A short story by Dominic Legato, GM2/c of this killer storm on 18 Dec 44 that sank three destroyers; The SPENCE, HULL AND MONAHAN and killed 790 officers and crew and injured 80 crewman.
On this fatal day, the Third Fleet had rendezvoused with the tanker fleet for refueling and was caught up near the middle of this Typhoon. The winds were approx. 130 mph and the waves were approx. 65 feet high.
At 1000 hours that morning on the 17th of Dec 44 the sea was getting rough, and the wind was causing the white capped waves to release sheets of atomized vapor ahead of it. This looks like a change in the weather for the worse. I see the chief pass by. “Hey Red, it looks like we’re in for a good blow this time, wadda yeh think?” “I just came from the bridge Legato, and we’re heading straight into a typhoon”. We were operating in support of the invasion of the Philippines about 300 miles east of Luzon to rendezvous with the tanker fleet this morning. They should be in sight within the hour, and the faster we fuel up the better off we’ll be. I wouldn’t worry though, the HUNT can take it, and she’ll weather this one like she did all the others, I assured myself. It’s the noon watch, and the wind becomes more furious. The white caps are now connecting with each other as their sprays merge atop the mounting swells. We’re beginning to roll and pitch in tune with the impending storms preamble of fury. We must be rolling between twenty and thirty degrees from both sides of vertical, and walking at these angles is dangerous. Before heading forward, I grab a batten on the bulkhead and hold on until the ship rolls to near level position, then dash ahead to another hand hold, and wait the return to level to dash ahead again. I look up and see ships or something on the horizon. The tanker fleet is barely coming into view at 1230 hours.
The ships are spray covered from stem to stern as the whistling wind vaporizes the peaks of each wave as though sprayed from a gigantic fire hose. It looks like we are going to be the first destroyer to re-fuel. The special sea detail is set at 1250. Here we go into position along the portside of the NEW JERSEY while other ships prepare for fueling with the tankers. On the starboard side the SPENCE attempts to fuel but breaks her fuel lines and only gets about 1,000 gallons
First thing we have to do is exchange heavy lines before the fuel lines can be passed. I say to the chief; “I better get ready with the line throwing gun and get Martin to hold the line for me. I’ll have to shoot the line into the wind, way ahead of the target point on the New Jersey”. “Yeh, I think you’re right, Legato, go ahead”. I’m facing the wind and the spray saturates me with salt water and partially blinds me. I feel like I’m in a huge shower stall, and I can’t turn off the water. “Hey Martin, pull the bobbin on the line spool, I’m ready to fire”. I load, then aim the gun as though I’m shooting for the bow. I fire and the projectile and line fall short. We do it again and I adjust the angles; this time the line barely makes it across. Quickly, the deck gangs tie heavier lines to it, and they pull ours across. We tie a heavier line to theirs and repeat the action until the six inch hawsers are secured. The sea between our ships cause us to roll, sometimes in unison toward each other causing slack in the lines and then away stressing the lines taut. The deck hands are working furiously to provide the slack or retrieve the slack, lest the lines should part and our ships drift apart. It seems forever before the fuel lines come aboard tobegin their life giving transfusion of heavy black fuel oil. It is now 1320. Usually we need an hour to fuel, but this is something else. Suddenly I hear a loud crackling snap above the roar of the wind! The heavy lines have given way to the storm’s violence and parted their fibers as though they were flimsy threads. We go through the ritual again with the eight inch lines this time. The storm continues to mount toward its predestined climax and these lines break too, along with the fuel lines. For a short time the fuel blackens the sea between us until the valves are closed. Our ships move toward each other precariously close. The storm is too fierce, so we break off to ride out the storm. What luck! At least we got some fuel aboard. Or sister ship waiting next in line is not so lucky, she gets none.
Although it is only 1520, the skies are more black than grey. The clouds seem to race across the sky while swirling wildly into grotesquely changing shapes. There is so much spray, I can’t tell if it is raining or not. I work my way carefully to the upper deck astern of the bridge to a vantage point portside so I can watch this storm of all storms. The 4 to 8 watch is set. I have the 8 to mid watch. The storm is approaching its peak, and the winds must be over 100 miles per hour now. I look up as the waves rise endlessly to the sky and form salt water walls that appear to defy gravity. While in the trough the 50 to 60 foot waves streaked with white foamy veins, obscure our fleet from my view until we ride to the crests again. The wind howls like a banshee through the halyards, antennas, and the radar screens. I watch our sister ships as they point their bows to the sky on the up pitch. As their bows throw up the water, the wind disintegrates the waves that envelope the entire ship. As the bow dips again on the down pitch, I see their screws come plainly out of the water. Our ships look like long grey corks bobbing in Father Neptune’s bath tub, as he blows great volumes of wind at us from his bloated cheeks. From my partially protected vantage facing astern, I see our ship roll to port farther over then I’ve ever seen it roll before. As she rolls over, it seems like she won’t stop rolling this time. But, finally, she stops as she touches her gunwales (pronounced ‘gunnels’) within inches of the sea, and she hesitates before righting herself. Such a roll must be over 50 degrees, and I check the inclinometer on the bridge behind me, just to see. Each roll is registering consistently over 50 degrees and that one topped at 58 degrees. Sparks tells me one of our sister ships reached a 62 degree roll; at 70 degrees you can roll over and die.
We are laboriously plowing forward with no more reason to do so then to keep moving. Huge waves splash over our sides, and slam mercilessly against our super structures with angry, ferocious, crashing, howls attempting to tear us apart. Lifejackets, helmets, broken tie lines,and miscellaneous paraphanalia float across the decks like flotsam at the beach until the water carries them through the safety lines to be swallowed by the hungry sea, while others are forced in crevices to be captured later. As the ship rolls to one side, a tremendous wave hits us broadside. The jarring jolt rattles the entire ship and breaks loose everything not tightly secured. Although I am holding on I’m thrown sideways, and I bounce off the bulkhead.
By 1650 hours, the deck is off limits to all hands except those necessary for life or safety and then only allowed on deck wearing life jackets and life lines secured to them. I watch in fascination as the storm continues unabated, and I begin to feel hungry. At 1800 I make my way down to chow. Tonight we can’t sit at the chow tables, and chow is only sandwiches and joe (coffee). Some eat standing up and holding on, but I prop down on deck and hold on. After eating my storm rations I head forward to my bunk. My bunk, of course, is as far forward as it can be in the bowels of the bow. My bunk is the middle bunk, one above and one below me. I sack in fully dressed on the mattress for a little rest before going on watch. As the ship pitches upward toward the crest of the rise I experience weight-lessness and hang suspended for a moment. Then on the down pitch it slams me down into the mattress, trampoline style. The skin of the ship is only feet away, and the noise is like the inside of a bass drum; so rest must wait until the storm ends.
Whoo eeee, now hear this, set the 8 to mid watch. The number one 5 inch gun watch station has been changed to the upper deck, number two gun. Extreme caution must be observed”. The storm now has reached its peak. At 2130, a loud rumble and crashing sound is heard as a giant wave breaks our bow and crashes full force against number one gun. We call control to report it, but they already know. We begin to ship water below, into the chief’s quarters. “Whoo eeee, whoo eee, all damage control crews report to the chief’s quarters on the double. Prepare for water penetration repairs”. Damn good thing we didn’t stand watch there tonight. The repair crews take an hour and a half to stop the water. Good God! The whole side of the gun shield was pounded in as though punched in by a super human fist! Discipline and training has paid off again.
When the mid watch relieved us at 2330 the storm was beginning to abate. I go below and hit the sack and manage a restless sleep as the storm rages on inexorably to its demise. . . . . . . When dawn came, it was ugly and wild, a fit ending for the nightmare that had preceded it. The wind had dropped to a steady fifty knots, gale force. Running straight before the still heavy seas, the HUNT was amazingly steady. The wind changed and blew from dead astern . Far away to the southwest a dazzling white sun climbed up above a cloudless horizon. The long night was over, the storm was over and the HUNT came through again.