In December 1944, the U.S. Third Fleet, commanded by Adm. William "Bull" Halsey, was supporting Gen. Douglas MacArthur's...

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“Halsey’s Typhoon: The True Story of a Fighting Admiral, an Epic Storm and an Untold Rescue”
by Bob Drury and Tom Clavin
Atlantic Monthly Press, 322 pp., $25

In December 1944, the U.S. Third Fleet, commanded by Adm. William “Bull” Halsey, was supporting Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s invasion of the Philippines when it blundered into a Pacific typhoon that sank three ships, seriously damaged 12 others, destroyed 146 aircraft and killed 793 American seamen.

Bob Drury and Tom Clavin recount this disaster in a vigorous, if occasionally lumpy, account of a little-known chapter of Halsey’s sometimes controversial career. They humanize the story by telling much of it from the viewpoint of the few-score seamen who survived the sinkings of their ships.

Halsey practiced aggressive and innovative combat tactics and was an early proponent of the aircraft carrier as the Navy’s new capital ship. He was revered by his men as a “fighting admiral,” whose oft-espoused mission was to kill as many Japanese as possible as quickly as possible, and was popular on the home front because his carriers provided some morale-boosting offense in the Pacific in the dark months following Pearl Harbor.

Author appearance

Tom Clavin will discuss “Halsey’s Typhoon,” at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the University Book Store’s Mill Creek location (425-385-3530; www.ubookstore.com).

As the typhoon developed in December 1944, Halsey was still stinging from criticism of his actions two months earlier at Leyte Gulf, the largest naval battle in history. Through a combination of his zeal to run down and destroy Japan’s four remaining attack carriers and ambiguous communication about his intentions, Halsey left the northern flank of MacArthur’s Philippine invasion armada defended only by three light escort-carrier groups.

A powerful force of Japanese battleships and cruisers, as their conceptually brilliant battle plan intended, slipped behind Halsey to assault MacArthur’s invasion force. Disaster was averted only by the vigorous and selfless resistance of the escort carriers and their accompanying destroyers, which managed to turn back the overwhelmingly superior but timidly led Japanese force at the cost of more than 1,000 American lives and four ships sunk. Halsey obliterated the Japanese carrier force, but the near-disaster for the invasion fleet exposed him to unaccustomed criticism.

Drury and Clavin assert that the Leyte experience contributed to Halsey’s determination two months later to keep his fleet on station during what came to be known as “Halsey’s Typhoon.” Whatever his motivation, the confluence of a storm whose 140 mph winds piled waves 90 feet high, combined with Halsey’s decision not to let his fleet disperse so individual vessels could pursue the best tactics for saving themselves until it was too late, proved disastrous.

Older destroyers, rendered inherently unstable by the addition of superstructure for radar and other advanced systems unforeseen when they were designed, wallowed horrifically. Their plight was worsened by their near-empty fuel tanks, which caused them to ride higher in the water while remaining fuel sloshed from one side to the other, exacerbating their roll.

Three destroyers sank and accounted for most of the dead — the Hull, whose feckless commander became the model for Capt. Queeg in Herman Wouk’s novel “The Caine Mutiny,” went down with 202 of her crew; the Monaghan with 239; and the Spence with 315.

Aboard the small and ungainly escort carriers there was widespread chaos. Their aircraft had been lashed down with steel cables, but they broke loose anyway, careening around the hangar decks and exploding into flames. Aboard the USS Monterey, a future president, Lt. j.g. Gerald Ford, after narrowly saving himself from sliding off the flight deck to near certain death overboard, led a fire crew that controlled a raging inferno on the Monterey’s hangar deck.

One of the smallest ships in the fleet, the destroyer escort Tabberer, skippered by Lt. Cmdr. Henry Lee Plage, rescued 55 dehydrated, sun-scorched and sometimes shark-bitten survivors of the sinkings. Thirty-eight others were picked up by a half-dozen other vessels.

The court of inquiry that investigated the disaster found that Halsey’s mistakes were “errors in judgment under stress of war operation,” not faults that merited punishment. The U.S. naval historian Samuel Eliot Morison concluded that even this mild judgment was unfair to Halsey, and the authors concur this “sounds about right” 60 years removed from events.

The book includes helpful maps, period photographs and a bibliography.

Tom Brown is an associate editor at seattletimes.com.