Books by Clavin, Tom

Drury, Bob and Tom Clavin. Halsey's Typhoon. New York: Grove Press, 2007. ISBN 978-0-8021-4337-2.
As Douglas MacArthur's forces struggled to expand the beachhead of their landing on the Philippine island of Mindoro on December 15, 1944, Admiral William “Bull” Halsey's Third Fleet was charged with providing round the clock air cover over Japanese airfields throughout the Philippines, both to protect against strikes being launched against MacArthur's troops and kamikaze attacks on his own fleet, which had been so devastating in the battle for Leyte Gulf three weeks earlier. After supporting the initial landings and providing cover thereafter, Halsey's fleet, especially the destroyers, were low on fuel, and the admiral requested and received permission to withdraw for a rendezvous with an oiler task group to refuel.

Unbeknownst to anybody in the chain of command, this decision set the Third Fleet on a direct intercept course with the most violent part of an emerging Pacific (not so much, in this case) typhoon which was appropriately named, in retrospect, Typhoon Cobra. Typhoons in the Pacific are as violent as Atlantic hurricanes, but due to the circumstances of the ocean and atmosphere where they form and grow, are much more compact, which means that in an age prior to weather satellites, there was little warning of the onset of a storm before one found oneself overrun by it.

Halsey's orders sent the Third Fleet directly into the bull's eye of the disaster: one ship measured sustained winds of 124 knots (143 miles per hour) and seas in excess of 90 feet. Some ships' logs recorded the barometric pressure as “U”—the barometer had gone off-scale low and the needle was above the “U” in “U. S. Navy”.

There are some conditions at sea which ships simply cannot withstand. This was especially the case for Farragut class destroyers, which had been retrofitted with radar and communication antennæ on their masts and a panoply of antisubmarine and gun directing equipment on deck, all of which made them top-heavy, vulnerable to heeling in high winds, and prone to capsize.

As the typhoon overtook the fleet, even the “heavies” approached their limits of endurance. On the aircraft carrier USS Monterey, Lt. (j.g.) Jerry Ford was saved from being washed off the deck to a certain death only by luck and his athletic ability. He survived, later to become President of the United States. On the destroyers, the situation was indescribably more dire. The watch on the bridge saw the inclinometer veer back and forth on each roll between 60 and 70 degrees, knowing that a roll beyond 71° might not be recoverable. They surfed up the giant waves and plunged down, with screws turning in mid-air as they crested the giant combers. Shipping water, many lost electrical power due to shorted-out panels, and most lost their radar and communications antennæ, rendering them deaf, dumb, and blind to the rest of the fleet and vulnerable to collisions.

The sea took its toll: in all, three destroyers were sunk, a dozen other ships were hors de combat pending repairs, and 146 aircraft were destroyed, all due to weather and sea conditions. A total of 793 U.S. sailors lost their lives, more than twice those killed in the Battle of Midway.

This book tells, based largely upon interviews with people who were there, the story of what happens when an invincible fleet encounters impossible seas. There are tales of heroism every few pages, which are especially poignant since so many of the heroes had not yet celebrated their twentieth birthdays, hailed from landlocked states, and had first seen the ocean only months before at the start of this, their first sea duty. After the disaster, the heroism continued, as the crew of the destroyer escort Tabberer, under its reservist commander Henry L. Plage, who disregarded his orders and, after his ship was dismasted and severely damaged, persisted in the search and rescue of survivors from the foundered ships, eventually saving 55 from the ocean. Plage expected to face a court martial, but instead was awarded the Legion of Merit by Halsey, whose orders he ignored.

This is an epic story of seamanship, heroism, endurance, and the nigh impossible decisions commanders in wartime have to make based upon the incomplete information they have at the time. You gain an appreciation for how the master of a ship has to balance doing things by the book and improvising in exigent circumstances. One finding of the Court of Inquiry convened to investigate the disaster was that the commanders of the destroyers which were lost may have given too much priority to following pre-existing orders to hold their stations as opposed to the overriding imperative to save the ship. Given how little experience these officers had at sea, this is not surprising. CEOs should always keep in mind this utmost priority: save the ship.

Here we have a thoroughly documented historical narrative which is every bit as much a page-turner as the the latest ginned-up thriller. As it happens, one of my high school teachers was a survivor of this storm (on one of the ships which did not go down), and I remember to this day how harrowing it was when he spoke of destroyers “turning turtle”. If accounts like this make you lose sleep, this is not the book for you, but if you want to experience how ordinary people did extraordinary things in impossible circumstances, it's an inspiring narrative.

August 2009 Permalink