Robert Drury and Tom Clavin: How Lieutenant Ford Saved His Ship





[Robert Drury and Tom Clavin are the authors of the forthcoming “Halsey’s Typhoon: The True Story of a Fighting Admiral, an Epic Storm and an Untold Rescue.”]

FOR Americans under a certain age, Gerald Ford is best remembered for his contribution to Bartlett’s — “Our long national nightmare is over” — or, more likely, for the comedian Chevy Chase’s stumbling, bumbling impersonations of him on “Saturday Night Live.” But there’s a different label we can attach to this former president, one that has been overlooked for 62 years: war hero.

In 1944, Lt. j.g. Jerry Ford — a lawyer from Grand Rapids, Mich., blond and broad-shouldered, with the lantern jaw of a young Johnny Weissmuller — was a 31-year-old gunnery officer on the aircraft carrier Monterey. The Monterey was a member of Adm. William Halsey’s Third Fleet, and in mid-December, Lieutenant Ford was sailing off the Philippines as Admiral Halsey’s ships provided air cover for the second phase of Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s “I shall return” Philippine invasions.

The Monterey had earned more than half a dozen battle stars for actions in World War II; during the battle of Leyte Gulf, Lieutenant Ford, in charge of a 40-millimeter antiaircraft gun crew on the fantail deck, had watched as a torpedo narrowly missed the Monterey and tore out the hull of the nearby Australian cruiser Canberra. Two months later, in the early morning hours of Dec. 18, the Japanese were the least of the Monterey’s worries, as it found itself trapped in a vicious Pacific cyclone later designated Typhoon Cobra.

Lieutenant Ford had served as the Monterey’s officer of the deck on the ship’s midnight-to-4-a.m. watch, and had witnessed the lashing rains and 60-knot winds whip the ocean into waves that resembled liquid mountain ranges. The waves reeled in from starboard, gigantic sets of dark water that appeared to defy gravity, cresting at 40 to 70 feet. In his 18 months at sea, Lieutenant Ford had never seen waves so big. As breakers crashed over the carrier’s wheelhouse, he could just barely make out the distress whistles sounding about him — the deep beeps of the battleships, the shrill whoops of the destroyers.

After his watch Lieutenant Ford had strapped himself into his bunk below decks, and it seemed that his head had barely hit the pillow when the Monterey’s skipper, Capt. Stuart H. Ingersoll, sounded general quarters, calling all hands to their stations. Lieutenant Ford bolted upright in his dark sea cabin. He thought he smelled smoke amidships. Racing through a rolling companionway dimly lighted by red battle lights, he reached the outside skipper’s ladder leading to the pilothouse and began to climb. At that precise moment a 70-foot wave broke over the Monterey. The carrier pitched 25 degrees to port, and Lieutenant Ford was knocked flat on his back. He began skimming the flight deck as if he were on a toboggan.

Just as he was about to be hurled overboard, Lieutenant Ford managed to slow his slide, twist like an acrobat, and fling himself onto the catwalk. He got to his knees, made his way below deck, and started back up again.

[HNN Editor: The article goes on to explain how Ford helped put out the fires that broke out aboard the ship when aircraft began banging into one another.]


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