On 13 February 1945, Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz wrote:
Three destroyers . . . went down with practically all hands . . . serious damage was sustained by [five aircraft carriers, one cruiser, and three destroyers]. Lesser damage was sustained by at least 19 other vessels . . . 146 planes on various ships were lost or damaged beyond economical repair. . . . About 790 officers and men were lost or killed, and 80 more were injured.
This was not an after-action report of the Battle of Okinawa or some other great Pacific war engagement. It was written in the aftermath of the 3rd Fleet’s encounter with a typhoon.
By December 1944, American sailors had fought their way across the Pacific against a formidable Japanese enemy, had endured the ravages of falling bombs, insidious torpedoes, devastating shellfire, and terrifying kamikazes, and had triumphed at the battles of Midway, the Philippine Sea, and Leyte Gulf. But on the 18th of that month many of them suddenly faced an enemy that would not be deterred nor subdued by weapons, had no center of gravity to exploit, was unimpressed by acts of valor, and knew nothing of such things as negotiation or surrender.
Captain C. Raymond Calhoun, who commanded the destroyer USS Dewey (DD-349) during the great typhoon, later wrote a classic account (Typhoon: The Other Enemy, Naval Institute Press, 1981), which speaks for itself:
The barometer was still falling. The seas continued to rage, more than 60 feet high, and the sustained wind velocity was more than 100 knots. On the bridge we were finding it difficult to remain on board. As the ship lurched to starboard, we had to grab a vertical stanchion . . . and hang on for dear life. Many times I found myself hanging by my hands, with feet completely clear of the deck, in such a position that if I released my hold, I would drop straight down, through the starboard pilot house window into the sea. Several times I looked down past my dangling feet, and saw the angry sea through the open window, directly below them.
The Dewey somehow survived that onslaught, but the USS Hull (DD-350) was not so fortunate:
Then came the knockout punch. The wind’s force exploded with incredible fury. The overpowering thrust of this savage blast pounded and shoved the Hull with merciless force. She slowly heeled over on her starboard side. This time she exceeded her limit. There was no way she could right herself. Still the gale blew. It held her down in the water until the life went out of her, and her struggles ceased. Now the seas came flooding into the pilothouse, and through every ventilation duct into the ship.
As Nimitz recorded in his report, the devastation was almost unbelievable. Nearly 800 had men perished in the midst of a major war—without a single shot being fired.
The lesson here is that when sailors venture onto the sea, they are treated as guests at best and as intruders at worst, that the same sea that grants buoyancy to the well-built vessel is quick to take it away with little or no warning. To survive on the great waters, sailors must never let their guard down, must be aware that their environment is always potentially hostile—in times of peace as well as war—and must continuously be prepared for the worst that their capricious host might suddenly bring forth.