Fresh Water Wash-Down: When Foul Weather Impacted Naval History

USS Cowpens lists during Typhoon Cobra

USS Cowpens lists during Typhoon Cobra

Most people in the United States (especially the East Coast) know that the Atlantic Hurricane Season lasts from the beginning of June until the end of November. During those six months, we anxiously watch our television screens as each successive storm passes to the United States, some reaching from the African coast to the reaches of the Gulf and Eastern Seaboard. Storms and weather phenomena in recent years, such as Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Sandy, inflicted severe damage on the civilian populace.

As a service operating in or around the water, the United States Navy is not immune to Mother Nature’s fury. Foul weather in the Navy is a phenomenon felt around the world, not just in the Atlantic Ocean. Severe weather has impacted the United States Navy throughout its history, from the earliest days of the Continental Navy to the present day. The following are a few historical vignettes, arranged chronologically:

Ham & S Art

Loss of USS Hamilton and USS Scourge (1813)

Schooners Hamilton and Scourge served in the Great Lakes region during the War of 1812, primarily near Lake Ontario.  Both ships foundered and sank during a sudden offshore squall on 8 August 1813. Both ships are resting east of present-day Hamilton, Ontario. Although sixteen sailors survived from both ships, over eighty perished in the incident. One of the sailors that survived, Ned Myers, told his life’s story to author James Fennimore Cooper.  Myers’ testimony became the basis of his nonfictional biography, Ned Myers, or, A Life Before the Mast. The wreck sites of the Scourge and Hamilton are protected as a National Historic Site of Canada and remain a unique feature of maritime archaeology.


All Hands Aboard the Brig USS Hornet (1829)

The brig Hornet served under the command of Commodore James Lawrence at the outbreak of hostilities during the War of 1812. She served well throughout the war, sinking HMS Peacock and capturing HMS Penguin. Hornet went on to patrol the Caribbean for pirates in the 1820s. She sank with all hands during a bad storm on 29 September 1829. She dismasted during the gale and foundered off the coast of Tampico, Mexico.

1861 Hurricane Season

Civil War “Expedition” Hurricane (1861)
(Adapted from the Civil War Navy Sesquicentennial)

On the heels of the Navy’s 1861 Port Royal Expedition, Hurricane Eight, better known as the “Expedition Hurricane,” severely impacted the timeline for the Union thrust into the vital Confederate stronghold.

According to the National Hurricane Center, the three-day storm was the last of that year’s Atlantic Hurricane season.  “Hurricane Eight” began on the southwestern tip of Florida and climbed up the east coast. The storm made landfall along the Outer Banks of North Carolina as a CAT 1, slowly diminishing speed up the coast before downgrading to a tropical storm by nightfall on 2 November.  At its height, the hurricane reached winds approaching 80 mph.

The storm caused many problems for the United States Navy preparing for the expedition to capture to Port Royal Sound.  Although the earliest storm warning occurred in late October while the fleet assembled, the most devastating impact came on the 2nd.

Most of the ships involved in the storm were spared. Several ships had to unload precious cargo to stay afloat.  The transport Governor lost seven Marines during a fateful rescue by the USS Sabine‘s crew. Despite the loss of ship and life, the fleet of 77 ships went on to capture the sound at the Battle of Port Royal.

Naval History and Heritage Command Photo

Naval History and Heritage Command Photo

The Loss of the USS Monitor (1862)

The ironclad Monitor is one of the most famous ships in the history of the United States Navy. Although best known for engaging the ironclad Virginia during the Battle of Hampton Roads, her humble beginnings met a terrifying conclusion less than a year later.

Towards the end of 1862, Monitor and her crew prepared to sail for Beaufort, North Carolina, where she would join other ships for an eventual assault against the Confederate stronghold at Wilmington near the Charleston blockade. Although there were many reports of foul weather in the Atlantic coast prior to her voyage, Monitor put to sea on 31 December from Hampton Roads under tow from USS Rhode Island.

A ferocious storm generated off the coast of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, causing the unseaworthy Monitor to pitch and roll on the high sea swells. Monitor hoisted her red lantern, signaling Rhode Island for help. The dipping red lantern was the last thing the Rhode Island crew and survivors saw of Monitor. She sank 16 miles off the coast of Cape Hatteras with the loss of 16 men.

She was eventually discovered again in 1973. The partially recovered remains of Monitor are under the care and conservation of the Monitor Lab at the Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, VA.

Forgotten Airship Disaster

USS Akron Airship Disaster (1933)

The Rigid Airship Akron (ZRS 4) had its share of difficulties before its eventual demise. The helium-filled airship had no less than three major malfunctions and incidents in her short service, including a mooring cable mishap that led to the plunging deaths of two junior sailors, all caught on newsreel film.

On the night of 4 April 1933, the airship encountered strong wind gusts over New Jersey. After a series of daring maneuvers to control the ship in several periods of violent updrafts and downdrafts, she sank in the Atlantic. Only three sailors survived, leaving 73 of her crew dead, including Rear Admiral William A. Moffett, a Medal of Honor recipient and naval aviation pioneer.

Among the remembrances of the disaster, musician Bob Miller wrote “The Loss of the Akron” within a day of its destruction:

“We can always replace an aircraft,
In beauty every way
But we can’t replace those brave souls,
Who lost their lives that day.”

The incident is the largest lost of life for an airship, surpassing the well-known 1937 Hindenburg disaster.

National Archives Photo

National Archives Photo

Halsey’s Typhoon and a Future President (1944)

Typhoon Cobra, also known as “Halsey’s Typhoon,” is perhaps the best-known weather incident in the history of the United States Navy. On 18 December 1944, ships comprising Task Force 38 encountered a heavy typhoon while many ships attempted to refuel. Ships were caught unprepared in the center of the storm, unable to maintain steady under the heavy seas and hurricane-force winds.

640px-GeraldFord1945Three destroyers capsized and sank. A cruiser, five aircraft carriers, and three destroyers had serious damage from the storm. In all, over 790 officers and men were presumed missing or killed, and eighty others injured. The storm forced the Navy to establish weather stations throughout the Pacific Ocean. Weather offices were created at Guam and Leyte for coordinating data amongst the various stations.

Among the sailors that survived Halsey’s Typhoon was future president and Navy LT Gerald R. Ford. LT Ford served on the light aircraft carrier USS Monterey. During the storm, a hangar deck fire broke out on Monterey, and LT Ford took to his battle station on the bridge during the fire and assumed his duties as the General Quarters Officer of the Deck. LT Ford went down to the dangerous hangar deck to assess the damage control situation. Ford survived the incident, but nearly fell overboard during a dangerous pitch and roll from the storm.

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  1. Douglas McIntire


    My grandfather was on the Cowpens for that typhoon. He wrote about it in his at-sea journal. He talked about losing Lt. Price during that storm, all the battles, etc…

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