Lessons Learned: Halsey’s Typhoon and the Paradox of Safety

I recently finished reading E.B. Potter’s magisterial biography of Admiral Nimitz, the highest-ranking US Navy officer in the Pacific during WWII. It’s a great read for anyone interested in WWII, but the biography contains a letter that Admiral Nimitz wrote that is full of wisdom and especially applicable to expats. Before I share part of the letter and draw a few implications from it, though, allow me to share a bit of the events that led up to the letter.

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On December 17, 1944, the US Navy’s Task Force 38—composed of over 80 ships, including 13 aircraft carriers—was near the Philippines under the command of Admiral William “Bull” Halsey when Typhoon Cobra was sighted nearby. Admiral Halsey, operating with incomplete weather information, made the grave error of ordering the fleet to stay in formation and sail through the typhoon.

The result was disastrous—so disastrous that Admiral Nimitz assessed the typhoon caused more damage to the fleet than did most engagements with the Japanese Navy. As a result of the typhoon, three destroyers sunk, twenty-seven other ships were heavily damaged, nearly 150 aircraft were destroyed, and 790 sailors lost their lives.1 Later, Admiral Nimitz wrote a letter to remind the Navy how they ought to handle severe weather crises. Here is a portion of that letter:

[In] bad weather, as in most other situations, safety and fatal hazard are not separated by any sharp boundary line, but shade gradually from one into the other. There is no little red light which is going to flash on and inform commanding officers or higher commanders that from then on there is extreme danger from the weather, and that measures for ships’ safety must take precedence over further efforts to keep up with the formation or to execute the assigned task. This time will always be a matter of personal judgment. Naturally no commander is going to cut thin the margin between staying afloat and foundering, but he may nevertheless unwittingly pass the danger point even though no ship is yet in extremis.

Ships that keep on going as long as the severity of the wind and sea had not yet come close in capsizing them or breaking them in two, may nevertheless become helpless to avoid these catastrophes later if things get worse. By then they may be unable to steer any heading but in the trough of the sea, or may have their steering control, lighting, communications and main propulsion disabled or may be helpless to secure things on deck or to jettison topside weights. The time for taking all measures for a ship’s safety is while still able to do so. Nothing is more dangerous than for a seaman to be grudging in taking precautions lest they turn out to have been unnecessary. Safety at sea for a thousand years has depended on exactly the opposite philosophy.

Admiral Chester Nimitz, cited in Nimitz by E.B. Potter, emphasis added.

Before a storm comes or becomes severe, sailors can take many preventative actions to ensure a ship can safely weather a storm, but there comes a point when sailors are no longer able to prepare. Thus, as Admiral Nimitz notes, there is a paradoxical tension in safety and preparation: when you are able to prepare for a danger, your preparation rarely seems necessary, but if you wait until a preparation seems critical, it usually is already too late. In fact, retrospectively, a precaution that prevented a crisis will often seem foolish and unnecessary even if the unnecessariness of that precaution is precisely because it worked and thereby prevented the crisis.

To take this out of abstract theory, consider, for example, a family in an area where expats are often taken hostage. They hire an armed guard for their daughter and, after a year, they feel that it’s an unnecessary precaution. Why do they think it unnecessary? Because there’s never been an attempt to kidnap their daughter. Yet it may be precisely because they took the precaution of an armed guard that there haven’t been any attacks. Therein lies the paradox of safety precautions; when they work well, they appear unnecessary and when they appear necessary, it’s almost always too late.

  • The time to learn the Heimlich is before your child is choking
  • The time to buy emergency supplies is before a natural disaster strikes
  • The time to have extra food and TP stored is before the pandemic hits
  • The time to acquire a backup ID is before you need it
  • The time to have an extra lock on your door is before someone tries to break it down
  • The time to open multiple bank accounts is before your account is frozen
  • Etc., etc., etc.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that any precaution is justified just because of the paradox of safety–preparing for a flood when you’re on high ground actually is unwise. Rather, you need to evaluate what dangers you face, which are most likely and most consequential, and then take action to reduce those risks while you still can. To close, here’s a slight rephrasing of Admiral Nimitz:

The time to take all measures for your safety is while you are still able to do so. Nothing is more dangerous than an expat who is unwilling to take precautions in case they turn out to have been unnecessary. You and your family’s safety depends on exactly the opposite philosophy.

So what are you going to do today?

Footnote 1: If you’d like to learn more about Typhoon Cobra, the best-selling authors Bob Drury & Tom Clavin have written a book devoted to just this incident, called Halsey’s Typhoon. It’s well-reviewed and the Kindle edition just so happens to be on sale at this very moment.

Published by The Prepared Expat

Equipping you to thrive and survive as an expat

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