By John J. Kruzel, American Forces Press ServiceJanuary 3, 2007
WASHINGTON (American Forces Press Service, Jan. 2, 2007) - Thirty years before fighting political fires in the wake of Watergate, President Gerald R. Ford battled blazes in World War II.
U.S. Naval Historical Society documents and a newly released book, "Halsey's Typhoon," by Bob Drury and Tom Clavin, capture the story of a young Navy Lt. Ford who saved lives by helping to put out a fire on the USS Monterey.
In December 1944, Ford, then a Navy lieutenant, was a gunnery officer on the light aircraft carrier, which was providing air cover for the second wave of the Philippines invasion as part of Adm. William Halsey's Third Fleet.
Serving as deck officer during the ship's midnight to 4 a.m. watch, Ford saw 40- to 70-foot waves swelling around his ship as it headed into the path of a howling typhoon.
Typhoon Cobra, as the storm was later called, rolled the Monterey 25 degrees, causing Ford to lose his footing and slide toward the edge of the deck, the sources reveal.
The two-inch steel ridge around the edge of the carrier slowed him enough so he could roll and twist into the catwalk below the deck. As he later stated, "I was lucky; I could have easily gone overboard."
At the height of the storm, 100-knot winds and towering waves rocked the Monterey and several fighter planes tore loose from their cables and collided into one another.
The collisions ignited aircraft gas tanks, and soon the hangar deck was ablaze. Because of a quirk in the Monterey's construction, flames were sucked into the air intakes leading to the lower decks, spreading the fire inside the ship.
In a Dec. 28 New York Times commentary, Drury and Clavin remembered Ford's actions.
Halsey had ordered Monterey's skipper, Capt. Stuart H. Ingersoll, to abandon ship as the Monterey blazed from stem to stern, they wrote.
Ford stood near the helm, awaiting his orders.
"We can fix this," Drury and Clavin quoted Ingersoll as saying. With a nod from his skipper, Ford donned a gas mask and led a fire brigade below. All the while, they wrote, aircraft-gas tanks exploded as hose handlers slid across the burning decks.
"Into this furnace, Ford led his men, his first order of business to carry out the dead and injured," they wrote. "Hours later, he and his team emerged burned and exhausted, but they had put out the fire."
After the fire, Monterey was declared unfit for service. But historical documents credit Ford's courage for ensuring that nearly all its men survived to take part in the Battle of Okinawa.
Typhoon Cobra delivered the Navy's worst "defeat" of World War II, capsizing three destroyers, damaging 12 more ships, destroying 150 planes, and killing 793 men, historians note.
And it nearly made a casualty of the future president.
Ford was later promoted to lieutenant commander, and he ended his Navy career in 1946 at that rank.
(This article was based in part on information obtained from the U.S. Navy's Web site, and on the book "Halsey's Typhoon" and a Dec. 28, 2006, New York Times commentary, both by Bob Drury and Tom Clavin.)