Skip to main content

The sea's lessons amid the fog of war

"There are no great men, only great challenges that ordinary men are forced by circumstances to meet"

- William F. Halsey-Admiral of the Fleet, United States Navy

William F. Halsey had always been called Bill. When a reporter, because of a typographical error, referred to him as "Bull" he liked it, and from then on it was his nickname.

Mike Saylor

It was appropriate, though not because of his size. It was his attitude, his aggressiveness, his stubbornness. Once he set his mind on a course of action, he closed his eyes and charged ahead like a bull.

His motto was, "Hit hard. Hit fast. Hit often." This served him well, but his aggressiveness bit him in the ... well, you know where. It created a blemish on the impressive record of the U.S. Navy's "Fighting Sailor."

There's a lesson in Halsey's World War II exploits - specifically, one of his Task Forces' encounter with Typhoon Cobra - that anyone who ventures out onto the water would be wise to remember. As large and seaworthy as your vessel may be, there's always a wave or storm or immovable object that can make it appear quite a bit smaller and more vulnerable than you might first think. Beware of hubris.

Halsey became a legend in his time. As commander of the Navy's Aircraft Battle Force, he was returning from Wake Island after reinforcing the garrison with fighter planes Dec. 7, 1941, when Pearl Harbor was attacked. He arrived at Pearl Harbor the next day commanding the only effective major U.S. fighting ships in the Pacific. He immediately refueled and went hunting for the enemy. He also struck the Japanese with hit-and-run raids, the only offensive actions that were mounted by the United States in those darks days at the start of its involvement in the war. His carriers changed the paradigm for naval warfare in World War II.

Halsey's exploits also included commanding Task Force 16, penetrating to within 600 nautical miles of Japan and launching an attack with 16 Army Air Corps B-25 bombers. Until then, no Army bombers had ever flown from an aircraft carrier. Halsey also salvaged "Operation Shoestring," the invasion of Guadalcanal. He led the "island-hopping" strategy that resulted in the isolation of the impregnable island fortress of Rabaul, cutting off Japanese forces from their major supply base in the central South Pacific.

In June 1944, Halsey took command of the Third Fleet, arguably the most powerful force in the history of naval warfare. The Third Fleet was the fighting arm of the invasion of the Philippines. It was tasked with protecting the Seventh Fleet, which carried the troops and supplies for Gen. MacArthur's Philippine campaign.

Halsey's aggressive nature, which had served so well, would blemish his reputation. On Dec. 17, 1944, Task Force 38, the most powerful segment of the Third Fleet, met Typhoon Cobra. Task Force 38 was impressive. In its complement were seven fleet carriers, six light carriers, eight battleships, 15 cruisers and about 50 destroyers.

The task force was operating against Japanese airbases in the Philippines when a typhoon was reported to be heading their way. The task force was in the process of refueling, especially the destroyers, some of which had exhausted 85 to 90 percent of their fuel. In addition, the older destroyers had added about 500 tons of additional armament and equipment and were top-heavy.

Typhoon Cobra's barometric pressure was down to 907 millibars, with winds of 120 knots, but Halsey refused to take his ships off station. Three destroyers sank, two after rolling 70 degrees and taking water down their smokestacks, flooding their engines. Two other destroyers survived by flooding their empty fuel tanks with seawater to increase stability. (There's a lesson here for all who have responsibility for their vessels.)

Aircraft carrier flight decks were damaged and 146 planes were either wrecked or washed overboard. On the carrier USS Monterey, planes broke loose on the hangar deck as the ship rolled 20 degrees, colliding with bulkheads and bursting into flame. They almost lost her. By Dec. 18, Typhoon Cobra was history, with 790 lives lost.

In June 1945, Halsey sailed the Third Fleet into another typhoon, with six lives lost. No ships were lost, although several were severely damaged; 75 aircraft were destroyed, and 70 were damaged.

I suppose some guys never learn. As powerful as the ships of his Third Fleet were, Halsey apparently forgot that the sea can be more powerful - no matter how big the vessel. For us, the pleasure boaters, remember the Breton Fisherman's Prayer: "Oh Lord, thy sea is so great and my boat so small." Also, remember this advice: Always keep weight in your boat low and out of the ends when off soundings. If you're in a hurricane or a severe low and the wind is shifting to the right and increasing, put the wind on your starboard bow and hustle outta there.