By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
The weather reports were ominous. Typhoon
conditions could be expected in the Western
Pacific sector into which the U.S. Third Fleet
was headed. Fleet headquarters did not distribute
the information; captains and crews learned
of the pending disaster on the evening of
18 December 1944, when winds whipped up to
100 knots and gigantic waves crashed across
Among the ships suffering from the heavy
pounding was the light carrier Monterey, a
small Independence-class ship commissioned
just 18 months before. F6F “Hellcat”
fighters lashed to her hangar deck broke loose
and began skittering about. Several of them
— crewmen later could not agree on exactly
how many — collided and exploded into
flame. The flames spread and eventually 18
aircraft — almost two-thirds of the
little ship’s air group — were
aflame. The carrier’s air recirculation
system sucked in smoke and flame, spreading
the fires throughout the ship.
On the bridge, Monterey’s captain,
Stuart H. Ingersoll, received a direct order
from the fleet commander, Admiral William H.
Halsey, to abandon his ship. With the carrier
ablaze from stem to stern, it must have seemed
the only rational choice. But Ingersoll, looking
at the 70-foot waves crashing over his flight
deck, knew that none of his wounded could possibly
survive going over the side, and likely few
of his crew. He as yet had no clue as his casualties,
only that the numbers would likely be very large.
Ingersoll, left, receives a strike briefing
from his CAG, Lt. Cdr. Roger W. Mehle.
“We can fix this,” he snapped
at the admiral, and cut the connection. He
turned to the only officer on the bridge,
the ship’s anti-aircraft battery officer,
and snarled, “Get below.”
The “island” on light carriers
like Monterey was very small, properly referred
to as a “pilot house.” Access
to the bridge was by a steel ladder on its
outside structure. As the lieutenant climbed
down the ladder, a powerful wave flung him
onto the flight deck, smashing him onto the
timbers flat on his back. As the ship’s
25-degree list sent him skittering toward
the opposite edge and the churning waters
of the Pacific below, he twisted and leapt
for the catwalk edging the flight deck. The
former University of Michigan star center
caught the two-inch steel edge of the flight
deck with his fingertips, and with a surge
of adrenalin-fueled brute strength hauled
himself onto the catwalk and safety.
"I was lucky,” he recalled later.
“I could have easily gone overboard."
Calm before the storm. Monterey anchored
at Ulithi Atoll, 24 November 1944.
Gathering sailors into an impromptu damage
control team, the lieutenant’s first
task was to remove the wounded from the boiler
rooms, then restore three of the four boilers
to operation so that the ship could make headway
into the storm (the fourth remained in action,
the only reason Monterey could operate
her high-pressure hoses). Seven hours later,
badly burned and shaking from exhaustion,
the lieutenant and his team had restored boiler
operation and saved the ship. Monterey lost three dead and 34 wounded; nearly 800
American sailors lost their lives in Typhoon
Cobra but almost all of these were aboard
three destroyers which sank in the murderous
weather: Hull, Monaghan and Spence.
Had Ingersoll followed orders, his 1,569 crewmen
would likely have tripled the casualty count.
Or had Lt. Gerald R. Ford faltered, the result
would have been the same.
A man who knew the real cost of war, a man
who’d waded through the dead and dying,
a man who volunteered for combat service when
his status as a football star could have kept
him safely on the Navy’s “jock
track,” the 38th President of the United
States died in 2007 at age 93. It would
fall to Jerry Ford to order the final withdrawal
of American forces from Vietnam.
Born Leslie King in 1913, the boy took the
name of his mother’s second husband,
Gerald R. Ford, when he was three years old.
At Michigan he played on the 1932 national
championship team and was voted most valuable
player the next year. Following the custom
of the day, he admitted decades later, he
also played in a number of National Football
League games for the Detroit Lions under an
assumed name while still playing for Michigan.
Graduating in 1935, he spent three years as
a coach at Yale University before entering
the law school there, passing the Michigan
bar in 1941.
When war broke out in 1941, Ford immediately
volunteered for the Navy and, after receiving
a commission, became an instructor and football
coach at several Navy Pre-Flight programs. But
he burned to see actual combat, and in May 1943,
his repeated requests for sea duty were finally
acknowledged and he was added to Monterey’s
Proud Wolverine. Gerald R. Ford, Michigan
MVP. Democratic foes were wrong; he
didn’t really play without a helmet.
Ford served on the carrier from its baptism
of fire in November 1943 through the end of
the war. A charred hulk, Monterey returned
to Bremerton, Washington for major repairs,
returning to action in May 1945. Retired in
1947, she was re-commissioned as a training
carrier during the Korean War, mothballed
in 1956 and eventually scrapped in 1971.
Ingersoll would rise to vice admiral and
command both the Seventh Fleet and the Naval
War College in the decades after the war.
Halsey and two other admirals would be court-martialed
for his failure to warn Ingersoll and the
other captains of the bad weather and for
recklessly steering the fleet into not just
one but two typhoons. Though all were acquitted,
the stress appears to have helped bring on
the fatal heart attack of Vice Admiral John
S. McCain, the Arizona senator’s grandfather.
Lt. Ford during his service aboard Monterey.
Ford would be elected to the U.S. House of
Representatives in 1948, and rise to become
House Minority Leader in 1963. In late 1973,
following Vice President Spiro T. Agnew’s
resignation in disgrace, President Richard
M. Nixon tapped Ford as the new vice president.
When Nixon in turn resigned in disgrace less
than a year later, Ford became president.
He then ignited 32 years of controversy by
pardoning Nixon before the former president
had been charged with a crime. Following a
stiff intra-party challenge from Ronald Reagan
in the 1976 presidential primaries, Ford would
be beaten by Jimmy Carter that fall.
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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold. Leopold has a very fine nose.