Jerry Ford:
American Hero

By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
February 2024

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 their decks.

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.

Ingersoll, left, receives a strike briefing from his CAG, Lt. Cdr. Roger W. Mehle.

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.

“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 2006 at age 93, 22 years aftr his dog, Liberty. It would fall to Jerry Ford to order the final withdrawal of American forces from Vietnam.

Proud Wolverine. Gerald R. Ford, Michigan MVP. Democratic foes were wrong; he didn’t really play without a helmet.

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 pre-commissioning crew.

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.

Lt. Ford during his service aboard Monterey.

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 late Arizona senator’s grandfather.

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 decades 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.

Ford governs with dog help.

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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and NASA Journalist in Space finalist, he has published a great many books, games and articles on historical subjects; people are saying that some of them are actually good. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife and three children. He will never forget his dog, Leopold. Leopold also lent dog help to the human.

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