Hellfire and High Water
Thomas Calabrese — The Honda Point disaster was the largest peacetime loss of U.S. Navy ships in American history. It occurred on a foggy evening with limited visibility on September 8, 1923. A convoy of 14 Clemson-class destroyers were traveling at 20 knots on their way from San Francisco to San Diego when they ran aground, near the cliffs called Devil’s Jaw near Santa Barbara.
The ships were navigating by dead reckoning, estimating positions from their course and speed, as measured by propeller revolutions per minute. Their calculations were affected by unusual swells and currents which resulted from the 7.9 magnitude earthquake that struck the Tokyo-Yokohama area one week earlier on September 1, 1923.
DESRON 11 was performing an exercise that simulated wartime conditions, and Captain Watson wanted the squadron to make a fast passage to San Diego, so the decision was made to not slow down. Despite the inclement weather, Watson ordered all ships to travel in close formation so as his lead vessel went aground, the others were following too closely to make a course correction. Six ships sank and two captains, who disobeyed the close-formation order, managed to stay afloat, although they also hit the rocks.
The area of Honda Point is extremely treacherous for central California mariners, as it features a series of rocky outcroppings, collectively known as Woodbury Rocks (one of which is today named Destroyer Rock on navigational charts) The area has been a navigational hazard since the Spanish explorers first came in the 16th century.
Not many people know that Joe Ashton was aboard the USS Delphy. The following excerpts are a just a few of the exploits of this unique and patriotic American.
Joe Ashton was born in Petaluma, California on May 29, 1898. In his early teens, he began working as a lumberjack in the Sierras. As a diversion, rough and tumble loggers would organize boxing matches and bet on the outcome. Even though he weighed only 160 pounds and was fighting against men who were older several inches taller and sometimes as much as 50 pounds heavier, Joe managed to defeat every opponent. Using a combination of hand and foot speed, along with a powerful right hand, he managed to develop a reputation as a pugilist.
Boxing promoter, Bubba Gillespie approached Joe about turning pro, “I’ve seen you fight, kid. I like your style. You remind me of another fighter.”
“Who might that be?” Joe asked.
Bubba smiled, “Ever hear about Gentleman Jim Corbett?”
“I helped promote several of his fights. I think that you and I can make a lot of money together,” Bubba said, “Unless you like cutting trees too much?”
Between 1914 and 1916, Joe rose up the ranks to become a promising middleweight. He was called ‘Joltin’ Joe’ and the ‘Petaluma Pummeler’ and was on track for a title bout. His next fight would be against Jessie Ott and was going to be the biggest of his career. The winner would get a shot at champion, Shinbow Coltrane.
While on his way to meet Bubba and Gentlemen Jim Corbett at Frisco Franks’ Saloon on the Barbary Coast, Joe saw a saloon girl being assaulted by three men in an alley. He quickly intervened and severely beat the assailants. Only when the three men were lying on the ground, moaning in pain and pleading for mercy did Joe realize that he had a broken right hand and sustained a stab wound to left side. These injuries ended his boxing career.
The woman that Joe rescued was Dee McDonald. She came to visit the recovering fighter at the hospital on Market Street to offer her heartfelt appreciation, “How are you feeling?”
“I’m alright,” Joe replied.
Dee continued, “I heard that you’re a prizefighter.”
“I do a little boxing.”
“Are your injuries going to affect that?”
Joe didn’t want the young woman to feel guilty or responsible so he lied, “I’ll be better than
what I was before. I’m a quick healer too.”
“That isn’t what the doctor told me,” Dee said.
Joe disputed, “Doctors like to give you bad news to lower your expectations.”
After being released from the hospital, Joe went to the Northstar Saloon on California Street. It was standing room only as Dee McDonald began singing a crowd favorite and her signature song.
San Francisco, open your golden gate
You’ll let nobody wait outside your door
San Francisco, here is your wanderin’ one
Saying I’ll wander no more.
Other places only make me love you best
Tell me you’re the one in all the golden west
San Francisco, I’m coming home again
Never to roam again.
When Dee finished her performance, the audience burst into applause. Even though he couldn’t clap with a broken hand, Joe’s shouts of approval were the loudest of all. The former boxer found work at Gillespie’s Gym as a trainer and at the Olympic Club as a bartender and continued to see Dee on a social basis.
On April 2, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson went before a joint session of Congress to request a declaration of war against Germany.
Soon afterwards, Joe joined the Marines and was assigned to the 2nd Battalion 5th Marines. On March 17, 1918, the German Army launched a series of attacks on the Western Front in an area of France called Belleau Wood. The 5th Marines were sent to take defensive positions near the town of Marne. German commanders ordered an assault that would take them right through the Marines’ position. Army General Ben Harbord was desperate so he ordered the leathernecks to ‘hold where they stand’, not really expecting that they could.
Corporal Joe Ashton was assigned to the 73rd Machine Gun Company. The 73rd Machine Gun Company was an attachment from the 6th Marines to the 5th Marines.
Gunnery Sergeant Dan Daly growled, “Dig fighting positions!” As he walked past Joe, he smiled, “How’s your day going, Ashton…scared?”
Joe quickly responded, “Hell yes, but I never expected to live forever.”
In the afternoon of June 3, 1918, German infantry attacked the Marines’ positions. The leathernecks waited until the Germans were within 100 yards then mowed them down with overlapping fire. The survivors retreated. After re-grouping and receiving reinforcements the Germans launched three more assaults and the Marines repelled them each time. During the last attack, the men of the 73rd Machine Gun Company were overrun and had to fight with knives, shovels and their bare hands. When Gunnery Sergeant Daly saw his Marines slightly wavering, he jumped up with a M240B machine gun, in full view of the Germans and called out, “Corporal Ashton said he never expected to live forever, what about the rest of you? Come on, you sons of bitches, do you want to live forever!!”
The Marines counter-attacked the Germans six times before they could expel them from their dug-in positions. During this period the Marines earned the nickname ‘Devildogs’ for their ferocious fighting. Even though they were greatly outnumbered, suffered serious casualties and fought elements of five enemy divisions, they were up to the challenge.
Corporal Ashton was firing from a forward position as bullets hit all around him. Gunny Daly crawled up as a machine gun round grazed his helmet, “You need to pull back, there is going to be a counter-attack!”
A wounded and bloodied Joe looked up with determination in his eyes, “Retreat hell! I just got here.”
“You’re the fightenest Marine I’ve ever known,” Gunny Daly began firing at a group of German soldiers, “If you’re going to disobey orders, then I’d better stay and make sure that you stay alive until I can court-martial you.”
Joe stabbed a German soldier who jumped in the hole, then replied, “If there’s a brig in hell then get my cell ready.”
Somehow, someway, Sergeant Joe Ashton beat the odds and survived the war, even though the Grim Reaper was continuously nipping at his heels. He returned to San Francisco where Dee McDonald had elevated herself from the rough and tumble Barbary Coast to the gaudy enclave of the ultra-rich on Knob Hill.
She was the featured singer at the Fairmont Hotel that was often patronized by wealthy entrepreneurs, politicians and socialites that included among others, Arthur Curtis James, William Randolph Hearst, J.P. Morgan, Alma Spreckles and Mayor Jim Rolph.
On one evening, Joe, Dee and Jim Corbett were having dinner at silver baron James Flood’s palatial mansion. One of the guests was Thomas Benton Howard, Commander of the Pacific Fleet. He approached the table. “Sorry for the interruption, but Devil Dog Danny Daly sends his regards.”
Joe’s face broke out in a big smile, “How is that old battle horse doing?”
“He’s a warrior in search of a war,” Admiral Benton responded.
“Care to join us…ummm.” Joe offered, “I didn’t get your name.”
The Pacific Fleet Commander introduced himself, “Admiral Thomas Benton Howard. Your reputations precede you, Gentleman Jim Corbett, former heavyweight champion and the man who introduced a truly scientific approach to boxing, in which technique triumphed over brute force. Dee McDonald, the angelic voice of San Francisco and Joltin’ Joe Ashton, ‘The Petaluma Pummeler’ and ‘Beast of Belleau Wood.”
Joe was instinctively suspicious, “No offense, Admiral, but whenever an officer is that free with his compliments, he usually wants something. What’s on your mind?”
Admiral Howard grinned, “I’d like your help. I’m thinking about putting a special unit together and your expertise would be invaluable.”
“I was Marine, you’re Navy…I don’t know how I can help you.”
Dee poured herself another glass of imported French wine and slowly sipped it, “I think he’s going to tell you.”
“The military is divided, the Army does one thing, The Marines do another and Navy has their duties. I’m thinking about putting together a unit that can operate on the sea, in the air and on land.” Admiral Howard said, “I’m not going to tell Washington what I’m doing until I know if it is feasible.”
Gentlemen Jim Corbett pulled out a pencil and wrote three words on the tablecloth, “Sea, air, land. What are you going to call them, Seals?”
Admiral Howard thought for a moment, “I like that, I’ll remember that for further reference”
Joe said, “Sounds interesting, but you still haven’t told me how I fit in.”
“You can fight with your hands and you can fight with weapons. I‘m bringing in a martial arts specialist from Hong Kong who trained at a Buddhist monastery. I thought if you two worked together, you could develop a fighting style for this new unit.”
‘Where do you plan on doing this new training… somewhere around here?” Joe inquired.
Admiral Howard answered, “The Navy just purchased a parcel of land in Coronado, near San Diego.”
“You served your country in war, I guess you can help them out in peace,” Dee suggested with a wry grin.
“I’ve got a job…I can’t be gone too long,” Joe reminded the naval officer.
Admiral Howard said, “I’ve only got a dream at this point, not a hard and fast plan. Listen Joe, you’ll be doing me a favor, so I’m going to be as flexible as I can. How about if we just take it day by day and you can walk away at any time.”
“He’s making it hard for you to say no,” Gentle Jim interjected.
Joe agreed, “As long as I don’t have to make any firm commitments, I’m on board.”
Admiral Howard laughed, “This is a good sign, you haven’t even started and you’re already using navy terms.”
DESRON 11, is departing Pier 39 on September 8th at 0400 hours, for San Diego. I’ll be riding with them, you can be my guest. We’ll have plenty of time to talk on the way down.”
Joe sighed, “The last time I was on a ship, I was on my way to Europe. It was slow, crowded and half the dogfaces on board were seasick. That’s a stench I do not want to smell again.”
“The accommodations will be much better this time…I can guarantee that.” Admiral Howard promised.
Joe showed up at 0345 hours and saw Admiral Howard talking to another naval officer and another man so he approached them, “I’m here.”
Admiral Howard made the introductions, “Joe Ashton, this is Captain Watson, squadron commander and Eddie Rickenbacker.”
Captain Watson, “Nice to meet you.”
“I’ve heard about you,” Rickenbacker smiled, “Hell of a job during the war.”
Joe answered, “Right back at you.”
Admiral Howard said, “I’ve got a problem in San Diego and I need to get down there quickly, Captain Rickenbacker is going to give me a ride in the prototype Douglas World Cruiser seaplane. This will give me the opportunity to see the aircraft in action before the Navy purchases any.”
Joe asked, “Does this mean the trip is cancelled.”
“Not at all, I’ll meet you in San Diego tomorrow,” Admiral Howard turned to Captain Watson, “What’s your estimated time of arrival?”
“We’ll be averaging 20 knots, 503 miles distance, twenty five hours or a little more. No later than zero six hundred hours, sir.”
Admiral Howard commented, “Enjoy the cruise, Joe and I’ll meet you in San Diego in the morning. We’ll have a nice breakfast and I’ll show you around.”
“If you’re going to make that eleven hundred meeting, we’ve got to hit the wild blue yonder,” Eddie Rickenbacker reminded the Admiral.
Prohibition in the United States started in January 17, 1920 and ended December 5, 1933. During this time, organized crime leaders saw a golden opportunity to make massive amounts of money through bootlegging. Mexico became an important staging area for their illegal operations. Infamous American gangster, Charles ‘Lucky’ Luciano and Mexican crime czar Aristeo Guzman entered into an alliance to bring liquor from the port of Ensenada to California. The current shipment of whiskey, tequila and beer was loaded on to a fishing trawler and headed for the Santa Barbara Harbor.
The Navy ships were cruising south and right on course while the trawler was headed directly at them. Little did they know that they were destined to collide along the rugged California coastline on that fateful night. Lieutenant Commander Donald T. Hunter, the convoy’s navigator had only a few minutes to make the drastic course correction to 095 degrees when he saw the vague outline of trawler in the thick fog, coming straight at the USS Delphy. He avoided a head-on collision, but it was too little and too late. The USS Delphy struck the trawler on the port side then veered into the rocks, followed by the other ships. The trawler also ran aground and the smugglers must have thought that it was a hijacking, panicked and began firing at the USS Delphy. Three other Navy ships crashed and broke apart.
Joe grabbed a fearful sailor by the shirt and asked, “You got any weapons on board?”
The sailor nervously responded as the ship rocked back and forth, “We got a magazine.”
“Take me to it!”
The ship was slowly sinking as Joe and the sailor rushed below deck. By the time, they reached the weapons, water was already up their knees.
Joe grabbed two M1911 45 caliber pistols, holsters and a dozen fully loaded clips of ammunition. He then grabbed a M1918 Browning automatic rifle and two bandoliers of ammo and went topside. While Navy personnel focused on rescuing their shipmates, Joe turned his attention to eliminating the hostile fire coming from the bootleggers. He jumped off the Delphy to the rock-lined shoreline and began picking off the bootleggers. When there was a break in the gunfire coming at him, Joe made his way to the trawler and shot three more men.
Admiral Howard thought it would be a major black eye for the Navy if the public knew that the military was attacked by gangsters and a civilian who should not have been on board at the time had to provide most of the defense. There were just too many questions to answer so he approached Captain Watson, “I have no right to ask you to do this. It is beyond the call of duty.”
“You don’t have to. What’s best for the Navy is best for me.”
Captain Watson listed several reasons for the serious mishap at his court-martial, “We were going too fast for the weather conditions. I miscalculated the currents and the close formation of the squadron was a major error. I accept complete and total responsibility for the Honda Point disaster.”
If there was one positive thing to come out of the catastrophe, it convinced Joe how important it was for the military to have a special unit that could fight in various conditions and scenarios. Several weeks later, Eddie Rickenbacker began teaching Joe how to fly so that he could make the journey to San Diego much more quickly to help with training. These trips continued over the next eighteen years, although as time passed, Joe’s involvement diminished as he was able to teach instructors to do most of the schooling. On Valentine’s Day, 1933, Joe and Dee were married in a civil ceremony by a justice of the peace in Lake Tahoe.
When World War 11 broke out, the U.S. Navy organized a special warfare unit called ’Beach Jumpers.’ They specialized in deception and psychological warfare, often going behind enemy lines to harass the enemy and perform commando raids. This unit represented everything that Admiral Howard and Joe Ashton believed in when they first discussed the possibility of its existence in the early 1920’s. The force included actor Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and novelist John Steinbeck. Joe served with the Beach Jumpers in Europe and the South Pacific until the end of the war. The Beach Jumpers were sworn to secrecy and never spoke about their missions.
After returning to the states, Joe served as a technical assistant on numerous war movies and developed friendships with many actors in Hollywood including James Stewart, Clark Gable, Bing Crosby and Pat O’Brien among others. Joe was working as one of the technical advisors on John Wayne’s movie, Sands of Iwo Jima, being filmed on Camp Pendleton among other locations in Southern California in 1948. Joe and Dee decided to have a religious ceremony and renew their vows on their 15th year anniversary at St. Mary’s of the Sea Catholic Church in Oceanside.
This was the same church that Marine Sergeant John Basilone got married on July 10, 1944 before shipping out to the South Pacific. The irony was not lost on Joe. He was working on a movie about Iwo Jima and getting married in the same church where the Congressional Medal of Honor and Navy Cross recipient got married, then was killed while leading an assault off the beach of Iwo Jima on February 19, 1945. That made it even more significant to Joe.
In the spring of 1951, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. approached Joe with an offer, “My father purchased 300 acres of land, north of San Diego in 1924, called ‘Rancho Zorro’. I still hold a considerable interest in the land and I’d like to offer a parcel of it to you.” I’ve got a vacation home down there and I can’t think of a better neighbor than you.”
Joe responded, “I like San Diego, I’ll come down and take it a look on one condition.”
“What is that?” Douglas Fairbanks Jr. asked.
“I’ll pay you fair market value for it.”
“You never do anything the easy way, do you, Joltin’ Joe?”
“Once in a while, but I never take advantage of a friendship.” Joe said.
Joe and his wife Dee loved Rancho Zorro and built their vacation home on a five-acre parcel of land overlooking a lake just down the road from the Douglas Fairbanks Jr. mansion. It didn’t take long for Joe and Dee to decide that they wanted to make North San Diego County their permanent home. They sold most of their real estate interests in San Francisco and began investing in Southern California. Joe became a minority owner in the Del Mar racetrack and a partner in a hotel on that would later become the La Costa Resort. Dee started the Starlight Theater in Vista, California and performed there a dozen times a year. She also used her influence to bring in other entertainers like Frank Sinatra, Gene Kelly and the Count Basie Band. Elvis Presley appeared there on several occasions during his illustrious career. Dee McDonald sang two duets with the rock n’ roll star, Hound Dog and Jailhouse Rock, during one of his shows in the mid-fifties.
On September 8, 1963, the 40th anniversary of the Honda Point Disaster, Joe and Dee attended the dedication of the memorial to the 23 sailors who perished on that night. It was held at the Veterans Museum in Lompoc, California.
It wasn’t unusual to see Joe Ashton as part of a foursome that included Bob Hope, Bing Crosby and Sam Snead at the Rancho Santa Fe Golf Club. On one particular morning as the group prepared to tee off, Bob commented, “We got Slammin’ Sammy Snead, The Petaluma Pummeler and Crosby the Crooner. Where’s my nickname?” Bob was the last to tee off and his errant shot went directly into the sand trap.
Joe commented with a sly grin, “How’s Bunker Bobby’ sound?”
Only Bob Hope’s closest friends and golf buddies ever used that nickname.
Many years later on May 24, 2021, Colonel Curtis ‘Tip of the Spear’ ‘Steel Curtain’ Ashton, great-grandson of Joltin’ Joe, was serving as Commander of an ultra-elite unit in the Marine Corps. He had flown from Camp Pendleton in his personal P-51 Mustang to participate with his operatives in secret training with the Navy Seals and Delta Force along the rugged coastline of Northern California near Humboldt Bay. When the last high altitude low opening parachute jump was completed on Thursday, the units began packing up to return to their home bases so that they could be home for Memorial Day weekend.
Colonel Ashton took off from the Arcata-Eureka Airport in McKinleyville, California. As part of his flight plan, he received permission to land and refuel at Vandenberg Air Force Base, northwest of Lompoc. His reason for stopping there was to visit the Honda Point Memorial. The true story about what happened that evening was handed down from one Ashton generation to another and each family member was sworn to secrecy.
Because his great-grandfather was a civilian at the time, his name was not listed as one of the survivors in the official record or on the memorial. That didn’t matter to ‘Steel Curtain’, who lived by the same warrior code as his heroic ancestor; It is all about the accomplishment, not the acknowledgement.
As he looked at a section of the propeller shaft from USS Delphy and the bronze plague above it, Colonel “Tip Of The Spear’ Ashton imagined what it was like on that night when six ships were destroyed and 23 sailors perished. The best description that he could come up with was; Heartache at Honda Rock and Hellfire and High Water.
Happy Memorial Day to those who have served, to those who are currently serving and to the Americans who support our Armed Forces.
This a fiction story inspired by true events.