Down to the Sea: An Epic Story of Naval Disaster and Heroism in World War II

Down to the Sea: An Epic Story of Naval Disaster and Heroism in World War II

by Bruce Henderson
Down to the Sea: An Epic Story of Naval Disaster and Heroism in World War II

Down to the Sea: An Epic Story of Naval Disaster and Heroism in World War II

by Bruce Henderson


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“World War II produced so many compelling stories that even students of that momentous conflict are apt to discover we’ve missed whole vital episodes. Down to the Sea, about a devastating 1944 Pacific typhoon that sank three destroyers and cost 756 American sailors their lives, is just such an eye-opener.” — New York Post

From the New York Times bestselling author of Sons and Soldiers, an epic story opening at the hour the Greatest Generation went to war on December 7, 1941, and following four U.S. Navy ships and their crews in the Pacific until their day of reckoning three years later with a far different enemy: a deadly typhoon.

In December 1944, while supporting General MacArthur’s invasion of the Philippines, Admiral William “Bull” Halsey neglected the Law of Storms—the unofficial bible of all seamen since the days of sail—placing the mighty U.S. Third Fleet in harm’s way. One of the most powerful fighting fleets ever assembled under any flag, the Third Fleet sailed directly into the largest storm the U.S. Navy had ever encountered—a maelstrom of 90-foot seas and 160-mph winds. More men were lost and ships sunk and damaged than in most combat engagements in the Pacific. The final toll: 3 ships sunk, 28 ships damaged, 146 aircraft destroyed, and 756 men lost at sea.

In all, 92 survivors from the three sunken ships (each carrying a crew of about 300) were rescued, some after spending up to 80 hours in the water. Scores more had made it off their sinking ships only to perish in the monstrous seas; some from injuries and exhaustion, others snatched away by circling sharks before their horrified shipmates. In the farflung rescue operations Bruce Henderson finds some of the story’s truest heroes, exhibiting selflessness, courage, and even defiance. One badly damaged ship, whose Naval Reserve skipper disobeyed an admiral’s orders to abandon the search, singlehandedly saved 55 lives.

Drawing on extensive interviews with nearly every living survivor and rescuer, many families of lost sailors, transcripts and other records from two naval courts of inquiry, ships’ logs and action reports, personal letters, and diaries, Bruce Henderson offers the most thorough and riveting account to date of one of the greatest naval dramas of World War II.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780061173172
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 11/04/2008
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 400
Sales rank: 480,365
Product dimensions: 6.08(w) x 8.94(h) x 1.09(d)

About the Author

Bruce Henderson has written more than twenty books, including the national bestseller Hero Found and Rescue at Los Baños. Henderson served aboard the aircraft carrier USS Ranger (CVA-61) during the Vietnam War. He lives in Menlo Park, California.

Read an Excerpt

Down to the Sea
An Epic Story of Naval Disaster and Heroism in World War II

Chapter One

Pearl Harbor

December 7, 1941

The greatest generation's first day of war dawned bright over Oahu.

Although sunrise came officially to the Hawaiian Islands at 6:36 A.M. that morning, Pearl Harbor remained shaded to the east by the 2,000-foot volcanic twins, Tantalus and Olympus, for another half an hour. As the sun crested the low-slung mountaintops, its brilliance washed the sky with bold streaks of light and painted in emerald the endless sugarcane fields stretching up the lush slopes above the nearly landlocked home port of the U.S. Navy's Pacific Fleet.

The destroyer Monaghan (DD-354) was tied up to a nest of three other destroyers: Aylwin, Dale, and Farragut. The four vessels, which made up Destroyer Division 2, were moored side by side in East Loch off the north end of Ford Island—less than one square mile of land situated in the middle of Pearl Harbor—home to a naval air station, ware-houses, and oil storage tanks. Several dozen other ships, including three other destroyer divisions, were moored on that side of the island; however, most of the fleet's anchorages (including an impressive lineup of America's biggest warships on Battleship Row), dry docks, and repair facilities, along with a sprawling oil-tank farm, were located along the harbor's expansive southeastern shores.

Monaghan had been the ready-duty destroyer since 8:00 the previous morning, meaning that for twenty-four hours the ship was "in readiness to get under way on one hour's notice" shouldher presence be required outside the harbor. To ensure a quick getaway, Monaghan was moored in the outboard position of the nest and singled up (with only one mooring line rather than multiple tie-downs), with a fire under one boiler and the full crew aboard. In the event of hostilities, enemy submarines were believed to be the most serious threat to the flow of ships that came and went from the harbor, so there was always at least one destroyer patrolling outside the entrance. Another destroyer was on standby to assist with any emergency outside the harbor.

Monaghan belonged to the Farragut class (named for the first U.S. Navy admiral, David Glasgow Farragut, a Civil War hero credited with the legendary battle cry "Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!"), which were the first modern destroyers built for the U.S. Navy since the end of World War I. A total of eight ships in this class were launched in 1934-35. Designed to carry a crew of 150 men (war-time complements exceeded 200), the vessels were dubbed by sailors as "gold platers" because they were so plush compared with their predecessors. Representing the peak of technology and naval design for their era, these 1,395-ton two-stackers with a flank speed of 37 knots (43 miles per hour) were originally armed with five 5-inch deck guns (two forward, two aft, one amidships), four .50-caliber mounted machine guns, eight torpedo tubes, and a pair of depth-charge tracks.

The last Farragut-class destroyer built, Monaghan was launched on January 9, 1935, in Boston and christened by Mary F. Monaghan, niece of its namesake. Like all destroyers, Monaghan was named for a hero; other ships were named for states (battleships), cities (cruisers), famous ships (aircraft carriers), and fish (submarines). Ensign John R. Monaghan had served aboard the cruiser Philadelphia during a native uprising in Samoa in 1899. Monaghan had joined a landing party assigned to restore order among the natives, and his small band was returning to the ship when they were ambushed, during which a lieutenant was badly wounded. Despite the lieutenant's order to leave him and save themselves, Monaghan and two sailors stood by their wounded officer, fighting until overpowered, killed, and beheaded by the natives.

Assigned to patrol duties outside Pearl Harbor that morning was the destroyer Ward (DD-139), "an old World War I vintage" vessel that could barely make 30 knots. The old ship had a new skipper, Lieutenant William W. Outerbridge, who had taken over this, his first sea command, two days earlier. Since the issuance of a war warning from Washington, D.C., in late November, the ships on offshore patrol were under orders to depth-charge any suspicious submarine contacts operating in the defensive sea area outside the harbor.

At 6:40 A.M., the crew of an auxiliary ship, Antares (AKS-3), towing a 500-ton barge toward the entrance to Pearl Harbor, spotted an object 1,500 yards off its starboard quarter. When the report reached Ward, the destroyer changed course to intercept the object, identifying it as a small submarine attempting to enter the harbor behind the barge. Given his shoot-to-kill orders, Outerbridge did not hesitate to commence an attack. Ward's forward deck gun fired a shell that struck the base of the sub's conning tower. The submarine submerged or sank, and as Ward passed close by, the destroyer's crew released a depth charge, rolling off a rack at the fantail a 600-pound cylindrically shaped "ashcan" packed with TNT and a fuse set to go off at a predetermined depth.

Outerbridge at that point radioed a report to Pearl Harbor communications: "We have attacked, fired upon, and dropped depth charges upon submarine operating in defensive area." The message from Ward filtered up the peacetime chain of command that Sabbath morning with glacial speed before orders went out to the ready-duty destroyer to assist Ward, which would be credited with sinking a Japanese midget submarine and firing the first shots of the war. At 7:51 A.M. Monaghan received a dispatch from the Fourteenth Naval District Headquarters: "Proceed immediately and contact Ward in defensive sea area."

At 7:53 A.M., the first wave of 181 Japanese planes—launched in the predawn darkness from six aircraft carriers operating undetected 275 miles northwest of Pearl Harbor—began their coordinated attack on the ships in the harbor and surrounding military bases and airfields. To further confuse the situation and keep their carriers from being located, many of the attacking planes flew around Oahu and approached Pearl Harbor from the south.

Down to the Sea
An Epic Story of Naval Disaster and Heroism in World War II
. Copyright © by Bruce Henderson. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

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