A typhoon snared the U.S. Navy's Pacific Fleet in the Philippine Sea during World War II. Three destroyers capsized, nearly 800 men died. Ninety-three men were rescued from the heaving seas, fifty-five of them by the little 300' destroyer escort Tabberer.
Lieutenant Commander Henry Plage took Tabberer to sea in May of 1944 with a crew of twelve officers and 124 enlisted men. Four of the officers had been to sea. Ninety percent of the enlisted men were teenagers with an average service time of three months.
Plage was one of the most beloved skippers in the Pacific Theater of Operations, and one of the bravest. Unlike some ship captains who forbid even casual conversation between officers and enlisteds, Plage's door was open to any sailor. He routinely stopped to talk to his men, often eating in the enlisted mess and umpiring the pickup ball games in port. Just twenty-nine years old, he demonstrated a paternal interest in his men.
Typhoon Cobra ravaged Tabberer that December. The small ship lost its main mast with its radar and antennae, leaving the crew out of contact with the fleet. While trying to make repairs, a crewman spotted a pinpoint of light bobbing in the swells. It proved to be from a life preserver.
The precipitous waves prevented a by-the-book rescue. Lt. Comdr. Plage turned broadside, windward of the floater. Tabby listed so sharply, the main deck plunged under water. The crew snagged the half-dead man and pulled him on deck before the swells retreated.
Hearing a destroyer had foundered and other survivors were "out there," Plage began a systematic search despite the high seas, the blinding squalls, the damaged ship. Often survivors were too weak to grab a line, or were unconscious, and strong swimmers among the Tabberer crew dove in to haul them to safety.
These rescuers not only endangered themselves in the heaving sea, they exposed themselves to sharks. Many floaters had suffered shark or barracuda bites, and many had been killed. From the deck of the Tabberer, sailors with Springfield rifles and Thompson submachine guns peppered the water surrounding the survivors to drive away the threat.
With a jury-rigged receiver, contact with nearby ships was restored. Fleet Admiral Bill Halsey and his staff were heartened to hear Tabberer was still afloat, but brows were raised when they learned of the little warship's rescue operations. A destroyer escort was out of its element on such maneuvers in the wake of a typhoon. And yet it was exactly right. The cruisers, battleships, and aircraft carriers stood too tall for their sailors to easily spot floaters or reel them in.
Twice Plage received orders to proceed to port. Twice he missed the rendezvous as he continued to pick up survivors. His crew cheered his "rebellion," finding the rescues a proud and wonderful chore. Plage thought he'd either get a medal or a court martial.
|Demasted Tabberer after Typhoon Cobra|
Hurt by the condescension, Plage sent back the reply, "Destroyer escort. What type are you?"
Lt. Comdr. Plage was awarded the Legion of Merit. The Tabberer was commended, and all personnel were authorized to wear the Navy Unit Commendation Ribbon.