H-039-2: Typhoon Cobra—The Worst Natural Disaster in U.S. Navy History, 14–19 December 1944
H-Gram 039 , Attachment 2
Samuel J. Cox, Director NHHC
On 18 December 1944, elements of Admiral William Halsey’s Third Fleet plowed into a powerful Pacific Typhoon east of the Philippines. By the time the tropical cyclone passed, three U.S. destroyers had been sunk, Spence (DD-512), Hull (DD-350) and Monaghan (DD-354) with 775 of their crewmen lost and only 91 rescued. The light carrier Monterey (CVL-26) suffered a serious fire during the storm, losing three crewmen and 18 aircraft. Total casualties across the entire force, including the three destroyers, included 790 killed and 146 planes smashed, washed overboard, or jettisoned. Twenty-seven ships were damaged, eleven requiring major repairs, including Monterey.
Following the Battle of Leyte Gulf on 24–25 October, the Third Fleet Fast Carrier Task Force (TF-38) was essentially tied down providing air cover to Leyte as the U.S. Army Air Force was unable to get onto airfields on Leyte and provide their own air-cover to troops ashore, primarily due to abysmal whether that rendered all but the airfield at Tacloban unusable due to mud. (Tacloban had very limited capacity even under ordinary circumstances.) As a result, rather than roaming the Western Pacific, Halsey’s carriers were subject to increasing Japanese kamikaze attacks while tied down off the eastern Philippines. (Actually, more U.S. ships would by sunk, put out of action, or damaged, and with more casualties in the two months it took the Army to secure Leyte, than during the Battle of Leyte Gulf itself, which will be the subject of the next H-gram.) Nevertheless, TF-38 stood in there and kept pounding Japanese airfields with airstrikes and fighter sweeps throughout the Philippines but especially on the main island of Luzon, which MacArthur had originally slated for invasion in mid-December. Halsey’s carriers were conducting operations in support of this planned invasion (which would be postponed until January 1945, but that was not known yet) when the weather began seriously to deteriorate on 16 December, gravely impacting at-sea refueling operations. Many of Halsey’s ships were low on fuel due to the continuous high-tempo combat operations
As of 17 December 1944, TF-38 consisted of seven Essex-class fleet carriers, six Independence-class light carriers, eight battleships, four heavy cruisers, eleven light cruisers and about 50 destroyers. TF-38 was joining with the Third Fleet refueling group that consisted of twelve fleet oilers, three fleet tugs, five destroyers, ten destroyer escorts, and five escort carriers with replacement planes.
With the technology of the time, there was little capability to track typhoons, and avoiding them depended greatly on the “Seaman’s Weather Eye.” The problem with this typhoon was that although it was very powerful, it was very compact and not very big, so warning signs were not apparent until the typhoon was very close, much closer than expected. Initially, as the weather rapidly deteriorated on 17 December, there were no signs that a typhoon was approaching, and the weather forecasters on the Third Fleet staff and on the carriers repeatedly misdiagnosed the situation. As seas built on the morning of the 17th, refueling became increasingly hazardous, with cases of parted hoses and lines and several near-collisions.
At 1251, Halsey gave orders to belay fueling. Halsey also gave orders for ships that had not been able to refuel to ballast down with salt water. However, several ships delayed too long in doing so in hopes that they would be able to take fuel as soon as the seas subsided. Vice Admiral John McCain, Commander of CTF-38, followed Halsey’s order, except for those orders pertaining to the destroyers Spence, Hickox (DD-673) and Maddox (DD-731) which were so low on fuel (10–15%) that they might not make it 24 hours. The Spence and Hickox were ordered to remain with the oilers and grab fuel if the seas allowed. As a result, the three destroyers delayed ballasting down, in the case of Spence too long, which would prove fatal.
Several attempts by Halsey to maneuver the fleet to areas more conducive to refueling put parts of the fleet directly in the path of the storm, unfortunately. For a time, the fleet was on the same course as the storm but slightly ahead and faster, which gave a misleading impression that conditions were slowly improving. It wasn’t until about 0400 on the 18th that it became apparent that the fleet had stumbled into a very serious weather condition. It wasn’t until about 1000 that the barometer started falling precipitously in a manner indicative of an approaching typhoon and not just a bad weather front. By 1400 the wind reached hurricane strength, and several of the carriers were so close that they could see the eye of the typhoon on radar.
In the end, a number of ships ultimately wound up in the most dangerous quadrant, with some passing right through the eye on 18 December. Halsey’s biggest mistake was waiting too long to give individual ships the okay to break out of formation to ride out the storm independently, giving the order only at 1149 (although some commanding officers were already doing so on their own initiative). Others who tried too long to stay in formation caused their ships to take an even worse beating than necessary. At 1314, Halsey issued a typhoon warning, the first official traffic referencing a typhoon. By this time, three of Halsey’s destroyers had already gone down, and others were fighting to survive.
The poor sea-keeping qualities of the Independence-class light carriers (which had been hastily designed and built on light cruiser hulls) became readily apparent by 0900 on 18 December. All were rolling severely. Langley (CVL-27) rolled 70-degrees at one point. Seven planes on Cowpens (CVL-25) were washed overboard and one plane that broke loose started a fire that was quickly extinguished. On San Jacinto (CVL-30), a fighter plane broke loose on the hangar deck and smashed seven other aircraft. By contrast, the escort carriers, with their hull design based on merchant ships, actually fared better than the light carriers, suffering less damage, although about 90 of the replacement aircraft were lost.
The light carrier Monterey (CVL-26) fared the worst, as a plane broke free on the hangar deck and smashed into a bulkhead at 0911, starting a serious fire, that was put out only after three sailors were killed and many more injured, with 18 planes destroyed by fire or washed overboard and another 16 planes seriously damaged as they careened about the hangar bay during severe rolls, exacerbated by the fact that Monterey also lost steerageway when the boiler rooms were evacuated shortly after the fire started. Of note, future President Lieutenant Gerald R. Ford was serving as the General Quarters Officer of the Deck. With Captain Stuart H. Ingersoll on the bridge, Ford was ordered to go down to the hangar deck and report on the fire, noting later that he was nearly washed overboard while planes were smashing into each other. Fortunately, the crew got the fire and the planes under control along with steerage, and Monterey weathered the typhoon, although she required repairs at Bremerton until April 1945.
Spence (DD-512) was a new Fletcher-class destroyer, much more stable than the older Farragut-class, but she was in trouble even before the typhoon hit, with her fuel state down to 15%, which meant she had less than 24 hours’ steaming time at eight knots. After unsuccessfully attempting to refuel from battleship New Jersey (BB-62) on the 17th, she was then ordered to accompany the oiler group to refuel at the first chance, which never came. Her skipper began water-ballasting too late and she began rolling heavily to port. Water entered through the ventilators and short-circuited the distribution board. Then the rudder jammed hard right. At 1110, Spence took a deep roll to port, recovered, and then took another one from which she did not recover, going down with 317 of her crew (23 survived), the first destroyer to sink in the typhoon.
By 1100 the destroyer Hull (DD-350), commanded by Lieutenant Commander J.A. Marks, was in serious trouble. Marks was responsible for screening a group of four oilers and maintained station for too long. Hull was at 70% fuel state and had not taken on saltwater ballast in the tanks. (The Court of Inquiry determined that standard procedures at the time did not require re-ballasting with that much fuel on board, but the failure to do so nonetheless contributed to her loss. Although regulations didn’t require it, re-ballasting was a lesson from an earlier typhoon that had not been learned.) In addition, as an older Farragut-class destroyer, Hull had over 500 tons of extra weapons and equipment added, making her top heavy. By 1100 the wind had reached 100 knots, and Hull was rolling 50 degrees, which just before noon reached 70 degrees. She survived several such rolls before a gust of wind estimated at 110 knots pinned her on her beam ends, and water poured down her funnels and into the pilothouse and she capsized and sank a few minutes after noon with 202 of her crew (62 survived.)
The Farragut-class destroyer Dewey (DD-349) almost met the same fate as Hull, but was saved by the prompt jettisoning of topside weights, re-ballasting with salt water, and the loss of her funnel, which reduced sail area, along with a lot of bailing and pumping. Farragut-class Aylwin (DD-355) also barely survived as she passed very close to the eye wall. By 1100, Aylwin had lost her engines and steering control, rolled 70 degrees to port and stayed there for 20 minutes. Regaining steering control intermittently, Lieutenant Commander W. K. Rogers, through some incredible ship handling was able to hold her up, but temperatures in the engine rooms reached 180 degrees as the blowers failed and the engine rooms had to be evacuated. The ship’s engineering officer, Lieutenant E. R. Rendahl and Machinist’s Mate T. Sarenski remained at their posts despite the intense heat in order to protect the electrical circuits. When they too finally evacuated, they had to take off their life jackets to fit through the escape hatch to the deck, where they collapsed due to the temperature change and were washed overboard. Somehow, Aylwin managed to survive despite serious flooding.
Farragut-class destroyer Monaghan (DD-354) was not so lucky as Dewey and Aylwin. Her fuel tanks were 76 percent full, and although she attempted to ballast down, with great difficulty as valves stuck, it was too late. At 1130, Monaghan lost electric power and the steering engine failed. After several very heavy rolls she foundered just before noon along with 256 of her crew (only six survived). Monaghan had 12 battle stars, having sunk a Japanese midget submarine inside Pearl Harbor during the air attack, served at Midway, performed valiantly in the Battle of the Komandorski Islands, drove the Japanese submarine I-7 onto the rocks in the Aleutians and fought in other battles, but she was defeated by a storm.
By the time the typhoon moved through, numerous ships had been damaged. Those that required major repair included Anzio (CVE-57), Cape Esperance (CVE-88), Baltimore (CA-68), Miami (CL-89), Dewey (DD-349), Aylwin (DD-355), Buchanan (DD-484), Dyson (DD-572), Hickox (DD-673), Benham (DD-796), Donaldson (DE-44), and Melvin R. Nawman (DE-416.) Other ships damaged included four light carriers, three escort carriers, one battleship, one destroyer, two destroyer escorts, and an oiler.
A hero of the Typhoon was the destroyer escort Tabberer (DE-418), which had her foremast and radio antennas washed away, and was taking 60 degree rolls. As evening approached on the 18th, Tabberer encountered and rescued a survivor of Hull. At that point her commanding officer, Lieutenant Commander Henry L. Plage, commenced a box search, despite her own serious state. Over the next 51 hours, Plage didn’t receive (or ignored) repeated orders from Admiral Halsey for all ships to regroup at Ulithi. (Halsey did not learn that any of his ships had been sunk until 0225 on 19 December.) During this period, Tabberer rescued 55 survivors (41 from Hull and 14 from Spence) before being relieved by two destroyer escorts. Tabberer rescued ten of the Hull survivors at night. Many were rescued by Hull swimmers, who went over overboard with lines tied, in order to bring the survivors to nets and life rings on Tabberer’s side, while other crewmen used rifle fire to drive away sharks. Lieutenant Commander Plage was awarded a Legion of Merit and Tabberer a Navy Unit Commendation (the first ever awarded, although others were awarded retroactively for earlier actions). The destroyer Brown (DD-546) rescued the six survivors from Monaghan and 13 survivors of Hull. All told, 93 crewmen who had been washed overboard or survived the sinking of their ships were rescued.
A Court of Inquiry subsequently convened at Ulithi on 26 December 1944 aboard the destroyer tender Cascade (AD-16), with Admiral Chester A. Nimitz in attendance and presided by Vice Admiral John Hoover. The Court of Inquiry placed responsibility for losses and storm damage on Admiral Halsey but ascribed no negligence, stating that Halsey’s mistakes “were errors in judgment committed under stress of war operations and stemming from a commendable desire to meet military requirements.” In retrospect, Halsey should not have attempted any refueling operations on the morning of 18 December, but that would have required him to know where the center of the typhoon was before he did. The Court of Inquiry also determined that the commanding officers of Hull, Monaghan, and Spence maneuvered too long in an attempt to keep station, which “prevented them from concentrating early enough on saving their ships.” In the opinion of Rear Admiral Samuel Eliot Morison, it was “too much to expect of junior destroyer skippers—classes of 1937 and 1938, Naval Academy—to have pitted their brief experience against the lack of typhoon warnings and their own want of fuel.”
However, in the words of Fleet Admiral Nimitz, “The time for taking all measures for a ship’s safety is while still able to do so. Nothing is more dangerous than for a seaman to be grudging in taking precautions lest they turn out to have been unnecessary. Safety at sea for a thousand years has depended on exactly the opposite philosophy.”
Sources are: History of United States Naval Operations in World War II, Vol. 13: The Liberation of the Philippines, by Samuel Eliot Morison; and the Dictionary of American Fighting Ships (DANFS).