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Typhoons and Hurricanes: The Effects of Cyclonic Winds on U.S. Naval Operations

Related Resources:

US Navy Ships lost in selected storm-related incidents
Hurricanes and the War of 1812: New Orleans and Charleston
Storm at Apia, Samoa, March 1889
Pacific Typhoon, December 1944
Pacific Typhoon, June 1945
Okinawa Typhoon, October 1945

Seafarers have always respected the power of wind and water. This is especially the case during storms at sea, where ships run the risk of damage or sinking from strong winds and high seas. Large and powerful storms, referred to as "closed cyclonic circulations," are especially dangerous and have caused massive destruction throughout all of recorded history.

Cyclonic storms develop when an advancing cold front pushes into a region of lighter, warmer air. As the warm air is pushed away, the resulting low atmospheric pressure will sometimes create complex wind storms that spiral in toward the center of the disturbance. These storms primarily develop in low pressure areas over tropical or sub-tropical waters. The warm temperatures and the spiraling effects of the winds combine to create the huge storms that periodically sweep the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. They generally develop in different regions only at certain times of the year: in the northern hemisphere, tropical cyclones--with winds that spin counterclockwise--develop between May and November, while in the southern hemisphere-- where the winds spin clockwise--they are generally found between December and June.

When wind speeds are below 34 knots (a knot is a unit of speed equal to one nautical mile or approximately 1.15 statute miles per hour), these cyclonic circulations are called "tropical depressions." When sustained winds reach between 34 and 63 knots, the resulting wave, cloud, and wave conditions become more threatening and are called "tropical storms." If the atmospheric pressure at the center of these storms continues to drop, the cloud and rain patterns form into narrow bands, and wind speeds can increase to 64 knots or greater. This pattern often spawns pounding rain, violent thunder, and terrific lightning. These tremendously powerful storms, which develop within a small 50-mile radius, can mature into tropical cyclones with winds of 150 miles per hour and a diameter of 400 miles or more.

In the Atlantic basin, large storms of this type are called "hurricanes," a term that echoes Spanish and Caribbean Indian words for evil spirits and huge winds. In the eastern Pacific off Central and South America the storms are often referred to as "cordonazos"--meaning to strike with a cord or rope. In Hawaii, they are called "tainos," in the Philippines they are "baguios," the Australians call them "willy-willy's," and in the Indian Ocean they are referred to as "cyclones." Their most famous name is found across the western Pacific, where these awesome storms are called "typhoons."

The Navy's experience with these and similar storms is as old as the service itself. The Continental sloop Saratoga was probably the first ship lost to a storm, destroyed off the Bahamas with all her crew on 18 March 1781. The old adage, "Red sky at night, sailor's delight; Red sky in morning, sailors take warning;" was as common as it was true. Before the civil war, the Navy lost at least fourteen ships--usually with their entire crews--to weather disasters on the open ocean. Bad weather and rough seas could strike anywhere, with the fledgling Navy losing three gunboats in the Chesapeake Bay, and a schooner in Lake Ontario, between 1810 and 1813. As the Navy began sailing into the Pacific Ocean, warships began encountering dangerous typhoons. These storms were especially dangerous because, in the days before the telegraph, radio, or radar, sailors did not know a storm was nearby until it appeared on the horizon. It was often then too late, as when brig USS Porpoise, and at least 62 sailors, disappeared during a typhoon somewhere between Formosa and China in September 1854.

Although the advent of steam power, by enabling the warship to head into the wind, helped reduce the danger these storms posed, losses still occurred. In addition to storm losses, such as the wrecking of three Navy ships at Apia, Samoa, during a powerful storm on 15-16 March 1889, huge destructive waves (called tsunamis) caused by storms or undersea earthquakes could also sink ships.

Even with the advent of wireless (radio) communications, and the weather warning advantage this technology conferred, disasters could still strike without warning. Armored cruiser No. 10 USS Memphis (ex-USS Tennessee) was driven ashore and totally wrecked by a tidal wave at Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic on 29 August 1916, killing 41 and leaving 204 injured. The loss of the collier USS Cyclops, which vanished with all 306 on board after departing Barbados on 4 March 1918, remains a mystery to this day. Some have speculated that a storm might have sunk her. No specific proof for her loss has ever been found. Patrol vessel USS Eagle, while making passage up the Delaware River on 11 June 1920, was struck by a squall and capsized, drowning nine sailors.

By the time of the Second World War, the Navy relied on a system of ground observers, aircraft patrols, and aereological reports to provide weather and storm warnings. Still, the conflict between military necessity and possible weather damage to ships trying to carry out operations, meant storm losses were unavoidable. In addition to storms that sank merchant ships, scattered convoys, and damaged service craft off ports and beaches, the Navy lost three ships to storms in the Atlantic--on 18 February 1942, destroyer USS Truxtun (DD-229) and stores issue ship USS Pollux (AKS-2) were driven ashore during a storm in Placentia Bay, Newfoundland--killing 204 sailors--and the destroyer USS Warrington (DD-383) sank off Florida--drowning 248--during a great Atlantic hurricane on 13 September 1944.

Even more dramatic were the three great typhoons that struck the Pacific Fleet in December 1944, and June and October 1945. The first two typhoons illustrate the dangers inherent in trying to carry out military operations. On 18 December 1944, numerous ships of the Pacific Fleet were caught by a typhoon of extreme violence while operating in support of the invasion of the Philippines. Three destroyers capsized with the loss of almost all hands and nine other warships were seriously damaged. Approximately 790 officers and men were killed and 146 planes were smashed, burned, or swept overboard. On 5 June 1945, during operations against Japanese airfields on Kyushu, Task Groups 30.8 and 38.1 passed through a typhoon southeast of Okinawa. Seven ships suffered severe injury, including heavy cruiser USS Pittsburgh (CA-72) which lost her bow and major flight deck damage to four aircraft carriers. Remarkably, although 76 aircraft were lost, only six men were killed.

Perhaps the most intriguing storm occurred on 9 October, when a typhoon veered north from Formosa and passed very near Okinawa and the major fleet anchorage at Buckner Bay [Nakagusuku Wan]. The sudden shift in the storm's direction caught the bay full of amphibious shipping, ranging in size from large cargo ships to very small landing craft. Heavy seas sank 12 ships and drove 222 others ashore, almost three dozen more were damaged by collisions. The hurricane force winds also savaged installations ashore, wiping out tent camps, blowing down Quonset huts, destroying food stocks and other supplies. By 18 October, casualty estimates put the toll at 36 dead and 47 missing. If the war in the Pacific had not ended the previous month, this storm would have had dramatic effects on the planned invasion of the Japanese Home Islands.

Although cyclonic storms continue to effect Navy operations to this day, advances in satellite imagery, radar mapping, and communications have reduced the risks to ships at sea. A description of Navy readiness policies during severe storms is contained in OPNAV INSTRUCTION 3140.24E. (available in PDF format at the Navy's Instructions and Directives website) The instruction contains information on types of storms and the action required by commanders in response to storms in their area. As of 2000, the Navy relies on a series of eight Atlantic, Mediterranean, Indian and Pacific Ocean Meteorology and Oceanography Centers (METOC) to provide timely weather information to the fleet. Ships at sea can therefore be given ample warning to avoid severe weather while ships in port can put to sea if surge conditions become too dangerous. The Naval Meteorology and Oceanography Command is also a good source on Navy-related weather information.


23 September 2005