Friday, December 16, 2005


Bruce, last known survivor of Point Honda shipwreck


Contra Costa Times
December 12, 2005

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 ashore 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 Los Angeles, 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, not far from the town of Lompoc.

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 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.

Within days, the Southern Pacific Railroad was running tourists to see where the destroyers were lost. Vendors sold postcards that showcased the catastrophe.

Fifty years after the crash, a memorial plaque fashioned out of an anchor recovered from one of the ships 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 sprung up to pay tribute to the victims and heroes of the disaster.

Bruce, who joined the Navy at 15, served for six more years after the accident.


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