Halsey’s Typhoon: The Epic Story of a Fighting Admiral, an Epic Storm and an Untold Rescue

by Bob Drury and Tom Clavin, Atlantic Monthly Press, New York, 2007, $25.

On December 18, 1944, Admiral William F. Halsey’s Third Fleet suffered one of the worst defeats in the history of the U.S. Navy. Three destroyers were lost, a dozen other warships crippled and 146 aircraft destroyed. In addition, 793 sailors lost their lives—more than twice the number lost in the Battle of Midway. Perhaps worst of all, the aggressive Halsey was compelled to withdraw his battered fleet from its mission of supporting General Douglas MacArthur’s troops in the Philippines. The enemy that had inflicted this devastating blow to the U.S. fleet was not the Japanese, however, but the sea itself in the form of a tropical cyclone known as Typhoon Cobra.

Halsey’s Typhoon is the gripping story of this little-known episode of World War II, in which the most powerful fleet in history was nearly destroyed by a natural disaster. It is a story of overconfidence at high levels of command, combined with almost unbelievable heroism at lower levels.

Among those cited for heroism by the authors was a future U.S. president, Gerald R. Ford. As a lieutenant junior grade aboard the light aircraft carrier Monterey, Ford led the firefighters who saved their ship by extinguishing blazes that broke out when planes broke loose inside the hanger. Although the carrier survived the typhoon, Monterey was so badly damaged that it had to return stateside for extensive repairs.

If any individual could be singled out for distinction, it would have to be Lt. Cmdr. Henry L. Plage, commanding officer of the destroyer escort Tabberer. Disobeying orders, Plage rescued 55 survivors from the Pacific who would otherwise have perished. Fully expecting to be court-martialed when his dismasted ship limped into Ulithi Atoll, Plage instead received the Legion of Merit, and his ship was awarded a Navy Unit Commendation.

Halsey, who rode out the typhoon aboard the 45,000-ton battleship New Jersey, received the lion’s share of the blame for the disaster by the subsequent naval court of inquiry. That court faulted the admiral for not issuing a timely storm warning and for insisting his fleet maintain formation when each ship should have been taking action to ride out the typhoon as best it could. Only the intervention of Admiral Chester Nimitz, who recognized the potential negative impact on public morale if a national hero were disgraced at a critical point in the war, saved Halsey from censure or dismissal.


Originally published in the May 2007 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here