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Typhoon Cobra - Disaster at Sea

Reproduced, with thanks, from Winston S. Churchill 'The Second World War' (Cassell, London 1954)
In the weeks before Typhoon Cobra caught the 3rd Fleet by surprise, this map shows the battle plans for strikes against Luzon and Mindoro. 

by Hanson W. Baldwin, from Crowsnest Magazine, October 1953
Mr. Baldwin, The New York Times military editor, analyzed records of the Naval Court of Inquiry, log books of the ships concerned, and other accounts of the storm for this article, which is reprinted here..

It was the greatest fleet that had ever sailed the seas, and it was fresh from its greatest triumph. But the hand of God was laid upon it and a great wind blew, and it was scattered and broken upon the ocean. The inexorable Law of Storms -- the Bible of all seamen since the days of astrolabe and sail -- was neglected, and the US Third Fleet, proud in its might, paid the penalty -- more men lost, more ships sunk and damaged than in many of the engagements of the Pacific war. Storms have intervened before in history and nature has adjudicated the small affairs of man. A great wind, as well as Drake of Devon, saved England from the Spanish Armada. But in 500 years of naval history, there had been no wind the like of that which struck the Third Fleet, Admiral William F. Halsey commanding, and humbled it in an hour of victory 17-18 December 1944.

The battle for Leyte Gulf was history; the Japanese Empire only a few weeks before had been dealt a fatal blow. The invasion of Mindoro started 15 December and the Third Fleet was weary from three days of wide ranging strikes against the island of Luzon . As the fleet retired to the east to refuel, the beginning of the end was in sight; enemy land-based air power in the Philippines had been neutralized or destroyed, and MacArthur’s “I have returned” was already loud upon the lips of the world. Admiral Halsey, flying his flag in the battleship NEW JERSEY, dispatched the refueling rendezvous -- 14° 50' north, 129° 57' east, about 500 miles east of Luzon -- to the oilers and to Task Force 38, the carriers, under Vice-Admiral John S. McCain. But on the night of 16-17 December the sea made up and there was the queasiness of impending storm.

Sunday, 17 December, dawns dark and brooding, the sea choppy, the wind brisk but fickle, the ships fretful. Across hundreds of miles of ocean the Third Fleet steams, the masts, the flight decks bowing and dipping, swinging in wide arcs across the horizon. Here in all its majesty is the fleet that has humbled Japan -- a score of carriers, big and little; eight battlewagons, numerous cruisers, dozens of destroyers. 

The refueling rendezvous is changed three times in search of calmer seas; the Third Fleet makes contact with the 24 big fleet oilers and their escort and, despite the querulous swells, refueling starts. The compulsion of combat, the support needed by those soldiers back on Mindoro , permits no concession to nature. The destroyers -- the little ships that dance in any sea, the ships with empty maws from their days of high speed steaming -- come alongside the tankers and battleships in the morning. But the ocean will have none of it; this is a job for super seamen. There’s nothing but a mad swath of white water between oilers and tin cans as the hungry little ships try to gulp their food through hoses leading from the oilers’ tanks. Some get aboard hundreds of gallons before the lines break and the ships swing wildly apart, but most part line after line as boatswains curse and the water boils aboard the well decks and the steel plates run with oil. Wind force, 26 knots. Barometer 29.74. Temperature 82°. Visibility five miles. 

In early afternoon Commander Third Fleet orders fueling suspended, sets course to the northwest, then later to the southwest to escape the center of the approaching storm which is not clearly located. The barometer drops, the winds moan; there’s the uneasy leaden feeling of a hand across the heavens, but the Third Fleet steams on in cruising formation -- the destroyers screening the “big boys,” the antiaircraft guns alert, the sonars pinging, the radars searching, searching. The night is haggard. 

Aboard the destroyers the “fiddles” are on the wardroom tables, the sleepers are braced in their bunks, but the sharp motion of the aroused ocean makes sleep fitful and despairing. Barometers fall steadily. Rain squalls and flung spray and spume reduce visibility; station-keeping is difficult -- at times almost impossible. The seas make up; the winds beat and buffet, “but no estimates of the storm center were in agreement,” and not until dawn does the Third Fleet realize it is in the path of the granddaddy of all typhoons. And the fleet oilers and their escorting destroyers and escort carriers -- somewhat to the north and east of the main body -- are directly athwart the eye of the approaching typhoon. Fleet course is ordered changed to 180° due south -- but it is too late; the fury is upon them. NANTAHALA (oiler) … “this ship pitching deeply and heavily.” ALTAMAHA (escort carrier)… “heavy weather making station keeping only approximate.”

Morning fuel reports from many of the destroyers are ominous. All were low the day before; some had de-ballasted (pumped salt water out of their tanks) to prepare to refuel. They are riding light and high; stability is reduced. And their crews know that topside weight has been greatly increased since commissioning by more antiaircraft guns, fire control gear and radar. YARNALL reports 20% of fuel remaining; WEDDERBURN, 15%; MADDOX, HICKOX and SPENCE, 10-15%. The forenoon watch opens, in the words of an old seagoing term, “with the devil to pay and no pitch hot.” The violence of the wind is terrible; it shrieks and whinnies, roars and shudders, beats and clutches. The sea is convulsed, diabolic; the ships are laboring -- laid over by the wind, rolling rapidly through tremendous arcs with sharp violent jerks, pounding and pitching, buried deep beneath tons of water, rising heavily, streaming foam and salt from gunwales and hawse pipes. Violent rain gusts, spin drift blown with the sting of hail, a rack of scud blot out visibility.

The Third Fleet is scattered; few ships see others. Only on the radarscopes do the pips of light loom up to show in wild confusion man’s panoply of power. The deeply laden oilers, the heavy battleships, the larger carriers roll and plunge deeply and violently, but not dangerously, through the  towering seas, but for the escort carriers, the light carriers and the destroyers, the struggle is to live. The war now is against nature, not the Japanese; no man in all the fleet had ever felt before the full fury of such a howling, demonic wind. 

Some of the fleet is in the dangerous semicircle of the typhoon, where stronger winds drive them toward the storm’s center, and  at least one task unit is directly in the center, where the funnel of wind and the boiling ocean leap to climax. At 0820 destroyer DEWEY loses bridge steering control; at 0825 the radar, short-circuited by the flying scud, is out of operation. At 0845 escort carrier ALTAMAHA records in her deck log: 0“Mobile crane on hangar deck tore loose from moorings and damaged three aircraft.” The barometer drops as no seaman there had ever seen it fall before; the wind is up. 

Aboard COWPENS an F6F airplane, triple-lashed on the flight deck, breaks loose on a 45° roll and smashes into the catwalk, starting a fire. Men fight it as a bomb handling truck breaks free on the hangar deck and smashes the belly tank of a fighter. Men fight it as a wall of solid green water rips open, like a can opener, the steel roller curtains on the port side of the hangar deck. Men fight it as the anemometer, with one of its cups gone, registers a wind velocity of more than 100 knots; men fight it as the wind and sea pull out of its steel roots the forward 20mm gun sponson. Men fight it as the motor whaleboat is carried away by a wall of water, as bombs break their battens in the magazine and skitter about the deck, as jeeps and tractors, a kerry crane and seven planes are flung and blown off the flight deck into the writhing sea. But in the end it is the sea which extinguishes the fire, as it was the sea which started it; the F6F breaks clear of the catwalk and falls into the tumult of water. 

As the day wears on, the log books run out of the language of nautical superlatives. Several ships record the barometer at a flat 28 inches; DEWEY reads hers at 27.30 -- possibly the world’s lowest recorded reading. Oiler NANTAHALA, with other ships of a fueling unit to the northeast of the main body near the storm center, records a wind velocity of 124 knots. The wind shifts rapidly in direction as the typhoon curves, blowing from north and south and east and west -- backing and filling as do all circular storms -- and increasing in intensity to Force 17, far beyond that ancient nautical measuring stick of mariners, the Beaufort scale -- which defines Force 12, its maximum -- “that which no canvas could withstand” -- as a “hurricane above 65 knots.” The voice of the storm drowns all other voices; the wind has a thousand notes -- the bass of growling menace, the soprano of stays so tautly strained they hum like bowstrings.0The tops of the waves -- 70 feet from trough to crest -- are flattened off by the wind and buried straight before its violence; rain and spin drift mix in a horizontal sheet of water; one cannot tell where ocean stops and sky begins.

Over all is the cacophony of the ships -- the racked and groaning ships, the creaking of the bulkheads, the working of the stanchions, the play of rivets, the hum of blowers, the slide and tear and roar of chairs and books adrift, of wreckage slipping from bulkhead to bulkhead. Low fuel, attempts to keep station or to change course to ease pounding spell havoc -- for some. The seas are so great, the wind so strong that some of the lighter destroyers are derelicts; all possible combinations of rudders and screws fail to take them out of the troughs; they are sloughed and rolled and roughed far on their sides by wind and water, and drift out of control downwind.

The light and escort carriers fare little better; aboard SAN JACINTO, MONTEREY, ALTAMAHA and others, planes slide and slip, wreckage crashes groaning back and forth; the hangar decks are infernos of flame and crashing metal, of fire and wind and sea. Light carrier SAN JACINTO tries to “swing to new course to ease her.” The skipper backs the starboard engines, goes ahead 20 knots on the port, but the howling wind will have none of it; SAN JACINTO falls off into the trough, rolls 42°. A plane breaks loose on the hangar deck, skids into other planes -- each lashed to steel deck pad eyes with 14 turns of wire and rope -- tears them loose. The whole deck load crashes from side to side with each roll, “rupturing and tearing away all air intakes and vent ducts passing through the hangar decks.” Aboard ALTAMAHA -- all 14,000 tons of her planing like a surfboard on the tremendous rollers -- the planes she mothers turn against her; fire mains burst; wreckage litters the elevator pit; heavy seas break over the fantail; damage repair parties shore the bulkheads.

1145 - The wind estimated to be more than 110 knots. But DEWEY, as the morning dies, still lives. Not so destroyers MONAGHAN and SPENCE. 

MONAGHAN, with 12 battle stars on her bridge and a veteran of combat from Pearl Harbor to Leyte, lunges to her doom -- the fleet unknowing -- late in that wild and wind-swept morning. She’s last heard and dimly seen when the morning is but half spent:

0936 - MONAGHAN to Com. TG 30.8 -- “I am unable to come to the base course. Have tried full speed, but it will not work.”

1006 - MONAGHAN to unknown ship -- “You are 1,200 yards off my port quarter. Am dead in water. Sheer off if possible.” MONAGHAN to HOBBY -- “Bearing is 225°, 1,400 yards…”

MONAGHAN’s 1,500 tons of steel are racked and strained; her starboard whaleboat drinks the sea as the davits dip into the green water. But there’s little intimation of disaster. About eight bells, as the Wagnerian dirge of the typhoon drowns the lesser noises of the laboring ship, the wind pushes MONAGHAN far on her starboard side. She struggles to rise again -- and makes it, but sluggishly. In the after deck house, 40-50 men cling to stanchions and pray silently or aloud. Slowly the ship recovers. But the lights go out; again the deep roll to starboard, again and again she struggles back, shuddering, from disaster. Then, about noon, the wind brutalizes her; heavily, MONAGHAN rolls to starboard -- 30°, 40°, 60°, 70° -- tiredly, she settles down flat on her side to die amid a welter of white waters and the screaming Valkyries of the 0storm. And there go with her 18 officers and 238 men. SPENCE goes about the same time, but again the fleet unknowing. SPENCE is de-ballasted, light in fuel; she rides like a cork and is flung like a cork in the terrible canyon-like troughs. Power fails; the electrical board is shorted from the driven spray; the ship goes over 72° to port -- and stays there. The lights are out; the pumps are stopped -- the ship’s heart dead before the body dies; she drifts derelict.

Sometime before noon , the supply officer -- Lieutenant Alphonso Stephen Krauchunas, USNR -- destined to be SPENCE’s only officer survivor, sits on the edge of the bunk in the captain’s cabin talking tensely with the ship’s doctor. An awful roll throws Krauchunas on his back against the bulkhead “in a shower of books and whatnot.” Crawling on hands and knees on the bulkheads of the passageway, Krauchunas gets topside just before the entering ocean seeks him out. He fights clear along with 70 others -- but SPENCE -- 2,000 tons of steel with the power of 60,000 horses -- is done. The afternoon watch brings some slight surcease to some ships, climax and desperation to others.

The fleet is widely dispersed across a raging ocean -- some ships have felt the full fury of the storm; others are still to feel it. Between 1100 and 1400 of that day the peak is reached; “mountainous seas …confused by backing winds made the vessels roll to unprecedented angles.” For destroyer HULL , with much of the mail of the fleet aboard, the afternoon watch is her last. Small and old as destroyers go, HULL made heavy weather of it in the morning; the driven spray had shorted everything; in the Combat Information Center leaky seams admitted the sea and “sparks were jumping back and forth among the electrical cables.” HULL ’s tanks are 70% full of fuel oil; she’s better off than her lighter sisters though she has no water ballast.

But the storm brooks no objections; gradually, HULL loses the fight. Her radar is out; the whale boat smashed and torn loose; depth charges wrenched away and to “every possible combination of rudder and engines” the ship will not respond, and is blown “bodily, before wind and sea, yawing between 0headings of 100° and 080° true” -- toward the east. But the wind increases to an estimated 110 knots; “the force of the wind lays the ship over on her starboard side and holds her down in the water until the seas come flowing into the pilot house.” Early in the afternoon, the leaping sea hurtles up into the port wing of the bridge and young Commander Marks steps off his capsized ship, his first command, into a sea “whipped to a froth,” a sea so wildly angry, so ravening for life that lifejackets are torn from the backs of the few survivors. Destroyer DEWEY, battered and racked in the morning watch, makes it, though hurt almost mortally. At 1230 No. 1 stack carries away and falls over the side in a clutter of wreckage, leaving a gaping wound in the main deck and 400 pounds of steam escaping from the ruptured whistle line in a shuddering roar that mingles with the berserk voice of the typhoon. The falling funnel carries away the whaleboat davits; this easing of the topside weight -- and the skipper’s prescience in the morning watch in counter-ballasting the high port side with most of his fuel probably saved the ship. Nevertheless, green water slops over the starboard wing of the bridge as the ship lies over an estimated 80° to starboard -- and lives to tell about it -- perhaps the first vessel in the history of the sea to survive such a roll. At 1300 the barometer hits bottom -- an estimated 27.30". But the typhoon has done its worst; at 1340 the barometer registers a 0slight rise, and at 1439 the wind slackens to about 80 knots. The storm curves on into the wide open spaces of the Pacific the rest of that day –

 Monday. The winds still howl; the ships still heave, the ocean is confused, and even on Tuesday the seas are huge, but the great typhoon is over. Behind, it leaves the fleet scattered and broken, with more unrequited damage, as Admiral Halsey later noted, than at any time since the first battle of Savo Island . Survivors of MONAGHAN, HULL and SPENCE are pitifully few; destroyer escort TABBERER, herself de-masted, picks up the first survivors from HULL at 10 o’clock that night, and others, including Commander Marks, the next day. TABBERER also rescues ten survivors from SPENCE aboard a life raft on the 20th; other ships, scouring the ocean now that news of the sinkings is widely disseminated, find a handful of spent and injured sailors, who will forever comprehend more fully than any living men the meaning of the fury of the sea. The great typhoon of 17-18 December 1944 cost 790 dead or missing -- 202 from HULL, about 256 from MONAGHAN, 317 from SPENCE.


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