- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 2, 2007

Bob Drury and Tom Clavin’s “Halsey’s Typhoon” is man-against-nature drama at its best. It’s an inspiring and thrilling read.

It is a true story of heroism and hardship at war. It’s also an account of the occasional cowardice, incompetence and cock-ups that occur in every military conflict. It’s a story worth knowing and well told, with the pace and riveting immediacy of a good novel.

In December of 1944, while supporting Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s “I will return” invasion of the Philippine Islands, Adm. William “Bull” Halsey’s 170-ship armada suffered a sneak attack from Typhoon Cobra, an unexpected enemy that did more damage to Halsey’s fleet than the Imperial Japanese Navy had managed to inflict in the preceding three years.

The battle against Cobra, which packed winds up to 150 mph, was as intense as any fight the American Pacific fleet waged during World War II. In three hellacious days in a part of the Pacific known as “Typhoon Alley,” this perfect storm broke up and sunk three American destroyers, badly damaged dozens of other ships and destroyed on decks, or blew overboard, more than 100 war planes. Almost three times as many sailors died in this dust-up with Mother Nature than were lost fighting at the Battle of Midway.

Almost 900 young American sailors were washed overboard, trapped below decks or taken down by their sinking ships. Hundreds spent up to 60 hours in the Pacific, clinging to any flotsam they could find, fighting to stay afloat and alive. Their formidable opponents were wounds, dehydration, exhaustion, opportunistic sharks and a clamorous sea that threw up 70-foot waves. All in all, it was a hell of a couple of days at the office.

Of the nearly 900 who went into the sea, only 93 were rescued, 55 of those by the valiant skipper and crew of the tiny destroyer escort USS Tabberer. The inspiring and gripping story of these rescues alone is worth the price of the book, and it will give readers a feel for what the term “shipmate” means in the American Navy (and doubtless elsewhere as well).

After the storm subsided, Lt. Cmdr. Henry Lee Page, captain of the “Tabby,” disobeyed orders to rendezvous with the rest of the fleet, which had been scattered by the storm, in order to continue to pick sailors out of the still storm-tossed sea. He and his crew did this at considerable risk to their own lives, as the Tabby herself had been crippled by the storm. Instead of the court martial he could have received for ignoring orders, he was awarded the Navy’s Legion of Merit for his life-saving efforts.

After the storm, when Halsey was informed of Page’s heroics, and informed that Page was a 29-year-old reservist, Halsey said, “How can any enemy ever defeat a country that can pulls boys like that out of its hat?”

One of the survivors, former chief quartermaster Archie DeRyckere, whose ordeal during the storm is told in detail in “Typhoon,” is heading up an effort to posthumously award Page the Medal of Honor for his bravery, leadership and seamanship during the rescue.

The authors present these tragic and heroic “you were there” events based on study of Navy records, many of them only recently declassified. But the most gripping narrative comes from in-depth personal interviews with survivors. Through the skills of Mr. Drury and Mr. Clavin, the sailors tell their own stories in a straight-time narrative from beginning to end of the storm. The result is realistic enough it will have some readers reaching for their life jackets.

A warning to readers: Mr. Drury and Mr. Clavin don’t pile on or overwrite. But they spare no details in describing the horror, the wounds, the encounters with sharks, the terror-induced madness and the many ugly deaths that took place. Some of this is not for the faint of heart.

Most of the stories are of ordinary seamen and NCOs on destroyers and destroyer escorts, the smallest warships in the fleet and the most vulnerable to storm damage. Called the “little boys,” the fast and maneuverable destroyers provide vital submarine and air screening for the larger ships as well as other kinds of gunnery support. They’re the cavalry of the Navy.

But some of the bigger ships carried household names. One of Cobra’s survivors was Lt. Junior Grade Gerald R. Ford, a gunnery officer on the carrier USS Monterey. The 38th President of the United States was nearly washed overboard during the storm.

In command during these horrific events, Adm. Halsey endured a court of inquiry (not a trial like a court martial, but a fact-finding procedure to decide if a court martial should be held) to determine how and why the fleet came to be ambushed by this monster storm. The answers have never satisfied everyone. But they were clear enough: In the exigencies of war, secondary considerations such as possible damage from bad weather have to take a back seat.

Cmdr. George F. Kosco, Halsey’s chief meteorologist, wrote, “Weather information at hand from the three reporting fleet weather stations did not disclose that a typhoon was on the rampage, or even existing… . In time of war, when combat objectives rise above all other priorities, it is not the rule to bestow grave concern on incidental dangers. Planes do not stay grounded and fleets do not run scared because of ugly weather if in doing so they jeopardize military or navel missions.”

Translation: Halsey had a hell of a lot more on his mind than the weather.

True enough. And in further mitigation, the science of meteorology was not as advanced in 1944 as it is today. But Mr. Drury and Mr. Clavin point out, as many sailors of the day were keenly aware, that Kosco faced these “incidental dangers” from Halsey’s flagship, the 45,000 ton battlewagon, USS New Jersey, rather than on a foundering destroyer.

Halsey was an aggressive warrior with an impressive record of victories in the Pacific. Just what the Navy’s top brass and America’s political leadership agreed we needed at the time. He was fearless and took chances. The war against Germany was mainly a ground war, but the war against Japan was a Navy war. Halsey was the Patton of the Pacific. Americans loved him. So to help keep America’s morale up and prevent giving useful information to our enemy, many of the events of December 17-20, 1944, were kept secret. Thanks to the excesses of the secrets’ keepers, much of this story remained untold for decades.

Had the full story been known at the time, it seems doubtful that the Navy or the American people would have deserted their “fighting admiral” even though the fog and cruel exigencies of war led Halsey’s fleet into a ferocious fight with an enemy very different from the one his sailors were expecting.

Larry Thornberry, a writer living in Tampa, Fla., served on the destroyer USS Conyngham during the mid-Sixties.

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