In World War II, being flight surgeon on an aircraft carrier meant that my Grandpa Joe Pace personally saw only occasional action. His ship, the small carrier USS Monterey, was in more danger from the weather than from the enemy. Weather dangers were not trivial, however. On 17-18 Dec 1944 the Monterey was almost sunk when US Admiral William F. Halsey sailed the US Third Fleet right into the path of Typhoon Cobra.
The typhoon wrecked the fleet, damaging a third of its ships and sinking three destroyers. More than seven hundred sailors died. Not Halsey’s best day on the job, and not really his worst either, for he did something similar in June 1945. That time it almost cost him his job.
Here’s what it looked like:
Check out the smiley guy. Cool under pressure, huh. Here’s the Monterey in the storm:
While ships really shouldn’t tip that much, things are actually going okay for her at that point. Not fun, though. If I understand my beginner’s seamanship, a captain would never want to go broadside against the waves and wind like we see in the photos above – they’d much rather steer into the wind and ride out the storm. They were doing as they were at the Admiral’s orders, holding their position and bearing as a part of the convoy. Only on the second day of the storm did he relent and instruct all ships to do whatever they had to to stay afloat.
The Monterey hadn’t been able to maintain heading for that long. Early on 18 December, some planes got loose in the hanger and bounced around, starting a fire. The fire knocked out the engines, disabling the ship. The Monterey was helplessly tossed around by the storm for an hour or so before the fire was put out and the engine restarted. If they hadn’t put it out she would have gone down with considerable loss of life. As it was, three sailors died but about 1,500 did not, including future President Gerald Ford. The great wheel of history certainly turns on a slender pivot.
She’s an ugly duckling; looks a little top heavy to my unpracticed eye.
Boxy and inelegant. That tall flat hull must have given her quite the high wind profile, too. Also looks like a converted light cruiser, but that’s only partially true. She was built as you see her, but the plans themselves were for a light cruiser repurposed into an aircraft carrier, and not a ship designed from the start to be an aircraft carrier. Her hull had been laid with the intention of building a cruiser, but the Navy, eager for aircraft carriers, changed things partway in.
I have been pestering my Dad for war stories he heard from Grandpa. One has come to light recently about the effects of a big storm (not certain which storm, but none were bigger than Cobra). As a flight surgeon he had a little office with medical supplies. During a storm a jug of tincture of benzoin got loose and sloshed around over everything for quite a long time. This chemical had a number of applications; its stickiness made it useful for fixing bandages to skin. Stickiness is not good in other situations, including the cramped confines of the office. After what must have been a stressful experience with the storm, Grandpa returned to the room and saw a rather more comical disaster. Probably didn’t think it was funny at the time, though.