The lethal strike of Typhoon Cobra

The storm that caused more damage than battle

USS Anzio rolling heavily during Typhoon Cobra
(Photo: U.S: Navy)

Weather has always had a profound effect on war, especially on war at sea. In the 13th century, the Mongol conqueror Kublai Khan launched two massive invasions against Japan, and both were wrecked by seasonal typhoons. These two storms were named kamikaze (“divine wind”) in Japanese, and were the inspiration for the eponymous suicide planes of World War II. Similarly, the Spanish Armada, poised to invade England in 1855, was wrecked for good by North Atlantic storms, leading to the emergence of England as a major naval power. And, back in the 5th century B.C., the weather at sea had a profound effect on the wars between the Persian Empire and the Greek city-states. Today’s article, however, is about a much later storm: Typhoon Cobra, the last typhoon of the 1944 Pacific season, which ended up causing more damage to an American task force than the Japanese did.

Artist’s depiction of the original kamikaze
(Image: unknown artist)

Admiral William “Bull” Halsey, the commander of Task Force 38 (TF 38), also known as the Fast Carrier Task Force, was a feisty, aggressive officer popular with his sailors, and whose motto “Hit hard, hit fast, hit often” became closely associated with the entire U.S. Navy. In mid-December 1944, TF 38 comprised 7 Essex-class fleet carriers, 6 smaller Independence-class light carriers, 8 battleships, 4 heavy and 11 light cruisers, and about 50 destroyers. The battle of Leyte Gulf had recently concluded in late October, and the task force was now busy supporting landings in the Philippines. It had to stand in for the U.S. Army Air Forces, whose airfields on Leyte were rendered unusable by mud, and the carriers were busy launching patrols and air strikes against Japanese-held airfields. As December 17 approached, many of the vessels were running low on fuel due to the high tempo of operations. Destroyers are relatively small, and the ones low on fuel were light enough to ride high on the water, making them vulnerable to rough seas. Additionally, many of the destroyers were of the older Farragut-class, which were equipped with an extra 500 tons of armament and equipment, making them top-heavy.

William Halsey Jr., the commander of Task Force 38
(Photo: U.S. Navy)

The Third Fleet’s refueling group, coming to meet the task force, consisted of 12 feet oilers, 3 fleet tugs, 5 destroyers, 10 destroyer escorts, and 5 small escort carriers with replacement planes.
 
The weather forecast technology of the time gave little warning that Typhoon Cobra was forming. A part of the problem was that while it was very powerful, it was also compact and not very large, and was therefore underestimated until it was too late.

The radar image of typhoon Cobra on December 18
(Photo: National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration)
TF 38 began refueling operation in the morning of the 17th amid worsening weather. The refueling became gradually more and more dangerous as the storm was building, with hoses and lines getting yanked free, and ships almost smashed together by wave action. Halsey gave orders to belay refueling shortly before 1 p.m., and also ordered that destroyers which could not refuel should take on water into their ballast tanks to weigh them down and make them more stable. Several destroyers, however, were down to 10-15% fuel and could not go on for another 24 hours; these delayed taking on water in hopes that the storm would subside and they could finish refueling. (One of these destroyers happened to be the same USS Maddox which came to play a central role in the Gulf of Tomkin Incident in 1964, the event that caused the U.S. to take a more active role in the Vietnam War.) Halsey attempted to maneuver the task force to a calmer patch of the ocean, but ended up steering right in front of the oncoming typhoon.
The USS Atascosa trying to refuel the carrier USS Lexington
(Photo: U.S. Navy)

The typhoon proper arrived the next day, on December 18, with wind speeds that would eventually reach 110 knots (126 mph, 200 km/h). The unstable light carriers were rolling heavily, with USS Langley rolling 70° on one occasion. Seven planes on Cowpens were washed overboard, and another one broke loose and started a fire with a collision, but the fire was promptly extinguished. On the same ship, the wind also pulled a 20 mm gun emplacement off its mount.

USS Cowpens in a sharp roll during the typhoon
(Photo: U.S. Navy)

A fighter on the hangar deck of San Jacinto smashed into seven other planes. The smaller escort carriers of the refueling group had hulls designed based on merchant ships, and were actually more stable than the light carriers, but they still lost some 90 fighters.

And F4F Wildcat on the deck of USS Anzio during the typhoon
(Photo: U.S. Navy)

The light carrier Monterey fared the worst of all. A plane in the hangar broke loose and hit a bulkhead, starting a serious fire that killed three sailors and injured many more while another 38 planes were either destroyed or damaged by fire or washed overboard. One man involved in fighting the fire was Lieutenant Gerald R. Ford, the future President of the United States.

A destroyer, probably the USS Maddox, which went on to serve an important role in the Vietnam War, during Typhoon Cobra
(Photo: U.S. Navy)
Fleet carriers and massive battleships, including Halsey’s flagship, the USS New Jersey, were rising and falling perilously. “No one who has not been through a typhoon can conceive its fury,” Halsey reported. “The 70-foot seas smash you from all sides. The rain and the scud are blinding; they drive you flat-out, until you can’t tell the ocean from the air…. At broad noon, I couldn’t see the bow of my ship, 350 feet from the bridge…. This typhoon tossed our enormous ship as if she were a canoe…. We ourselves were buffeted from one bulkhead to another; we could not hear our own voices above the uproar.”
The light cruiser USS Santa Fe
(Photo: U.S. Navy)

 
The smaller and lighter destroyers, especially the ones low on fuel, fared even worse, with some taking 70° rolls amid the crashing waves. The USS Spence was a Fletcher-class destroyer, newer and more stable than the Farraguts, but she was down to 15% fuel and started taking on water ballast too late. Rolling heavily to port caused water to enter through the ventilators and short-circuit the distribution board, which supplied power to a part of the vessel. The pumps stopped working and the rudder jammed hard right. The Spence took a deep roll which she failed to recover from and went down at 11 a.m., only 23 men surviving from her crew of 317.
USS Spence (right) trying to refuel from the battleship USS New Jersey
(Photo: U.S. Navy)
By the time Spence sank, the Farragut-class destroyer Hull was also in deep trouble. While she had 70% of her fuel left, she became “locked in irons,” stuck in a position where the wind prevented her from turning toward a safer heading. Several 70° rolls caused water to pour down her funnels and into the pilothouse, and she capsized a few minutes after noon, with 62 sailors surviving out of her crew of 202. According to some reports, several of her officers considered removing the captain from command and turning the ship to a safer course before it was too late, but the vessel’s executive officer refused to support them on the grounds that there had never been a mutiny aboard a U.S. Navy ship. Whether true or not, the reported incident became an inspiration for the Pulitzer-winning 1952 novel The Caine Mutiny.
The USS Langley and a battleship during the typhoon
(Photo: U.S. Navy)
The third destroyer to sink was the Monaghan, another Farragut-class which managed to sink a Japanese midget submarine during the attack on Pearl Harbor. Similarly late in taking on ballast water, she lost electric power at 11:30 a.m., and the steering engine failed. Unable to steer, she went down just before noon, with only six survivors out of 256. One of the six, Water Tender Second Class Joseph McCrane, later recalled their ordeal waiting for rescue: “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.”
The USS Langley and a battleship during the typhoon
(Photo: U.S. Navy)
Several other destroyers almost followed suit. The Aylwin lost her engines and steering control, and stayed at a 70° list for 20 minutes. The commander used intermittently returning controls and incredible skill to hold her up. The blowers in the engine room failed, leading to temperatures of 180°F (82°C), forcing the engine rooms to be evacuated. The last two men to leave the room, the ship’s engineering officer and a machinist’s mate, collapsed due to the sudden temperature change when climbing through the escape hatch, and were washed overboard.
 
The destroyer escort Tabberer suffered heavy damage, losing her foremast and radio antennas amid 60° rolls. On the evening of the 18th, she encountered and rescued a survivor from the Hull, and commenced searching the area for other men in the water despite her own sorry state, either defying or not even receiving Admiral Halsey’s orders to regroup. The Tabberer, along with the Brown and the Sullivans, rescued 93 men over the next three days.
Survivors from the Spence and the Hull
(Photo: U.S. Navy)
By the time the typhoon passed, the task force was scattered over 2,500 square miles of ocean. 790 men died or were lost at sea. 146 planes were destroyed or damaged beyond repair. Nine ships, including 5 carriers and a cruiser, had to be sent to dock for repairs.
 
The subsequent Court of Inquiry found Admiral Halsey responsible for the loss of life and equipment, but also stated that the results were not due to negligence, since the mistakes “were errors in judgment committed under stress of war operations and stemming from a commendable desire to meet military requirements.” It was also noted that the three destroyers lost were commanded by young, inexperienced commanders, and it was “too much to expect of junior destroyer skippers—classes of 1937 and 1938, Naval Academy—to have pitted their brief experience against the lack of typhoon warnings and their own want of fuel.” On the other hand, Fleet Admiral Chester A. Nimitz, who was in attendance, stated that “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 have been unnecessary. Safety at sea for a thousand years has depended on exactly the opposite philosophy.”
Admiral Nimitz (left) and Halsey in 1943
(Photo: U.S. Navy)
The court’s findings led to a significant expansion of the Navy’s meteorological service in the Pacific, reducing the chance for future similar tragedies. Nevertheless, Admiral Halsey was still hit by a typhoon once again, six months later. Typhoon Connie damaged several ships, destroyed 150 planes and killed 6 men. Again, Halsey was found responsible for the debacle. Wishing to avoid the humiliation of a national hero, Admiral King, the Chief of Naval Operations, decided to take no action and Halsey went on to be present at the formal Japanese surrender aboard the USS Missouri at the end of the war.
The collapsed flight deck of the USS Bennington after Typhoon Connie
(Photo: U.S. Navy)

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Soldiers decorate a Christmas tree in Germany, December 1944
(Photo: U.S. Army)
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