Robert Kolker| The Atavist Magazine |August 2023 | 1,183 words (5 minutes)

This is an excerpt from issue no. 142, “Dead Reckoning.”

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.

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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.