The Typhoon that Devastated Usn Task Force 38

The men and women of the USN Task Force 38 went to sleep on the 17th December 1944 battle weary but proud of the defeat that they have inflicted upon the Japanese army with relatively few casualties amongst their own forces. Though some of their vessels were battered and bruised, and many in desperate need of refuelling, the victors were pleased to be making their way back to base, glad of the respite from the fighting. However, little did they realise that, by the middle of the following day they would be involved in another ferocious fight for their lives. A fight against which all the might and weaponry at the fleets disposal would prove useless, in fact in some cases it was to become a fatal hindrance. For the fight that awaited USN Task Force 38 on the 18th December 1944 was not against man. It was against nature, in the powerful form of typhoon Cobra.

When dawn broke on the 18th December, the seas were already angry. Enormous waves whipped by rapidly growing winds were beginning to batter the fleet. Bravely the sailors tried to carry on with their duties as they attempted to steer a path clear of the central power of the impending storm. Against the odds attempts were made to refuel the Destroyers, which because of their activities during the battle with the Japanese were most needy. This proved to be an impossible task. Because of the atrocious weather conditions fuel lines broke, leaving the vessels with a fraction of their needs fulfilled.

Originally, it was thought that the centre of the storm would bypass the fleet, but Mother Nature had different ideas. Choosing a path further south than forecasters had predicted, the storm raced across the ocean heading directly towards the fleet from a westerly direction. The commanders were left with a stark choice. To continue to try and outrun the storm, which had been the original intention, would be pointless and would place their ships in even greater danger. All they could do was batten down the hatches and prepare to ride it out in the eye of the typhoon.

The sailors in true fighting spirit prepared for the worst as winds gusted upon to strengths that well exceeded one hundred miles per hour, whipping waves up to staggering heights. In those few seconds as the waves teetered at their peak before sending a mountain of water crashing down upon the decks of the defenceless ships, all the sailors could do was to lash themselves to the vessel and pray.

For three brave US destroyers, the Hull, Monaghan and Spence, this was to prove one battle too many. Lacking in fuel and the stabilising weight that this would normally have given as extra protection in such cauldron seas, and carrying around five hundred tonnes of additional armoury, they were no match for the oceans that day. One by one, they gave way to the storm and capsized, throwing some of their crews to the mercy of the sea and taking others with them to the deep. The wind picked up on-board fighter planes, cranes and bombs from the decks of other ships and threw them around like children’s toys, many ending up in the depths of the ocean. In those few hours, the typhoon inflicted more damage and carnage than the Japanese fleet could even have hoped to emulate. Electrical fires started as cabling and metal clashed as it was thrown together by the wind, mercifully often being extinguished by the thousands of tons of sea waters that attempted to engulf the ships. Vessel after vessel screamed in pain as they were torn apart and their crews could do little more than despair as they struggled to save themselves and the vessels they called home.

For seven long hours, the typhoon raged, until the evening saw the strength of the winds depleting a little, although it was not until the following morning that the seas were low enough for some of the fleet to begin to see the real extent of the Typhoon’s destruction, although this took some time to assimilate as the storm had scattered the fleet across the ocean and few had any means of communication left. Hardly a ship had escaped unscathed and, as the fleet began to re-establish contact with each other, the gaps where destroyers had rode proud on the waves a day earlier became agonizing apparent.

With a combined sigh of relief from the remaining crews and ships alike, the clean up of the aftermath began. Even as their crews were patching up storm damage on the ships, some of the captains were sending their ships scuttling across the area looking for survivors from the sunken destroyers that had bracely protected them from the Japanese days earlier, and others were rushing to the aid of ships that were unlikely to make the journey home.

On December 19, the remainder of the fleet was ordered by Admiral Halsey to head to Ulithi so that damage could be assessed. However, on the bridge of the USS Tabberer one man, Lieutenant Commander Henry Lee Plage, whose ship had already rescued a sailor from one of the stricken destroyers, took a career threatening decision. With eyes full of pain as he scoured the angry sea before him, and an anxious crew awaiting his orders, Plage took the decision to defy the order and continue the search for survivors, with the full agreement of his crew. Over fifty men owe their lives to that one act of mutiny.

Rescue efforts, as far as the records show, ceased on December 20th, presumably because it was felt that no-one could have survived longer and there would be little chance of ships being able to locate anyone after all that time. At the final countdown, for just over ninety men Christmas had come early. Thanks to the bravery and dogged determination and commitment of people like Lieutenant Commander Henry Plage, their lives were saved, bringing their families the best Christmas they could have hoped for. However, nearly eight hundred other sailors were not so fortunate, and would never hear Christmas carols again on this earth, all because of an enemy the greatest human powers on earth cannot restrain, the power of nature.

Source: For many first hand accounts relating to this incident look at