A mysterious plaque marking a 1923 naval tragedy near Santa Barbara went missing this summer from its oddly located spot next to San Luis Creek, leading to events that could have played as an episode of “The Twilight Zone.” In that vein, that’s the signpost up ahead — your next stop
San Luis Obispo City Councilman John Ashbaugh told me that city resident George Campion had informed him that a metal plaque commemorating the worst peacetime naval disaster in U.S. history had been removed from its perch on a rock floodwall near the Warden Bridge, which connects Mission Plaza with the Network Mall.
The disaster in question was the 1923 tragedy at Point Honda, where seven Navy destroyers followed one another in a soupy fog onto the jagged, rocky shoreline some 15 miles west of Lompoc, just north of the entry to the Santa Barbara Channel. Twenty-three men died, 11 officers were court-martialed and three were convicted of gross ineptitude.
After finding out that Parks Department employee Matthew Giuffrida had removed the plaque, concerned that it might be stolen or vandalized, Ashbaugh took it to the city’s Corporation Yard for safekeeping. Ashbaugh, thinking the plaque should be relocated at a proposed maritime memorial in Cayucos, took it to City Hall and studied it.
The plaque — dated Sept. 8, 1938, the 15th anniversary of the Honda fiasco — contains the last names of each of the sailors (with four of those names misspelled), an inscription that reads “Dedicated to the brave men who sacrificed for us,” the Marine Corps logo and three other odd additions.
There was an extra name added to the roll call, Russell that didn’t make sense. In addition, the symbol of Freemasonry’s Knights Templar branch the Maltese Cross in the Crown — was etched into the metal plate. And finally, a double row of Sanskrit-appearing runes borders the plaque.
The mystery deepened. Why was the Marine Corps logo etched into the plaque when no marines were killed at Point Honda? Why was a memorial to the Navy’s worst snafu placed in San Luis Obispo? Why was it memorializing an event 15 years after the fact, on a rock wall just a few feet above the creek bed? Why were the Knights of Templar included? Who the heck was Russell?
Ashbaugh talked with Dave Romero, former mayor and city Public Works director since Earth was invented, who had no recollection of the plaque.
Dan Krieger, historian extraordinaire, was consulted. Nope. A photo of the plaque was sent to the Naval Historical Center in Washington, D.C. No response. Another photo was sent to Dr. James Carucci, archaeologist for cultural resources at Vandenberg AFB (which now controls the Point Honda site). He was most concerned with the misspelled names and the addition of Russell’s name. Other than that, stumped.
The city’s unofficial historian, Joseph Carotenuti, was included in the circle of those who might have a handle on the mystery. His take was that the “size and thickness of the plaque strongly suggests it was meant for indoor use. I am more confident it was located elsewhere in SLO long before being moved to the creek.”
Ashbaugh then conferred with Chuck Crotzer and Dean Miller. Crotzer said he’d talk with Robert Bettencourt, the Grand Master of the San Luis Obispo Masonic Lodge. Ashbaugh felt like he’d stepped into a Dan Brown novel.
Bettencourt forwarded a photo of the plaque to Peter Champion, who wrote to Bettencourt on June 24 that the seemingly decorative border on the plaque consisted of symbols from the Templar alphabet. And this is what it said: “HONOR CORA RUSSELL DORN DAUGHTER OF FR. APOLLINARIUS FOR SHE GAVE EVERYTHING TO DISCOVER THE SECRET OF THE OTHERS ONLY TO DIE AT THE HANDS OF THEIR KEEPER HER HUSBAND MAY HE NEVER KNOW THE PEACE OF DEATH OUR TREASURE LIES WITH HER IN HER TOMB.”
Yikes! Dan Brown novel, indeed.
The Cora Russell Dorn in question was the wife of Fredrick Dorn, a prominent attorney in San Luis Obispo around the turn of the century. In 1905, he lost Cora and his son in childbirth. As a memorial, he built the pyramid tomb in the Oddfellows Cemetery south of town. Oddly, he left the pyramid unsealed but had “DISTVRB NOT THE SLEEP OF DEATH” etched in front of the opening where two stones remain to be cemented into place.
When Ashbaugh sent the decoded message to Vandenberg’s Carucci, he responded: “I do not see nefarious intent in the message that suggests murder; rather, if a woman dies in childbirth, would not the beloved family tend to blame the husband because he was the cause? I am more interested in the reference to treasure!”
Treasure, indeed. Through his probing and poking, Ashbaugh found that the plaque had been used in an elaborate scavenger hunt in 2010. Whos and whys are yet to be revealed. Keep your eyes peeled for the signpost up ahead —