Typhoon Cobra Strikes US Pacific Fleet

Typhoon Cobra, also known as the Typhoon of 1944 or Halsey's Typhoon (named after Admiral William 'Bull' Halsey), was the United States Navy designation for a tropical cyclone which struck the United States Pacific Fleet in December 1944 during World War II.

Despite some warning signs, on December 17, Admiral Halsey had unwittingly sailed Task Force 38 (TF 38), which was operating about 300 miles (480 km) east of Luzon in the Philippine Sea into the heart of the typhoon. The carriers had been conducting raids against Japanese airfields in the Philippines and ships were being refueled, especially many destroyers running low on fuel. However, due to worsening weather, attempts to refuel generally failed.

Because of 100-mile-an-hour winds, very high seas and torrential rain, three destroyers which had modifications making them more top-heavy than originally designed capsized and sank, and a total of 790 lives were lost. Nine other warships were damaged, and over one hundred aircraft were wrecked or washed overboard; the aircraft carrier Monterey was forced to battle a serious fire that was caused by a plane hitting a bulkhead.

The USS Tabberer (DE-418), a small John C. Butler-class destroyer escort lost her mast and radio antennas. Though damaged and unable to radio for help, she took the initiative to remain on the scene to recover 55 of the 93 total that were rescued. Captain Henry Lee Plage earned the Legion of Merit, while the entire crew earned the Navy's Unit Commendation Ribbon, presented by Halsey.

In the words of Admiral Chester Nimitz, the typhoon's impact "represented a more crippling blow to the 3rd Fleet than it might be expected to suffer in anything less than a major action". A Navy inquiry found Halsey responsible for the losses. It cited "errors of judgment committed under stress of war operations." Just six months later, he still failed to steer his fleet clear of another typhoon on June 5. After the second incident, an official court of inquiry recommended that he be relieved of his duties, but no action was taken. His December 1945 promotion was controversial because between his decisions leading to the Battle off Samar action in Leyte Gulf and the typhoons, Halsey was effectively responsible for the loss of seven warships and 1,450 men, more than the combined losses of the Battle of Midway and Battle of Coral Sea.

Task Force (TF) 38 consisted of seven fleet carriers, six light carriers, eight battleships, 15 cruisers, and about 50 destroyers. The carriers had been conducting raids against Japanese airfields in the Philippines and ships were being refueled, especially many destroyers running low on fuel. When the storm hit, the procedure had to be aborted.

Some ships experienced rolls of over 70 degrees and damage suffered by the fleet was severe. Three destroyers, Spence, Hickox and Maddox had nearly empty fuel stores (10-15% of capacity) and therefore lacked the stabilizing effect of the extra weight and thus were relatively unstable. Additionally, several other destroyers, including Hull and Monaghan, were of the older Farragut-class and had been refitted with over 500 tons of extra equipment and armament which made them top-heavy. The Spence, Hull and Monaghan were sunk either by capsizing or as a result of water downflooded through their smokestacks and disabling their engines, leaving them at the mercy of the wind and seas. The Hickox and Maddox, due to ballasting of their empty fuel tanks (pumping them full of seawater) had greater stability and were able to ride out the storm with relatively minor damage.

Many other ships of Task Force 38 suffered various degrees of damage, especially to radar and radio equipment which severely compromised communications within the fleet. Several carriers suffered fires on their hangars and 146 aircraft were wrecked or blown overboard. Nine ships — including one light cruiser, three light carriers, and two escort carriers — suffered severe damage and had to be sent for repairs.

The carrier Monterey was nearly taken down in flames by its own airplanes as they crashed into bulkheads and exploded during violent rolls. One of those fighting the fires aboard the Monterey was then-Lt. Gerald Ford, later President of the United States. Ford later recalled nearly going overboard; when 20+ degree rolls caused aircraft below decks to career into each other, igniting a fire, he volunteered to take a fire team below decks and fought fires all night, saving his ship from sure destruction at sea.

The fleet was scattered by the storm. One ship, the destroyer escort Tabberer, ran across a survivor from the Hull while itself desperately fighting the typhoon. This was the first survivor from any of the capsized destroyers to be picked up. Shortly thereafter many more survivors were picked up, in groups or in isolation. The Tabberer's skipper, Lieutenant Commander Henry Lee Plage, directed that the ship, despite its own dire condition, begin boxed searches to look for more survivors. Eventually, the Tabberer rescued 55 survivors in a 51-hour search, despite repeated orders from Admiral Halsey to return all ships to port in Ulithi. She picked up 41 men from the Hull and 14 from the Spence before finally returning to Ulithi after being directly relieved from the search by two destroyer escorts.

After the fleet had regrouped (without the Tabberer), ships and aircraft conducted search and rescue missions. The destroyer Brown rescued the only survivors from the Monaghan, seven in total. She additionally rescued 13 sailors from the Hull. Eighteen other survivors from the Hull and the Spence were rescued over the three days following Typhoon Cobra by other ships of the Third Fleet. In all, 93 men were rescued of the over 800 men presumed missing in the three ships, and one other who had been swept overboard from the escort carrier Anzio and had by good fortune floated upon another group of survivors.

Despite disobeying fleet orders, Plage was awarded the Legion of Merit by Admiral Halsey, and the Tabberer's crew each were awarded Navy Unit Commendation ribbons (the first ever awarded).
[edit] Investigation

While conducting operations off the Philippines, the force remained on station rather than avoiding a major storm, leading to a losses of men, ships and aircraft. A Navy court of inquiry found that while Halsey had committed an error of judgement in sailing into the typhoon, it stopped short of unambiguously recommending sanction.

In January 1945, Halsey passed command of his fleet to Admiral Spruance (whereupon its designation changed to 'Fifth Fleet'). Halsey resumed command of Third Fleet in late-May 1945 and retained it until the end of the war. In early June 1945 Halsey again sailed the fleet into the path of a typhoon, and while ships sustained crippling damage, none were lost. Six lives were lost and 75 planes were lost or destroyed, with almost 70 badly damaged. Again a Navy court of inquiry was convened, and it suggested that Halsey be reassigned, but Admiral Nimitz recommended otherwise due to Halsey's prior service.

Thirty years before fighting political fires in the wake of Watergate, President Gerald R. Ford battled blazes in World War II.

U.S. Naval Historical Society documents and a newly released book, “Halsey’s Typhoon,” by Bob Drury and Tom Clavin, capture the story of a young Navy Lt. Ford who saved lives by helping to put out a fire on the USS Monterey.

In December 1944, Ford, then a Navy lieutenant, was a gunnery officer on the light aircraft carrier, which was providing air cover for the second wave of the Philippines invasion as part of Adm. William Halsey’s Third Fleet.

Serving as deck officer during the ship’s midnight to 4 a.m. watch, Ford saw 40- to 70-foot waves swelling around his ship as it headed into the path of a howling typhoon.

Typhoon Cobra, as the storm was later called, rolled the Monterey 25 degrees, causing Ford to lose his footing and slide toward the edge of the deck, the sources reveal.

The two-inch steel ridge around the edge of the carrier slowed him enough so he could roll and twist into the catwalk below the deck. As he later stated, "I was lucky; I could have easily gone overboard."

At the height of the storm, 100-knot winds and towering waves rocked the Monterey and several fighter planes tore loose from their cables and collided into one another.

The collisions ignited aircraft gas tanks, and soon the hangar deck was ablaze. Because of a quirk in the Monterey’s construction, flames were sucked into the air intakes leading to the lower decks, spreading the fire inside the ship.

In a Dec. 28 New York Times commentary, Drury and Clavin remembered Ford’s actions.

Halsey had ordered Monterey’s skipper, Capt. Stuart H. Ingersoll, to abandon ship as the Monterey blazed from stem to stern, they wrote.

Ford stood near the helm, awaiting his orders.

“We can fix this,” Drury and Clavin quoted Ingersoll as saying. With a nod from his skipper, Ford donned a gas mask and led a fire brigade below. All the while, they wrote, aircraft-gas tanks exploded as hose handlers slid across the burning decks.

“Into this furnace, Ford led his men, his first order of business to carry out the dead and injured,” they wrote. “Hours later, he and his team emerged burned and exhausted, but they had put out the fire.”

After the fire, Monterey was declared unfit for service. But historical documents credit Ford’s courage for ensuring that nearly all its men survived to take part in the Battle of Okinawa.

Typhoon Cobra delivered the Navy’s worst “defeat” of World War II, capsizing three destroyers, damaging 12 more ships, destroying 150 planes, and killing 793 men, historians note.

And it nearly made a casualty of the future president.

Ford was later promoted to lieutenant commander, and he ended his Navy career in 1946 at that rank.