Weather Watch

A tribute to sailors who lost their lives in treacherous Pacific Ocean waters

The calm Pacific Ocean from the Point San Luis Lighthouse.
The calm Pacific Ocean from the Point San Luis Lighthouse. Special to The Tribune

I would like to share on this Memorial Day weekend two stories of service members who never returned home from missions on the Pacific Ocean. They sacrificed their lives to protect our freedom and an ocean more than willing to oblige.

First, some background on the Pacific.

Thirty-nine-year-old Portuguese navigator Ferdinand Magellan led a fleet of five ships across the perilous Atlantic Ocean to discover a western sea route to the Spice Islands in 1519. He emerged from the Straits of Magellan into the Pacific Ocean. Due to the calmness of the water, he called this vast body of water Pacific (“pacific” also means peaceful).

The tranquility of the Pacific can lead to a false sense of security.

Adm. William “Bull” Halsey commanded the Third Fleet and sailed it right into the heart of a rapidly intensifying typhoon off the Philippines in December 1944. Three destroyers — USS Hull, USS Monaghan, and USS Spence — capsized and sank during this storm resulting in the loss of 775 souls. The storm also inflicted considerable damage on the rest of the fleet, with a total loss of nearly 800 sailors and 150 naval aircraft. This was the largest natural naval disaster in United States history.

Back then, weather reports were at least 12 hours old before they reached ships by radio.

Furthermore, without the benefit of today’s high-speed computers and satellite data, forecasting typhoons was difficult at best and often nearly impossible. Worse yet, Adm. Halsey was given no hint of any severe weather from the Task Force aerological service group that provided weather forecasts for the fleet.

On the morning of Dec. 17, the fleet attempted to refuel its ships. However, the winds and seas increased to a point where refueling became unsafe. Adm. Halsey ordered the fleet to delay fueling and head to another fueling rendezvous in hopes of resuming the next morning. Unwittingly, through many course changes, he sailed the Third Fleet into the heart of Typhoon Cobra the next day.

On Dec. 18, the atmospheric pressure rapidly dropped, and the winds increased. The sustained winds were estimated to have reached more than 120 mph with gusts to 150 mph. As the eye of the typhoon approached the fleet, seas reached more than 50 feet with individual wave sets probably more than 70 feet in height! Ships battled for survival as the boundary between sea and air became blurred. The ships crashed through green mountains of water and brutality shook as thousands of tons of water pushed off their bows and sent vessels through 75-degree rolls. Three destroyers flipped more than 90 degrees and capsized. The next day as the skies cleared, a search and rescue mission found 92 survivors in the water. I can only imagine what a terrifying experience it must have been for them.

Along the Central Coast, the greatest peacetime loss of vessels in U.S. Navy history occurred as seven destroyers smashed on the rocks off an isolated headland locally known as Honda Point, north of Point Arguello, on Sept. 9, 1923. Twenty-three sailors lost their lives that night. Enveloped by a steep bank of fog, the naval squadron was traveling south at 20 knots toward the Santa Barbara Channel.

The channel lies between Conception on the shoreline and San Miguel Island. Off course, the squadron turned to port prematurely, led by the flagship USS Delphy. The Delphy, in fact, was a few miles farther north than her navigators thought. The ship scraped bottom, then heaved as she slammed into the rocky reef. At such high speeds, there was no time for the other ships immediately following to change course.

One destroyer after another piled up on the rocks that night — never to sail again.

Looking back over the history of our great nation, God only knows the true extent of the loss of those we honor during Memorial Day who made the ultimate sacrifice.

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There are meaningful Memorial Day observances planned throughout San Luis Obispo County on Monday. One is the Lost at Sea Memorial at the Cayucos Pier. We gather at the base of the pier at 3 p.m. for a brief service with Navy chaplain Bill Houston and walk together out over the Pacific and remember those who never returned.

PG&E’s endorsement of veterans dates back to World War I. The company has a strong commitment to veterans, with a goal of hiring 1,000 veterans over the next eight years. PG&E has hired 455 veterans — close to half of its goal in nearly two years. To learn more, visit www.pgecurrents.com.

John Lindsey’s column is special to The Tribune. He is PG&E’s Diablo Canyon marine meteorologist and a media relations representative. Email him at pgeweather@pge.com or follow him on Twitter @PGE_John.

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