After two grueling months of action in the Pacific, Vice Admiral John S. “Slew” McCain’s powerful Task Force 38 retired in late November 1944 to the big Caroline Islands base of Ulithi Atoll for a 10-day breather.
No one needed a break more than Admiral William F. “Bull” Halsey, the feisty, hard-drinking commander of the U.S. Third Fleet, who had come under fire for leaving San Bernardino Strait unguarded during the great Battle of Leyte Gulf on October 23-26, 1944. Pacing while “blue with rage,” Admiral Ernest J. King, chief of naval operations, had told Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, commander of the Pacific Fleet, that Halsey should be given a “rest.” General Douglas A. MacArthur, supreme commander of the Southwest Pacific Area, called for Halsey’s relief.
On the tiny northernmost island of Mogmog, Ulithi’s recreation center, McCain’s bluejackets joyfully swam, played baseball and basketball, pitched horseshoes, and swigged soft drinks and beer. Halsey, meanwhile, visited wounded sailors. He joked and shook hands with them, but it was an ordeal because he was torn by the suffering of his men. He tried to console himself at a wardroom party attended by hospital ship nurses. The event became well oiled and rowdy, climaxing when an officer doused a wastebasket fire with a bottle of carbon dioxide and then squirted a nurse between the legs. She screamed as the dry ice burned.
The Ulithi respite was soon over, and by Thanksgiving Day Halsey and Task Force 38 were dodging Japanese kamikaze assaults off the Philippines. Three aircraft carriers were damaged, including the veteran USS Intrepid. The volatile “Patton of the Pacific” had initially dismissed the suicide planes as “a sort of token terror, a tissue-paper dragon.” But his disdain gave way to anxiety as he watched his flattops burn. Halsey’s fortunes worsened by mid-December, but his next ordeal was not to come at the hands of the Japanese.
“Tropical Storm, Very Weak.”
Task Force 38 embarked from Ulithi on December 11, 1944. The fast carrier fleet had replenished, and its defensive tactics had been revised because of the increasing kamikaze threat. The armada comprised Task Group 38.1 commanded by Rear Admiral Alfred E. Montgomery, Task Group 38.2 led by Rear Admiral Gerald F. “Jerry” Bogan, and Task Group 38.3 commanded by Rear Admiral Forrest C. Sherman. Ninety ships set sail, including 13 carriers, eight battleships, three heavy cruisers, seven light cruisers, three antiaircraft cruisers, and 56 destroyers. McCain was aboard the carrier USS Hancock, and Halsey was in his flagship, the 45,000-ton battleship New Jersey. Both vessels were part of Task Group 38.2.
Plans called for the flattops to hit Luzon to support General MacArthur’s imminent invasion of Mindoro and then to make an unprecedented foray into the South China Sea to sever Japan’s remaining shipping lanes to the East Indies. The latter operation had long been sought by Halsey, but it was delayed because of the need for air support in the invasion of Leyte.
On December 13, the fast carriers topped off from their shadowing oilers and headed in toward the Luzon coast. Fighter sweeps started at dawn on the 14th and continued for three days. When the flattops withdrew on December 16, their fighters and dive bombers had destroyed 269 Japanese aircraft, sunk merchant ships, and blasted airfields and railroads. Twenty-seven American planes were lost. Enemy air opposition to the Mindoro landings was minimal, and none of the fast carriers were attacked.
Admiral Halsey planned to refuel his ships at sea on Sunday, December 17, and commence another three-day fighter strike on the 19th. Early on the morning of the 17th, TF-38 rendezvoused with 12 fleet oilers escorted by destroyers, destroyer escorts, and five escort carriers about 500 miles east of Luzon. Three days of high-speed operations had left many of the task force’s ships critically low on fuel.
The vessels began refueling on schedule at 10 am on the 17th, but a 20-30-knot wind and a cross swell made the operation difficult. “The wind,” said Admiral Robert B. “Mick” Carney, Halsey’s chief of staff, “was across the sea and it was impossible to find a course which would prevent yawing and surging.” On the previous day, Commander George F. Kosco, the Third Fleet aerologist, had received reports from Ulithi and Pearl Harbor of a “tropical storm, very weak,” and had informed Halsey and Carney. Kosco could not pinpoint the storm, but he did not think it would be anything serious.
An Erratic Storm
At 11:07 am on December 17, the destroyer USS Spence eased alongside the New Jersey to start fueling. When Halsey and his staff sat for lunch in the flag mess, they were alarmed to see the Spence rolling excessively on the starboard side, and it seemed that she might be slammed against the flagship. “She was riding up ahead,” reported Halsey later, “and she’d drop well astern and charge ahead and drop astern…. She was pitching and rolling heavily.”
Commander Kosco calculated that the “tropical storm” was coming closer to the fleet than he had estimated and was increasing in intensity. The swells mounted, and at 11:27 am the fueling hoses parted on the Spence. Disturbing reports came in from task group commanders. The destroyers Healy and The Sullivans experienced steering problems, and hoses parted aboard the Collett, Stephen Potter, L.K. Swenson, Preston, Thatcher, and Manatee. A seaman on the Caperton fractured his leg when seas smashed over the forecastle.
At 12:51 pm, when the storm’s center was 120 miles southeast of the task force’s position, Halsey ordered a halt to the fueling operations, planning to resume them at 6 the next morning. “No warning of the typhoon was received up to this point from any outside source,” he said later. “The storm followed an erratic course, different … and contrary to available history of December typhoons.”
Halsey called a conference in the flag mess, where lunch dishes were cleared and maps and charts spread out. Kosco placed in front of the admiral his morning’s weather map, which indicated a storm center 400 miles southeast of the task force and moving toward it. He expected that the “tropical disturbance” would merge with a weak cold front and veer off to the northeast. Aboard the carrier Lexington, however, Admiral Bogan was sure that a severe storm was approaching, while Captain Jasper T. Acuff, commander of the TF-38 replenishment group, was the first to make the correct guess as to the storm’s position and course. He and two escort carrier skippers agreed that the fueling rendezvous set for 6 am on December 18 would be directly in the storm’s path. Captain Michael H. Kernodle of the carrier San Jacinto had received storm warnings for 24 hours, but the information was not passed on to Kosco.
The weather continued to worsen as Halsey and his aides pored tensely over their maps, struggling to make a course toward calmer water. The assignment to support MacArthur on the 19th meant that TF-38 must refuel no later than the morning of the 18th. During the evening of December 17, the task force and its oilers butted steadily westward through mounting seas. At midnight, Halsey ordered a change of course from due west to due south, hoping to reach smoother water. Unwittingly, he was taking the armada directly into the path of the approaching typhoon.
“We Were Completely Cornered”
At dawn on Monday, December 18, Halsey realized that fueling would be even more difficult than on the previous day. But it had to be attempted because of the Luzon combat commitment and for the safety of the smaller vessels in the task force. With their fuel tanks almost empty, the destroyers were riding higher in the water and becoming unseaworthy. But prevailing conditions made the operation impossible. Halsey had no choice but to halt the fueling just after 8 am and send a dispatch to General MacArthur saying that TF-38 would not be able to support him the next day.
The storm soon assailed the task force and its support ships with howling winds and blinding rain. The fleet was by then 180 miles northeast of Samar in the eastern Philippines. The sea heaved, foam sloshed across decks, and vessels canted sickeningly, wallowing under tons of water. Some ships lost steering control, and sailors were reported washed overboard. Few men in the fleet had seen anything like the storm’s fury.
The fleet and “jeep” carriers rolled heavily. Planes were swept from the flight decks, while others broke loose in their hangar decks, slamming against bulkheads and catching fire. Efficient firefighting was impossible. The carrier Monterey lost steerage way, the carrier Independence lost two men overboard, and the escort carrier Kwajalein temporarily lost steering control. The carrier Cowpens lost seven planes, the Monterey 18, and the San Jacinto eight. Nineteen floatplanes were blown off the battleships and cruisers, and a total of 146 aircraft were lost during the storm.
“We were completely cornered,” Halsey reported. “The consideration then was the fastest way to get out of the dangerous semicircle and to get to a position where our destroyers could be fueled.” He sent a warning to all ships and weather stations at 9:14 am. “We didn’t think that we were dealing with a storm as severe as a typhoon until we were within 100 miles of it,” said Commander Kosco. Admiral McCain ordered changes in course and advised ships to disregard formation keeping and take the best courses and speeds for security.