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U.S. Military vs. Mighty Mother Nature

May 30th, 2013 | by Denise Goolsby | Comments

Contending with enemies abroad and securing our country’s freedom from far flung outposts across the globe are daily, daunting challenges facing the U.S. military.

And then there’s Mother Nature -  a mighty – but lesser examined nemesis of our armed forces.

Extreme weather conditions have foiled many a plan of attack throughout throughout the ages. On land and sea and air.

June 1 marks the start of typhoon season in the western Pacific Ocean. The season stretches all the way until the end of November – sometimes even longer.

By definition, a typhoon is a mature tropical cyclone that develops in the northwestern part of the  between the 180th meridian and the 1ooth meridian east in a region referred to as the northwest Pacific basin.

Military installations on Okinawa – particularly vulnerable to the whims of the winds – use a system of nine typhoon readiness levels called tropical cyclone conditions of readiness to inform personnel of the current typhoon threat and actions they should take, Lance Cpl. Peter Sanders wrote in a dispatch from Camp Foster, a U.S. Marine Corps base in Japan.

STORY: Read Lance Cpl. Peter Sanders’ dispatch

His story calls to mind a major sea disaster that occurred in the Pacific during World War II. At the same time – nearly a world away on the snow-covered battlegrounds of Europe – the Allies were overrun by the German Army and weather conditions kept the desperately-needed air power grounded.

Typhoon Cobra – also known as Halsey’s Typhoon (named after Admiral William “Bull” Halsey, Commander of the U.S. Third Fleet) – struck Dec. 17, 1944 and dealt a punishing blow to the Navy’s seagoing assets.

According to historical reports, Task Force 38 – comprised of seven fleet carriers, six light carriers, eight battleships, 15 cruisers and about 50 destroyers – had been operating about 300 miles east of Luzon in the Philippine Sea conducting air raids against Japanese airfields in the Philippines.

The fleet was attempting to refuel its ships, especially the lighter destroyers which had limited fuel carrying capacity. As the weather worsened it became increasingly difficult to refuel, and the attempts had to be discontinued.

Despite warning signs of worsening conditions the ships of the fleet remained in their stations; the location and direction of the typhoon reported to Halsey were inaccurate.

On Dec. 17, Admiral Halsey unwittingly sailed Third Fleet into the heart of the typhoon, which ravaged the fleet for two days. Because of 100 mph  winds, very high seas and torrential rain, three destroyers capsized and sank, and a total of 790 lives were lost.

Nine other warships were damaged, and over 100 aircraft were wrecked or washed overboard; the aircraft carrier USS Monterey (CVL-26) was forced to battle a serious fire that was caused by a plane hitting a bulkhead.

One of those fighting the fires aboard  Monterey was then-Lt. Gerald Ford, who later became President of the United States.

A view of USS Cowpens (CVL-25) starboard side flight deck facing aft from the island. Photo taken around the time Typhoon Cobra hit the Third Fleet on 18 December 1944. Photo credit: U.S. Navy.

It was a devastating one-two punch for the good guys. On Dec. 18,  1944, the Germans broke through the Allied front lines in the forested Ardennes region of Belgium, France and Luxembourg,  launching the nearly month-long Battle of the Bulge.

About a week later, the skies cleared and the fury of the Allied air power unleashed on the enemy, turning the tide of battle.

The winds of war are fickle.

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