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Lieutenant Gerald Ford and Typhoon Cobra

LT Gerald Ford on board USS MONTEREY,

LT Gerald Ford on board USS MONTEREY, October 1943. NHHC photo 80-G-366872.

In late January, shipyard workers carefully lifted the 555-ton island on to the flight deck of the Navy’s newest aircraft carrier at Newport News Shipbuilding Company in Virginiaa significant step in the journey towards the ship’s christening later this year (see photo below). CVN 78, the lead ship of a new class of nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, will be named Gerald R. Ford for the 38th President of the United States. Though he is well known for taking the nation’s leadership role in 1974 in the wake of the Watergate scandal, not many Americans realize that before serving in Congress and as President, Ford was an officer in U.S. Navy during World War II.

Ford’s early life was noteworthy for his athletic endeavors at the University of Michigan, where he was a center for the school’s back-to-back national champion football teams in 1932 and 1933. He was named the team’s MVP in 1934, and eventually had his number 48 retired by the university. He graduated from Yale Law School in 1941, and with the outbreak of World War II, was commissioned an ensign in the Naval Reserve in 1942. He initially served as an instructor and sports coach at the Navy Preflight School in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

Given Ford’s reputation as a nationally known football star, it would have been easy for him to safely remain stateside during the war. Instead, he volunteered for sea duty, preferring to go in harm’s way. He was assigned to the light aircraft carrier USS Monterey (CVL 26), and was part of the new carrier’s commissioning crew that brought that ship to life in June 1943. The ship arrived in the Pacific theater in late 1943 and supported amphibious landings and strikes against Japanese targets through the remainder of 1943 into 1944. Lieutenant Ford served initially as the ship’s athletic director, as well as a gunnery division officer, supervising a 40mm anti-aircraft gun on the carrier’s fantail. He later moved up to assistant navigator. The ship’s greatest test came at the hands of Mother Nature; on 17-18 December 1944, Monterey was one of many U.S. Navy ships to encounter the massive Typhoon Cobra, a storm that sank three destroyers, damaged countless other ships, and killed hundreds of sailors.

On the morning of 18 December 1944, as her rolling exceeded 30 degrees in typhoon-generated winds and seas, Monterey suffered a hangar deck fire as aircraft broke loose, crashed into each other and the ship’s structure, and ignited aviation fuel. Lieutenant Ford headed for his battle station on the bridge where he assumed duties as the General Quarters Officer of the Deck – a position of significant responsibility and authority on a combatant ship in wartime. The situation was dire; directed by Captain Stuart Ingersoll to go below to assess the conflagration, Ford made the dangerous excursion down to the hangar deck and then reported back to the captain. Though the fire killed three sailors and injured nearly forty, and the ship went dead in the water for more than an hour because of smoke being sucked into the engineering spaces through the ventilation system, the crew extinguished the fire and got the ship underway – damaged but operational.


USS MONTEREY (CVL 26). NHHC photo NH 67623.


One account of Ford’s role during the typhoon mentions that the young officer led the firefighting operations. A New York Times article entitled “How Lieutenant Ford Saved His Ship” was published after Ford’s December 2006 death, and stated that “with a nod from his skipper, Lieutenant Ford donned a gas mask and led a fire brigade below” – an awkward and misleading description of shipboard damage control efforts. The article was authored by Robert Drury and Tom Clavin, who repeated the story in their 2007 book Halsey’s Typhoon. Unfortunately, there does not seem to be any supporting evidence that the future president was directly involved in fighting the hangar deck fire. A review of Monterey’s 1944 deck log and 1945 cruise book, and associated archival materials in the Navy Department Library and Ships’ History files of the Naval History and Heritage Command in Washington, DC, failed to reveal any documentary support for that claim. A similar records search by the staff of the Ford Presidential Library in Ann Arbor, Michigan came up blank. Ford’s own recollections are persuasive; his 1979 autobiography, A Time to Heal, makes no reference to leading a fire-fighting party in his brief account of the typhoon. And in a transcript of Drury’s phone interview with President Ford in 2004, obtained from author Drury with permission to transcribe the account, Ford responded to a direct question about leading the firefighting operations by stating “no. I was down there as an observer from the bridge and then I went back up to the bridge where I had my General Quarters responsibility.”

According to Captain Jerry Hendrix, USN, the current Director of the Naval History and Heritage Command, “Lieutenant Ford’s duties that day were centered on helping his captain evaluate the danger facing their ship so that the right decisions could be made to save Monterey. And working together in conditions that are difficult to imagine, Lieutenant Ford and his shipmates met the challenge. There is no reason to inflate the value of his service beyond what it really was. He was a superb example of our nation’s “greatest generation,” who served honorably, diligently and with quiet competence.”

While Ford cannot be credited with leading the efforts to save Monterey, his role as part of a combat-proven team demonstrated his courage and steady performance in crisis, a preview of things to come in a long career of public service. As we look forward to the ship joining the fleet in several years, it is important that we remember and salute the bravery and teamwork of a great American in whose honor USS Gerald R. Ford will be named.

USS Gerald R Ford CVN 78 Island Landing January 2013 photo130126-N-ZZ999-001 by Ricky Thompson

USS Gerald R Ford (CVN 78) Island Landing 26 January 2013 photo 130126-N-ZZ999-001 by Ricky Thompson

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  1. My uncle, Dale Moore, served aboard the USS Monterey during WW11 in the Pacific. He spoke of the experience with the typhoon Cobra. He was a quite near nunassuming man who loved his naval experience and especially his love affair with naval aircraft in general. His job was as an aircraft machanic. As a hobby, he worked on naval aircraft trainers near St.John, IN.

    • admin

      Thank you for sharing that story Kenneth. It is hard to imagine the ordeal those men went through during the typhoon, with their ship on fire – such bravery in the face of overwhelming odds.

      • Dan Moore

        I can back up Kenneth Fritz. Ken is my cousin and Dale Moore was my father. Yes he was on the ship at this time and would talk about this incident. He also would talk about Gerald Ford serving at same time he did.

        • Emily

          Hi Dan,
          I’m currently doing some research into President Ford’s experiences on the USS Monterey. It would be great to speak to you about your father’s memories of Ford being on the ship at the same time as him. Would you be able to speak in the next week or so? Please email me if you would be happy to talk – [email protected].

  2. Lorraine Nichols

    My dad (Frank Nichols) was one of the forty sailors injured during this Typhoon. He was in the engine room when it caught fire. After that he had a great fear of fire (who could blame him), but he said he was honored to have served in the US Navy and when he talked about the ‘Monty’ his eyes always shone and he stood a little taller. He was very proud of Lieutenant Ford when he became Vice President, then President. So to all those who have served or are now serving in the US Navy. THANK YOU.

  3. John Whisler

    My late father, Thomas Whisler, was the damage control officer on the Monterey during Hurricane Cobra. He never talked much about the events of the storm, nor about his service in general. I wish he had.

  4. Todd Creekman

    On 9 November, President Ford’s daughter and ship’s sponsor, Mrs. Susan Ford Bales, broke a bottle of American sparkling wine across the bow of CVN-78 to christen the ship GERALD R. FORD at Newport News Shipbuilding; marking the introduction of the first new class of American aircraft carriers since the NIMITZ was christened 41 years ago. The official party speakers did a good job praising the shipbuilders and the ship’s namesake, with most alluding to Ford’s wartime service in USS MONTEREY. Only one speaker, former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, made reference to the now-discredited story of Ford’s role in fighting the fire aboard MONTEREY during the December 1944 typhoon, saying “ the head of the fire brigade was an unassuming attorney from Grand Rapids….” Rumsfeld had his own personal connection to MONTEREY; as a budding young naval aviator in the mid-1950s, he made his first six carrier landings aboard the ship.

  5. mark verrillo

    My dad,Vincent Verrillo, served on the Monterey during its entire service in WWII. He was a MM1st. He told me many stories about the Monterey and was so proud of “his” ship and how it performed during the war. I actually found him in a photograph taken on the flight deck during a ceremony to King Neptune. He passed away in 2002.

  6. Pingback: “Super” Typhoon Cobra 1944…..790 Men Lost at Sea (Killed) USN…3 Destroyers Sunk..32 Damaged |

  7. Thomas j Beaulieu jr

    my farther Thomas j Beaulieu sr served on monterey also spoke of the typhoon but would not talk about the war itself

  8. Craig w saylor

    My late father GM2nd class B L Saylor Jr served on the Monterey. He was the 40mm gunner on the fantail of the ship which Future Pres Ford was in charge of.
    My father spoke highly of Pres Ford. He spoke little of the war until after the death of my mother. This is when we learned about his ship board contact with Ford. He talked about some of the battles, one in which he won the Bronze Star.
    When he talked about the fire during the typhoon, he always said that Pres Ford saved the ship. I’m an Army vet, how would you like to be a (Saylor) in the Navy.

  9. Ken Iversen

    My father was a torpedo man on this ship as a young man during ww2 with Gerald Ford he also talked about the typhoon and how bad it was.I was looking at his photo id at that time and found his picture on the web site pictures that was fun to see him on the ship really proud of all of these men for really changing the coarse of that war his name was Kenneth Philip Iversen

    • Stephen King

      My father Maurice H. King was chief torpedoman aboard the Monterey during typhoon cobra. He often spoke of the terrifying experience. God Bless All

  10. Randy Snow

    My Dad Paul Snow also served on the Monty as gunner or gunners mate. He has told how much he loved the Monty and the brave men he met. Typhoon Cobra, still stay’s with him. He talks about all the men that were lost on that day . He also told me (reluctantly) he was one of injured. His leg was caught some ware near the fire and planes. He was pulled to safety with only a torn up leg.
    He turns 90 Sunday and we are having a big party for him. I will be telling a story about the Monty..he can’t see anymore( MD ) so i read to him what i have read about the USS MONTY. I am a Veteran of the Vietnam war has we have got older we have talked about our Military day’s .we are a lot closer now.


    • Marc A. LeBlanc

      If your dad is still living, get all you can from him in the way of his story in WWII. We are losing all our hero’s of the era, I wish I spoke more about it with my dad.


  11. Danny McGraw

    My Dad, Benjamin (Benny) McGraw served as a BGMSTR3 on the Monterey. He spoke
    of the Typhoon, and related memories of numerous events that occured aboard ship. He was very proud of his ship, his shipmates and his Naval service. He also spoke highly of Gerald Ford.
    I served in the Army Security Agency and in some small way better understood Dad’s pride after having done so.
    Dad passed away in 1993.

  12. Marc A. LeBlanc

    My father Richard E. LeBlanc served on the Monterey. He was a Private First Class and a gunner on the ship. He spoke about kamikaze pilots, torpedo planes and the smell of bodies in Okinawa. He also spoke about the typhoon but I did not realize how devastating it was. He told me several times about a man swept from the deck by a wave and slammed back on the deck by another. The man lived but had many broken bones. He also spoke about the day the ship returned to New York and how good he felt when he saw the Statue of Liberty as they were heading in. The American Flag on the Monterey was very large, he said they cut the flag in small peices, enough for every sailor to take one home. I have it. I’m so proud. Love you dad! My father passed away on February 11, 1996, the same date the Monterey was decommissioned, and my birthday.

  13. James Cocke

    My father – in-law, Ford Nichols was a Marine stationed on the Monterey during WWII in the Pacific. He was the captain’s orderly or assistant. Had stories of his duties, taking care of any needs the Captain would have whether it was at his room or on the bridge. He kept a diary of his time onboard and all the places the ship went to and the battles it was engaged in. He also, knew the future President at the time and spoke fondly of him. We lost him 2 years ago at the age of 90.

  14. ann l. Fredericks Nevitt

    My dad, Edward H. C. Fredericks, a pilot, was on the ship prior, during and after the Typhoon. It was an experience all would never forget, but each did his part without any hesitation or concern for their own personal life and he felt a great kinship to all those served. My dad was fortunate to be able to continue his friendship with Gerald Ford over the years, and was so proud of one of his “JO’s”. Gerald and my mom shared the exact same birthday and fortunately celebrated many years. God Bless to all!

  15. David phinizy

    My father too served on the Monterey , as a gunners mate under Gearld Fords command. Dad spoke fondly of his realitionshp with Mr Ford.
    As the president he presented my father with his birds
    Making my pop a Capt USN. Capt Robert B Phinizy dad passed this last December
    Rest In Peace dad. What a generation we owe a great debt to them.

    • Brother David I too remember all the stories of dad’s time on the ship with a good friend Jerald Ford. He told of planes trying to sink the ship. One instance standing at his position on the gun protecting the ship from the enemy and a torpedo dropped from the plane heading and heading for the ship. It just so happened to be coming directly at his post. He said the hand of God raised the ship and the torpedo went under the ship. It did sink a battle ship on there starboard side sadly. But dad came home and now here we are.

  16. Vickie Bennett

    My Step dad – John C Seefried was on the Monterey during Typhoon Cobra. We asked him about it last week and though he can no longer speak, his tearful eyes told it all. I’ll never forget the look on his face as we recounted the stories with him.

  17. i was a pilot in air group 28. i flew f6f planes. on the monterey. i knew ford and watched him play bball on the hanger deck but we had little contact with the ships crew.i was shot down in the first attack on the phillepines and missed the typhoon.i have a picture of capt ingersol stining in our ready roon during a sreike. it was in life mag. we had a time/tife photographer on board.i am 97 and am deaf but still vol 2 days a wk at the hosp. and drive around sun city. bill shackelford

    • Admin

      Thank you very much for your service, sir.

      Diana West

  18. My Uncle Mal Nota served on the Monteray and was always so proud to have done so. His daughter Deidre and I attended one of the Naval Reunions in South Carolina back in the 70’s which President Ford attended. It was one of the best times I had in my teenage years. Those men had something very near and dear in each other to remember forever. I am so proud that my Uncle served in the Navy. Laurie Nota

  19. My Grampy was on the Monterey shared many stories with my dad … which now I wish I had that experience, but I dont have my dad any longer so he can’t answer our questions.. I do know my Grampy was floating in the sea for days before he was saved… I am currently researching the Monterey…

  20. Greg Gray

    My father Jerry Gray was Lietenant Commander on the Monterey and suite mate of Gerry Ford. Dad was pilot and landing signal officer. Have many pictures of him one with 2 other signal officers Mac and Zeke getting a celebration cake for 5,000 landings with no mis haps. Mac was killed as pilot later that year. Dad and President Ford kept in touch following the war as both from Michigan. Dad never spoke of his service or experiences. He passed at 67 in 1987. When I asked him once how he was able to such at such young age he simply replied “ oh well, you would have done the same”.

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