To eyes trained by modern sensibilities, it is a strikingly ornate piece of jewelry.
An 18-carat gold signet ring crowned with the initials W.L.C . encircled by a fancy coiled rope. On either side, almost rendered indecipherable by time, is the year 1906 surrounded by flowing mermaids and graceful sailing ships. And inside, as clear as if it had been engraved yesterday, a simple inscription: William Loundes Calhoun, U.S. Navy.
The Ring's Lower Berth
For 61 years, the ring's berth was a notorious shipwreck at the bottom of the sea, forgotten by all save the man who lost it and those who loved him.
Recently it was found.
"It's like part of him was brought back," said Rosalie Calhoun, William's widow, who lives in Coronado near San Diego.
Said Dan Purdie, the diver who found the ring: "This has been the apex."
On one thing both agree. The story of the ring--how it was lost and ultimately returned--is one they will be telling their children and grandchildren.
The tale begins in 1906 when William Loundes Calhoun, great-grandson of the same John C. Calhoun who served as vice president under John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson, graduated from the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis, Md. Like any other 22-year-old ensign schooled in naval tradition, Calhoun was proud of the class ring he received as a symbol of his academic achievement. But a sea disaster several years later snared him in tragedy and separated him forever from the graduation ring.
It happened on the evening of Sept. 8, 1923. Fourteen ships--members of a U.S. Navy destroyer squadron--were convoying south from San Francisco to San Diego when a navigational error caused seven of them to go aground at Honda, a treacherous point several miles north of Point Conception. Third in line to go down was the destroyer Young, commanded by Calhoun.
'I Thought We'd Been Rammed'
"I was starting for the bridge when I felt a slight trembling," a 1980 book on the subject quotes the captain as later telling a court of inquiry. "I dropped everything and went on the run. I reached the bridge in time to be sprawled by a terrific knock. I thought we had been rammed."
In what the author termed "the most incredible navigational blunder of naval history" and what experts generally consider the worst peacetime disaster in that history, 23 lives were lost--most of them aboard the Young.
Calhoun was eventually exonerated of all responsibility for the accident and, in a brilliant career spanning most of the next three decades, went on to attain the rank of four-star admiral with responsibility for supplying and maintaining the entire Pacific Fleet during World War II. In 1946 he married Rosalie, an Army nurse he'd met the year before in New Caledonia, and, following the war, retired from the Navy to work for a civilian company involved in the postwar reconstruction of Greece. He had three children after the age of 60 by his new wife, who was 34 years younger, and died in 1963 at the age of 79.
The man's happiness was near complete, members of his family say. But sometimes he reminisced about the Honda disaster. And he occasionally mentioned the honored class ring which, along with another similar one once owned by his famous ancestor, had been lost among his personal effects when the ship went down.
"It wasn't an everyday thing," recalled Rosalie Calhoun, 67, "but I think he would liked to have had it."
Enter Purdie, a 34-year-old Sherman Oaks welder/mechanic whose hobby is scuba diving on shipwrecks. Purdie, in fact, is vice president of a club of shipwreck enthusiasts--California Wreck Divers--that periodically charters boats to explore most of the state's known coastal wrecks. Honda, where the scattered remains of the seven ghostly destroyers can still be seen on calm days, is one of the club's regular haunts. It was on the group's annual four-day sojourn there in 1984 that Purdie got lucky.
It happened on the last dive of the last day, he remembers. "The water was flat like a pool," he said, recalling a condition rare off that particular part of the coast where rough water is the rule rather than the exception. Because of a recent storm, Purdie said, the bottom--ranging from 15 to 40 feet deep--had been churned up like the clothes in a washing machine, revealing new treasures previously buried beneath the decaying debris.
Earlier dives that day had netted a number of interesting personal items, including the remains of a pocket watch, small keys and a lock, several buttons from a Navy dress uniform and part of a ceremonial saber and scabbard. Purdie was skimming over what he believed had been the forward section of the Young, low on air and ready to quit, when he noticed something shiny impacted in a crusty mound on the bottom. "At first I thought it was an electrical component," he said. Upon closer examination, however, he noticed part of an engraved rope scroll. "I just barely chipped behind it with my hammer and it came right out," he said. "Then I knew it was a ring."