Naval Order

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 Studiorum Historiam Praemium Est

San Francisco Commandery
4 December 2000
VOLUME 2, ISSUE 12

1944: Typhoon Hammers Halsey

Three Destroyers Lost
As Third Fleet Ducks Into Storm's Punch

Nearly 800 Sailors Perish, Dozens of Ships Damaged

On the 17th and 18th of December in 1944, Admiral William F. Halsey fought a battle with the sea, and it cannot be said that he emerged a winner.

Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz said Halsey suffered in a typhoon that battered his fleet "the greatest loss that we have taken in the Pacific without compensatory return since the First Battle of Savo."
USS Langley (CVL -28) on a roll to starboard. "Even the largest and most seaworthy vessels become virtually unmanageable and may sustain heavy damage."

That loss? Three destroyers, capsized and sank with hundreds of lives lost -the sea claimed 765 Third Fleet sailors in all. Four light carriers were badly damaged, and another four escort carriers. A light cruiser was mauled, as were seven fortunate destroyers that weathered the storm, two destroyer escorts, a fleet oiler and a fleet tug. More than 200 planes were lost off the decks of Third Fleet carriers.

The cause? A typhoon that made up near Ulithi, gained strength rapidly and proceeded on a west-northwesterly course to Luzon in the Philippines, a distance of more than 1,250 nautical miles, at a speed of eight or nine knots.

A question that has never answered is why didn't Halsey get his ships out of the way of the storm? That doesn't mean he didn't try - he was bobbing and weaving like a slick middle-weight, but he was ducking into punches thrown by Joe Louis. In the end, following an inquiry, the typhoon very nearly cost Halsey his career.

On 17 December, the Third Fleet stood off the Philippines, providing air support for the invasion of Mindoro, begun two days earlier, and softening up Luzon for the planned invasion at Lingayen Gulf in early January. Halsey, his flag on USS New Jersey (BB-62) had planned to refuel his ships this day and next and then send his planes against targets in the Manila area for three days beginning on the 19th.

The fueling was begun during the forenoon watch on the l7th and became increasingly difficult because of a rising swell and winds approaching 30 knots. Refueling from New Jersey, right under Halsey's nose, the destroyer USS Spence (DD-512) was tossed about like a cork Both fore and aft fueling hoses parted and the attempt was given up, her fuel down to 15 percent of capacity and her tanks pumped dry of ballast in anticipation of taking fuel, Spence rode the sea like a ping-pong ball.

Nathaniel Bowditch, in American Practical Navigator, a mariner's reference in continuous publication since 1802, published by the U.S. Navy hydro-graphic Office, and certainly available in many copies throughout the third Fleet, notes that the first warning is the "presence of a long swell... the crests passing at the rate of perhaps four per minute. " The barometerfalls, and as the fall becomes more rapid, wind speed reaches "a value of perhaps 22 to 40 knots. "

"Even the largest and most seaworthy vessels become virtually unmanageable, and may sustain heavy damage, " Bowditch says. "Less sturdy vessels do not survive. "

The symptoms were there, but went unrecognized, possibly because of increasing reliance on reports from Fleet Weather Central at Pearl Harbor and on weathermen in the fleet. Halsey had a staff aerologist on board New Jersey, and each of the carriers had its own.

Weather Central had begun tracking a disturbance near Ulithi at 0300 on the 16th, but had it moving north, never approaching within 400 miles of the Third Fleet. Halsey's aerologist was closer, but at 0900 on the 17th, had the storm 100 miles north of its actual path. The problem with these reports was they were based on pilots' observations, made after the planes landed because of the need for radio silence. They were often hours late.

Bowditch notes that the "bulletins and forecasts are an excellent guide, but they are not infallible and may be sufficiently in error to induce a mariner in a critical position to alter course so as to unwittingly increase the danger to his vessel."

Halsey knew the weather was getting worse rather than better so he suspended refueling and took the fleet on a north-westerly course, which would take him away from a storm advancing from the east. Subsequent reports showed the storm to have changed course, so the commander did likewise. Throughout the afternoon watch and the dog watch, the storm, now fully developed into a typhoon, persisted on its route, drawing ever closer to the Third Fleet.
The green dots are where Weather Central said the storm was and the purple dots are where Halsey's aerologist said it was. The red dots represent the storm's actual center at those times and the red and black dots numbered 5 mark the position of the storm and of the Third Fleet respectively at 0900 on 18 December.

The route of the typhoon was almost exactly that of an Area III storm depicted in Bowditch, Figure 3902. "Areas in which tropical cyclones occur, and their approximate tracks. "

Through most of the night, Halsey ran due west, and was actually moving farther ahead of the typhoon, outrunning it by about six knots. The glass was rising and the seas were moderating slightly. The fleet aerologist still placed the center of the storm hundreds of miles to the northeast. At midnight, the fleet turned due south, hoping to find smooth seas for refueling in the morning. The ships were to cross the path of the typhoon.

As the fleet and the typhoon moved toward each other in the early hours of 18 December, the weather worsened precipitously (Halsey told the Court of Inquiry that, at 0400, he was aware "for the first time" that the Third Fleet "was confronted with serious storm conditions").

At around 0430, Halsey asked V. Adm. John S. McCain in USS Yorktown (CV-10) and R.Adm. G. F. Bogan in USS Lexington (CV-16) for their estimates of where the center of the storm was. Together with a new plot from his own aerologist, he had three guesses - all wrong. According to a plot made of the path of the typhoon after the fact, its center was at that moment about 90 miles east-southeast from New Jersey, and moving at around 8.6 knots in a west-northwest direction. The Third fleet was dead in the path of the storm, which was ten and one-half hours distant.

Shortly thereafter, Halsey ordered a course change to 180' at a fleet speed of 15 knots. At daybreak, a final attempt to fuel was made, but high seas and gale winds prevented it. At about the same time, the storm dropped its nose and was bearing almost due west. It seemed to be chasing the Third Fleet. At 0830, Halsey finally gave up on refueling,

Shortly before noon, the admiral ordereded some elements of his fleet to "take most comfortable courses" consistent with the generally southerly course of the fleet. The ships were now widely spread and the course chosen by fleet oiler USS Mascoma (AO-83) took her through the eye of the typhoon. Her barometer fell to 27.02.

This malevolent storm, to employ a pathetic fallacy, not only changed direction to take aim at Halsey, it had been gathering its violent strength along its path from Ulithi and reached full fury as it reached the Third Fleet.

At 1345, Halsey now realized what he had considered "serious storm conditions" at 0400 were something more. He issued a typhoon warning, the first time he had used that word and the first that Fleet Weather Central in Pearl Harbor knew of the gravity of the situation. It was worse even than what Halsey or anyone else thought - three destroyers had already been swallowed by the sea. Halsey's heavy ships more or less kept station but the rest of the fleet had become scattered over a 3,000-square-mile patch of the Pacific, so some bore more of the brunt of the storm than others, but none fared well. Most of their commanders chose to fight the sea, and the sea wins those fights.

The skipper of USS Buchanan (DD-484), Cdr. R. W. Curtis, understood this, and observed in his report of the typhoon that the best way to deal with a tropical cyclone is to heave to, bow-on to the sea if to the right of the center or stern to the sea to its left. Doing so affords the greatest amount of headway away from the storm center and the least amount of leeway toward it.

In his endorsement of Buchanan's report, Halsey wrote "This basic fact of seamanship is not well understood among naval officers."

Capt R. C. Warrack of USS Kwajalein (CVE-98) understood that basic fact of seamanship. His ship was part of the At Sea Logistics Group of Capt. J. T. Acuff and was closer to the storm's center than most. Warrack hove to, bow to the sea, and maintained his stationary position with both engines ahead full. In his report, he noted that "The battle ensign was reduced to a small scrap showing two stars."

Lt.Cdr. J. H. Wesson, captain of USS Hickox (DD-673), also understood the rule, and saved his battered ship. He reported that his steering motors were lost, the main switchboards and the emergency Diesel electric generation boards battered out of commission, his motor whaleboat ripped from the ship, the searchlight and radar antenna blown over the side, green water poured down a stack and flooded a boiler, much of the superstructure aft of the funnels was damaged and the depth charge racks were crushed. Hickox survived - three destroyers didn't.

The Three Destroyers

USS Hull (DD-350), USS Monaghan (DD-354), both old Farragut Class ships, and Spence, a modem Fletcher Class destroyer, were battered under by mountainous seas. Their few survivors tell similar tales.

Hull and Monaghan were part of the screen for Acff s replenishment unit while Spence was part of the screen for Halsey's flagship group. On the moming of 18 December, Hull had 70 percent of her fuel capacity aboard and Monaghan was even better situated with 75 percent. Spence had something less than the 15 percent she had reported a day earlier during her failed attempt to refuel from New Jersey. The constant promise of refueling had led the destroyers' commanders to leave their tanks empty of ballast. All three were last heard from between 1007 and 1117 on the l8th.
USS Spence cuts through
a moderate sea at speed.

Spence was in terrible shape to confront heavy seas. A Fletcher Class destroyer can steam for a week at 8 knots on full tanks, but Spence had less than a seventh of that. At around 1000, ballasting was belatedly begun, but it was too late. Seas were mountainous at 50 to 60 feet and what one of Spence's officers called a "gale" was blowing at 115 knots, though anything more than 75 knots is commonly thought of as being "hurricane" force winds. Reports over TBS of other ships losing men over-board prompted Lt.Cdr. J. P. Andrea to suggest his crew seek shelter below decks.

At about 1100 everything happened at once. Spence rolled heavily to port, taking water down her ventilators and probably a funnel. The circuit boards were shorted out and one fire put out. The ship's rudder was jammed full right and one more roll put her under. Only one officer and 23 men survived An account of the ship's last moments can be read on the World Wide Web at http:// www.cds23.navy.mil/lossof.htm

Lt.Cdr. J. A. Marks, skipper of Hull, may have been the first in the fleet to recognize the storm as a typhoon - he had served in destroyers in the Atlantic where they were called hurricanes - but the conclusion he reached at around 0900 on the 18th failed to save his ship. Though his fuel tanks were 70 percent full, three of them were only half full, and those were side-by-side, across the ship, forward of the machinery spaces. The surging liquid would amplify the force of a roll.

Marks, who was one of Hull's eight officers and 55 enlisted men to survive, told of his ship's last moments. "The seas were monstrous, the winds having reached well over 100 knots," he wrote, adding he believed that "No wind or sea could have been worse." All the batter-ing that occurred to Hickox, happened to Hull, as well, and more. "At times, I felt the bridge, which was taking such extreme punishment from the tons of water bashing the whole structure, would be torn off the ship."

Marks said the end came "Shortly before 1200." The enormous force of the wind was "laying Hull on her starboard side and holding her down. The sea was beginning to surge in torrents into the ship's upper structure. I continued to remain on the bridge until the water flooded up to me, before stepping into the sea as she rolled over."

Marks and the other survivors were picked up three days later by USS Tabberer (DE-418).

The actual time of Monaghan's loss has never been determined, nor is the exact location of her sinking known. She was last heard from at 1007 on the 18th. Watertender Second Class Joseph C. McCrane spoke of sounding the fuel tanks at sometime between 1000 and 1030, in preparation for ballasting The ship was rolling too heavily to continue that operation so he sought shelter in the after five-inch mount, which he found crowded, but not too crowded.

"We must have taken at least seven or eight heavy rolls to starboard when the ship finally rolled over on her side," McCrane said The weight of the gun mount door and the wind blowing against it made it difficult to open "But eventually, we did get it open and managed to crawl out. Thankfully, none of the men had panicked, nor was there any confusion among them. They did the best they could to help their shipmates." They were all thrown into the sea and eventually McCrane found himself on a life raft with nine others.

One, Gunner's Mate Joe Guio, who had stood outside the gun mount hatch pulling sailors out, died from exhaustion. During the next three days, two more died from exposure. Another thought he saw land and houses and swam off into the night. On the third day, the raft was spotted by search planes and, within an hour, USS Brown (DD-546) came to their rescue.

There were six of them - all that was left of Monaghan and her crew.

Members of the Naval Order's San Francisco Commandery will remember that it was Monaghan that plucked Aviation Radioman-Gunner Lloyd F. Childers of Walnut Creek and his pilot, Warrant Machinist Harry L. Corl, from the water during the Battle of Midway, after they had returned to their carrier only to find a gaping hole in her flight deck. Their Douglas Dauntless dive bomber had been damaged and was not up to the task of finding another carrier and Childers was badly wounded, so Corl ditched parallel to Monaghan. A doctor aboard the destroyer told Childers that he would not have lasted another thirty minutes.

USS Tabberer

The smaller destroyer escorts had a rough time of it and, though none foundered, none was pluckier than Tabberer, the ship that rescued the survivors of Hull and Spence.

At one point, while trying to rescue an exhausted swimmer, the ship rolled nearly on her beam ends and almost brought the swimmer onboard But not quite, and when a huge shark approached, Tabberer's sailors drove it off with rifle fire. The swimmer was incapable of reaching a life ring thrown to him, so the ship's executive officer, reserve Lt. Robert M. Surdam, dove into the sea and carried a line to him.

Another Tabberer over-the-side rescuer, Bosun's Mate L. A. Purvis, was bending a line to a half-drowned swimmer when the ship rolled violently. Purvis' own lifeline was snagged by her underwater sonar dome and he was dragged under the ship as she righted herself. He tore off his kapok life jacket off - the line was attached to it - and swam under the ship, coming up on her other side. He and the swimmer both survived. In his report on the rescue of Hull's survivors, Lt.Cdr. Henry L. Plage, Tabberer's skipper, made note of the kapok life jacket. "Out of the 55 men rescued, 54 had kapok jackets. It is believed many were drowned during the storm because of the inadequate support given by the belt-type life jacket."

The Aftermath

Admiral Halsey first learned at 0225 on 19 December that ships had been lost and immediately detached USS Blue (DD-387), USS Gatling (DD-671) and Brown to join Tabberer in the search for survivors. They were later joined by Rudyerd Bay and her escorts USS Robert F. Keller (DE419) and USS Swearer (DE-186), and still later by USS Nehanta Bay (CVE-74). Brown found Monaghan's six survivors, as well as a dozen from Hull. Swearer recovered nine from Spence.

ADM William F. Halsey

FLT.ADM Chester W. Nimitz

A court of inquiry was convened aboard a destroyer tender in Ulithi Lagoon on 26 December and placed responsibility for damage resulting from the typhoon squarely on The Bull who, it should be noted, bore the burden well. As endorsed by Fleet Admirals Nimitz and Ernest J. King, chief of naval operations, the court's report cleared Halsey of negligence, but not errors. The report said his mistakes were "errors of judgment resulting from insufficient information, committed under stress of war operations, and stemming from firm determination to meet military requirements." The court also recommended improvements in ship construction to prevent entry of the sea under hurricane conditions and improvements in weather reporting.

Nimitz flew to Ulithi where he spent Christmas and talked about the typhoon to many officers of the Third Fleet which had returned to the lagoon for repairs. After the Court of Inquiry had issued its report, he issued a commentary of his own. In a long Fleet Letter that could have been written by a descendent of Nathaniel Bowditch, he reminded his officers of the timeless responsibility of sailing masters for the safety of their ships, and with indirect reference to the commander of the Third Fleet said "It is most definitely part of the senior officer's responsibility to think in terms of the smallest ship and most inexperienced commanding officer under him."

He concluded "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 be unnecessary. Safety at sea for a thousand years has depended on exactly the opposite philosophy."


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