On December the 18th 1944 the forenoon watch opens : "...with the devil to pay and no pitch hot. The violence of the wind is terrible; it shrieks and whinnies, roars and shudders, beats and clutches. The sea is convulsed, diabolic; the ships are laboring - laid over by the wind, rolling rapidly through tremendous arcs with sharp violent jerks, pounding and pitching, buried deep beneath tons of water, rising heavily, streaming foam and salt from gunwales and hawse pipes. Violent rain gusts, spin drift blown with the sting of hail, a rack of scud blot out visibility."
And so began the battle between the men of task Force 38 and typhoon Cobra that went on to take the lives of 790 souls and sink those mighty denizens of the sea - three destroyers, the USS Spence (DD 512), the USS Monaghan (DD 354),and the USS Hull (DD 350)
The proud fleet of Task Force 38 had been sortied from Ulithi on 10 and 11 December 1944 and sent to a position east of Luzon for around-the-clock strikes to prevent Japanese forces from using the airbases there to scupper landings on the nearby southwest coast of Mindoro, which were scheduled for the 15th.
After a successful mission, which left the men feeling heartened that the end was in sight for the enemy, they withdrew to a rendezvous point east of the Philippines to take on badly needed fuel.
Sunday, 17 December brought a dark and forbidding dawn, with a choppy sea and a brisk, changeable wind. The Third Fleet traveled across hundreds of miles of fickle water and were told three times that the sea was not calm enough for their ships to come alongside to the 24 oilers waiting to quench their thirst.
They had taken on the might of the Japanese empire and won, but were humbled by the relentless force of nature, which had sent an inexorable swathe of water between the oilers and the dwarfed ships that made refueling nigh impossible. Eventually, some of the ships managed to take on a couple of hundred gallons before the hoses broke and the ships separated.
The force of the wind was running at 26 knots. The barometer read 29.74 and the temperature 82. Visibility was recorded at a mere five miles.
By early afternoon, unable to clearly locate the center of the approaching storm, the Commander of the Third Fleet deemed it prudent to suspend refueling and set a course for the northwest, then later to the southwest in an attempt to avoid the worst of the approaching typhoon.
There was a watchful air. The Third Fleet alert to any danger, held a steady cruising formation and keeping a close eye on the worsening weather, men were braced in their bunks and everything was in readiness to cope with what was to come. Survivors reported a feeling of dread and uneasiness and difficulty in sleeping.
Barometer readings fell at a steady pace and no agreement could be reached for the best course forward, bad visibility from rain, spray and spume made station keeping difficult and it wasn't until the early light of dawn that they came to the awful realization that they were in the path of one of the biggest typhoons that they had ever seen.
A desperate attempt to change course to 180 due south failed miserably and within moments they were plunged into a maelstrom of fury that battered the Third Fleet relentlessly, accompanied by a "howling, demonic wind" that no man aboard had ever felt before.
Log books record some of the ships being driven by strong winds towards the cener of the storm where they witnessed a terrifying destructive funnel. The barometer readings stood at an all time low and the storm tore cranes from their moorings, damaging aircraft in their tumbling path.
At 0820 the destroyer Dewey lost all bridge steering control and its radar became inoperable. Cowpens reported the loss of an F6F airplane, torn loose from its triple lashed moorings, smashing into the catwalk and starting a fire. Her men desperately fought the fire that threatened to engulf them as a bomb handling truck smashed into a fighter plane. The steel roller curtains on the port side of the hangar deck were ripped apart by the vicious assault of unrelenting wind and sea. Wind velocity by now was measured at a speed of 100 knots.
They struggled with the fire as the 20mm gun sponson is inexorably pulled out of its steel supports and the whaleboat is lifted away , bombs bounce about the deck, and they loose their jeeps and tractors, crane and seven planes into the howling sea. Eventually the sea puts out the fire for them and they are left, a shattered hull upon the writhing sea.
Dewey gives a barometer of 27.30 - the world's lowest ever and the oiler Nantahala, gives a wind velocity of 124 knots. The wind increases in force to a staggering force of 17.5 more above the maximum reading on the Beaufort scale which normally records the worst at 1; a hurricane above 65 knots.
What must have been going through the minds of those men at that time? The pitch of the storm was so loud that you couldn't even be heard enough to shout above it and the force of the wind sloughed through the tops of the 70 feet high waves and throwing the formations forward into a single sheet of water.
The only sound above the storm comes the groaning and shrieking of the beleaguered ships as they are torn and thrown, ripped apart and left, drifting, derelict upon the water, its occupants fighting desperately to avoid the carnage of loose wreckage as they battled against the ensuing flames and the dragging motion of the malevolent waves.
The late morning brought a struggling Monaghan, prevailing against a wind that pushed towards her weakened starboard side. She struggled to fight the brutal onslaught of the howling wind and managed to keep afloat until noon, struggling again and again to keep upright. Each time she rallied, but the wind become stronger and eventually after rolling from an angle of 30 degrees, to 70, she finally gave up her valiant fight and went down on her side, taking 18 officers and 238 men with her.
Admiral Nimitz called it a tragedy that "represented a more crippling blow to the Third Fleet than it might be expected to suffer in anything less than a major action." In the aftermath of the typhoon six survivors were rescued by Brown (DD-546) after three days of drifting on a life raft.
SPENCE went down too at a 72 degree, its 2000 tons of steel, shattered and obliterated by the fury of the storm, she lay down on her side, and gave up just one surviving officer and 70 other survivors.
The peak of the storm came between 1100 and 1400 hours and forced the vessels to roll and dip at unheard of angles. The destroyer, Hull, who had hung on throughout the morning, with leaky seams and power shortages is 70% full of fuel oil and no water ballast. She had no radar. She was blown helplessly against the wind, with no answer from rudder and engines. At last she was pushed over onto her starboard side and the waters flooded into her and she slowly capsized.
Mondays brought slight abatement of the wind. Typhoon Cobra had come to an end and the shattered sisters of their entombed companions set about picking up the few remaining survivors that could be found in the still churning waters of the sea.
By Tuesday the last of the 24 survivors from Spence were picked up by the USS Tabberer (DE 418) who's Captain never gave up hope that there were still survivors out there. Hanging desperately from life rafts, they counted themselves lucky to be alive after battling against sharks and barracuda in the freezing waters.
Typhoon cobra is also called Halsey's typhoon, named after Admiral William "Bull" Halsey who was the popular American naval hero who unwittingly sailed the undefeated Pacific Fleet into the teeth of the most powerful storm ever recorded.
Thanks to the dozens of firsthand accounts from survivors including Gerald Ford, a former American president, the story has been pieced together that catalog the events of that terrible day when Halsey's Third Fleet fought valiantly to stay afloat against overwhelming odds.
In the aftermath of the storm the survivors, mostly teenagers and young men, were subjected to a grueling 60 hour battle to stay alive and fight the effects of dehydration, exhaustion and keep themselves afloat amongst 70 foot high waves in the shark infested waters.
They were to be rescued by the relentless Lieutenant Commander Henry Lee Plage who defied orders to sail his tiny destroyer escort, the USS Tabberer, through 150-mph winds to rescue many men at all odds.
Thanks to the bravery of that one commander, many men have lived to tell the tale today and give the world an account of one of the most incredible World War II sagas in our lifetime.