Battling the Pacific's Most Deadly Force

By Thompson Webb Jr.

When I came up to the bridge that afternoon, the Japanese were probably already feeling the weight of the attack from our aircraft. Spread out across the ocean on both sides of us for as far as one could see was the line of tankers, and alongside them, or waiting patiently behind, rode the fleet. The tankers each had a big ship on one side and a destroyer on the other. As the destroyers were fueled, they went forward and relieved others from the protective screen that stretched out ahead of us from one horizon to the other. As the heavy ships finished, they dropped back, and their places were taken by others.

I had not been on the bridge long before I began to realize there was more to this watch than to most that I had stood, for the fueling was not progressing with the business-like efficiency that was normal for these operations. For my part, the only unusual worry was that of keeping the ship on its course. Ordinarily, I should not have had to glance at the gyrocompass repeater before me except for an occasional check. We had good, experienced helmsmen on the wheel watches. The officer of the deck had only to give them the course, and they steered it—but not that afternoon. I found that the compass was taking all of my attention. One minute the helmsman would be 5 degrees to the right of his course, the next, 7 to the left.

The wind had come up and stood at 30 knots. That was enough to blow spray in showers from the tops of the waves and to catch the high freeboard that the ship presented, causing her to be very difficult to maneuver.

The sea, however, was the most pressing cause for concern. The fresh chop that had come up with the wind was now a full-running heavy sea. Ugly masses of gray water, crests churned to froth by the wind, rolled at us from ahead. The Nehenta Bay had begun to pitch sharply as she fell into the angry surge of this rising swell. We would take a wave on the starboard bow, and the forward end of the flight deck would rise before our eyes as the ship veered off her course to port. The helmsman would hastily put the rudder over, and as the bow came down in a sheet of spray in the next wave, it would be caught on the port side, and the ship's head would swing about to starboard. It was no longer possible to remain on the course. If the helmsman kept the ship within 5 degrees of the one I had given him I had to be satisfied.

We were away from the other ships, and when we went off course, no harm was done. For those ships refueling, it was another matter. On the TBS, we began to receive reports that the ships trying to maintain their positions alongside each other were experiencing serious difficulties. Report after report went out to the OTC (officer in tactical command) that lines and hoses were parting as the fighting ships were unable to hold their positions alongside the oilers.

The weather was rapidly worsening. The barometer, which had stood at 29.81 (normal) at noon, was now down to 29.67, as low as I'd ever seen it. The wind was still rising. Its force was between 35 and 40 knots. The sea seemed to be snarling in anger as it bared its foaming teeth.

Reports of the carrying away of lines and hoses became insistent. One ship reported that a man had broken his leg and others had been injured trying to tend to a hose as it was jerked out beyond its scope. Then came news that one of the destroyers had lost a man overboard. Another ship was ordered to try to rescue him but failed.

Finally, the OTC ordered the fueling stopped. Ships cast off, and the two forces pulled apart. The tankers, my ship with them, dropped astern, falling into the cruising formation we were to hold for the night, and turned to a course that would take us to the rendezvous. With better weather in the morning, we expected to continue fueling.

Task Force 38 steamed out ahead and began to recover its aircraft returning from the strike. As I was being relieved at the end of my watch, I heard them begin to report difficulties. I was later told that entire squadrons were unable to find their own carriers. Many of the planes were taken aboard any carrier that they found, but others were less fortunate. One man parachuted from a plane out of gasoline. The destroyer that followed him during his descent lost sight of him when he went into the sea's foam and lashing waves. He was never recovered. Other fliers did not come so near to rescue. A number of them, unable to find the carriers in the gathering gloom of the overcast and squall-filled evening, were simply listed as missing.

Ordinarily, the Pacific deserves its name, in its tropical latitudes at least. Ships can steam for months without experiencing anything worse than long rollers or the passage of a quick squall. That night, however, and in the days that followed, I felt the power that lies dormant so much of the time in those waters.

No one slept much that night. No one could lie still long enough in his bunk to more than doze off before a lurch or a roll of the ship awoke him. Time after time all night long, the ship would heave up with a rush and then start down the other side, only to run head on into a solid sheet of water. She would jerk up, forward motion seemingly killed, as if she had struck a stone wall. Each time this motion happened, I found myself sitting bolt upright in my bunk, dazed but awake, trying to understand what had happened.

The sea was anything but pacific when I stepped on the Nehenta Bay 's bridge to take over the watch again at 0800. Never before had I seen a day like that one. Mountains of angry water rushed against one another, surging and writhing together. Masses of water, unbelievable in size, hurled themselves at the ship, tossing it about like an autumn leaf in the wind. The water boiled, and from the top of every wave, the full gale, which was howling so that one had to shout to be heard, blew sheets of spray to mingle with the rain and thick mist that hung low on the water. Visibility had dropped to a few hundred yards.

Now, standing the watch, I could see that the rough weather was far more serious than just a bit of heavy going. Last night's low barometer, although it had stayed relatively steady for most of the night, had begun to fall again at about 0400. When I took over the bridge, it was down to 29.57, which seemed at the time near bottom. As the watch progressed, however, it became clear that it was merely poised for the real drop.

The wind was keeping pace inversely. A wind is high, and subject for comment in the Pacific, when—even in a squall—it rises to 35 knots. That morning it rushed by at 45 knots, rising to 55 and 60 in gusts, and its roar continued to rise steadily in pitch.

Soon after this watch began it was apparent that we'd been overtaken by a typhoon—the most dreaded force in the Pacific. Already, all plans for completing the refueling had been abandoned, as had any thought of launching any aircraft, though we were close to some of Japan's most powerful airbases. Controlling the ships themselves had become the principal consideration on the bridges of all vessels in the area, of which there must have a hundred.

Our group of oilers had once more joined Task Force 38, and we, in turn, had been joined by two jeep carriers, the Altamaha (CVE-18) and Cape Esperance (CVE-88), loaded to their last square foot of deck space, above and below, with aircraft to replace those lost and damaged from the carriers of the fighting fleet. A CVE is a light ship with high, flat sides that act as sails in a wind. As a result, we couldn't stay on course even by using full rudder, which is a great deal more rudder than is considered necessary except for a real emergency. The fleet's other CVEs were in similar straits, so we were all ordered to change course. The Nehenta Bay , Rudyerd Bay (CVE-81), and Kwajalein (CVE-98) together proceeded downwind, to course 180 (T).

We had no sooner done so, however, than conditions changed from alarming to terrifying. The barometer, 29.40 at 0900, was steadily dropping; every quarter-hour check showed it lower. The wind was now a steady 60 knots, with gusts up to 75. The waves, where they could be distinguished through the shroud of mist, were rising to 40 and 50 feet. As they took the ship from behind, running up under her, they lifted the screws clear of the water and flung the carrier head down into the churning trough.

Soon it became apparent that keeping our three carriers together was more than anyone could do. The other two could hold our new course no better than the old. They disappeared into the heavy mist.

We were alone. We could see nothing but the pall of the mist and the savage anger of the sea. The latter was now lashed into such a fury of foam that the blown spume across the ragged shapes of the waves looked like the streaked drifting of blizzard-driven snow. The barometer was down to 29.20 and still tumbling. (It would reach 29.12 before I left the bridge that day). The wind was causing the arrow on the gauge to hit the top—80 knots—and quiver there, and its sound had become a penetrating shriek that rose by piercing octaves. A man could not stand against that wind. The crew on the flight deck, striving desperately to lash down those of our aircraft that we had not been able to take below, lay on the deck and clung to lines like men in the tide of a wave, and where the driven spray struck the face or other uncovered skin, it stung like needles.

Men were dying that morning. Through the scream of the wind and the groans and creaks of the laboring ship, we could still hear the other ships on the TBS. I lost track of the number of men who were reported lost overboard. The count must have been well up toward 20. Ship after ship reported men in the water, and even above the gale, one could hear in each of the voices reporting the losses the hope against hope for a rescue by some other ship. No man, however, could survive in that sea, and no ship could control herself sufficiently to rescue him, even if she could have found him.

 

Then came fire. It was small consolation that, for the moment at least, it was not our ship that was burning but one of the carriers of the fighting fleet, the USS Monterey (CVL-26). Planes had broken their moorings on the hangar deck and were dashing themselves to pieces against the ship and each other as the carrier rolled in the sea. Gasoline poured out, found a spark somewhere, and roared into flames. Word came of the hangar deck engulfed, of fires on the flight deck, of fires belowdecks. The ship was soon out of control, dead in the water. She lay somewhere in the murky waste around us, lashed by the hurricane, unable to guide or steady herself even in the feeble manner that was left to us.

To those of us who heard these reports, knowing that at any moment we might be in the same condition, fear closed in like the fog around us. Other ships were designated to stand by the burning carrier, but we knew how pitifully little they could do to help.

The feeling on the bridge was tense as we stood peering ahead and seeing less than our own ship's length through the thick mist that swirled and eddied around us. Every man was walled off from the others about him by the roar of the tempest; each was thinking his own thoughts and seeing his fears reflected in the taut faces of the others.

It was then that there came up from the radio room below a fragmentary message from a ship that had not identified herself. It read, "Rolling heavily . . . believe may capsize . . . ." That was all. There was a shiver in my spine as I read it.

By 1100, it was apparent that our ship could not stand the beating the sea was giving her. We had been going downwind at 10 knots, trying to get out of the typhoon's path. Now, however, from observations of the winds, well over 100 miles per hour, and seas, often as high as 70 feet, the aerologist estimated that we were not more than 50 miles from the center of the typhoon.

 

One could see that the ship could not hold together if we continued much longer as we were going. She was shaking all over with each rush into the trough of the sea. Already, seams were opening. One in the side plating on the hangar deck had given way, fortunately well above the waterline. Another opened in the deck on the fantail, over which green sea water was pouring. The men in the steering engine room, just below the latter, were calling for a bucket brigade to help them bail.

The ship had to be brought into the wind and held there with only enough speed to maintain steering control. Word was passed to all hands by means of the public announcing system that we were to come about. No one had to be told what to expect when the ship came broadside to a sea like that.

I remember, as I stepped back to take my hold on a stanchion, seeing the bridge messenger, a 17-year-old draftee who had come aboard only a short time before, standing with both arms around a pelorus, his face contorted and his jaws trembling violently with fear. He wasn't the only one who felt that way. The officer of the deck was another.

The ship's skipper, Captain Horace B. Butterfield, had taken the con, and he now gave the order to the helmsman. Slowly, the ship began to swing into the wind. Every man clung to his support until his knuckles were white. For several long minutes, the tension lasted while nothing particularly remarkable happened. Then, suddenly, as though the sea had only just observed that we had put ourselves in its grasp, an enormous wave coming up on the quarter picked up the ship as a puppy picks up an old shoe. Lifting us aloft so that the screws, free of the water, caused the ship to vibrate to its keel, the wave threw us crashing into the teeth of a crosswave toward our starboard bow. Down went the bow, engulfed in green seawater, as the ship shuddered and we held our breaths, clinging to our supports until our arms ached.

With a blow felt throughout the ship, the wave crashed into the forward lookout's platform (from which the helpless men had long since been ordered to stations of greater safety), crumpling its steel deck and throwing high into the air a heavy life raft secured there. Water swirled about the guns and poured over the flight deck, 40 feet above the waterline.

For agonizing seconds, the ship lay on her side. Twenty feet above the flight deck, those of us on the bridge, feeling the full effect of the roll, waited with something tight about our hearts, seriously wondering whether the ship would right itself. Finally, hesitantly at first and then more surely, the uproll began. Then came the list in the other direction, seldom so bad as that to starboard because of the weight of the carrier's island. Then down again to starboard, as another wall of water struck the bow and a shiver went through the ship, but she did not go down so far this time. Over again to port and back to starboard, shuddering and quaking so that her groans and the grinding of steel on steel could be heard even over the howl of the gale.

Slowly, however, the Nehenta Bay was coming about. The rolling was becoming less heavy, and soon we noticed that she seemed steadier. Speed was reduced to the minimum necessary for keeping the head into the wind. We were making no way, and the helmsman, by using full rudder in either direction, could ease the swing from 15 degrees on one side of the wind to 15 on the other. The ship, nevertheless, was in irons, locked in the teeth of the typhoon. We had full control of engines and rudder, yet from that moment until the storm began to abate, she was out of our control.

More reports of fires were coming in. Although the Monterey 's fires were more or less under control, there were three others of various sizes in the fleet about us. Then, from the hangar deck below, came the report that the motion of the ship had caused a rupture in one of our gas lines. That meant that we might have a fire of our own at any moment. I looked about immediately for the boatswain's mate to pass the word that the smoking lamp was out, but he was busy lashing down the canvas awning that was giving us protection at the conning station.

Since there was no time to lose, I hastily turned to the microphone of the ship's PA system and passed the word myself. Under the tension that gripped me and in an instinctive effort to make myself heard above the roar of the storm, I shouted into that microphone in a voice that must have been almost a scream. I was told afterward that it came out, amplified by the loudspeakers belowdecks, with startling effect. One of my roommates, who had just sat down to quiet his own nervousness with a smoke, swore that the sound very nearly made him swallow his cigarette. At any rate, he put it out promptly. The gasoline was brought under control without a fire.

 

Then, to turn terror into near-panic, reports began to come up from radar plot of ships about us. Suddenly there were vessels on all sides coming toward us. One went by to starboard only a half-mile away. That's too close for comfort with heavy ships in low visibility. Almost immediately another went by to port, even closer this time. Then there were ships ahead coming directly toward us. We lay there in irons, unable to maneuver, as radar plot reported minute by minute.

"Ship, on starboard bow, 3,000 yards, closing."

"Ship, dead ahead, 2,000 yards, closing."

"My God," the navigator, a regular Navy man who had seen plenty of service both before and during the war, said to me, "I have never been in a spot like this."

"Ship, dead ahead, 1,000 yards, closing," radar plot went on.

We'd all been frightened before, but this new degree of danger, heaped on top of the typhoon as the ship lay there rising and plunging and shuddering, gave fear new meaning.

"Ship, dead ahead, 800 yards, closing."

I remember telling myself that we could not control our ship and that probably this other ship could not be controlled much more than ours. I could see no way of avoiding a collision. Instinctively, I felt for the inflatable life belt that I was wearing to be sure it was ready for immediate use. I knew, however, that a man in that water, belt or no belt, had very little chance.

It was now apparent that, in coming about into the wind, we had turned directly into the path of Task Force 38 steaming downwind before the storm. We were surrounded by ships in all directions.

"Ship, dead ahead, 600 yards, closing."

Captain Butterfield rang up full speed on the engines. Our only hope for maneuvering at all was by using full power. Increasing our speed, however, increased the ship's pitching and the pounding that the seas were giving her.

Then, above the scream of the wind, came a cry of terror: "Ship! Ship!" On the wing of the bridge just outside of the enclosed conning station, the navigator and the communications officer, together with the quartermaster and the boatswain's mate, were looking out, shielding their faces from the needle-like spray. All calling at once, they made that terrible word heard.

"Ship! Ship!" They pointed together. There, slightly off the port bow, a battleship loomed through the mist only a few hundred yards ahead.

My heart turned over inside of me and seemed to stop. The captain ordered full left rudder, for the monster ahead was on a course across our bow from left to right. Then he sounded four blasts on the whistle (the danger signal), but the howling gale carried the sounds away downwind.

The ship was pitching so violently now that the flight deck would rise up before us so that we could see nothing ahead. I remember climbing up on a pelorus four feet high, with the gale tearing at my face, trying to see over the flight deck. I stared, fascinated, at that great ship bearing down on us. There seemed no way to avoid her.

On orders from the captain, I directed the signalmen to man our biggest searchlight and flash it at the battleship to be certain she saw us. That light was a carbon arc, and it penetrated mist better than most. Minutes dragged like hours as the two ships approached. The signalmen had the light working. The battleship replied.

"Thank God, at least they see us." Someone breathed a tentative sigh of relief.

Then came a cry from the flight deck below: "Planes! Planes!"

I hurriedly glanced back. Two of our big torpedo planes had broken their moorings and were hanging tail down in the catwalk. Let 'em go, I thought to myself. With the very ship in imminent danger we can't bother with a couple of planes.

By this time, it had become apparent that the battleship would pass clear of us. Our relief was short-lived, however. As the battleship slipped by so close it seemed I could have thrown a pebble to its main deck, there came another cry from the wing of the bridge. There, on the starboard bow, came the flash of another searchlight and, barely discernable behind the light, appeared the fog-shrouded form of a cruiser. She seemed to be coming straight for us.

Once more the captain sounded the danger signal and ordered hard left rudder. The sea caught us on the starboard and rolled us over to port. The ship lurched violently and rolled heavily back to starboard. On the bridge, we clung to whatever we could quickly reach. The island hung down toward the water as the ship lay on its side shuddering. Then, slowly, the carrier began to right herself, but as the upswing began, we were overtaken by a great wave from just forward of the starboard beam.

Fortunately, the cruiser had seen our light in time and changed course so as to pass clear of us. Because we were wallowing we could do little to help ourselves out of that situation.

Over we went to port, in spite of the weight of the island on the starboard side, until it seemed that we were looking straight down across the flight deck into the water on the other side.

With that roll came another cry from the flight deck. One of the torpedo planes in the catwalk on the starboard side, thrown by the force of this roll to port, went crashing across the deck full into the other aircraft secured there. I looked back in time to see it sweep two fighter planes ahead of it into a gun platform on the port side. One of the fighters went completely over the side and into the water. The tail of the other caught between the gun shield and a railing, leaving it hanging down toward the sea, swinging precariously, as by a thread. The torpedo plane, nose down in the gun platform, lay a crumpled wreck. Its body was broken behind the cockpit; its tail drooped down and flapped back and forth as the wind blew it. Fortunately, there was no fire from these wrecks.

The captain had managed to get the ship's head back into the wind, and he had reduced speed. The ship was steadier now—steadier, at least, by contrast to the worst that we had been through. The wind and the sea were still as high as they had been, but the ships around us were thinning out. Then they were gone altogether, and once more we had an empty sea with only the storm to worry us. It was at that point that the officer who was to relieve me arrived, and I went below feeling weak in the knees.

The typhoon lasted for a day and a half longer, but we were moving away from its center. The third morning dawned bright and clear, with a mild breeze and calm sea. We started back to rejoin the ships with which we had been steaming when the storm struck. Of the hundred or more that had been together, single vessels were scattered in all directions, some a hundred miles or more away from the main body. Admiral Halsey sent out message after message to ships unaccounted for, trying to round up the strays. We joined the Fleet the next day. Others straggled in for two more days. Three never came back.

The Nehenta Bay had surprisingly little damage, considering the force of the storm through which she had passed. During that worst roll into a wave on the starboard bow, the forward end of the flight deck had been lifted and the heavy steel carrying members of the forward cantilever construction had been cracked and strained, but the deck was still in satisfactory condition for immediate flight operations. The guns forward in the catwalk on the starboard side were slightly out of line, having been lifted with the flight deck. Aft, where the planes had gone into the gun platform, one group of guns was in serious condition. We had lost the two fighters over the side. The two torpedo planes were beyond repair. One accommodation ladder, a little mast forward, a paravane, and some life rafts had broken loose and washed away. There were strained seams and a few buckled plates here and there. All told, however, we had come through well.

Other ships, as they straggled back, showed worse damage. The two transport CVEs arrived with their flight decks swept clean of all but a few mangled wrecks. A destroyer came up with its mainmast entirely gone. Then, too, there were the three destroyers that were lost: the Hull (DD-350), Monaghan (DD-354), and Spence (DD-512). We combed the waters for days, but of the 700 men who had been on board those ships, only about a hundred survivors were found. We were told tales by the crewmen in the surviving destroyers of rolling over sometimes as much as 72 degrees.

That storm was one of the worst naval disasters that the Pacific Fleet had suffered since Pearl Harbor. It will be something to tell my grandchildren about, when I can look back on it through the rose-colored glasses of time, but on watch that day, in the teeth of the typhoon, I believed that I was seeing the wrath in the face of God. Perhaps I was. 

Mr. Webb served in the Naval Reserve from April 1942 until July 1954. Following his active-duty service during World War II, he embarked on a career in academic publishing and was director of the University of Wisconsin Press from 1947 to 1984. Mr. Webb passed away in September 1998. His grandson, attorney G. Gregg Webb, transcribed and edited the manuscript and then submitted it to Naval History for publication in memory of his grandfather.
 

Mr. Webb served in the Naval Reserve from April 1942 until July 1954. Following his active-duty service during World War II, he embarked on a career in academic publishing and was director of the University of Wisconsin Press from 1947 to 1984. Mr. Webb passed away in September 1998. His grandson, attorney G. Gregg Webb, transcribed and edited the manuscript and then submitted it to Naval History for publication in memory of his grandfather.

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