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.
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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.”