Thursday, December 18, 2014

Halsey's Typhoon Cobra

On today's date in 1944, the Third Fleet, commanded by naval hero Admiral William Halsey, encountered the full force of Typhoon Cobra northeast of Samar in the central Philippines. Disaster soon followed for many of the ships in its path.

A few days earlier on the 11th, Task Force 38 of the Third Fleet had departed the U.S. Navy base at Ulithi Atoll for the Philippines to provide carrier air cover for the army's Mindoro Invasion. The fleet sailed from the harbor in clear weather, little knowing that a typhoon was beginning to form about 175 miles northeast.1 On the 16th, the center of the storm passed north of the atoll, heading west toward the Philippines in the direction of the fleet.

Halsey's Task Force was comprised of 7 fleet carriers, 6 light carriers, 8 battleships, 15 cruisers, and around 50 destroyers. The carrier aircraft had been successful in conducting raids against Japanese airfields on Luzon, and now planes and ships now were trying to refuel about 300 miles east of Luzon. It was there that the worst of the storm hit. In spite of earlier warnings of severe weather, the admiral had led his force into the center of a severe typhoon, the worst of which hit the fleet on this date.

The damage was severe. One hundred mile per hour winds, high seas, and torrential rain battered the fleet. Three destroyers—HullMonaghan, and Spence—capsized and sank with almost all hands.

Twenty-one other ships were damaged. Fires broke out on 3 carriers2 when planes broke loose in their hangars. Some 146 aircraft were lost or damaged by fires, destroyed by impact, or were simply swept overboard. Even more tragically for the fleet, 793 officers and men were lost in the storm, and at least 80 more were injured.

USS Cowpens experiencing the effects of Typhoon Cobra, December 18, 1944.
Some ships experienced even greater rolls, while 3 capsized and sank.

Concerning the typhoon's destructive impact Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz remarked that it "represented a more crippling blow to the 3rd Fleet than it might be expected to suffer in anything less than a major action."

Destroyer escort USS Tabberer, December 1944
Tabberer lost her mast and radio antennas in the typhoon. Although damaged and unable to
radio for help, she remained on the scene to rescue 55 of the 93 survivors of the 3 sunken ships.

By Christmas Eve, most of the returning fleet had arrived at Ulithi, the most crippled arriving first. The USS San Jacinto was one of the carriers damaged in the storm. Hangar deck planes broke loose and destroyed air intakes, vent ducts, and sprinkling system, which caused widespread flooding. The injured carrier was taken alongside my dad's repair ship, Hector, whose crews worked until December 27th repairing the ship.

The Navy soon convened an 8-day court of inquiry at Ulithi and found Halsey had committed an error in judgment in heading into the storm, the "preponderance of responsibility" resting on him. However, it stopped short of recommending discipline. It cited "errors of judgment committed under stress of war operations" rather than "offenses." Admiral Nimitz was satisfied that any mistakes Halsey may have committed were done so "under stress of war operations and stemming from a commendable desire to meet military requirements." Therefore, no action was taken against him.

Amazingly, only 6 months later, Halsey again sailed the fleet into the path of a typhoon. While ships again sustained crippling damage from Typhoon Viper, none of them were lost. Six men were killed and 75 planes were lost or destroyed, with almost 70 badly damaged. Another court of inquiry was convened, and it suggested that Halsey be reassigned. However, Admiral Nimitz again chose not to take action against Halsey.

1 The Mighty90 webpage, the Official Website of USS Astoria CL-90, provides a very helpful chart and description of the path of Typhoon Cobra.
LCDR Gerald Ford
38th U.S. President
2 One of the light aircraft carriers to be damaged was the USS Monterey. The carrier suffered a hangar deck fire as aircraft broke loose, crashed into each other and the ship’s structure, and ignited aviation fuel. On board was future President, Lieut. Gerald Ford, who assumed responsibility to go below to assess the conflagration and report back to the captain. Although the fire killed 3 sailors and injured nearly 40, and the ship went dead in the water for more than an hour because of smoke being sucked into the engineering spaces, the crew extinguished the fire and got the damaged ship underway to Ulithi, and then on to the West Coast.

At one point or another during the war in the Pacific, my dad's path crossed with those of 3 future U.S. presidents: Ford, Bush, and Kennedy.

Sources: Halsey's Typhoon: The True Story of a Fighting Admiral, an Epic Storm, and an Untold Rescue, Bob Drury & Tom Calvin; Sea Cobra: Admiral Halsey's Task Force and the Great Pacific Typhoon, Buckner F. Melton, Jr.; Naval Historical Foundation: "Lieutenant Gerald Ford and Typhoon Cobra"

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