17. Flying Conditions Average

"Ensign Allander got vertigo in a cloud and was last seen spiraling down in his plane."

Operations vs. Combat

One thing never seemed to change during our service on three aircraft carriers--that was the weather summary. The teletype in the Pilot's Ready Room may have given details about the heavy overcast, freezing rain, and high winds, but invariably the concluding statement was "Flying Conditions Average."

We finally learned to send a pilot out to the flight deck to check. Buck Barnett was a likely candidate since he was our "night-flying expert." And he would report back "Can't see the other end of the flight deck for the fog, wind nearly blew me off the flight deck, but the teletype is correct, flying conditions are average!"

The historical record will show that Torpedo Four, like most of the squadrons in WW II, lost more men in so-called "operations" than to "combat," and weather was a big contributor. Official Navy reports classified the losses of pilots and crew as either "Losses in Combat" or "Losses Operationally." Why did the military tell the relatives back home that so-and-so was killed in training or lost in an operational accident as opposed to killed in action? Either way you are dead as a result of the war.

The way the losses were reported was bound to have a psychological impact on the family back home. Operational deaths would always seem so unnecessary. Both of the first two skippers of Torpedo Four were lost to weather or operations. Yet, their deaths were just as noble as those individuals shot down by the Nazis or the Japanese.

Routine carrier takeoffs with a heavy load of armament were always questionable. From the cockpit, even though we checked the instruments, we learned to listen for the slightest change in the sound of the engine which might reveal a loss of power. And we always welcomed the "moderate winds" which increased the air flow over the flight deck. Five to 10 knots made the difference between a comfortable takeoff and "sweating it out."

Carrier landings were more dangerous than takeoffs. This process required a team approach. The pilot did his best to get "into the groove" as he started the final turn to line up with the flight deck. Then in those final few seconds, we shifted our trust to the LSO (Landing Signal Officer). The LSO was always an experienced pilot. He had flown most, if not all, of the planes he was guiding. He knew how to read the speed of the plane from its attitude. And, most importantly, he learned through experience the characteristic approaches of the different pilots. Nevertheless, there was always a sigh of relief when we "caught a wire."

But while the carrier launch and recovery took the lives of many Navy pilots, our worst adversary was the weather. Granted, we had undergone a modest amount of instrument training; not nearly enough in our opinion. However, our problem was trying to combine formation flying with instrument flying--trying to keep our eyes on the instrument panel without chopping off the wing of our section or division leader. And some pilots were lost because they couldn't combine "dead reckoning" navigation with formation flying. If they became separated from the group in a cloud, they might not know their latitude and longitude.

Typhoons Take Their Toll

In the Pacific our two carriers were in and out of several typhoons. Only one of these received exceptional notoriety. Sometimes called "Halsey's Typhoon," this storm took place while we were supporting the Philippine operations. A complete report on the nature of this storm and the fleet operations at the time is contained in Capt C. Raymond Calhoun's book entitled, Typhoon: The Other Enemy. (1)

On December 16 - 18, 1944, the USS Essex (Flagship of TG 38.3), along with the rest of TF 38, was caught in one of the most severe typhoons on record. Three destroyers, the Hull, Monaghan, and Spence, were sunk with 778 men killed. Virtually all ships in the Task Force sustained damage--and many planes on the carriers were torn loose from their tie-down lines and sent crashing across the flight and hanger decks. The final count was 146 aircraft lost or destroyed by the typhoon. (2)

The USS Essex log records the events as follows: (3)

"December 17--Fueling at sea in area about 500 miles E of the Philippine Islands."
"1325-- Set course to westward to escape an approaching typhoon."
"December 18--Riding out a second typhoon, which had appeared 250 miles to the SE in area about 250 miles E of the Central Philippines."
"December 19--Fueling and receiving replacement aircraft in an area about 250 miles E of the Central Philippines."
"Launched an afternoon search for straggling ships and survivors of ships that foundered during typhoon."
"December 20--Operating in TG 38.3 proceeding to search for survivors of vessels that foundered during the typhoon."
"In late afternoon set course for initial launching point for continued strikes against Luzon."
"December 21--Operating in TG 38.3 proceeding to fueling rendezvous and searching for typhoon survivors en route. Strikes cancelled because of weather."
"December 22--Fueling at sea in area about 400 miles E of the Central Philippines continuing search for typhoon survivors. In late afternoon set course for Ulithi Islands."
"December 23--Steaming in TG 38.3 en route Ulithi Islands."

Because of the extreme weather conditions during this typhoon, it was virtually impossible to launch planes to aid in the search for survivors until December 19. In the meantime, the destroyers and the DEs that were on the scene did what they could to rescue men from the turbulent waters.

Admiral Halsey, who was on the New Jersey, later wrote in his autobiography: (4)

"No one who has not been through a typhoon can conceive its fury. The 70-foot seas smash you from all sides. The rain and scud are blinding; they drive you flat-out, until you can't tell the ocean from the air. At broad noon I couldn't see the bow of my ship, 350 feet from the bridge… this typhoon tossed our enormous ship as if she were a canoe… we could not hear our own voices above the uproar."

Repercussions from this fleet disaster reached Admiral Nimitz and went on to the Washington bureaucracy. There seemed to be plenty of blame to go around, but the focus of the concern was on the decisions of Admiral Halsey and his aerological advisors. A Court of Inquiry was called in January, 1945. Some of their conclusions were: (1)

"The fleet movements directed by Admiral Halsey after the advent of bad weather were logical, but he should have ordered special weather flights and weather reports from ships to cover the critical area from which no weather reports were being received….
"…The aerological talent assisting Admiral Halsey was inadequate."
"…with regard to the damage and losses suffered by the Monterey, Cowpens, San Jacinto, Cape Esperance, Altamaha, Nehenta Bay, and Kwajalein (and most of the other ships), the court was of the opinion that: the ships were handled by their commanding officers in an acceptable manner during the typhoon… damage was directly attributable to the storm."

The Court of Inquiry also made recommendations about ship design and stability, weather forecasting, and: (1)

"That weather ships should be stationed in the area; and at least two planes daily be assigned as weather reconnaissance planes to cover sectors where unusual weather was suspected."

This meant that some of our planes would be launched and recovered under situations that could not be labeled as "Flying Conditions Average." On one such occasion, our Executive Officer, Lt Hamrick was launched as waves were breaking over the flight deck, 80 feet above the water. Ham stated: (5)

"I took off right through the spray. The bow hit the water and was coming up. It sort of tossed me in the air. I fluttered around a bit before I got going. They sent us on a search for storm survivors."
"The landing was rough. I came around on the approach too high. But the signal officer kept me up there. He was watching the stern go up and down. When he "cut" me I dove for the deck because I thought it was a long ways down. But it was coming up fast! I rared back on the stick. We hit solid… broke both front tires!"

Another typhoon "almost as destructive as the kamikazes" hit the US Fleet off the coast of Okinawa on June 5, 1945. This typhoon inflicted severe damage to 4 battleships, 8 carriers, 7 cruisers, 11 destroyers, and a host of auxiliaries. (6)

Photo: Flying Conditions Average.

Photo: Painting by Doug Cahoon.

(1) Calhoun, Capt C. Raymond. 1981. Typhoon: The Other Enemy. Naval Institute Press.
(2) Pemsel, Helmut. 1977. Atlas of Naval Warfare. Arms and Armour Press, London.
(3) The USS Essex: CV-9, U.S. Navy Publication.
(4) Potter, E.B. 1985. Bull Halsey. U.S. Naval Institute Press.
(5) Taped Interview with L. L. Hamrick, VT-4 Pilot.
(6) Goralski, Robert. 1981. World War II Almanac, 1931 - 1945. Perigee Books.

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Torpedo Squadron Four: A Cockpit View of World War II
Copyright © 1990-2000 by Gerald W. Thomas