kind in history. And that, in the aftermath, he would be forced to rethink everything he believed about the price of honor and the true meaning of leadership.

And that, even now, 100 years later, there would be no end to the arguments over who exactly was to blame.

The destroyers under Watson’s command were known as four-stackers, marked by a quartet of tall, identical cylinders arrayed neatly in a line down the ship’s center, like the bristles of a toothbrush. Each ship was 314 feet long and 32 feet wide, nimble and powerful enough to target German submarines during the First World War. But by the time Watson took command of Squadron 11 in 1922, the war was over, fuel was being rationed, and military funding had been slashed across the board. While four-stackers could carry as many as 131 men, budget cuts reduced the number on board to roughly 100. It was an unfortunate time to be rising in the Navy. America may have just won a war, but the nation’s reputation was fragile. Washington was a hotbed of corruption; President Warren Harding’s Teapot Dome bribery scandal had implicated naval secretary Edwin Denby. Now more than ever, the Navy needed a demonstration of confidence, of authority. And Watson needed the Navy, too, in his own way.

Watson had grown up amid privilege, his only care, perhaps, the burden of expectation. He was the eldest son of a powerful Kentucky family, a member of America’s brand of aristocracy. One of his great-grandfathers had served as governor, was a five-term U.S. senator, and advised two presidents. The family superstar was his father, John Crittenden Watson, who earned his place in history as a Union Navy lieutenant during the Civil War battle of Mobile Bay. In 1864, Captain James Farragut of the battleship Hartford led a squadron of ships into Confederate waters and shocked everyone around him when he ordered his fleet into a mine-strewn waterway, crying out, “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!” Watson’s father was Farragut’s faithful aide-de-camp. He’d heard the captain say it, and quoted him for years afterward, codifying the legend.

Watson grew up with that story, which was also becoming the Navy’s story—the daring squadron commander defying all odds, cheating death, seizing his place in the world. He entered the Navy in his father’s shadow: The elder Watson went on to be an admiral, and often told the tale of how he’d been the one to lash Farragut to the Hartford’s rigging, so his body would be found if the ship went down. Between the younger Watson’s many postings—on the Amphitrite, the Maine, the Brooklyn, the Baltimore, the Richmond, the Prairie, the West Virginia, the Detroit, the Iris—his father would step in and offer plum assignments; Watson even went along as his father’s aide to the coronation of King Edward in London. He married well—a St. Louis socialite named Hermine Gratz, whose sister married a Rockefeller—and a life of ease awaited once his time in the Navy ended. But during the Great War, Watson only managed to take command of a battleship late in the effort, and he never saw combat. So when the destroyers of his squadron were given a chance to prove their worth, the opportunity couldn’t have come soon enough.

On Friday, September 7, 1923, Watson summoned Squadron 11’s commanders to a meeting. The ships were docked in San Francisco, where the crews were on shore leave. Watson announced that he’d lead them to their home port in San Diego on a training exercise, coupled with gunnery and tactical drills. Their orders, Watson said, were to travel at 20 knots, faster than any ship had been permitted in years.

For the first time since the war, these destroyers would do what they’d been built to do, although it would come with some risk. There was no telling what toll such an extreme pace would take on the ships’ turbines when sustained for 453 nautical miles. Watson shrugged off such concerns; that was what the exercise was for. Besides, Squadron 11 wouldn’t be the only fleet of destroyers bound for San Diego that day. Squadron 12 was going, too. This would be a race, and Watson intended to win it.

William L. Calhoun was ten years younger than Watson, in his late thirties, and a touch portly, with thinning blond hair. Like Watson, he had something of a pedigree: His great-grandfather was John C. Calhoun, the South Carolina senator who served as vice president under John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson. But unlike Watson, no one seemed to expect great things from Calhoun. He grew up in Palatka, Florida, and went to public school before scoring a spot at the Naval Academy. Calhoun once said that on his way out of town, a schoolteacher told him he wouldn’t amount to anything.

Calhoun proved that teacher wrong, working his way up from ensign to gunnery officer to chief engineer before switching to submarines, commanding a division of them during the war. He came home highly decorated in 1918, but endured several more humdrum postings before, in 1923, he was given command of a ship—a destroyer in Watson’s Squadron 11.

If the new job intimidated Calhoun, he didn’t show it. Aboard the ship, the young commander was something of a breath of fresh air, at least compared with his predecessor, whom many had found brusque. As a leader, Calhoun cultivated a mix of relentlessly demanding and personally appealing. The crew liked him straight away. They wanted to impress him.

Then, in September, came the orders from Watson. After paying his dues and biding his time, Calhoun was facing his first trial as the skipper of his own ship.

Eugene Dooman was in the lobby of the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco when he spotted his old friend Edward Watson. It was September 7, the same day Watson had given his squadron their orders. Dooman was a 32-year-old career diplomat who’d been stationed at the American embassy in Tokyo for a decade. He’d met Watson during the three years the captain lived there after the war, serving as a naval attaché. Watson and Dooman shared a love of Japanese culture and a fascination with the country’s history and the traditions of its royal family. Now Dooman was at the start of a long leave back in America and glad for this chance meeting, because he was in a jam.

Dooman had brought something bulky and valuable with him from Japan—a heavy leather valise containing $3,000 in silver coins. This, oddly enough, would be his travel budget during his time away from Japan. Instead of paper money or a letter of credit, his bank in Tokyo persuaded him to accept silver; the bank would need to back up any large withdrawal with silver anyway, and if Dooman took it to America with him he’d save the bank freight and insurance. For his trouble, the bank gave him an extra $400.

Dooman hadn’t counted on the bank being closed when he reached San Francisco. Worse yet, it was a Friday. Dooman would be stuck with a burdensome valise filled with silver until Monday, and he was scheduled to leave on Saturday for his next stop, Los Angeles. But now, in the hotel lobby with Watson, a solution presented itself.

Watson told Dooman that he was taking his squadron to San Diego early the next morning, and he invited him along. It would require a little domestic diplomacy on Watson’s part: His wife, Hermine, had asked him to bring their nine-year-old daughter, Clifford, on the Delphy, while she accompanied some friends on a road trip to San Diego. But Watson never warmed to the thought of having along a young girl on a destroyer. With just one available cabin on the ship, Dooman was a convenient excuse for Watson to change the plan.

The diplomat said yes right away. The invitation neatly solved his problem. It would be easy enough to get a train to Los Angeles from the squadron’s destination of San Diego, and Dooman’s silver would be well protected during the journey. Watson cleared his guest through official channels, and Dooman arranged for a trunk with the rest of his belongings to be sent ahead to his hotel in Los Angeles.

The next morning at 7 a.m., Dooman, valise in hand, arrived at the San Francisco Navy pier. The diplomat was ushered aboard the Delphy and into the guest cabin, where he changed into a heavy tweed suit to block the wind while on deck. He intended to enjoy the trip.

Watson was coming up on 50 years old. This was a chance, maybe his last, to prove himself at sea.

For Watson, it was no small thing to run into a friend from Tokyo. Japan was Watson’s last posting before taking command of Squadron 11. His time there may have been the most successful of his career. Decades later, a colleague called Watson “one of the most likable and dynamic, intelligent and alert naval attachés we have had in any country.”

Watson arrived in Tokyo in 1919 with orders to monitor the country’s designs on expansion. Japan had been making strides toward imperialism, and Washington was determined to maintain U.S. influence around the world after the war. Watson’s predecessor left him with very little in the way of intel, forcing him to start with next to nothing. But after hosting parties for his Japanese counterparts, Watson discovered that he had a knack for eliciting information. His technique, as later described by an underling, was “telling them too much so that they could learn too little.” Japanese officers found Watson’s chattiness mystifying, and disarming. He produced memos full of policy insights—many of which proved especially useful leading up to an international disarmament conference Japanese officials attended in Washington in late 1921. And he exposed attempts by the Japanese to bribe Navy officers for information.

Watson was making a name for himself for the first time, excelling at a game his father, the illustrious Civil War hero, had never played—a modern, 20th-century pastime, built for an age of global politics. Beyond his canny way with people, Watson also had a knack for seeing around corners. He insisted that the U.S. counter Japan’s efforts to control the Pacific, and when Washington failed to follow some of his recommendations, he issued a dire prophecy. “If we know the minute details of Japanese plans for aggression,” Watson said in 1922, “we are in a position to thwart them while they are still in the planning stage… Otherwise we shall one day be confronted with a surprise that will hit us right between the eyes.”

Watson seemed well positioned for the life of a diplomat, proto-spy, and statesman. All that ended abruptly when he received a promotion to command a squadron of destroyers. His career lurched back onto a familiar track—his father’s trajectory, the family business. Not without some regret, he returned home. Watson was coming up on 50 years old. This was a chance, maybe his last, to prove himself at sea.

Now Watson’s two paths were converging, or at least bumping up against each other for a day. At the very moment he was called upon to show his stuff as a naval commander, he also had the chance to catch up with a trusted colleague from his time in the Far East. The timing was even more welcome given how, just a week earlier, Japan had experienced a once-in-a-lifetime catastrophe. The great Kanto earthquake—even today the most lethal natural disaster by far in the nation’s history—had laid waste to much of Yokohama and Tokyo, followed by typhoon-fueled fires and powerful tsunamis. More than 100,000 deaths were estimated, and Tokyo was under martial law. Many around the world, Watson included, were anxious to hear what had been destroyed, how many lives lost. On the water, he and Dooman would have time to talk about it all.

2.

Patches of sun broke through the San Francisco fog on the morning of Saturday, September 8, as Watson’s ships set off down the coast. Fourteen of the squadron’s destroyers would take part in the exercise, divided into three divisions, with Watson aboard the Delphy in front. The Delphy would handle navigation for all the ships. The others would follow the leader, just like many great Navy squadrons before them, including Farragut’s in Mobile Bay.

They hit a wall of haze at 8 a.m., but the gunnery exercises took place as scheduled. At 11:30 a.m., the crew of the Delphy spotted a lighthouse at Pigeon Point, one of several shore locations ships used for a visual fix. All seemed well. But this would be the last time that day anyone would be able to see land.

The weather was changing—first fog, then more haze. For the rest of the afternoon, the Delphy’s crew used dead reckoning to estimate its position. Lieutenant Commander Donald T. Hunter, the Delphy’s skipper, had taught navigation for two years at the Naval Academy. The California shoreline did not present much of a challenge. Based on the ship’s estimated speed of 20 knots and the typical currents, Hunter, working alongside the ship’s navigator, Lieutenant Laurence Blodgett, calculated their location and continued hurtling down the coast.

But a few hours passed and still no visibility. The Delphy had one more tool to assist with navigation: a radio device that allowed ships to request compass bearings from shore stations. Radio direction finding, or RDF, was still in its infancy—it would be the precursor to radar, which wouldn’t come to ships for more than a decade—but the technology had been a great help during the war, detecting the location of German submarines when they surfaced to send wireless transmissions. After the war, RDF had been slow to catch on. While a number of lighthouses up and down the East and West Coast were equipped with it, ships like the Delphy had only a clunky-looking circular antenna on board. Upon request, a lighthouse worker would use an RDF device to send a signal to the ship’s antenna, then contact the ship by traditional radio to provide a compass reading. If a lighthouse was, say, due east from a ship, a navigator could use that reading to calculate the ship’s position. The system was far from ideal. There was, in fact, no way to tell which side of the looped antenna the station had detected, which meant that every reading came with an opposite possible “reciprocal” bearing. A bearing of due east sometimes really meant due west; it was up to the navigator to discern which was most likely correct.

To many seasoned Navy officers, RDF seemed almost foolish. What navigator worth his salt would trust dubious readings from a lighthouse jockey and a loop of wire over his own calculations? Hunter, who’d once famously made his way into an Alaskan port through a blinding fog, usually had little use for RDF. But three hours was a long time to go without seeing anything, so at 2:15 p.m. Hunter had his crew contact the only RDF-equipped station along the route—the lighthouse at Point Arguello, at the edge of the rugged coast that jutted out 80 miles northwest of Santa Barbara.

A radioman at the lighthouse sent back a compass reading: 167 degrees. This suggested that the ship had already passed Point Arguello, which was obviously wrong; they hadn’t been on the water nearly long enough. Hunter asked for a repeat bearing and got a similar reading. Meanwhile, the crew still weren’t able to see anything on the shore to confirm their position. When Blodgett, Hunter’s second-in-command, suggested moving closer to the coast to improve visibility, Hunter said no—that would force them to slow down and scuttle the squadron’s speed exercise. Instead, Hunter questioned the lighthouse radioman, radioing back that they were north of Point Arguello. The radioman supplied the reciprocal reading. That seemed to produce reasonable verification that they were where they thought they were.

For consequential calls like this one, Hunter turned to Watson, his commander, for approval. For much of the day, Watson had stayed off the bridge; by at least one account, he’d spent that time in his quarters, in conversation with Dooman, stepping out every hour or so to sign off on Hunter’s decisions. Watson agreed with his captain that they were where dead reckoning placed them—that the RDF had to be wrong. They continued on, the Delphy in front, 13 destroyers following. But their location on the route was hardly a trivial concern. Point Arguello marked the spot where Watson’s ships needed to turn left into the Santa Barbara Channel. If they turned too soon, they risked running headlong into Honda Point.

Everyone on the ships knew about Honda Point—a hook of land jutting out from the coast a few miles north of the entrance of the Santa Barbara Channel. The shore along Honda Point is made up of sharp igneous rock and steep bluffs with few beaches. The waves are relentless, and boulders and reefs lurk below the waterline like booby traps. Its original name, Point Pedernales, was from the Spanish como un pedernal, or “like flint.” Some referred to it as the Devil’s Jaw.

Then, as if to demonstrate the hazards ahead of them, news came of a crisis in the channel. Another vessel—not a Navy ship, but a steamer called the Cuba—had run aground that morning in the fog along the rocky shore of San Miguel Island, at the channel’s southern boundary. The Cuba had been full of passengers; a hundred people were floating in lifeboats or had already made it to shore. One of Watson’s division commanders, Walter G. Roper, aboard the destroyer Kennedy, asked to join the relief efforts.

Watson refused. The squadron had its orders, and another ship had already been sent to the Cuba’s aid. Watson thought it best to stay out of the way of the rescue operation, along with the rocks where the Cuba ran aground. He and Roper argued about it over the squadron’s party line—which meant that other crew members on Roper’s ship heard the exchange—and finally Roper relented.

For generations, the Navy had allowed its commanders extraordinary leeway in decision-making. It was standard procedure not to second-guess the man in charge. This was the ethos Watson grew up with, his father’s credo. He believed that his squadron needed him to lead, especially as the weather got worse—fog, rain, buckling waves, and the coast nowhere in sight.

One of Watson’s ships, the John Francis Burnes, had dropped out of the exercise with a boiler problem. That was unfortunate, but for Hunter and Watson it was no reason for the rest of the squadron to slow down. At 4:27 p.m., with the fog even thicker, Watson ordered the remaining destroyers to assume a column formation, each boat following the one in front by sight, with just a few dozen yards between them.

At 5 p.m. the sun came out briefly, but Hunter still couldn’t make out the horizon through the haze. Watson’s column of ships continued on for three more hours, unable to tell exactly where they were, yet confident they were far enough south of Honda Point.

The clock was ticking: To wait any longer would risk the ship hitting the far side of the channel.

At 8:35 p.m., the Delphy received another compass reading from the Point Arguello lighthouse. This time it placed them well north of the channel entrance. Watson, summoned to the bridge after dining with Dooman, couldn’t believe it. How could they have traveled all day and still be so far from the channel?

The more Watson thought it over, the less he trusted RDF. They were again faced with a choice: trust the new technology, or trust dead reckoning. And once again, they had a solution available to them that made sense of the confusing information they’d received: the reciprocal compass reading. When they flipped the RDF compass point, yet again the Delphy was where dead reckoning placed it. Problem solved, it seemed.

The Delphy’s navigator, Blodgett, knew that there was another tool they could use to make sure the ship had reached the channel: a fathometer, which measures depth. A shallow reading would mean the Delphy was too close to the coast to safely turn. Blodgett wanted to do a depth sounding. Hunter said it wasn’t necessary. And of course, to do a sounding they’d have to slow down.

Watson affirmed Hunter’s conclusion. He agreed that they had passed Point Arguello. This meant that the clock was ticking: To wait any longer would risk the ship hitting the far side of the channel, repeating the Cuba’s mistake. And so at 8:45 p.m., the Delphy laid plans for a 55-degree course change to port—a left turn, straight into the channel. Watson returned to his quarters.

From the bridge, Hunter could see the lights of ten or more ships behind him in the dark. Maybe visibility wasn’t so bad after all? But then, just after the turn, the Delphy plunged once again into a thick fog bank. The men on board couldn’t see a thing.

Two boats behind the Delphy on the Young, William Calhoun still couldn’t make out the lights from Point Arguello. Perhaps the fog was too thick, or the Young too far from shore? But he did see the lights of the Delphy and the S.P. Lee, just ahead, and some of the other ships behind. So he continued to follow the leader.

Then came a jolt to the ship—not so much heard as felt, a slight trembling in the hull. At once, Calhoun thought they’d been rammed, but by what? He rushed to the bridge just in time for a second jolt. There was nothing slight about this one. The Young’s navigator had lurched out of the formation—technically the correct reaction for a ship running aground—only to slam into something harder.

Right away the Young started to list, its engine room filling with water through a gash in the hull. It took just seconds for the entire destroyer to lean about 30 degrees. Then the power went out. Between the darkness and the fog, no one could see a thing. By the time Calhoun ordered his executive officer, Lieutenant Eugene Herzinger, to pass the word to stand by to abandon ship, the ship was listing nearly 45 degrees. This meant that the lifeboats were no longer an option—they were completely submerged.

Calhoun was left with one narrow hope: that the Young could somehow settle against whatever it was they’d rammed into and avoid sinking entirely.

He crawled up to the ship’s port side, which had now risen out of the water. The hull was coated in oil, and so slick that the crew that made it up there before him now had nothing to hang on to. Some had fallen into the water, and there seemed to be no way of helping them. To follow them in would doom them all.

And so Calhoun retracted his own order to stand by to abandon ship and told everyone around him to spread the word to gather on the port side, and above all not to jump into the water. “Don’t leave her—she is on the rocks!” Calhoun cried. “She can’t sink. Stick and you’ll be saved!”

On the Delphy, Dooman was with Watson in the captain’s quarters when a noise came from beneath the ship. That scrape of metal against rock was unmistakable. Even he, a civilian, knew that they had hit bottom.

Then came the crash. The ship lurched, sending both Dooman and Watson toppling and shattering the glass of the portholes. Dooman was thrown against the window at his back. Drawers jumped out of cabinets, papers flew, everything not nailed down was suddenly somewhere else. Without a word Watson dashed to the bridge, leaving Dooman alone.

The bridge was in chaos. As far as Watson and Hunter were concerned, there was only one possibility: They’d gone too far ahead, hitting the same spot that claimed the Cuba, San Miguel Island. They’d soon learn how wrong they were. But in that moment, Watson ordered two radio messages to the other ships: “keep clear to the westward” and “nine turn”—turn to port, where he thought the others could still get to the channel.

The collision with the rocks had sent the bow of the Delphy high into the air. Waves swung the ship around so that it was now astride the beach, braced against a series of rock outcroppings. Each new surge sent the vessel into spasms, quickly rupturing the hull. Down-the-line ships had followed the Delphy’s lead. The S.P. Lee swung around to the side of the shore and halted. The Young was next, lurching sideways and sinking; it smashed into the shore just moments before the Delphy and was almost gone. Watson could only guess what was in store for the other ships—maybe the rocky shore would claim them all.

There was a more immediate concern, however. The waves slamming the Delphy repeatedly into the rocks had caused the fuel tanks to rupture. Hunter knew that the oil burners were still operational, making a boiler explosion all but imminent. He shut the master fuel valve from the bridge and ordered all crew in the engine room and the steaming fire rooms to lift the safety valves before coming up. By then the ship was pounding the rocks so violently that Hunter knew it was only a matter of time before it broke up and sank.

That was when Hunter asked Watson for permission to give the abandon ship order. Watson was quick to agree. But abandon for what? Oil from the Delphy was gushing into the surrounding water. The sea was a thick stew, with a five-inch slick on the surface, making swimming near impossible.

The men on the top deck with Hunter were desperate to get off the ship.

Back in Watson’s quarters, Dooman could hear the ship’s siren. He ran out on deck in time to see the Delphy’s searchlight beaming the water. He saw another ship crash, then another. He heard sirens and saw searchlights from those, too—ship after ship—and knew there had to be more behind them.

With men rushing everywhere and sirens wailing, a thought gripped Dooman: the silver. He stopped an officer, who told him that the lower part of the Delphy had flooded; this included the guest cabin where Dooman was staying. In any case, the silver was too heavy to carry if he needed to swim to safety. Dooman hurried back to Watson’s cabin. He sat down and waited, unsure of what to do next, or if he’d been forgotten completely.

The men on the top deck with Hunter were desperate to get off the ship. Some of the crew had braved the sludgy water and made it to an outcropping about 15 feet from shore; others became mired in the water, only to be pulled back onto the Delphy. Blodgett worked to set up a rope the men could use as a guide to the outcropping. Not everyone made it: Fireman Third Class James W. H. Conway and Cabin Cook Sofronio Dalida both died in the water.

Worst of all was the slow-motion tragedy of Fireman J. T. Pearson, who leapt overboard to help save three men in the water, shattered his glasses, and was blinded by the shards. Pearson cried for help and was pulled back aboard the Delphy. He was hysterical with pain and panic, and had taken in so much seawater and fuel that he fell to the deck. Blodgett held a flashlight as a pharmacist’s mate worked to remove the glass from Pearson’s eyes, to no avail. The ship was slick with oil, and equipment was flying everywhere, making it impossible to get Pearson onto a raft without endangering more lives.

Left with no other choice, Blodgett ordered a radioman to lash Pearson to the Delphy’s searchlight tower—what appeared to be a safe place amidships, forward of where the waves were breaking over the hull. They used a signal line that was tight enough to secure him, but not so tight that he couldn’t free himself if he regained his faculties.

The plan was to come back and evacuate him; that never happened. The waves raged into the night as, from the shore, the men of the Delphy could hear his repeated screams.

Calhoun didn’t know how long he had before the Young would sink. The ship had tilted fully onto its side in practically no time at all; Calhoun later put it at just 90 seconds from the moment they ran aground. Now his ship was sliced open on the starboard side, with just two feet of the port side still above the surface of the water.

With the port side now the Young’s deck, some 80 men gripped the smashed portholes of the ship’s hull. Many were barefoot and wore what they’d gone to sleep in; some were tied to one another with lines. They waited for rescue as the waves crashed against the ship.

Calhoun knew that he hadn’t time for his men to put on life preservers and file into lifeboats: Like Hunter on the Delphy, he was aware that the active burners could explode the boiler, igniting the oil in the water around them. He asked for a volunteer to extinguish the burners. Fireman I.T. Scott came forward, then rushed below.

Minutes passed and Scott didn’t return. Had he cut the boiler? Did he escape the ship? Calhoun had no way to know for sure.

Calhoun’s executive officer, Gene Herzinger, and Chief Boatswain’s Mate Arthur Peterson climbed up and out from a bridge window. Peterson found an axe and smashed the portholes, providing the crew with handholds as the sea inundated the deck. They were 100 yards from shore, too far to risk swimming amid the oily waves and jagged rocks.

Or was it? Peterson wanted to try. He grabbed a life preserver and some rope and volunteered to swim for a large rock nearby. If he could reach that spot with the line, the other men could use it to get there, too, and they’d be that much closer to shore.

They were working through a plan when the Chauncey came into view. Calhoun nearly panicked. All it would take was one strong wake to shove the Young off its perch on the rock. The Chauncey got close enough to hear the Young’s crew—Calhoun loudest of them all—shouting not to collide with their sinking ship.

The ship slammed into the tiny craft, threatening to crash on top of them.

The Delphy’s lights went out. Alone in Watson’s quarters, Dooman couldn’t see a thing. He’d have no choice but to abandon the valise. Dooman returned to the deck, frightened but also appalled to have been forgotten.

The ship was low in the sea, and water swamped the deck. Dooman saw some of the crew at the stern, which appeared to be angled higher than the rest of the ship. Higher seemed safer, so he made his way in that direction, pulling himself along by the torpedo rails as waves smashed the deck. When Dooman arrived at the back of the Delphy, he saw that the men had run a line between the ship and a large rock 40 feet from shore. He also saw how dangerous it was—some who’d attempted the crossing had been flung into the water—and he was afraid to risk his life.

Dooman decided to run back to the front of the ship, until an officer shined a flashlight in his face. “You’re the passenger,” the officer said. It seemed that Dooman hadn’t been forgotten after all. He asked the man for help, and with the help of another sailor they found a raft stored on deck. They threw it over the side and jumped in, only to realize that it remained lashed to the Delphy. They were stuck. The ship slammed into the tiny craft, threatening to crash on top of them.

Dooman had a small penknife attached to his watch chain. He handed it to the sailor, who hacked through the line. With some effort, the raft made it over the waves to the rock. From there they were able to walk to land when the tide receded. One by one, Dooman and the others reached safety.

Watson finally made it across the line at 11 p.m. With one exception—Lieutenant Pearson, blinded and lashed to the rigging of a capsized, disintegrating vessel—the captain was the last to leave his ship.

The Chauncey threw all its power into reverse, but it was stuck with competing mandates—to avoid a collision with the Young, and to avoid the cliffs of Honda Point. In the end it hit the Young: The undertow hurled the Chauncey’s stern up against the destroyer’s port propeller blades, which ripped into the Chauncey’s starboard hull.

Water gushed into the engine room, the ship lost power, and, in a final insult, a wave slammed the Chauncey onto a reef. Lieutenant Commander Richard H. Booth sent down an order to stand by to abandon ship and, like Hunter and Calhoun before him, began weighing strategies to get his crew to shore alive. Perversely, the collision was good news for the Young. Once the Chauncey was firmly stuck on the same reef, it shielded Calhoun’s ship from some of the most turbulent waves.

Better still, the Chauncey was fairly close to shore—about 25 yards—and was no longer at risk of sinking. Now all the crew of the Young needed to do was get to the Chauncey, which was about 75 yards away. Members of the Chauncey’s crew succeeded in dragging a pair of lines ashore and setting up as many rafts to ferry the men through the oily waves.

Once ashore, the survivors climbed a steep cliff to reach the mainland. A radioman on the Chauncey named Frederick Fish later remembered finding an unconscious crew member of the Young in the water and bringing him to land. Men from the Delphy were there as well, Fish recalled—“walking about in a dreamlike daze, stumbling and falling, cutting their hands and bare feet on the jagged edges of the cliff.”

Looking out at the water, Fish could see the Delphy smashed against a rock and observed its crew shuttle as many men to shore as possible. Before long, Fish heard “the cries for help of an injured man who was lashed there.” That was Pearson. Blodgett from the Delphy was on shore, and he told Fish what had happened—how Pearson was blinded and strapped to the hull of the Delphy. “His calls kept up through the night, and they still ring in my brain,” Fish recalled. “To hear a fellow creature calling for help and not be able to relieve him is the crudest torture possible to man.”

“Had he lost his hold,” Calhoun recalled, “he would have been in fuel oil and an angry sea, and would undoubtedly have lost his life.”

On the Young, holding fast to its sinking hull, all the remaining men could do was look on as the crew of the Chauncey worked to save themselves before setting up a line for the other ship. Finally, someone decided not to wait any longer. Peterson, the chief boatswain’s mate, had planned to swim for the rock between the Young and the shore before the Chauncey arrived. Now he was ready to swim to the Chauncey.

Peterson took three lengths of line totaling more than 100 yards, found a doughnut-shaped buoy, fastened the line to it, and slipped the buoy over his head. On Calhoun’s order, he dove into the frigid water and made it to the Chauncey in a matter of minutes. A crew member recalled hearing Calhoun shout that a swimmer was coming their way. Once Peterson had been lifted aboard the Chauncey, Herzinger followed using Peterson’s line. “Had he lost his hold,” Calhoun recalled, “he would have been in fuel oil and an angry sea, and would undoubtedly have lost his life.”

After Herzinger made it across, the Chauncey sent back a seven-man raft. Evacuations commenced—four men on the first raft, eight on the second, ten on the others. It took 11 crossings to get everyone who could be found off the Young. Calhoun made one last inspection before boarding the final raft. “I want to state that Providence put the Chauncey ashore in that place,” Calhoun later said. “It is absolutely certain in my mind that the loss of the Chauncey saved half of the crew of my ship or more.”

There was one additional consolation: Fireman Scott, who had volunteered to shut down the Young’s boiler, finally reappeared at about 10:30 p.m., when the lighthouse keepers on shore heard cries for help from the bottom of the bluffs—five surviving sailors, including Scott. He’d made it off the Young and into the water but was unconscious, and when he awoke he clung to a piece of flotsam; he’d floated for an hour before being hauled aboard a raft.

Calhoun knew that not everyone from his ship had made it. He wondered how many still flailed in the oil-coated water. And the engine- and fire-room crews deep inside the ship: had they been trapped down below, or were they pulled out by the undertow as the ship rolled? Those men—his men—had been 150 yards from shore with no way out of the ship.

On shore, when Herzinger mentioned to Calhoun that the losses were great, as many as 20 or 30 sailors, the young captain’s response was grave: “My God, I know—but we will not discuss it now.”

The rescue efforts were just getting underway as the remaining ships neared Honda Point, still following the leader. For some it was too late to change course. One after another, they smashed into the shore—a seven-ship pileup on the California coast—hitting rocks, reefs, and, in some cases, one another.

The officers of the Woodbury saw lights ahead of the other ships and assumed a man was overboard. They reversed engines, but not soon enough to avoid ramming a large boulder.

The Nicholas struck a reef, and the pounding surf spun the boat until it pointed out to sea. The oil, the rocks, and the darkness made lowering rafts impossible; the men had to wait all night for a lifeline from shore.

Then came the Farragut, named for the great Civil War hero. Lieutenant Commander J. F. McClain ordered a full stop, but reversing the engines doused the ship’s lights. Suddenly, it was dark again, and the Fuller, next in the squadron line, collided with the Farragut before hitting a pinnacle rock—the same one that had claimed the Woodbury.

The ships at the back of Watson’s column, the Percival and the Somers, had time and space enough to change course. The last division—the Paul Hamilton, the Stoddert, and the Thompson—never took the turn into the channel.

Along the shore, an entire community was mobilizing to help rescue the sailors still in the water. The ships’ sirens had woken nearby residents, who loaded their cars with blankets, hot coffee, and food, and rushed to the steep bluff. A fishing captain, Giacomo Noceti, bravely ferried his boat to the edge of the rocks and retrieved some 150 men with lines. A nearby rail station became a headquarters for relief workers, who brought aid in and shipped rescued sailors out. A passing train took the injured to Santa Barbara hospitals, and later that day another transported 38 officers and 517 enlisted men to the naval base in San Diego.

The Delphy snapped in two just five minutes after everyone except Pearson had evacuated. The ship’s searchlight tower leaned farther over with each barrage of waves, until it dragged the rest of the ship over and down. The section of the deck where Pearson had been tied up was pulled into the ocean. He was one of the Delphy’s three casualties that night.

How many were lost from the rest of the fleet wouldn’t be known for hours. Through it all, Watson checked on the injured, organized search parties, tallied his men, and reported back to naval headquarters. By morning, he was preparing to send salvage parties back to the ships and arranging for the care of survivors. Even Calhoun, grappling with unspeakable losses, would later praise the commander, stating, “I only hope that if ever I am faced with the tragedy that faced him that night, I’ll be half the man that he was: cool, calm, courageous, and thoughtful; never missing an opportunity to aid.” But in idle moments, alone with his thoughts, Watson seemed to Dooman years older.

When a search party returned with the body of Fireman Conway, who had fallen from a rescue line into the water, Watson approached the stretcher. He raised the blanket and looked down on Conway for a long moment. Then, silently, the captain unbuckled the sword he wore and laid it beside the body.

Was he thinking about all the men—some 300 or so, as he estimated early on—who might be dead because of the decision he’d signed off on?

Was he thinking about his friend Dooman, there only because of his invitation? Or his daughter, who’d been promised a spot, and how lucky it was she hadn’t been aboard?

Was he thinking about his wider family? His father and the legacy of the Watsons, that night on the Hartford in 1864 and Captain Farragut’s cry of “Damn the torpedoes!”? Did he sense any connection between that historic moment and his decision to push forward at all costs?

There would be time for him to mull these questions—to sift through everything that had happened—later on that night, in the weeks and months to come, and for the rest of his life.

3.

In the space of just ten minutes, the Navy lost more ships than it had during all of World War I. Seven destroyers ran aground, one after another, each with more than 100 men aboard. Some of them split in two on the rocks. They collided with one another. They hemorrhaged oil—some 300,000 gallons covering 800 acres.

Twenty-three sailors lost their lives: three on the Delphy, twenty on the Young. A miracle by some measures, a debacle by others. Of the men trapped inside the Young, most probably fought through smoke and gas, darkness and freezing water. None made it to shore. Those who didn’t drown immediately were caught in the ebbing tide and sucked out to sea.

The disaster was front-page news around the country. Some 10,000 people turned up for a memorial service in San Diego. A week later, hundreds of visitors from Santa Maria, Santa Barbara, and other nearby towns flocked to the cliffs above Honda Point to view the wreckage. Demand to visit the scene was so high that a special train was provided on Sunday. Many packed a lunch and remained on the bluffs all day.

The day after the disaster, Navy secretary Edwin Denby seized on the great Kanto earthquake as the explanation. It was because of the quake, he suggested—an act of God, with unthinkable ramifications an ocean away—that nothing went as planned on the water that day. It explained why the ships never really reached 20 knots. Usually, the current pushed ships south; on that day it pushed them north. “One of the destroyers was broken in two, and it seems as if she was carried bodily up and dropped,” Denby marveled.

Others blamed technology: that infuriating RDF, sending good sailors astray, undermining their expertise. “The theory was advanced by mariners,” The Washington Post reported, “that the compass bearings taken from a nearby shore station as guidance through the fog, had been transmitted erroneously.”

Yet to some the weather and the obscure compass readings only explained so much. The Navy scheduled an inquiry for Monday, September 17. Depending on the outcome, the next step could involve court-martials. That left a week for the press to point fingers. “There has been a peculiar reluctance on the part of officers responsible for full and prompt reports of what happened,” a New York Times editorial declared. “For the honor of the United States Navy and for the good of the service those who were responsible should be made to suffer for it.”

Among those who might bear responsibility, Watson was an ideal target. Not only had he been the one in charge, but he offered a newspaper-ready narrative: an admiral’s son, wealthy and connected, now facing utter disgrace. Watson and the ship commanders hunkered in San Diego, awaiting the inquiry in silence. Those close to Watson encouraged him to try and stop what was coming. His brother Loyall urged him to stand firm and defend himself. His brother-in-law, Clifford Gratz, wanted to leverage his family’s relationship with the Rockefellers to spare Watson and help stave off any embarrassment to the family. Naval Academy friends worked back channels, pleading for leniency. 

But there was one person whose opinion mattered more than any other. On September 16, retired rear admiral John Crittenden Watson, then 80 and in fragile health, wrote to his son from his home in Washington, D.C. “I knew the saving of all the lives possible would be the greatest comfort to you and our dear Hermine,” the elder Watson wrote. “Like both of you, our thought is that you were able to save not only your own life but to assist others.”

With its measured tone, the admiral’s letter spoke volumes. There was no assurance of his son’s guiltlessness—no proclamation that, faced with the day’s beguiling circumstances, he would have acted the same. The message was clear: A man’s fate mattered less than his reputation. The family’s honor rested with Watson now.

This was a search for scapegoats—but should the ships’ commanders have expected anything different?

Typically, Navy inquiries are confidential, as with a grand jury in a criminal case. But the press demanded that they be allowed to watch, and Denby relented. As the inquiry got underway, its public nature seemed more than anything to dictate what would become of Watson and his commanders. No one wished to give any impression that mercy would be shown to the men behind the worst peacetime disaster in Navy history.

Watson and his commanders wouldn’t be allowed to testify; as they were possible defendants in court-martial proceedings, anything they said could expose them to prosecution. Only one senior crew member of the Delphy was called to testify: Laurence Blodgett, Hunter’s second-in-command. “We were satisfied that the Arguello radio station was wrong,” Blodgett explained from the stand. “They kept giving our position north and to the west of Point Arguello, and when we could not make this check with our figures, we finally took the reciprocal of their bearings, which would show us already in the Santa Barbara Channel.” As soon as he finished, the prosecutor asked to add Blodgett to the defendant list too. His role in making navigation decisions transformed him, in the eyes of the court, from a bystander to a suspect. Off the stand he went; the defense never had a chance to cross-examine him.

This was a search for scapegoats—but should the ships’ commanders have expected anything different? Watson at least was desperate to have his say. Just days after the worst possible thing that could have happened on his watch came to pass, he was staring down what he considered another disaster. The men under his command—the ones who’d followed his lead—were about to lose their reputations and livelihoods. This could be why, on the inquiry’s second day, Watson made his first public comments about Honda Point. “The responsibility for the course of the destroyer squadron was mine, a responsibility which I fully realized,” he told a reporter for a news service, whose story would appear in papers around the country in the days to come. “But that decision was based upon 33 years of experience in the Navy, and made after due consideration of reports of our position from the Point Arguello radio station, which were confusing.”

It was part mea culpa, part dogged display. Watson continued on like this, switching from accepting blame to explaining why, given the weather and the cryptic RDF readings, anyone in his position would have done the same thing. “The condition of visibility, remember, was such that we were unable to get our true position from the stars. We were compelled to rely upon the radio station. I asked for our bearings repeatedly. From about 6:30 until 8 o’clock p.m., that most vital period in our lives, we were unable to get radio bearings from the station. I accept that responsibility. I made a naval officer’s decision. I was content the radio station was wrong. And that is why I gave the order.”

On September 22, Watson issued a similar statement to the court of inquiry and to the press: “The Squadron Commander hopes the responsibility for this disaster, which he considers entirely his own, may not descend upon the able and loyal subordinates who supported him on all occasions.” Watson was sacrificing himself, throwing himself into the prosecution’s line of fire. He also asked the court to waive its rule barring potential defendants from testifying—in effect, making himself more vulnerable to court-martial so that he could have his say now.

The court granted Watson’s request, and he was permitted to take the stand on September 24. “The responsibility was mine,” he said. “I was convinced that the station was wrong. But they were right.”

The court of inquiry’s president, Rear Admiral William V. Pratt, attempted to pick apart this blanket admission. “Do you feel,” he asked Watson, “that you can assume all of the responsibility that at times must fall on the shoulders of your division commanders?”

“I have no desire to assume their responsibilities,” Watson replied. “I simply want to make clear that I assume all of my own.”

Edward Howe Watson

Watson braced himself for a public flogging. So perhaps he was as surprised as anyone when the opposite occurred. Almost overnight, the squadron commander transformed—in the eyes of the public, at least—from the incompetent scion of a naval legend to a paragon of selflessness and sacrifice. More than one newspaper editorial used the word “manliness” to describe what he’d done.

“Capt. Watson has given a splendid example of the finest attributes of character overcoming the elemental instinct of self-preservation,” the Army and Navy Journal declared, while the San Diego Sun waxed on about Watson’s “heroic” soul. “He waits for no court martial. He relies not on lawyers. He seeks no avenue of evasion. He resorts to no subterfuge. Lest the blame rest on some innocent man, he takes upon himself full responsibility for his actions.”

Others around the country joined the chorus, taking Watson’s testimony as their cue to examine what true leadership really meant. “The heroism of captain Watson is of a different type,” declared the Santa Monica Evening Gazette. “It manifests itself after deliberation; after the weighing of consequences.” And this from the San Francisco Chronicle: “From the moment the ship struck, his bearing and speech have been that of a most remarkable example of real manliness under the most distressing conditions which an officer in his position can ever meet.”

The goodwill seemed to play a part in Watson persuading the other officers named as defendants to join him in testifying, so that they also would have the chance to recount what had happened that night. This was no small thing: By opening themselves to prosecution, these officers had to have faith that Watson’s contrition would reflect well on them. Admiral Pratt called their decision to testify “worthy of the best traditions of the Navy.” 

When the Delphy’s skipper, Hunter, testified, he also made sure to blame the technology, as Watson had. “I’ll have to admit that it was an error in judgment,” he testified. “But as contributing causes I believe … the fact that a bilateral radio compass is used there were partly responsible.” Hunter also floated the “possibility” that “abnormal currents caused by the Japanese earthquake” contributed to the problem. In response, the lieutenant commander in charge of the Point Arguello lighthouse took the stand, defending his compass bearings that night. In fact, the readings had been within a few degrees of accuracy the whole time, even if one of them had required a reciprocal adjustment.

Many of Watson’s other commanders said that they weren’t responsible for what had happened because they’d been duty-bound to follow the Delphy’s lead. The Navy’s sacred adherence to chain of command suddenly was on trial, too. Robert Morris, the commander of the division of ships immediately astern of the Delphy, said that they “could not possibly be held culpable in carrying out the destroyer doctrine of following their leader.” Rear Admiral Pratt asked Morris, “Does seniority take the place of common sense?” Morris replied, “They are supposed to be synonymous.”

Not every skipper had hewed so tightly to that edict. Thomas A. Symington of the Thompson, the last ship in line, said that once he’d noticed the confusion of lights and sirens ahead, he slowed down to take soundings. Leslie Bratton of the Stoddert said that he’d opted to violate the no-navigation order and asked the lighthouse for radio bearings himself, then steered his ship away in time to avoid disaster. Hardy B. Page, navigator of the Hamilton, said that he’d suspected there was a problem ahead and advised his commanding officer to get word to the division commander—a decision that helped the division’s three ships escape intact.

Finally, the board heard from Walter Roper—the division commander who a few hours before the disaster had jousted with Watson by radio about helping the Cuba. Roper was as flinty on the stand as he’d been that night on the water. “I’m not a desk man. My experience comes from hard knocks,” he said, a jab at Watson’s lack of experience and Hunter’s academy training. “There are too many book-learned and not enough practical men running the Navy.” In Roper’s view, those on the Delphy should never have assumed that the ship really was going 20 knots in such choppy water. The error, he said, was in putting “too much reliance on computation of speed by propeller revolutions.” In his experience, he said, he’d seen propellers indicate 20 knots when the ship was in fact going only 12.

Roper made a point of saying that he would have heeded the lighthouse. “I have gone into the most dangerous harbors in the world through impenetrable fogs, guided almost wholly by radio compass,” he said. His division had never turned left, he testified, because he never came close to trusting the Delphy. “I was positive we had not passed Point Arguello. I did not know the forward ships were turning. Could I have seen them, I would not have followed, but instead would have tried to stop them. My motto is ‘Never try to turn a corner until you have passed.’ ”

Rear Admiral Pratt asked Roper if he would have turned left had he been on the ship behind the Delphy. “Of course I would not,” Roper said. “ ‘Follow the leader’ is all right, but it should be tempered with common sense. When I was a boy, our leader once jumped off a barn. I stayed put—and walked down to pick him up. He had a broken leg.” The room erupted with laughter.

But the fact remained that Roper failed to speak up against Watson at the time. Had he been stinging from their quarrel over the Cuba? If he’d said something—one of many ifs that night—might the entire disaster have been avoided, and 23 lives spared?

“I am ready and anxious to take my medicine,” Watson said. “I don’t want an acquittal.”

On October 12, the court of inquiry made its determination. Never mind the weather and the radio; the Honda Point disaster, the court ruled, was the result of “bad errors and faulty navigation.” Faced with so much uncertainty, the ships should have slowed down to take depth soundings. Following the leader may have been a Navy tradition, but it shouldn’t trump reason.

Eleven officers were recommended for court-martial. Watson, Hunter, and Blodgett were charged with “culpable inefficiency and negligence,” and eight others with simple negligence. But the court seemed gripped by contradictory impulses. It issued a letter to Calhoun, the Young’s commander, commending him “for coolness, intelligence, and seamanlike ability,” and to Walter D. Seed, of the Fuller, for “great bravery in swimming … about seventy five yards, through a rough and turbulent sea … for the salvage of the crew.” Yet both also faced charges of negligence.

The court-martial proceedings took place in rapid succession during the month of November. All eyes remained on Watson. Would his penitence spare the others? On November 7, Watson doubled down with another public statement. “I am ready and anxious to take my medicine. I don’t want an acquittal. For me to be acquitted by this court would be bad for the naval service, to which both my father and myself have devoted our lives.”

Calhoun, at his trial, went out of his way to commend Watson. He testified that in his opinion no power on earth could have saved the Young and the other ships after the Delphy ran aground. Calhoun insisted that he had no reason to suspect the Delphy of any errors, and testified that he and the Young’s crew would not have done anything differently had they been at the front of the line—except perhaps take soundings.

Watson reciprocated as a witness at Calhoun’s trial. “Every man of the crew of the Young owes his life solely and entirely to Commander Calhoun,” he testified.

In his summation speech in Watson’s trial, Watson’s lawyer, Thomas T. Craven, noted how, at Honda Point, “fate was indeed stern upon this occasion.” If the Delphy had continued south for just a few more minutes before turning, the entire column of ships would have cleared the rocks. If they’d turned a few minutes sooner, the coast would have been more forgiving, resulting in less damage and fewer lives lost. How many Navy men, Craven asked, had made similarly small missteps and escaped the hand of fate? Watson, he suggested, was a victim of bad luck.

Calhoun was acquitted after 40 minutes of deliberation. Blodgett, the Delphy’s navigator, was also acquitted, as were seven other defendants. There were just two convictions: Edward Howe Watson and Donald T. Hunter would not escape official blame for what happened that night. But considering the scale of the catastrophe, their sentences were lighter than expected. Both Watson and Hunter were allowed to continue their military careers, but with lower ranking numbers, which virtually eliminated the possibility of promotion. Neither would command a ship again, but they would retain their ranks. And the careers of the other men would be saved.

“It is a very proper sentence,” Watson told reporters. “It is a fitting punishment. The loss of a few numbers could not be a sufficient punishment for an error as great as mine was. I am glad that the sentence is as severe as it is. It puts me very near the bottom of the list of captains, I guess. Needless to say, it does not make me happy.”

Watson had transformed from a villain to a hero with his admission in September. Now, in December, with his career intact, things changed again. Back Watson went, from hero to goat. Yet, by taking the blame, had Watson—no matter how gallant the gesture—simply given the Navy a smooth path toward putting the embarrassing episode behind it? And was the Navy now rewarding Watson for his contrition? After the loss of seven ships and 23 lives, how was it exactly that not one member of the Navy had lost their job?

“Just learned court-martial has been very lenient with everybody,” President Calvin Coolidge said. Navy Secretary Denby also made sure to grumble publicly that the “sentence in [Watson’s] case is inadequate.”

On December 29, the Army and Navy Journal reported, “The light sentence created almost as great a sensation at Washington as the disaster.”

Eugene Dooman’s escape from the scene at Honda Point occurred just before dawn after the wrecks, when a train to Los Angeles approached the local station where the relief efforts were headquartered. Watson told Dooman and a few others to board it. Hundreds of other men would be taking the San Diego train a few hours later. Dooman, like many in the squadron, was covered from head to foot with oil, so a conductor placed some newspapers on the seat, and off they went. In Los Angeles, Dooman was on his own again, delivered from the tragedy—and from the official narrative.

The available record from the court of inquiry and Watson’s court-martial includes just one mention of a civilian on the Delphy, but Dooman’s name never appears. In the years to come, as military and civilian historians researched the Honda Point disaster, the idea of a not-spoken-for witness to the disaster proved tantalizing. He was called the “mystery guest,” the “civilian,” the “phantom passenger.” Rumors circulated that he and Watson had been drinking that day (Watson and others denied this), or that Watson subsequently swore him to silence about what really went wrong that night. But while Dooman’s identity was never well publicized, it was never really secret either. In January 1924, he gave a long interview to an English-language paper in Japan, complimenting Watson’s performance on the night of the wreck and relating the tale of his own escape. Had the historians and writers seen that article, the mystery would have been solved.

After 30 years as a diplomat in Tokyo, Dooman came home to America after Pearl Harbor, retiring just a few years later, in 1945. It took until the 1960s for him to be located and asked about Honda Point. “I am not competent” to pass judgment on Watson’s decisions that day, he wrote one interlocutor in 1966. “That is to say, I cannot weigh the extenuating circumstances, but a disaster did occur and the man who made the decision had to assume responsibility.”

Dooman was asked why he was never called to testify in the inquiry, and what happened to the $3,000 in silver he’d brought on board. The answers, it turned out, were linked. The silver was sacrificed, Dooman wrote, in the name of discretion. The money had been found in the wreckage, he wrote, “but could not be claimed without the probability of being called as a witness in the court-martial, and Watson and his defense officer were afraid that my testimony might prove harmful to Watson, since I was with him when the ship struck.” By today’s standards, these actions would have constituted a cover-up. But every answer Dooman gave seemed to prompt more questions. Why had the Navy not asked him to testify? Did his job in the State Department play a part in that decision? Or was the Navy afraid that additional testimony from a civilian passenger would add yet more unwelcome intrigue to a debacle it wished would just go away?

Dooman wouldn’t say. But he and Watson remained friends for years. A few days after the disaster, Dooman explained, with the inquiry not yet begun, he’d paid a visit to Watson and his wife at their home in San Diego. (Some armchair historians, parsing the disaster’s themes of negligence and culpability, have gone so far as to wonder if the captain reimbursed Dooman his lost $3,000 in return for his discretion. If such a thing occurred, Dooman never mentioned it.) The Watsons would later visit Japan, in 1937, and dine with Dooman there. He curtly alluded to the price Watson paid for the tragedy, the toll it took on him. “After the disaster,” Dooman wrote, “he lost his zest for living and became very despondent.”

Just after the court-martial, Dooman wrote a letter to Watson, one of dozens sent by friends and well-wishers hoping to soften the blow. “Do you know what a splendid impression you have made on everybody,” the diplomat wrote from Washington, “not only those high in the Navy but the man in the street? I dined with Admiral Knight who said splendid things about you. I think you will appreciate even more, though, what I overheard in the cars the other day—‘Well,’ said one, ‘I don’t get this stuff about the compass, but as long as we have fellows in the Navy like this guy who took the blame we shouldn’t worry.’ ”

“There was nothing the fleet wanted that Uncle Bill wouldn’t get,” one commander would say.

William Calhoun was cleared of any blame for the Young’s tragedy; he was even commended for his cool demeanor during the rescue. But the loss of 20 men weighed heavily on him, and for a time it seemed foolish to assume that Calhoun would command a ship again. Eventually, however, his career righted itself. After serving on several ships, further instruction at the Naval War College, and a stint as an instructor at the Naval Academy, Calhoun returned to sea as commanding officer of the USS Rochester, and later the USS California. In 1938, he was promoted to rear admiral. The next year, he became commander of the Navy’s Pacific base in Honolulu and remained in that position through World War II. “There was nothing the fleet wanted that Uncle Bill wouldn’t get,” one commander would say.

Calhoun retired in 1946 a four-star admiral, after 44 years of active service. There was just one thing missing from his time at sea: He never saw battle. For that he’d be granted some satisfaction from the author James A. Michener, who’d been a lieutenant commander under Calhoun during the war. “Those of us who worked for Uncle Billy believed that he had played a major role in smothering the Japanese with matériel,” Michener wrote in his memoirs, “and the fighting admirals agreed.” In Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific—the Pulitzer Prize–winning basis for the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical—Calhoun is said to be the model for Millard Kester, a grounded admiral who finally gets to do battle at sea, leading an entire invasion force. And winning.

Calhoun died in 1963; he had married and was a grandfather many times over. In 1984, some 61 years after the disaster, a scuba diver and amateur treasure hunter exploring the California coast noticed something shiny on the ocean floor, churned up by a recent storm: a class ring from the Naval Academy. It didn’t take long to connect the ring to its deceased owner. The diver had hoped to make some money for a discovery from the site of the disaster. One collector offered him $1,500. Then a fellow diver let him know that Calhoun’s widow, Rosalie, was alive and living in Coronado, near San Diego. Her phone number was listed. He agreed to sell the ring to her for $400—the cost of the dive, he said.

Rosalie had never remarried. The ring, when the diver handed it over, stirred something in her. “It’s like part of him was brought back,” she said, filled with emotion for her lost husband.

On December 14, 1923, six days after Edward Howe Watson’s conviction in a Navy court-martial, his father, retired admiral John Crittenden Watson, died at 81. A fellow retired admiral, Colby M. Chester, wrote to the younger Watson that same day: “Your name was the last one uttered by your father, and I know how happy the Honda affair made him.” Happy that his son’s career was intact, perhaps. Or that the family name had, despite everything, retained some of its dignity. 

On January 10, 1924, Watson along with his wife and daughter moved to Honolulu, where he was stationed until his retirement five years later. In the 1930s, the Watsons lived in New York and then in Jamestown, Rhode Island, visiting Japan several times. In the years before World War II, Watson indulged his fascination with Japan, writing poems about historic Japanese figures. That other existence he might have led before Honda Point—the life of a sly and insightful Navy attaché, drawing out spies and supplying Washington with essential information about a potentially lethal foe—seemed to loom large for him.

In the late 1930s, Watson drafted a long policy memo about Japan to a friend at the Naval War College, still hoping someone would heed his warnings—“stuff that I have worked up during the past 5 years, since my retirement,” as he described it. “Perhaps it will help to save many hours to some fellow who is doing a bit of research work on the subject. Dispose of it as your judgment dictates. Either in the files or by burning.”

Watson died of heart disease in a Navy hospital on January 7, 1942, a month to the day after Pearl Harbor proved his point. His family later said that they thought the attack had hastened his death. Honda Point was not mentioned in any of his published obituaries.

Watson had pursued a life of significance, of honor. At Honda Point, the son emulated the father, following the traditions of leadership codified by an entire generation—and those same traditions contributed to the disaster. But after the worst happened, and the nation had judged him, he chose to preserve his character. In doing so, he acquired a different kind of significance, one he hadn’t expected.

In his papers, there is a letter from Watson’s father written on October 1, 1923, just after Watson had publicly accepted responsibility for the error that cost the Navy seven ships and 23 lives. In its tone, the letter was far warmer and more effusive than the one that had preceded it. “I cannot express in any words how proud we are of you and of your devoted wife,” the father wrote.

In the letter, Watson’s father offered his son a gift. He said that a relative of the late Admiral David Farragut had written to him “to express his confidence in you,” and sent along a precious keepsake: a makeshift tourniquet the elder Watson had made aboard the Hartford during the Civil War, “just as we were about to pass up the Mississippi by the Confederate batteries.”

Farragut had given this rag—a relic of John Crittenden’s most glorious moment in the Navy—to his own son “to use in case of a wound.” Now it seemed that someone else had a better use for it. “When I wrote him I know you would love to have it, he sent it to me,” Watson’s father wrote. “I will hold it for you until you come East. All of us join in ever much love to all three of you.”

And so Edward Howe Watson was offered a tourniquet—a message from father to son. His son was wounded and needed care. His son was worthy of greatness. His son was a Watson. And in court his son had not shirked from his duty to do what the father never had to do: go down with his ship.

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