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.
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 $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.
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.
Another chapter of history has been piped over the side. Adios, Mr. Bruce.