The Most Amazing Thing I Ever Saw
Without a doubt, the most amazing thing I ever saw was a sixty foot high wall of water roaring towards the bow of my ship. At the time, we were in convoy with four other ships including the battleship, the USS New Jersey. We’d been in a growing storm for hours. Before noon, two of the five ships in the convoy radioed that they were taking on water faster than they could pump it off. A reply was sent out: no attempts at rescue could be made, and that each ship Captain should take action appropriate for the survival of his crew and ship. I served on the USS Turner Joy. Captain Jones was our commanding officer. It was 1970 and we were caught in the storm of the century. Super Typhoon Kate had sustained winds of 135 mph and continuous sequences of waves that were 60 feet high or more. Kate killed at least 500 people and wrought 500 million 1980 USD in damage. It was the biggest officially measured storm to hit the Pacific Ocean as of 1970, and it almost sank our ship. One man stood between us and certain death, our skipper, Captain Jones.
I was just a 20 something whose duty station was on the bridge of a destroyer that had a crew of 250 and I personally witnessed wave after wave break over the ship’s 35 foot high hurricane bow. The waves grew in height until they swept 50 feet over the whole forward deck, and then, they broke over the 12 foot high forward gun turret. Incredibly, they grew in size until they crested over the second gun turret mounted high above the first. The waves that were so big, heavy, and powerful that they could force the bow of the ship down until its rudders and propellers came out of the water. Anyone on the ship could hear the propellers groan as they broke free of the water and everyone was frightened because that meant the drive train system was exposed to dangerous overload. If we lost the engines in a storm like this we would stall, flounder, and capsize.
Things did not get better; in fact, they got worse. The water began to break over the anti aircraft battery platform which was twelve feet above the two forward gun turrets. Flying fish torpedoed out of the cold green waves and slammed into the bulletproof glass of the combat bridge. They flew at us like 20mm cannon shells with wings. The good news was that we were on a 418 foot long, forty-five foot wide ship that weighed 4,000 tons. The bad news was that our seamed deck which expanded and contracted with storm stresses was now gapping wide enough for a man to fall through. With the propellers being wave-jacked out of the water and the ship seaming gaping, we were sailing dangerously close to the performance envelope of our ship.
The wind and waves pounded us with the constancy of a metronome, but not always. Once we slalomed down a wave and the ship slewed diagonal to an oncoming wave. When the wave hit, it slammed our ship on its side and dipped the main mast into the roiling water. It was a scary on the bridge but it must have been worse in the engine room. Lots of steaming pipes and hot machinery was below, and those guys were bouncing around their catwalks like ping pong balls in a cage. Still, they kept the engines and the gyro kept working. Maybe it was because of them that we righted before we were swamped.
While we were still in a trough, another monster wave bore down on us, our commanding officer took charge and yelled, “This is Captain Jones! I have the deck! I have the Conn! All ahead flank, hard right rudder”. The Turner Joy knifed through the next wave. That command saved us.
There were many professional seamen on the Turner Joy, but Captain Jones stands out from the others. DD951 was his command, and he kept his sea quarters just aft of the bridge but fore of the combat information center. He was always there when we needed him: either on the bridge or ten feet away. The night before the storm, Captain Jones had himself lashed to his sea chair. He knew what was coming so he had the boatswain’s mates tie him to his sea chair. He stayed there all night. The seas were so rough that he needed to be roped in so he’d stay in his chair. Anytime I need a leadership model, I just remember that.
Captain Jones was a great ship handler. He made tough calls but he made them right. I remember one time when we were sailing close to the shores of Thailand and some PT boats came after us. We were combat fatigued, our guns needed repair, our torpedo tubes were off line, and no one could identify the flags on the boats racing toward us. Guys were thinking, “It’s over. We’re done” Captain Jones stormed on the bridge and yelled, “This is Captain Jones. I have the deck. I have the conn. Hard left rudder. All ahead flank”. The Navy Chief on deck said, “Sir, our guns are down. What are we gonna do”. Captain Jones said, “Bore sight those guns, Chief. I’ll get you close enough”. That was Captain Jones. He was the four striper who led us through Typhoon Kate.
We came out of one killer wave only to enter another; there seemed to be an endless train of monster waves queued against us. Officers vomited. Enlisted men slid around on their spew; both slammed into bulkheads. Men concussed themselves against the unforgiving steel. Sailors stayed at their duty stations because iIt wasn’t possible to leave. Navigating the stair/ladders meant a broken leg.
Rumors flew. The scuttlebutt had it that sea water was pouring down the stacks into the engine room. Some guys were scared that if water went down the stacks, it would choke out the engines. Others wondered about the gyro, or the fuel tank balance, or the rudder control system. Rumors never stop on a ship and they always contend with reality. In this storm, we were all so busy trying to do our jobs that we didn’t have time to focus on scuttlebutt.
The storm was everything. The forward conn had to be abandoned because the waves were slamming into the bulletproof glass with enough force to crack it. Water was everywhere. We closed the hatch and sealed up the bridge. It was as if we had retreated to the castle keep.
No one was allowed outside the hull. All compartment doors were locked and secured. This was the worst of it. The wind and waves were beyond any measure on the Beaufort Scale. That stopped at force 12 and winds of 74+ mph; the wind force of Typhoon Kate was almost double that. Captain Jones was on deck and giving out all the course and speed changes. He was the only officer who on board who could work out the calculus of the wave moment in his head. The storm of the century had met the best ship handler in the navy. This was not a classroom and there was no blackboard. Things could be done only once so they had to be done right. It was the typhoon and the sea against the Captain and the ship. There was nobody else on board who could do his job.
I was a just a twenty something smartass who was insubordinate and uncommitted to his service. It was just luck that I was on the combat bridge of the USS Turner Joy, DD 951, when one of the best men in the Navy took on the most murderous typhoon of the 20th Century. Without him and the unrelenting commitment of the career officers and petty officers that ran the ship we wouldn’t have made it. I saw what nature could do and I saw what it took to lead. I literally saw a man have himself lashed to his duty station and stay there until it was safe for him to leave. The sixty-five foot high waves of Typhoon Kate were the most amazing thing I ever saw. The command presence of Captain Jones is a memory I’ll never forget. In one long day I learned how dangerous nature can be and what it takes to be a man. I saw the unstoppable force met the unmovable object and lived to write about it.
Chester Micek, Seaman USS Turner Joy, DD 951
1 Wikipedia: Typhoon Kate
2 Wikipedia: Typhoon Joan