TYPHOON COBRA

An Excerpt from chapter 18 of "WAR DIARY USS STEVENS:  1941-1946"

By Gary L. McIntosh*

       Sometime around December lOth, 1944, and somewhere east of the island of Ulithi, a small storm was born. Inconsequential at first, like many other storms, it might have lived its brief life unnoticed. This storm, however, was born at just the right time and just the right place. The ocean surface temperature was just right; the atmospheric pressure was perfect, and its birthplace was at just the right spot relative to the equator to start moving the small gusts of wind it was throwing off in a counter-clockwise direction. Slowly at first, then more rapidly, the baby storm began gulping up water from the ocean. The winds revolving around the outside of the storm began to propel it in a northwesterly direction. Picking up more moisture as it spun, the baby began to grow. By December 16th the once tiny storm had grown much larger and covered several thousand square miles. As far as storms go in this part of the world, it was destined remain relatively small. However, it was also destined to become one of the most famous storms in maritime history. Tragically, the United States Navy was not aware of its birth, its existence, or of its violent nature, although by sunset on December 16th the storm's meandering track had brought it close to the Navy's base on the island of Ulithi.

        By dawn on the 17th, the storm had developed cyclonic winds that exceeded sixty knots. By now it was large enough to be throwing off wind and rain hundreds of miles from its center. The collision of the wind and the sea sent waves rushing off in all directions, some as tall as a destroyer's mast. The storm continued to grow. With sustained winds of 70 to 80 knots, and with gusts of over 120, the storm had grown powerful enough to be categorized as a typhoon. Moving at nine knots, the storm was on a collision course with the Philippines. The Navy still did not know of its existence, and would not until the pilot of a Navy search plane reported a "tropical disturbance" in the area north of Ulithi when he landed later that morning. Unfortunately, the Navy failed to realize the scope and significance of the storm, and did not immediately inform the ships in the storm's path.

        To the north of the storm and some 400 miles east of Luzon, the Third Fleet was preparing to fuel. Already the seas were rough and the winds were stiff. Refueling was not going well, but no one aboard any of the ships suspected a typhoon was bearing down on them.

        To the west, the ships anchored in Leyte Gulf were also feeling the effects of the storm. Sheets of rain pounded down from the dark sky, making the exposed decks an uncomfortable place to be. Huge waves crashed into the sides of the ships, threatening to wash overboard anyone brave enough, or foolish enough, to venture topside. The heavy, rolling sea buffeted the ships and caused the smaller ones to roll back and forth violently. As darkness fell on the night of the 17th, the storm was growing stronger and even more violent.

        By mid-afternoon on the 17th, Task Group 78.3, still in the Mindanao Sea, was beginning to feel the effects of what would eventually be known as Typhoon Cobra. The ships were pelted by rain; the skies were already darkening, and the destroyers and smaller craft were at the mercy of the sea. Waves began to crash over the bow of the ships, at times completely obscuring the forward 5-inch guns from the view of the bridge crew. The ships plowed through the heavy seas at 8 knots, bobbing up and down and rolling back and forth at the same time.

        The crew of the Stevens had seen heavy seas before, but nothing of this magnitude. The sea was battering their ship; it was pitching and rolling violently, and even the bravest were concerned. Most of the crew remained in their bunks below deck; it was too dangerous to go topside if they weren't on duty. Captain Rakow, mindful of his crew's safety, had suspended the normal rotation of men on duty or on watch anyway. He fully intended to keep everyone who wasn't needed off of the open decks.

        The destroyer had left Mindoro low on fuel, as had all of the destroyers. As it headed eastward into weather that was becoming worse by the minute, the destroyer was down to 20% of its fuel capacity. Stevens had plenty of oil to get back to Leyte Gulf, but there was a more critical reason to be concerned about the empty fuel tanks. When a small ship is low on fuel, it rides higher in the water, making it more susceptible to capsizing in heavy seas. This was particularly true with World War 2 era destroyers, for they tended to be top heavy anyway. The added weight of the fuel made a destroyer more stable, particularly in heavy seas.

        Rakow, was, of course, mindful of his ship's fuel situation and had made several attempts to refuel. The sea and the weather, however, refused to cooperate. Rakow had one alternative; he could abandon the attempt to refuel and instead pump seawater into the ship's empty tanks. The process would take two hours to complete and another two hours to pump the water out, but pumping the water out wasn't a concern at the moment. The sea was getting rougher, and Rakow knew it. He ordered the ship's oil king, Ray Arthur, to ballast the tanks. It was the right decision.

        Arthur later recalled, "Taking on ballast meant going from one end of the ship to the other, topside. By this time the ship was rolling at least 40 degrees. It was impossible to make this trip in one cycle of the sea. It was necessary for me to run halfway, hang on to something as the sea came over the deck, and then make a dash for the hatch. I repeated this process until I was too tired to continue, and then I returned to my bunk."

        As the Stevens approached the Surigao Strait, the entrance to Leyte Gulf from the Mindanao Sea, the storm intensified. In the ship's wheelhouse, the inclinometer, an instrument that measures the degree of roll, was regularly indicating rolls of 30 degrees. At times the ship appeared to be totally engulfed by the sea. Visibility was nearly zero. On the bridge, the Captain remained calm. If he felt any anxiety at all, he did not show it.

        Out of the semi-darkness the bridge crew spotted a huge wave bearing down on the little ship. Far larger than any of the waves that had been roughing up the destroyer, this one appeared to tower over the bridge. The wave slammed into the destroyer with a force that sent the ship reeling onto its side. The inclinometer indicated a 52-degree roll; the ship was more than halfway to lying completely on its side. Below deck there was a momentary flash of fear among the crew when the ship did not immediately right itself. Ordered to remain in their bunks to help reduce the chance of injury from being tossed around, some men were pitched onto the steel deck.

        On the bridge, Captain Rakow and Officer of the Deck Lt. Robert Norton maintained their vigil. Also in the wheelhouse was S 1/ C Robert Hill. Rakow was calmly sipping a cup of hot coffee when the monster wave slammed into the ship. Everyone on the bridge was sent sprawling. The coffee cup flew out of Rakow's hand and made a direct hit on Hill.
        Slowly, the ship began to right itself. The men below deck, uncertain of exactly what had happened, once again climbed back into their bunks. On the bridge, Rakow, Norton, and Hill picked themselves up and continued the business of keeping the ship afloat. According to Hill, despite the destroyer's precarious situation, Rakow not only maintained his own composure, his calm demeanor kept everyone else on the bridge calm as well. Rakow's outstanding seamanship in the midst of the terrible storm solidified the crew's respect and admiration for him.

        Meanwhile, a few hundred miles away, out in the Philippine Sea, Halsey's Third Fleet was fighting for its life. Although by now the Navy was aware of the typhoon, Halsey still did not know that he was in the middle of it. The huge battleships had very little problem with the heavy seas and winds, but everything else, including the carriers, was struggling. At least one, the Langley, dropped its elevators down to the hangar deck to lower its center of gravity. Planes jarring and bouncing around on the hangar deck of the carrier Monterey sent showers of sparks flying through the ship. The sparks soon turned into fires, which were pulled into the ship's air intakes, causing them to spread (unlike the big carriers, the escort carriers had their air intakes located in the hangar deck rather than on the outside of the ship). The crew fought valiantly to save the ship, which at one time appeared to be lost. Quick thinking by the ship's Captain, Stuart H. Ingersoll, saved the Monterey. He turned the carrier so that the wind and sea were on his quarter, effectively reducing the ship's pitching and rolling, and allowing the crew to bring the fires under control.

       Not so lucky were three destroyers, Hull, Monaghan and Spence.  The three destroyers were all part of Task Force 38 that found itself in the middle of the typhoon.  None of the destroyers had full fuel tanks, adding to their buoyancy.  All three had attempted to refuel earlier on the morning of the 18th, but the raging seas had made it impossible to do so, and Halsey, in the midst of the worsening weather, eventually suspended fueling operations for the entire fleet.  Unfortunately for the small ships, the storm also made it dangerous for the three to attempt to ballast their tanks with seawater.  With the heavy seas causing them to roll back and forth, the destroyers' intakes would frequently be out of the water.  The pumps would pull more air that water into the tanks, making the ships even more buoyant.......

.......Typhoon Cobra eventually passed over the fleet and by the next morning the battered Task Group began to reform. Halsey, upon learning of the loss of three of his ships, ordered search-and-rescue missions begun. Ironically, at 0900 that morning, Commander George Kosco,** Halsey's aerologist aboard the New Jersey, was handed a telegram that reported the formation of a ""possible typhoon". The message had been encoded and sent out to the fleet along with dozens of other messages on the 17th. The storm struck before the cryptographers aboard the New Jersey could decode it.

        By midnight on the 19th the storm had passed Leyte and moved over Northern Luzon. There it was deflected by a huge cold air mass that turned it toward the northeast, where it ran into another, even larger cold air mass. By midnight on December 21st, Typhoon Cobra had been dissipated by the second cold air mass. The damage, however, had been done. A number of assaults planned for Task Group 38 were postponed while the damaged ships were repaired at Ulithi and new airplanes were brought aboard the carriers. Most devastating, of course was the loss of the three destroyers and their crews, a loss that might have been prevented had the Navy sent the warning message about the typhoon in the clear rather than encoding it. However, the Navy had its rules, and the encryption of weather data was one of them.
       

       The Stevens and its crew managed to weather the three-day storm. Captain Rakow's calm demeanor in the face of the storm earned him the respect of every man on the bridge with him and of every sailor who learned via the grapevine how their skipper had fought the storm and made all of the right moves.
       

       Stevens arrived back at San Pedro Bay in Leyte Gulf at 0700 on the morning of December 18th.  Shortly after the ship arrived, the crew learned of another great battle, this one on the other side of the International Date Line.  In Europe, the Battle of the Bulge had begun on December 16 (December 17th in the Philippines). Hitler's last major offensive in Europe was barely 24 hours old when the destroyer dropped anchor in San Pedro Bay.
       

       Stevens refueled and took on provisions for the remainder of the 18th and into the 19th. On the 20th, Stevens joined with the Philip DD 498 to escort the Reticulus to Guiuan, on the island of Samar, directly east of the entrance to San Pedro Bay. The two destroyers patrolled between Guiuan and the southwest coast of the outlying island of Manicani while the Reticulus, a cargo ship, proceeded into Guiuan to unload is cargo of dry provisions. The two destroyers steamed on an east-west course about three miles from Manicani, reversing direction frequently, as the distance between Samar and Manicani was only about twenty miles. The Reticulus took three days to unload, earning it the name of "Ridiculous" among the Steven's crew.
       

      The cargo ship finally rejoined the two destroyers at 0645 on December 23rd and the three ships returned to San Pedro Bay.  Traveling at 11 knots, the tiny convoy arrived at 0920 that same morning. Stevens received orders to refuel from a nearby tanker, the Caribou, and by 1112 the destroyer was at anchor.
       

      The tired crew was pleased to learn that they would spend the next three days anchored in the bay.  The threat from Japanese planes still existed, and the crew was on standby and ready to get the ship underway with five minutes notice, but the Japanese did not show up in force.  A single airplane, often referred to as "Washing Machine Charlie" due to the unusual sound of its engine, made its normal nightly visit to San Pedro Bay on the 23rd, 24th, and 25th, but his arrival had come to be expected and was more of a nuisance than anything else.
       

       Liberty passes were issued, and several sailors went ashore.  The men were not allowed to visited the small towns clustered along the beaches of Leyte Gulf, most notable of which was Tacloban City. Instead liberty was limited to the beaches only.  Christmas Day arrived, and religious services were held aboard the destroyer.   Christmas dinner consisted of turkey with all the trimmings, a rare treat aboard a destroyer.  For some, the day marked the first Christmas spent away from family and friends.  Others had been away for several Christmases.   Seaman 1/C Carl McIntosh marked his third consecutive Christmas away from his Indiana home.
       

       Washing Machine Charlie graced the anchored ships with his presence twice on Christmas Day, once at 1913 and again an hour later.
       

       On the 26th, two crewmembers, Ensigns Alan Murdoch and James Braddock, were appointed to the rank of lieutenant in a small ceremony held at 1000 hours.  At 1335, three sailors, one of them Ray Arthur, the sailor who had risked his life to ballast the ship during the storm, reported aboard.
       

       On the 28th the Stevens got underway for what would turn out to be its most dangerous and memorable mission of the war. Six decades later, crewmembers would still recall their second trip to Mindoro. 

*Gary L. McIntosh, son of Carl McIntosh deceased who served aboard as Seaman 1/C. 

For further information regarding book "WAR DIARY USS STEVENS:  1941-1946" Gary's e-mail address is gmac1950@iag.net


** Author's note; Commander Kosco was co-author of the book Halsey's Typhoons quoted earlier.



Return to LIFE ABOARD THE STEVENS