Cobra and the Showboat: The Typhoon of 1944

GREENVILLE, N.C. (WNCT) – It became the deadliest military conflict in human history- World War II. Over 60 million lives lost. And in December of 1944, the outcome was still uncertain.  US ground forces were fighting for position in the Philippine island of Mindoro. Their success depended on support from the sea. Task Force 38 was assigned to provide it. And steaming with that Task Force, a battleship bearing the name North Carolina was about to face not only the enemy, but a devastating typhoon as well…

The story of the USS North Carolina began in Brooklyn, New York in 1937. When her keel was laid in October, it marked the first new construction of a battleship in 16 years.  She was armed with the latest weapons, including nine 16-inch/45 caliber guns in three turrets. Her imposing construction earned her the nick-name “showboat”, but the USS North Carolina would earn far more impressive accolades in battle.

She was among the ships travelling with Task Force 38 in mid-December of 1944. Under the command of Admiral William “Bull” Halsey, the fleet provided defense and air support to Allied forces- but was in need of re-fueling.  A rendezvous point was set east of Luzon, but weather conditions were quickly worsening.  A typhoon, designated as “Cobra” by forecasters, was quickly gaining momentum. In the days before weather satellites, the only way to detect a typhoon was through direct observation or perhaps on the outer edge of a ship’s radar. By then, of course, it was often too late to avoid.

Halsey had the difficult task of balancing his orders with the need to protect his ships, all while dealing with a forecast track that was uncertain at best. He unwittingly steamed the fleet into the core of Typhoon Cobra. And with winds already nearing 100 mph and strengthening, the effects were disastrous. On part 2 of our special presentation, we take you into the heart of a Pacific Typhoon.

Part 2

December 17th, 1944. World War II raged in the Pacific. The USS North Carolina, the “showboat” of the US fleet, was en-route to a refueling checkpoint with the ships of Task Force 38. But Typhoon Cobra was closing fast. The path of the storm was uncertain, and Admiral William Halsey’s fleet was steaming dangerously close to the eye. In the coming day, winds increased. Radar scopes on board the ships picked-up eerie images of the typhoon, the eye clearly visible. At its peak, storm winds approached 140 mph in the eye-wall, equivalent to a Category 4 hurricane.  Some ships reported gusts as high as 120 mph. US Navy retired Captain Ben Blee, who served as intelligence officer on the USS North Carolina, wrote the following account…

“I watched the eye of the typhoon on the radar scope… looked like a doughnut.”  “I remember quite vividly that the tops of the seas were often higher than me, and I was at the level of the signal bridge”.

Indeed, reports of 70-foot waves were common. Bob Wayne Noble, a Boatswain’s Mate at the time, recalls the storm in a past interview (play clip from recorded interview). Three destroyers in Task Force 38 sank, with significant damage to other ships. Nearly 800 lives were lost. Great aircraft carriers swayed like toys. The USS North Carolina rolled 30 degrees on one occasion. Had the roll only been a little more severe, the ship may very well have sunk.  But somehow, she survived- not only the storm, but the war.

In total, the USS North Carolina earned 15 battle stars for outstanding service- making her the most decorated American battleship of World War II. She was decommissioned in 1947, and destined for the scrap-yard in the 1950’s. But thanks to a grass-roots campaign by local citizens, the USS North Carolina was brought to Wilmington, NC- where it resides to this day. It stands as memorial to those who served, welcoming hundreds of thousands of visitors each year.

We want to thank curator Mary Ames Booker and the staff of the USS North Carolina Battleship for their contributions to this story. And we especially thank those brave souls who served our armed forces in the past, and those who continue to serve today.

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