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How typhoons at the end of World War II swamped U.S. ships and nearly saved Japan from defeat

The  USS Santa Fe in calm water. (U.S. Navy)
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Seventy years ago, two typhoons hit and seriously damaged scores of U.S. Navy ships engaged in the last battles of World War 2, killing more than 800 Americans.

The typhoons arrived as pilots of Japanese suicide airplanes, called Kamikazes, were crashing into allied ships in the western Pacific, damaging many and sinking some. “Kamikaze” means “divine winds” and originally referred to typhoons in 1274 and 1281 that scattered and sunk many of the ships in Mongolian invasion fleets under the command of Kublai Khan.

Unlike the 13th century storms, the 1944 and 1945 typhoons didn’t save Japan from defeat. But an October 1945 typhoon showed what could have happened if Japan hadn’t agreed to surrender on August 15, 1945 (Japanese time)

The first typhoon, informally named “Cobra,” hit on December 16, 1944, as the U.S. Navy’s Third Fleet, commanded by Admiral William F. “Bull” Halsey, headed east into the open Pacific to refuel and transfer supplies from tankers and cargo ships to the fleet’s aircraft carriers, battleships, cruisers, and destroyers out of range of the Japanese airplanes based in the Philippines, including Kamikazes. The fleet had been supporting the successful U.S. invasion of the Philippines.

As Dr. Bob Sheets and I write in our 2001 book, Hurricane Watch, “…nothing worked out; every move that Halsey made over the next two days seemed to be the wrong one. Early on the morning of the 17th, Commander George F. Kosco, Halsey’s meteorologist, advised the admiral of a storm well to the east and likely to turn north.” Unfortunately, Kosco was wrong and “the Third Fleet was steaming directly toward an intensifying typhoon.”

During the next 24 hours Halsey ordered other course changes that sent “many of the ships into the core of the typhoon, with sixty-foot waves and sustained winds estimated at higher than 145 miles per hour.”

The resulting losses included three destroyers capsized and sunk, several other ships heavily damaged, and 146 planes on aircraft carriers destroyed when they broke loose and slid across decks, sometimes starting fires when their fuel tanks split. After the storm ended 790 officers and enlisted men were either dead or washed overboard and presumed killed.

Then, in May 1945, after a break to serve in Pearl Harbor and Washington, D.C., Halsey was again in command of the Third Fleet, which was operating near the Japanese island of Okinawa, where U.S. troops were fighting the fierce 82-day battle that ended on June 22.

In 1944 and 1945 the Navy’s Fleet Weather Central office at Pearl Harbor was trying to forecast for the huge expanse of the Pacific Ocean, using sparse surface observations from a few islands and ships, but without today’s weather satellites, high-speed computers, and other tools we take for granted.

On June 5, 1945, a typhoon, named Connie (some accounts call it “Typhoon Viper”), smashed into the Third Fleet on the open seas, with 50- to 60-foot seas, a central pressure of 28.30 inches, and sustained winds of about 115 miles per hour, with probable gusts to 150. Thirty-three ships were damaged, six lives lost, and, as in Cobra, airplanes destroyed when they broke loose; this time 76, half as many as in Cobra

On June 2 and 3 Navy forecasters had said a typhoon was forming and should move over Okinawa. Halsey ordered the fleet to turn east away from the expected track of the typhoon and away from shallow water around Okinawa and farther from possible Japanese Kamikaze attacks.

As it turned out, instead of tracking over Okinawa, the typhoon was on a track to meet the Third Fleet. As it happened, the Ancon, which was a new amphibious operations command ship with the latest radar and other electronic equipment, happened to be in the area.

As Bob Sheets and I say in Hurricane Watch: The Ancon located the typhoon heading on a track that would intercept the fleeing Navy fleet and sent out a radio message with the new location and storm track. “But wartime practice dictated that all messages be coded, which meant they had to be decoded by those receiving them. This delay cost the Third Fleet five hours of warning — a critical loss of time.”

On Oct. 24, 1945, after the war was over, Typhoon Louise hit the island of Okinawa, which the U.S. had turned into a major military base for the expected invasion of Japan in late 1945.

The typhoon seriously damaged U.S. ships and shore facilities on Okinawa, sinking 12 U.S. ships or boats, and washing 222 ships or small craft ashore as well as destroying most of the island’s military facilities. It killed 36 Americans, seriously injured 100, with another 47 missing

The U.S. Navy history of this storm says: “If the war had not ended (when it did) this damage, especially the grounding and damage to 107 amphibious craft … would likely have seriously impacted the planned invasion of Japan.”