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Thursday, September 01, 2016

Typhoon Cobra: The Third Fleet in Bad Weather

Typhoon Cobra
As a hurricane/tropical storm runs through Florida and heads for the Carolinas through Georgia, it might be a good time to consider the things that can happen when a fleet wanders into the path of a big storm. In the instant case, it was the U.S. Third Fleet under Admiral Halsey in December 1944 which ran into "Typhoon Cobra." Or perhaps it was the typhoon that ran over the Third Fleet. In any event, after the storm passed, it wreaked havoc:
. . . three destroyers capsized and sank, and 790 lives were lost. Nine other warships were damaged, and over 100 aircraft were wrecked or washed overboard; the aircraft carrier Monterey was forced to battle a serious fire that was caused by a plane hitting a bulkhead.

Or. as Admiral Nimitz noted in Extracts Relating to the Typhoon from Commander in Chief, Pacific Fleet Report,
Admirals Nimitz and Halsey
On 18 December 1944, vessels of the Pacific Fleet, operating in support of the invasion of the Philippines in an area about 300 miles east of Luzon, were caught near the center of a typhoon of extreme violence. Three destroyers, the HULL, MONAGHAN, and SPENCE, capsized and went down with practically all hands; serious damage was sustained by the CL MIAMI, the CVLs MONTEREY, COWPENS, and SAN JACINTO, the CVEs CAPE ESPERANCE and ALTAMAHA, and the DDs AYLWIN, DEWEY, and HICKOX. Lesser damage was sustained by at least 19 other vessels, from CAs down to DEs. Fires occurred on three carriers when planes were smashed in their hangars; and some 146 planes on various ships were lost or damaged beyond economical repair by the fires, by being smashed up, or by being swept overboard. About 790 officers and men were lost or killed, and 80 were injured. Several surviving destroyers reported rolling 70 or more; and we can only surmise how close this was to capsizing completely for some of them. It was the greatest loss that we have taken in the Pacific without compensatory return since the First Battle of Savo.
Of the ships lost, Nimitz notes that they were
Maneuvering up to the time of sinking, in the attempt to maintain station, by all ships that
USS Monterey in which Gerald Ford, future president, served during Typhoon Cobra
were lost. DEWEY, saved by apparently a narrow margin, had given up the attempt.
Of all Nimitz's words, the most frightening are these where he describes the futility of belated action resulting in
The storm "taking charge" and making impossible various evasive and security measures which might have been effective at an earlier stage.
Light Cruiser Sante Fe takes a heavy roll
Admiral Nimitz declined the opportunity to do much second guessing but he did unload some wisdom:
11. The most difficult part of the whole heavy-weather problem is of course the conflict between the military necessity for carrying out an operation as scheduled, and the possibility of damage or loss to our ships in doing so. For this no possible rule can be laid down. The decision must be a matter of "calculated risk" either way. It should be kept in mind, however, that a ship which founders or is badly damaged is a dead loss not only to the current operation but to future ones, that the weather which hinders us may be hindering the enemy equally, and that ships which, to prevent probable damage and possible loss, are allowed to drop behind, or to maneuver independently, may by that very measure be able to rejoin later and be of use in the operation.

12. The safety of a ship against perils from storm, as well as from those of navigation and maneuvering, is always the primary responsibility of her commanding officer; but this responsibility is also shared by his immediate superiors in operational command since by the very fact of such command the individual commanding officer is not free to do at any time what his own judgment might indicate. Obviously no rational captain will permit his ship to be lost fruitlessly through blind obedience to plan or order, since by no chance could that be the intention of his superior. But the degree of a ship's danger is progressive and at the same time indefinite. It is one thing for a commanding officer, acting independently in time of peace, to pick a course and speed which may save him a beating from the weather, and quite another for him, in time of war, to disregard his mission and his orders and leave his station and duty.

13. It is here that the responsibility rests on unit, group, and force commanders, and that their judgment and authority must be exercised. They are of course the ones best qualified to weigh the situation and the relative urgency of safety measures versus carrying on with the job in hand. They frequently guard circuits and possess weather codes not available to all ships; and it goes without saying that any storm warnings or important weather information which they are not sure everybody ha received should be re-transmitted as far as practicable. More than this, they must be conscious of the relative inexperience in seamanship, and particularly hurricane seamanship, of many of their commanding officers, despite their superb fighting qualities. One division commander reports that his captains averaged eight years or less out of the Naval Academy, and this is probably typical.

14. It is most definitely part of the senior officer's responsibility to think in terms of the smallest ship and most inexperienced commanding officer under him. He cannot take them for granted, give them tasks and stations, and assume either that they will be able to keep up and come through any weather that his own big ship can; or that they will be wise enough to gauge the exact moment when their tasks must be abandoned in order for them to keep afloat. The order for ships to be handled and navigated wholly for their own preservation should be originated early enough by the seniors, and not be necessarily withheld until the juniors request it. The very gallantry and determination of our young commanding officers need to be taken into account here as a danger factor, since their urge to keep on, to keep up, to keep station, and to carry out their mission in the face of any difficulty, may deter them from doing what is actually wisest and most profitable in the long run.
Yes, there is a time when a young officer needs to say "No" to those above him or her in the chain of command and do what he believes is right.

That's a very fine line, though.

More on this storm and its consequences at the Naval History and Heritage Command's Typhoons and Hurricanes: Pacific Typhoon, 18 December 1944

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