Magazine article America in WWII

I Survived Halsey's Typhoon

Magazine article America in WWII

I Survived Halsey's Typhoon

Article excerpt

CHARLES H. WIGGINS was 16 when Japan bombarded America into World War II. He and other boys his age were aware of what loomed over their future, and he enjoyed being 18 for only a month before he received his draft notice. He left his high school and family in Jacksonville, Florida, for US Navy boot camp in 1943. In July 1944, he was a seaman first class aboard the battleship USS Wisconsin (BB-64), headed for the Pacific theater.

I WILL NEVER FORGET THE DATES: December 17 and 18, 1944, during World War II in the far Western Pacific somewhere between the Caroline Islands and the Philippines. They are etched in my mind like dates on a tombstone.

I was an 18-year-old seaman aboard the battleship USS Wisconsin, which had joined Admiral William F. Halsey's Third Fleet at Ulithi [an atoll of 50 islets] in the Caroline Islands a few weeks earlier. Ulithi had a large deepwater lagoon formed by a circle of small islands connected by coral reef. This lagoon was used as an advanced base anchorage. When we arrived, the anchorage was full of ships of every description: battleships, cruisers, aircraft carriers, destroyers, supply ships, tankers, and ammunition ships. There was no doubt it was by far the largest armada of fighting ships every assembled.

After several days' preparation, loading supplies, ammunition, and fuel, that massive fleet weighed anchor and set a westerly course for the Philippines, which were still held by the Japanese. That great fleet of ships seemed to stretch from horizon to horizon as we sailed that vast Pacific void.

The battleships', cruisers', and destroyers' assignment was to protect the carriers from enemy aircraft and ships as the carriers launched planes to attack enemy positions in the Philippines. The battleships were able to carry tremendous amounts of fuel, enough to cruise around the world if necessary without refueling. Almost every day, destroyers would pull alongside to take on fuel. This was accomplished while we were underway and cruising at about 15 knots [about 17 miles per hour]. Large flexible fuel lines were used to transfer the fuel. This was a very tricky operation, even when the seas were calm, with the ships so close together. When the weather was bad and the seas were rough, refueling the destroyers became almost impossible. The fuel lines would pull apart when the destroyer was carried away by a large swell, and there was constant danger of it being sent crashing into the side of our ship.

This was the situation when we were advised that a typhoon was approaching, and it became more urgent than ever to complete refueling the destroyers. The weather grew worse each hour and the seas became angrier and angrier. Finally, in the late afternoon [of December 17], after breaking several fuel lines, the operation became too dangerous. The captain reluctantly gave the order to discontinue refueling, and the destroyers pulled away and resumed their positions in the fleet formation.

The wind was steadily increasing, and we set about securing the ship for the approaching big blow. As the sun sank below the western horizon, the skies were dark with gray, fast-moving clouds and heavy rainsqualls became more and more frequent. My bunk was in a sleeping compartment in the forward part of the ship, on the first level below the main deck. As I climbed in my bunk that night, the ship was beginning to roll and pitch more and more and make creaking sounds we had never heard before. We knew we were in for a rough night.

By dawn, the ship was rolling and pitching so badly that it was impossible to move about without holding on to something, taking a step, and grabbing something else. The waves were estimated to be 60 to 70 feet high. Visibility was down to almost zero. The rain was coming down in sheets, and the wind in the superstructure and rigging made such a high-pitched foreboding sound that I wanted to put my fingers in my ears to shut it out. …

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