But he almost died a young man's death in war, during his service as an officer on the USS Monterey (CVL-26), a light aircraft carrier on which he was director of physical training, a gunnery officer, and an assistant navigator. On December 18, 1944, Lt. Ford was deck officer during the midnight to 4 a.m. watch. A typhoon blasting through the Philippine Sea buffeted the ship -- a storm so intense that it sank three U.S. destroyers that were part of Adm. William Halsey's Third Fleet, as was the Monterey.
Exhausted, Ford went below decks after his watch, but didn't sleep long. "Waking, I thought I could smell smoke," Ford said in his 1979 memoir, A Time to Heal. "I went up the passageway and out to the catwalk on the starboard side which runs around the flight deck, where I started to climb the ladder. As I stepped on the flight deck, the ship suddenly rolled about 25 degrees. I lost my footing..."
John J. Kruzel, writing for the American Forces Press Service, continues the story: "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 [Ford] later stated, 'I was lucky; I could have easily gone overboard.' "
The future president also risked his life that same day by leading the fire brigade that extinguished the fire that was ravaging the ship. "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," Kruzel says. "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.
“Into this furnace, Ford led his men, his first order of business to carry out the dead and injured. Hours later, he and his team emerged burned and exhausted, but they had put out the fire.”