A SAILOR'S SAILOR: FIGHTING ADMIRAL WILLIAM F. "BULL" HALSEY

Mike Coppock
Sea Classics

Dec 31, 2007 19:00 EST

The young Naval ensign stood on the deck of the battleship Kansas watching the shoreline fade into the horizon as she sailed from Yokohama. The warship was part of President Theodore Roosevelt's Great White Fleet.

This first Roosevelt had literally lined up all of America's 16 battleships in single file, painted them white for peace, and sent them around the world to demonstrate to the other major powers that the United States was one of them. In particular though, Theodore Roosevelt wanted to impress upon the Japanese Empire that America had the ability to wage war on them. War clouds between the two nations were growing everominous. The President hoped this disguised goodwill gesture would clear the atmosphere.

The Fleet sailed from the United States on 16 December 1907. The young ensign, William Halsey, was among the officers who had seen Roosevelt himself waving good-bye to them as they sailed off.

Upon their arrival, the Japanese had showered the Americans with attention and gifts. Halsey ignored his fellow officers as they talked about how they had misjudged the Japanese and how genuine the affection seemed for America. The new graduate from Annapolis had felt something different from the Japanese.

"I felt the Japanese meant none of their welcome; that they actually disliked us," Halsey would write later. "Nor was I any more convinced of their sincerity when they presented us with medals confirming the goodwill between our two governments."

A second Roosevelt 37-years later would send a much older Adm. Bull Halsey into the same bay as part of the American delegation to witness the end of the Japanese Empire after a horrendous and bloody conflict which confirmed the young ensign's impressions. Like all of America's fighting admirals in World War II, Halsey rose due to the small turning of events.

He was the son of Navy Capt. William F. Halsey, born in Elizabeth, New Jersey, on 30 October 1882. He fell in line with his parents' belief that the young boy had only one future and that was to be with the US Navy. It was an easy assumption. One ancestor, Capt. John Halsey, was a privateer turned buccaneer during the time of the American Revolution. His greatgreat grandfather, Capt. Eliphalee Halsey, was the first Sag Harbor whaler out of New York to sail around the Horn at the tip of South America.

Willie, as his family called him, had bounced around preparatory schools in California, Pennsylvania, and Maryland. He studied medicine for a year at the University of Virginia before strings were pulled to get him into the Naval Academy at Annapolis in 1900. There he played football for two years eventually becoming an assistant football coach. His family was neither wealthy nor had political influence, but his father was well known and liked among the officer corps. Willie graduated in 1904, 27th in a class of 114.

Timing is everything as demonstrated with Halsey's career. Alfred Mahan's vastly influential 1891 book The Influence of Sea Power Upon History had been a powerful book among world's ruling elite when it came out. Previous presidents, Arthur, Cleveland and McKinley, had slowly begun the modernization of the US Navy. But, it was not until an assassin's bullet made Theodore Roosevelt president in 1901 that a mass Naval expansion in the US began taking place.

When Halsey graduated in 1904 with several athletic honors, the Navy was hungry for officers to fill command slots busy shipyards had created. Higher-ups saw officer material in the young graduate promoting Halsey straight from Ensign to full Lieutenant skipping the rank of Lieutenant Junior Grade.

He apparently looked the part. An inscription on his graduation photograph read "A real salt - looks like a figure head of Neptune." Willie was just 21-years old at the time.

Returning with the Great White Fleet, Halsey found his niche becoming a specialist in torpedoes and torpedo attack boats. He also married a local Norfolk, Virginia, girl, Frances Grandy, on 1 December 1909.

He was placed in command of the First Group of the Atlantic Fleet's Torpedo Flotilla in 1912 through 1913.

Learning the art of command as seen fit by the US Navy found Halsey bouncing from one command to another though the focus was destroyers and torpedo boats.

During World War I, the Lieutenant Commander was given first the USS Benham, and later the USS Shaw, based out of Queenstown (Cork), Ireland, then a British possession. He held command of the destroyer until 1918, escorting convoys back and forth across the Atlantic through U-boat infested waters and earned a Navy Cross. After the war, he was a Naval attache in Berlin, Copenhagen, and Stockholm from 1922 to 1925 until he was given command of the USS Dale while the warship was in Europe.

Halsey led two destroyer squadrons in the early 1930s before studying at the Naval War College in the mid-1930s. Taking the advice of others, Halsey joined a small group that included Ernest King that were enrolling in R/Adm. William Moffett's Bureau of Aeronautics becoming Naval aviators. Although aviation was still only a promising young branch many visionaries felt advancement would be swift for those who made the grade as a Naval aviator.

Getting in for Halsey had not been easy. He had petitioned Moffett over and over again. But, the Rear Admiral and others felt he was socially too crass and unrefined to make higher grade. Also, he was getting along in years. Halsey was 51 when Moffett tried to compromise, granting him observer status at Pensacola Naval Air Station. Halsey would not settle for any coveted rating other than as a pilot. Gradually, he was able to change his observer status to pilot observer and finally student pilot in the program. Halsey insisted on going through the entire twelve-week training program as a Navy pilot causing him to be the last one to graduate.

"The worse the weather, the better he flew," said one of Halsey's flight instructors. "Even then it was obvious he was an airmen's airman imbued with deep respect for the aviator's world."

Halsey's persistence paid off. The wings he earned, plus his command record, opened doors for him.

He was given the command of one of the US Navy's few aircraft carriers, the Saratoga, while also commanding the Naval Air Station at Pensacola, Florida. Promotion in the new frontier of aviation came quickly. Promoted to Rear Admiral in 1938, he commanded carrier divisions for three years while also serving as Commander Aircraft Battle Force.

Once again, war clouds were gathering in the Pacific with the Empire of Japan. Japan was eating away China while allying herself with Hitler in Germany and Mussolini in Italy. When a second President Roosevelt discontinued oil shipments to Japan, Navy veterans in the Pacific knew war would be coming shortly.

Admiral Husband E. Kimmel, on 28 November 1941, sent Halsey and the aircraft carrier Enterprise to Wake Island to deliver twelve F4F Wildcat fighters to the US Marines there. While in Kimmel's office, Halsey was shown a CNO war warning message. Halsey interpreted it to ordering him to attack Japanese planes and ships if he encountered them on the way to Wake.

"As fine an order as a subordinate ever received," Halsey wrote.

He and the Enterprise were progressing to Wake Island when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941. When word reached the carrier of the unprovoked attack, officers on board overheard Halsey vow that when this war was over, the only place the Japanese language would be spoken would be hell. Officers and sailors who served under Halsey all recall his utter contempt for the Japanese bordering on blinding racism.

He posted a sign over his quarters reading, "Kill Japs, Kill Japs, Kill More Japs!" He even shocked news reporters when he used such phrases as "monkey meat" when talking about the Japanese.

By the opening of the war, the slender, hatchet-browed Halsey had become an early riser who routinely downed ten cups of coffee a day along with 40 cigarettes. He did not stand on ceremony. Superstitious like most sailors of his day, he was genuinely scared of the 13th of every month and openly wore his good luck charms: A greenstone New Zealand bracelet and a Hawaiian good luck strip of white linen.

He took great care in his personal appearance from haircuts to his fingernails said one of his aids. One story that circulated around the Pacific was how he had his steward follow V/Adm. John "Slew" McCain around with a dust pan to sweep up cigarette butts McCain was notorious in throwing down any and everywhere.

Yet, when a British liaison officer came ashore to introduce himself, he was greeted by one of the war's greatest admirals barefooted in shorts and wearing a khaki shirt. Admiral Halsey mixed the British officer cocktails and they sat around chatting watching the sunset.

Halsey was a firm believer in the diplomatic powers of whiskey. Many officers were at the time. Nimitz used drinks from the sideboard in easing relations between his staff and Gen. MacArthur's.

"A bottle of Scotch on the table always bore fruit in our dealings with other commands," claimed the Admiral. Halsey exclaimed repeatedly that he did not trust a fighting man who did not drink or smoke.

One of his favorite toasts was repeated by many of his sailors in bars and dives throughout the Pacific during the war:

"I've drunk to your health in company, I've drunk to your health alone; I've drunk to your health so many times, I've damned near ruined my own."

His hospitality towards visiting officers was such that after one dinner an Army officer was heard saying, "Good God, why didn't we join the Navy?"

He won the hearts of his men over by simply showing no favoritism. When his only child, 27-year-old Lt. William Halsey III became missing in the South Pacific in the summer of 1943, his father ordered that the searcb should go by the book. His son and other crewmen were later found alive near New Caledonia in a life raft.

Even with the outbreak of war, many on Kimmel's staff felt Halsey was too gutty and socially vulgar for promotion. Rank still was seen as social advancement rather than military achievement. Halsey in retrospect was the Navy's version of the Army's George S. Patton. Still, when Nimitz relieved Kimmel he wanted Halsey. What counted strongly with Nimitz was that the man was a fighter and even more importantly notoriously lucky. He was impressed that the Rear Admiral he had just inherited was eager "to begin throwing punches," to use Nimitz's words. The new commander was looking for men willing, as he stated early upon his arrival at Hawaii, to sail west to Asia and north to Japan.

President Franklin Roosevelt, tutored by his distant cousin Theodore and a former Assistant Secretary of the Navy during the Wilson administration, tended to agree. Like Teddy, FDR wanted fighting men.

"Men of the aggressive fighting type must be preferred over men of more judicial, thoughtful, but less aggressive characteristics," said the message from Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox to Nimitz.

A war plan drawn up by Adm. Kimmel before Pearl Harbor called for sending Halsey with three carriers on a four-day high-speed raid through the Marshall Islands to the west of Hawaii using PBY patrol planes. Kimmel himself would lead the Pacific Fleet's battleships to Wake Island. There it was hoped Halsey's carrier raid would draw out the Japanese Imperial Fleet for an oldfashioned ship-of-the-line engagement similar to the one fought between the British and the Germans at the Battle of Jutland during WWI.

Within two months of the Pearl Harbor attack, Nimitz and FDR green lighted Halsey's raids into Japanese-held Marshall and Gilbert Islands. By April, Halsey was near the home islands of Japan itself assisting in the launching of Jimmy Doolittle's bombing raid on Tokyo, arguably the psychological turning point of the war.

"When Adm. Halsey was in command, you never knew what he was going to do," said a Naval aide who had served with most of the Pacific War admirals.

Halsey was constantly expressing to reporters a slogan he developed, "Hit hard, hit fast, hit often" during these months that caused the press to give him the nickname "Bull" in their stories. Halsey would always maintain a drunk newsman hit the "u" key instead of the "i" key giving him the nickname. Newsmen of course had a different version of the nickname claiming it came from one reporter describing Halsey's battle strategies as "a bull in a china shop."

Nor was his mouth always appreciated. FDR personally let it be known he had been deeply embarrassed when Halsey told the New Zealand Prime Minister in front of news reporters that the war with Japan would be over within a year.

To his great frustration, he was hospitalized during the showdown with the Japanese Fleet at Midway due to psoriasis. However, he did have his chief of staff, Capt. Miles Browning, assigned to V/Adm. Raymond Spruance, whom he had recommended, for tbe crucial military engagement. It proved to be a wise choice.

Halsey's fame rests with his saving the situation at besieged Guadalcanal.

Though both Adm. Ernest King and Nimitz had signed off on stopping the Japanese advance there before Australia was cut off from the United States, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, in Australia believed the island could not be held.

The Navy had dropped 17,000 Marines off at the island and almost immediately departed the area. Adm. Robert Ghormley, who had strongly opposed sending the Marines in, was now in charge of the operation. No risk taker, Ghormley feared placing his warships within reach of the enemy and losing them.

Realizing the need for more aggressive leadership Nimitz finally stepped in, relieving Ghormley in October 1942 and giving the South Pacific command to feisty 59-yearold Halsey.

"One minute we were too limp with malaria to crawl out of our foxholes; the next we were running around whooping like kids," said an air combat intelligence officer.

The very first thing Halsey did upon arriving was call a meeting with Marine Corps Commander Gen. Alexander Vandegrift. Halsey put to him a straight forward question: Could he hold the island? Vandegrift said he could, but only with Naval support.

One thing the Americans had going for them was the fact the Japanese High Command long believed until it was too late that the Guadalcanal invasion was only a massive raid; that the US had no intentions of staying or starting a front.

Halsey's answer to the situation was the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal during which he sank 23 Japanese warships. The hotly contested action gave the US control of the seas around the island and eventually the island itself. During this and other actions, Halsey went out of his way to make sure first the Marines and later Army GIs received full credit for victory when it was a joint military operation.

Once Guadalcanal was secure, Halsey's operations found itself with two fronts; the push north up the Solomons and Douglas MacArthur.

Most US Naval officers agreed with Adm. King's blunt statement that Gen. Douglas MacArthur was an unhinged megalomaniac who demanded that even his wife to call him "General." The General had reinforced this interpretation with attempts to have the United States Marine Corps disbanded and the men turned into GIs. In another attempt before Halsey's arrival MacArthur petitioned that all combat aircraft should be under his command whether they were Army, Navy, or Marine Corps.

To avoid bruised egos and meaningless squabbles, a demarcation line ran through the Pacific defining essentially MacArthur's domain and that of the US Navy's.

Now that Halsey was capturing headlines with the Guadalcanal operations, MacArthur wanted to meet him. It did not go well. For three days, the two argued over the command jurisdiction of a small base to be constructed in the Admiralty Islands. When Halsey left, nothing was really decided. There would be other just as fruitless meetings between the two. An example of their relationship can be seen when Halsey asked for the loan of a few bombers in February 1943. Instead of granting the request with the bombers sitting on the tarmac. MacArthur wired back: Why?

It was during one of these meetings, that Halsey got word his plan of assassinating Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto had succeeded. Allied command had intercepted a message stating that the man who had planned the Pearl Harbor attack would be inspecting the base at Rabaul. With a go ahead from Roosevelt himself, Halsey had sent up 16 AAF P-38 fighters with long range fuel tanks on an interception course. Halsey was about to meet with MacArthur in Brisbane when an aide got the message, "Pop Goes the Weasel," meaning Yamamoto had been shot down.

Halsey was soon promoted to a full admiral. In November 1943 he directed Allied forces in the capture of Bougainville thus isolating the great Japanese base at Rabaul.

In June 1944, he was made Fleet Admiral in charge of the freshly organized Third Fleet. With 30,000 men and 170 ships, the Third Fleet was Adm. Nimitz's brain child.

Neutralizing Rabaul and success in New Guinea brought the Pacific campaign at a crossroads. MacArthur wanted to push on for the Philippines while the Navy led by Knox and King, with Nimitz, in agreement could not see the justification for it. They felt the easiest road was to slash through Japanese island defenses in the Central Pacific, establish Naval and bomber bases on them, and go for Japan's homeland itself without fighting to take large and costly land masses.

The argument became heated enough for George Marshall and FDR to have to intervene. A man always looking for the compromise and the middle ground, Roosevelt concluded both paths should be followed. MacArthur was green-lighted his push towards the Philippines. He would even have his own Navy at his disposal. The Seventh Fleet under Adm. Thomas Kinkaid.

The Navy under Nimitz would go after the Marshalls and the massive enemy Naval facility at Truk. With a little luck, FDR hoped Nimitz's forces would have taken Saipan and be in place to cover MacArthur's final move on the Philippines.

Originally, this "Big Blue Fleet" was organized under the command of Adm. Spruance and christened the Fifth Fleet. But, Nimitz decided to create two fleets operating the same warships. When Spruance was in command it would be known as the Fifth Fleet headquartered out of the USS Indianapolis. When Halsey commanded the fleet, it would be the Third with headquarters on board the battleship New Jersey.

The idea was to both confuse the enemy and keep command structure fresh. When one was at sea the other staff could plan out and organize future campaigns. It did confuse the Japanese along with many Navy sailors in the Pacific.

Thus Halsey and his staff were ashore as Spruance's Fifth Fleet first engaged in the bloody battle of Tarawa and the taking of the Gilberts before pushing into the Marshalls where Spruance here got a bit of luck. The Japanese Navy's air arm had been sent to Rabaul for its defense. Later, after heavy US carrier attacks and heavy losses, the Japanese abandoned a major base located on Truk.

The Fifth's last action was the Battle of the Philippine Sea where it engaged V/Adm. Jisaburo Ozawa's nine carriers, five battleships, and seven heavy cruisers. Ozawa ended up losing three carriers and 345 planes in this famous "Turkey Shoot." Though Spruance's forces took the Marianas, he received heavy criticism for letting Ozawa and the remaining Japanese carriers escape.

Part of that criticism came from Halsey himself upon his return. The Fifth now resumed being the Third Fleet and Halsey sailed the fleet for the Philippines to support Kinkaid's Seventh Fleet and MacArthur's forces landing on Leyte in the Philippines.

Halsey soon came under far graver criticism than Spruance ever received.

Nimitz had ordered the Third Fleet to join with the Seventh in covering MacArthur's landings on Leyte. MacArthur's force was being put ashore with transports and supply ships offering up easy targets for the Japanese Navy. Tokyo had decided to allow MacArthur to land then hit his transports hard, hopefully isolating his fighting force. Their analysis of Adm. Halsey's character, especially the reason for the increased rivalry between he and Spruance, was dead on target. Halsey had long wanted to be the commander of a major sea engagement. The fact that he was not at Midway and Spruance whom he had recommended had always haunted him.

The Japanese knew that to make their thrust against MacArthur work they were going to have to remove Halsey and the carriers of the Third Fleet from Leyte. The plan they devised was a three-part movement of their fleet.

Admiral Takeo Kurita and his powerful central force was to sail around the island of Samar coming in on MacArthur's landing site from the north linking up with Adm. Shoji Nishimura's southern force of battleships and cruisers sailing in from the south. Each group had more firepower than Kinkaid's Seventh Fleet, but not if Halsey's massive Third Fleet was standing guard.

The third movement, the key for Japanese success, was for Adm. Ozawa to begin sailing in from the north with four carriers acting as bait for Halsey. They were to be deliberately detected by American scout planes. These were the very same carriers Halsey had criticized Spruance for having allowed to escape.

Now, would Halsey go after them, or remain at his station?

Nimitz's orders to Halsey was simple enough: Cover MacArthur's landings and destroy the enemy if the opportunity arose.

The landings were going smoothly and the two prong thrust by the Japanese had not been detected when Halsey received the scouting reports of Ozawa and his four carriers closing in 100-mi away.

"Halsey was no man to watch a rathole from which the rat might never emerge," wrote historian Samuel Eliot Morison who personally interviewed Halsey about his conduct in 1957.

Halsey swerved his entire task force, making flank speed for Ozawa. The bait had been taken.

Kurita sailed unopposed into Leyte Gulf. There his command, which included the 18-in guns of the Yamato, ran into an inferior fighting force of six escort carriers under R/Adm. Clifton Sprague. Sprague could not rely on Kinkaid for the Japanese southern force had just been detected coming in and the Seventh was throwing everything it had at Nishimura.

With the fate of the troops on Leyte in jeopardy, Sprague sent in his destroyers as his escort carriers launched their planes. The fate of the entire Philippine operation hung in the balance. The situation was so critical, Pres. Roosevelt ordered hourly updates on the battle.

Meanwhile, Halsey's task force was hunting for the four Japanese carriers which he eventually found, sinking them in what critics called the Battle of Bull's Run.

Nimitz sent off a message to Halsey's Task Force 34.

"Turkey trots to water. Where is, repeat, where is Task Force 34? The world wonders." Halsey turned red in anger when he received the message.

"What right has Chester to send me a goddamn message like that?" he growled to an aide before going to his cabin to sulk.

What saved MacArthur's troops and the entire Philippine Operation was Sprague refusing to allow Kurita to enter Leyte Gulf in spite of huge losses. The US lost two carriers and two destroyers along with 1130 dead and 913 wounded. Kurita was not willing to pay the same price and retired.

An account of Sprague's engagement with the enemy is said to have been the inspiration for the John Wayne movie In Harm's Way.

During an Army dinner shortly after the Battle of Leyte Gulf, Army officers belittled Halsey's name and decision. One officer said he was the only man capable of losing the war single-handedly. Suddenly, Douglas MacArthur pounded the table. "That's enough! Leave the Bull alone. He's still a fighting admiral in my book!"

Within months, Halsey's decisionmaking ability was again called into question. A Court of Inquiry was convened at Ulithi on Christmas Day 1944 to go over why Halsey had not moved his ships out of the way of Typhoon Cobra.

The storm struck the fleet off Luzon in the Philippine Sea in midDecember. Halsey failed to move his ships from the area. The admiral maintained his orders were to be in the position to support MacArthur's assault on the island of Mindoro; that he had not received the official report of the typhoon's route for 48-hrs.

The toll of the typhoon was considered a military secret so that the Japanese would not obtain a feel for the extent of the loss. Three destroyers had been sunk; Hull, Spence and Monaghan, along with the loss of 146 combat aircraft. Some 793 sailors had lost their lives besides damaging 37 warships. All due to Halsey insisting the task force maintain its position. A young officer named Gerald Ford led rescue efforts on the carrier Monterey when an explosion took place on the hangar deck. The disaster became the backdrop for Herman Wouk's classic The Caine Mutiny.

Admiral John Howard Hoover, leading the inquiry, felt Halsey should face court martial for sailing a fleet into a typhoon. Nimitz seemed to be in agreement stating the losses were "a totally unnecessary disaster." Yet, a court martial did not take place, Halsey was routinely relieved by Spruance the next month and the Third Fleet again became the Fifth Fleet.

The minutes and decision of the Court of Inquiry were ordered placed under seal for a 50-year period. Speculation has been that Nimitz and Roosevelt did not have Halsey removed from command for the sake of national morale. To most Americans and all bluejackets, Bull Halsey was still their hero.

Halsey assumed command again in late May 1945 and continued Spruance's pounding of Okinawa as well as raids on mainland Japan. Under Halsey, the Third Fleet finished off the last operational remnants of the Japanese Imperial Navy.

Once again though, Halsey became embroiled over a storm. This time he had ample warning of Typhoon Viper and took his fleet east trying to sidestep the storm. Viper was faster catching up with Halsey's force 300-mi southeast of Okinawa from 4 June through the 5 June 1945. This time he lost three destroyers, 76 fighter planes, and lives of six men and had 36 of his 48 ships damaged to some degree.

Roosevelt was dead and the Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal wanted Halsey and three other admirals such as "Slew" McCain to face court martial. Admiral Ernest King intervened for Halsey.

Admiral Halsey was present on the Missouri when Japan formally surrendered in Tokyo Bay on 2 September 1945. Four months later, he received his fifth star for the rank of Fleet Admiral. Congress bestowed upon Halsey the honor of his rank for life in April 1946. "My only fear is that the extra stripe is going to interfere with my drinking arm," responded the honored hero.

Halsey retired from active service to Charlottesville.Virginia, in 1947. Bored, he agreed to become vice president of the trans-Pacific service for Pan American World Airways.

In 1957, Halsey suffered a mild stroke while trying to raise funds to transform the battle-honored USS Enterprise (CV-6) into a Naval museum. He and his wife Frances traveled to California to visit his son who had married Nimitz's daughter. By now, the Bull was walking with a cane and suffering from cataracts. However, while in Los Angeles, he was able to visit actor James Cagney on the movie set for The Gallant Hours, a film focused on his exploits on Guadalcanal.

On 15 August 1959, he was back at Fishers Island, New York, near the Halsey ancestral home of Sag Harbor where he regularly walked through the surf before going to bed. When he did not come down for breakfast that morning, concerned family members went to his room to find that he had died in his sleep. The much-decorated, much-revered admiral was 76.

William Bull Halsey was buried in Arlington National Cemetery near the grave of his father.

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Source: Sea Classics

 

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