On this day, December 18, 1944: Typhoon Cobra smashes the Philippines

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USS_Santa_Fe_(CL-60)_during_Typhoon_Cobra,_December_1944
U.S.S. Santa Fe During Typhoon Cobra – December 1944

Typhoon Cobra, also known as the Typhoon of 1944 or Halsey’s Typhoon (named after Admiral William ‘Bull’ Halsey), was the name of a tropical cyclone which struck the United States Pacific Fleet in December 1944 during World War II.

Task Force 38 (TF 38) had been operating about 300 mi (260 nmi; 480 km) east of Luzon in the Philippine Sea conducting air raids against Japanese airfields in the Philippines. The fleet was attempting to refuel its ships, especially the lighter destroyers which had limited fuel carrying capacity. As the weather worsened it became increasingly difficult to refuel, and the attempts had to be discontinued. Despite warning signs of worsening conditions the ships of the fleet remained in their stations. Worse, the location and direction of the typhoon reported to Halsey were inaccurate. On December 17, Admiral Halsey unwittingly sailed Third Fleet into the heart of the typhoon.

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Because of 100 mph (87 kn; 160 km/h) winds, very high seas and torrential rain, three destroyers capsized and sank, and a total of 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.

USS_Cowpens_(CVL-25)_during_Typhoon_Cobra
U.S.S. Cowpens Listing During Typhoon Cobra

USS Tabberer—a small John C. Butler-class destroyer escort—lost her mast and radio antennas. Though damaged and unable to radio for help, she took the initiative to remain on the scene to recover 55 of the 93 total that were rescued. Captain Henry Lee Plage earned the Legion of Merit, while the entire crew earned the Navy’s Unit Commendation Ribbon, which was presented to them by Admiral Halsey.

In the words of Admiral Chester Nimitz, the typhoon’s impact “represented a more crippling blow to the Third Fleet than it might be expected to suffer in anything less than a major action”. The events surrounding Typhoon Cobra were similar to those the Japanese navy itself faced some nine years earlier in what they termed the “Fourth Fleet Incident.”

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A typhoon plays an important role in the novel The Caine Mutiny, which is thought to be based on the author’s own experience surviving Typhoon Cobra.

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