Kamikaze: Divine Wind

Kamikaze: Divine Wind

Typhoons, the Pacific counterparts of Atlantic hurricanes, are generally spawned in that vast stretch of open water between Wake Island and the area north of New Guinea. The two types of storm are formed and behave in much the same manner. Also, the typhoon's period of greatest frequency tends to coincide with that of Atlantic hurricanes, with the highest number in June and continuing until the month of December.

Typhoons tend to be the more deadly of the two oceanic storms. Wind—speed measuring devices are generally blown away before maximum winds can be measured, but a full—blown typhoon's winds are suspected to greatly exceed those of killer hurricanes. A hurricane racing in from the Atlantic with winds of 150 miles per hour is always considered extremely dangerous. A similar storm in the Pacific may attain a wind speed of over 250 miles per hour. Why? Typhoons have a much greater area of ocean in which to grow before they are confronted with any large landmass that would reduce their intensity.

Seemingly, the gods of war occasionally employ typhoons as their most effective weapon against an enemy. In 1274 the ever—conquering Kublai Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan, sent his nomadic Mongol troops from northern Korea to invade Japan. A great fleet of about 1,000 ships with 40,000 men headed for the islands. Records of this attempted invasion are not complete, but we do know that the assault never quite got off the ground. A typhoon struck the fleet, sinking about 200 ships and drowning 13,000 troops. The surviving ships were so badly damaged that the invasion was abandoned.

The great Khan tried again in April 1281. This time he struck with one of the largest invasion fleets known in history: nearly 4,500 ships equipped with about 145,000 troops. The attack was launched against Kyushu, the southernmost of Japan's four main islands. The troops, meeting fierce resistance, were forced to reembark on the invasion ships.

The Mongols attacked again in July, and again the battles were so violent that the invaders had to retreat to their ships. They never had a chance for a third try, because a great typhoon descended upon them with most disastrous results. Estimates of the Mongol losses vary, but most accounts agree that at least 4,000 ships and about 100,000 troops were lost. Survivors who made it back to shore were massacred by the Japanese. Thus ended Kublai Khan's ambitions for the conquest of Japan; the Mongols never seriously threatened the island empire again.

The Japanese believed the typhoons were sent from heaven to protect them from their enemies. In honor of the timely interventions on their behalf, the Japanese named the typhoon "kamikaze," meaning "divine wind." The Japanese adopted this name during World War II for their suicide pilots who deliberately crashed obsolete planes, each carrying a 550—pound bomb, into Allied naval vessels. The kamikaze pilots did much damage to the U.S. fleet, at the small price of about 2,000 of their bravest, most dedicated, but apparently expendable youth. The kamikaze movement evolved out of desperation when it became evident that Japan was going to lose the war.

No doubt, pious citizens of Japan during World War II prayed for the divine wind to strike again at the invading enemy fleet. And occasionally their prayers seemed to be answered, for a devastating typhoon did strike the U.S. Third Fleet during an invasion attempt of the Philippine Islands.

By the mid—20th century, scientists had accumulated an immense body of knowledge about the great oceanic whirling storms. They knew the general location of storm breeding grounds and the conditions under which such activity might be expected. Most of the knowledge was theoretical and therefore of limited use during the war. When it came to outguessing these monster storms, the encounter between the U.S. Third Fleet and a typhoon in mid—December 1944 clearly demonstrated that a little knowledge could be a very dangerous thing.

The Third Fleet, under Admiral William F. Halsey, was to participate in the invasion of the Japanese—held Philippine Islands. On Sunday morning, December 17, 1944, 90 ships of the fleet's Task Force 38 began refueling from navy oil tankers. The sea was so choppy that the ships were ordered to calmer waters to avoid accidents. Obviously a major storm was brewing, but no conditions substantiated the typhoon idea, so meteorologists assumed that the unpleasant weather was by now northeast of the fleet and moving away. This information was relayed to Admiral Halsey, who then ordered the fleet to turn south to escape the storm even more quickly. That tragic change in course, which was based on flawed meteorology, made disaster inevitable. It led the task force directly into Typhoon Cobra (as it was later named). Midmorning on December 18, Halsey's flagship New Jersey encountered two dreaded signs in quick succession: the barometer began a rapid fall, and the winds shifted to the north, then to the west of north. The meteorologist aboard the flagship realized that such a counterclockwise change could mean only one thing—a typhoon. He also knew that the information he had given the admiral earlier was wrong, that he had erroneously estimated the storm's location.

As fate would have it, Halsey's Third Fleet blundered into the center of the typhoon. Destroyers, cruisers, battleships, and carriers were tossed about like corks. The order came out of the flagship to "proceed at will!" It was every ship for itself, and the fleet scattered wildly before the wind and waves. Spread out over 2,500 square miles, all except the largest aircraft carriers and battleships were in trouble.

On the small escort carriers, chaos was the order of the day. The ships bucked so wildly that planes tore loose from their restraining gear and crashed about the flight decks, smashing into one another and occasionally catching fire. The crews labored heroically to push the loose planes overboard. In all nearly 150 planes were destroyed by the storm.

The worst agonies, however, were suffered by the fleet's destroyers. The little "tin cans," prized for their speed, were virtually unmaneuverable despite their 40,000—horsepower engines. The surviving skipper of one destroyer recalled later how his ship, the Hull, heeled over into the pounding seas. He tried every combination of rudder and engines to right the ship, but it was rolling 70 degrees. The 130—mph wind forced the ship to lie steadily over on her starboard side until the seas came flowing into the pilothouse itself. The ship then remained on its starboard side at an angle of 80 degrees or more as the water flooded into the upper structures and the sea poured down the ship's stacks. All the captain could do was to step off the bridge into the water as the ship rolled over on its way down to a watery grave. Of the 264 men on board, only 62 survived. The Hull, a survivor of the Pearl Harbor attack, was one of three destroyers to go down.

A crewman from the sunken destroyer Monaghan remembered the horror that occurred below deck when his destroyer heeled over, lay heavily on its starboard side, and gradually settled. As the sea rushed in, he and about 40 other men tried to open a door, which was now overhead, to escape. After a desperate struggle they forced it open against the wind and, one by one, wiggled out. Emerging on deck they inflated their life jackets before being washed into the boiling sea. Some of the men were pounded into a pulp against the side of the ship; others were swept away. The crewman felt as if he were in a whirlpool. Men were knocking against him as he started for the surface, and he could feel them grabbing at him. Someone had managed to inflate a life raft, and several of the men scrambled aboard. Pitching and tossing, as much under water as on it, the little group clung to their raft as the typhoon gradually subsided. Later, in calmer seas, they watched in helpless horror as circling sharks fed on their shipmates' bodies. Altogether 82 sailors from the three destroyed ships were picked out of the heaving seas, but 790 were gone.

The destruction wreaked by Typhoon Cobra seemed to suggest that the divine wind had once again protected the Japanese from their enemies. Not a single ship from the Third Fleet escaped major damage, and three destroyers sank, with the loss of most of the crews. Later a court of inquiry blamed the disaster on Admiral Halsey, since he was the responsible commander. Many scholars believe the devastation of the Third Fleet was the inspiration for Herman Wouk's novel The Caine Mutiny.

In an ironic reprise, six months later Halsey was preparing to support the invasion of Okinawa when Typhoon Viper approached the area. Once again the admiral, following his weather expert's advice, took his fleet on a course intended to escape the storm, and not surprisingly he ran right into it. Six men and 76 planes were lost, and 33 ships were damaged. The divine wind seemed to have a special vendetta for Admiral Halsey. But this was the last time the forces of the kamikaze would come to the aid of Japan. Even the supernatural was helpless against the atomic destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the war ended.

From the book: 
Petrified Lightning