Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Halsey's Typhoon

Guest Author: John E. Jennings, my brother and amateur historian.

After discovering a distant cousin was killed during World War II when his ship went down during a typhoon, I asked my brother to write about the disaster that caused his death. Machinist Mate 1st Class Edward Henkel's name is included on the Walls of the Missing at the American Memorial Cemetery in Taguig City, Philippines.

Almighty Father, strong to save,
Whose arm hath bound the restless wave,
Who bidd'st the mighty ocean deep
Its own appointed limits keep:
O hear us when we cry to thee
For those in peril on the sea.

This old Royal Navy hymn was popularized in the days of sail, but was still readily on the lips of sailors in the closing stages of World War II, for even ships made of steel and powered by steam-turbines had to take heed of Mother Nature’s wrath. Case in point was the typhoon that struck the United States fleet in the Pacific on 18 December, 1944.

By that late stage of the war U.S. 3rd Fleet, commanded by Admiral William F. Halsey—known by the nickname “Bull” because of his single-minded devotion to attacking the enemy—was an all-conquering force, the most powerful armada ever assembled in history. The fleet consisted of 13 aircraft carriers, eight battleships, 15 cruisers and about 50 destroyers. They were supported by a Logistics Group (Task Force 30) of tankers, escort carriers and destroyers, ready to resupply the warships at sea so they could remain longer in the combat zone. Just two months before, Halsey’s fleet had destroyed virtually the entire Japanese Combined Fleet during the Battle of Leyte Gulf. But, there was still plenty of fighting left. MacArthur’s army forces had just invaded Mindoro in the Philippines and Halsey’s carriers operated in support of the ground troops, flying attack missions against Japanese air bases in the northern Philippines. By mid-December, though, his ships were running low of fuel, so he took his fleet far to the east into the Philippine Sea, out of range of enemy aircraft, to rendezvous with TF 30 and refuel.

The rendezvous point lay in the typical path of typhoons for that time of year, but all hands were much more concerned about getting back to fighting the Japanese then they were about the potential for storms. Even as the weather started making up on the 17th, little heed was given to what seemed by all data available to be a rather small tropical disturbance. Typhoon Cobra, however, would fool the fleet’s meteorologists; it worked up from a disturbance to a full-fledged typhoon in short order and was so densely packed that it spun off few tell-tale signs. So as Halsey’s fleet steamed toward its refueling rendezvous, nobody realized they were sailing directly into the path of a fierce typhoon. By the early hours of the 18th, as the wind picked up to more than 30 knots, Halsey realized he was “confronted by serious storm conditions.” He cancelled the planned refueling at 0500 hours and ordered his fleet due south into what he thought would be the calmer southern quadrant of the storm. But his meteorologists had miscalculated the storm’s true position, so this course change brought his ships into the worst of the gathering storm. By 1000 the barometer plunged and winds gusted to more than 70 knots. Seas built into pyramid shaped mountains and slammed into the ships. At 1149 Halsey ordered all units to take the most comfortable course, giving up any semblance of fleet formation. Escort carrier Kwajalein hove to in order to reduce the pounding it was taking after rolling so severely she scooped up green water with her flight deck catwalks. On other carriers planes broke their lashings and crashed about the hangar deck, causing fires aboard light carriers Monterey and Cowpens. In total 146 aircraft were lost, either wrecked or heaved overboard.

Waves breaking over a Navy oiler during Typhoon Cobra, better known as
Halsey's Typhoon; courtesy of the National Archives and Records

But it was Task Force 30, the Logistics Group and easternmost of all the fleet units, that caught the worst of the storm. And the destroyers suffered the most. Hull was a smallish (1370 tons displacement) destroyer of an older design. She had been modified during the course of war, being fitted with over 500 tons of extra equipment and armament on her decks, which made her top heavy. Worse still she had several half empty fuel tanks, which can be dangerous in heavy seas because the ship’s center of gravity changes as the contents shift, a dynamic which tends to exaggerate rolls. Naval regulations at the time did not advise re-ballasting under such conditions, although it certainly would have helped stabilize the ship. Hull’s skipper, Lieutenant Commander J. A. Marks had experienced storms in the North Atlantic, but not a typhoon like the one now bearing down on his little ship. At 1100, with wind increasing to over 100 knots, the TF 30 commander (Captain Jasper. T. Acuff) ordered a course change to 140°. It proved a death knell for Hull. The ship failed to respond during the course change and ‘lay in irons’ with the northerly wind on her port beam. She was pounded by one, two and then three monstrous waves, rolling the ship over to 70° each time. Her whaleboat, depth charges and nearly everything on deck was carried off by the sea. Then a strong gust of 110 knot wind knocked her down and kept her pinned on her beam ends. The pilothouse flooded and sea poured into her inner spaces through the stacks. Hull sank shortly after noon, taking with her all but 62 out of a crew of 264.

Hull was not the only ship to go down on 18 December, 1944 in what has come to be known in naval
annals as “Halsey’s Typhoon.” Destroyers Monaghan and Spence also capsized and sank. Nine other
ships were damaged badly enough to need repairs. 790 men were lost. A board of inquiry placed
responsibility for the losses on Halsey, but assigned no negligence to the admiral, finding that his errors in judgment stemmed from a “commendable desire to meet military requirements.” It was also found that lack of suitable weather stations in the Western Pacific contributed to the ignorance of the fleet to the approaching storm. Within months the Fleet Weather Center was established on Guam and weather stations staffed at various other islands to keep track of tropical storms. Guidelines were put in place for destroyers to re-ballast half-empty fuel tanks and flood empty tanks in certain sea conditions.

Edward Henkel (1923-1944): Killed During Typhoon Cobra

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