TYPHOON!

December 17-19, 1944


An unexpected enemy which proved even more lethal for us destroyers than battling the Japanese visited us during the pre‑Christmas days of 1944. As one historian has written, that enemy was the "Ole Devil Sea." In hindsight, all of us aboard the STEPHEN POTTER in those days must give thanks to the Lord that we survived the tremendous torment of the sea knowing that three of our fellow destroyers did not and 790 men were lost at sea, their ships brought down by the monster typhoon.

The three terrible days began on December 17th amid fueling operations planned by Third Fleet Commander Halsey prior to launching strikes in the Manila area. The ships were 500 miles east of Luzon. In the forenoon it became apparent that the rising winds and heavy swells would make fueling at sea quite difficult. The POTTER, along with several other ships, had to break off attempts to fuel. Of special note the destroyer SPENCE, trying to take oil from the battleship NEW JERSEY, saw its hoses snapped and nearly collided with the larger ship.

When Halsey learned of the worsening weather, he ordered the fueling operations suspended and headed the fleet in a northwesterly direction hoping to evade the storm. But later in the afternoon the typhoon changed its course and began to catch up with the retiring ships. With the weather rapidly deteriorating, ships of the Third Fleet, especially the "little boys" (we destroyers), began what amounted to the fight of our lives. The vessels were buffeted by 70‑foot seas causing even the battleships to roll like canoes crossing rapids.

At the peak of the raging torrent, a number of the DDs rolled so precariously their superstructures were almost flat against the sea. Some registering a 75‑degree roll on the ship's inclinometer. The HULL and the MONAGHAN, Farragut‑class DD's, were screening vessels for the Third Fleet's fueling unit. The SPENCE, one of our fellow 2100‑ton DD's, was among the screening vessels attached to the Halsey fleet along with those of us in the DESRON 52.

The SPENCE, caught with only 15 percent of its fuel capacity and little water ballast, had been riding like a cork on top of the raging ocean. When its rudder jammed full right, it was the first of the three vessels to capsize. Only 23 crew members were saved and among those lost was the ship's captain, Lt. Commander J. P. Andrea.

Sometime during the middle of the day as the storm howled down, the two smaller DD's, HULL and MONAGHAN, rolled over beyond the point of recovery and sank. Only six of the 300 officers and men on the MONAGHAN survived. Just 56 enlisted men and 7 officers managed to escape death when the HULL went down.

Here's how Underhill remembers the STEPHEN POTTER experience with the typhoon:

"Having never been in a storm of this magnitude, I didn't realize that there was a possibility that the ship could go down. The STEPHEN POTTER rolled 63 degrees during the storm. Some smaller destroyers and "jeep" carriers rolled 75 degrees and recovered. The jeep carriers were built on a freighter hull and used to ferry new airplanes to us. They traveled with the tanker group and also provided anti‑submarine patrols.

"When we went into a trough of the sea, the bow of the ship would be suspended in the air for a few seconds and then crash, down into the sea. As we came out of a trough and met the next wave, we would take green water over the top of the bridge. When we looked out the portholes of the pilothouse, we would see just green water. The wind was blowing the tops of the waves and the rain straight at us. The ship was all buttoned down with all hatches and other openings closed. If anybody had ventured out on deck, they would have been swept overboard.

"At times, the heavy rain was coming at us horizontally and obscured our vision so that we could not see the 5‑inch guns some 20 feet in front of the pilothouse. One of the destroyers in our squadron reported that the ship's dog was washed overboard from a forward part of the ship and then washed back aboard on the aft part of the ship. On a flat sea, our bridge was 35 feet above the water. The tops of the mountainous waves towered above us.

"During the storm, we couldn't see any other ships. On the surface radar, we wouldn't have any indication of other ships, when we were down in the bottom of a trough. When we were on the top of a wave, the radar would only pick up a few nearby ships that also happened to be on top of a wave at that moment. It was an eerie sensation.

"It was early morning on the 19th before it was learned that ships had been sunk. The weather didn't moderate sufficiently until December 21 for an organized search for survivors to be arranged. The destroyer HULL lost steering and was blown over by the wind and capsized. Seven officers and 55 men were rescued out of a complement of 18 officers and 246 men.

"The destroyer SPENCE was in the screen of our task group, stationed next to us. The SPENCE took water into the engine room causing the main switchboard to flash over so that all electrical power and lights were lost. The electric bilge pumps, which had been keeping the ship free of water, stopped. The ship took on water and about an hour later rolled to port and capsized. The SPENCE was a 2100‑ton ship of the same class as the STEPHEN POTTER and had a similar complement of 20 officers and 290 men. One officer and 23 men were rescued from her."

Taken from "USS Stephen Potter - The Story of DD538" compiled and edited by Lt. Wilson F. (Bill) Minor USNR (Ret).