If you’d to believe the media nowadays you would think that severe storms are a 21st century phenomena. However they have been around for quite a while.
On 18 Dec 1944, divine intervention interfered with human action again. Admiral William Halsey and his Task Force 38 were caught unaware amidst refueling when Typhoon Cobra struck them to the east of island of Luzon of the Philippines. Halsey’s weather experts misread the track of this impending storm, and the admiral sailed right into it. As the heavy swells caused by 60-knot winds tossed his ships like children’s toys, Halsey’s ships scattered over 3,000 square miles. By the time he issued a typhoon warning to his captains, he had already lost three destroyers Spence, Hull, and Monaghan.
Task Force 38 (TF 38) had been operating about 300 mi (260 nmi; 480 km) east of Luzon in the Philippine Sea, conducting air raids against Japanese airfields in the Philippines. The fleet was attempting to refuel its ships, especially the lighter destroyers, which had small fuel tanks. As the weather worsened it became increasingly difficult to refuel, and the attempts had to be discontinued. Despite warning signs of worsening conditions, the ships remained in their stations. Worse, the information given to Halsey about the location and direction of the typhoon was inaccurate. On December 18, Halsey unwittingly sailed Third Fleet into the centre of the typhoon.
Aboard the carrier Monterey, aircraft in the hangar deck slammed into one another “like pinballs”, Gerald Ford recalled. It was inevitable that fires broke out. Captain Stuart H. Ingersoll was ordered by Halsey to abandon ship, but Ingersoll thought that “We can fix this”, and Ford, among others were the heroes who battled the bitter fire and eventually put it out, saving the carrier.
Aboard the carrier Cowpens, the scene was similar.
A Hellcat fighter, despite being triple-lashed, broke loose and smashed into the catwalk, starting a fire. Even as the firefighters attempted to extinguish the fire, a bomb handling truck rolled across the hangar deck and struck the tank of another fighter. The 100-knot winds even ripped out a 20-mm gun emplacement right out of its mounts. In the end, Cowpens survived, but the Hellcat that smashed into the catwalk did not.
When the fleet emerged from the typhoon, Halsey found seven more ships seriously damaged and 146 aircraft lost or unusable (some were pushed by the wind over edges of flight decks, some were intentionally pushed overboard after running into each other, and some lost to fire and impact damage). Worst of all, 800 lives were lost from this natural disaster. Water Tender Second Class Joseph McCrane, one of only six survivors of the USS Monaghan recalled:
“The storm broke in all its fury. We started to roll, heaving to the starboard, and everyone was holding on to something and praying as hard as he could. We knew that we had lost our power and were dead in the water…. We must have taken about seven or eight rolls to the starboard before she went over on her side.”ww2dbaseAfter ship sunk, the sailors held on to whatever they could to stay afloat. McCrane continued:
“Every time we opened a can of Spam more sharks would appear…. Toward evening some of the boys began to crack under the strain…. That (second} night most of the fellows had really lost their heads; they thought they saw land and houses.”A court inquiry at Ulithi a week later placed blame squarely on the shoulders of Halsey, though finding no negligence on the part of the admiral due to “stress of war operations” and “a commendable desire to meet military requirements”. With 790 officers and sailors lost to this storm, Nimitz submitted a letter to Washington recommending the Navy to improve its weather service, which was promptly started. The Pacific Fleet established new weather stations in the Caroline Islands and, as they were secured, Manila, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa. In addition, new weather central offices (for coordinating data) were established at Guam and Leyte.
Halsey’s misfortune with the Divine Wind would not be over just yet. During his support roles of the Okinawa landing, a typhoon developed, and Halsey attempted to steer his ships away from it at the recommendation of his weather experts. He, again, sailed right into it. Fortunately, with this meeting with the storm, he only lost six men.
Even though the Divine Wind interfered with history again, this time, Japan would not be saved by the heavens in this human conflict.
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