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J. ARNOLD, S. SINTON, illustrated by DARKO PAVLOVIC
Born in Elizabeth, New Jersey in 1882, the son of a naval captain, William "Bill" Halsey graduated from the US Naval Academy in 1904. After sailing with the global tour of the "Great White Fleet" from 1907-09, Halsey began a 23-year tour involving destroyers, escort duties, and torpedo warfare. In 1917, he commanded a destroyer based in Ireland. After the war, he served as a naval attache in various European capitals. By 1927, Halsey sensed that the navy's future would be closely associated with air power. A vision impairment prevented him from becoming a pilot. Halsey finally qualified as a naval aviator in 1935 at the age of 52. Meanwhile, he had graduated from both the Naval War College and the Army War College. He commanded the aircraft carrier Saratoga from 1935-37 and rose to rear admiral the next year. The outbreak of war found him the senior carrier captain in the Pacific.
The aggressive Halsey supported Nimitz's strategy calling for carrier raids against Japanese bases. Halsey led the first US offensive in the Pacific, an attack against Kwajalein on February 1, 1942. This attack, and ensuing raids in early 1942 against Marshall, Gilbert, Wake, and Marcus islands, caused little damage but provided useful experience for the carrier task forces. Halsey's task force launched the B-25s that raided Tokyo in April 1942. Halsey was in hospital with a skin infection during the Midway campaign. He recommended that Admiral Raymond Spruance replace him.
Halsey replaced Ghormley as commander of the South Pacific Theater in October 1942. When sailors learned about the change in command they cheered wildly. Halsey went to theater headquarters in New Caledonia where, in the words of one historian, he "swept through Noumea like a tornado." At this time, the supply line supporting the marines on Guadalcanal was badly clogged. Halsey's energy galvanized the support troops and encouraged hard-pressed marines and sailors. To the ground commander on Guadalcanal, General Alexander Vandegrift, Halsey said, "Go on back [to Guadalcanal]. I'll promise you everything I've got." Halsey was true to his word. He made numerous decisions that aggressively placed his major surface units and scarce carriers at risk in order to win the fight for Guadalcanal. In November, at a time when many doubted the wisdom of committing two new battleships to the narrow waters around Guadalcanal, Halsey sent Willis "Ching" Lee with the battleships to intercept a Japanese relief force. Halsey believed that "he must throw everything at this crisis." He also, wisely, relied upon his subordinates' initiative, in this case giving Lee complete tactical freedom of action. For his victories during the Guadalcanal campaign, Halsey received promotion to full admiral on November 26, 1942.
During discussions about how best to continue the offensive, Halsey met with MacArthur. To everyone's surprise - both men had mercurial temperaments - the two leaders got along well together. Halsey commanded the offensive against the Solomon Islands throughout 1943 and into 1944. The American advance through the Solomons triggered a Japanese counter-offensive in November 1948. To defend the Bougainville invasion force, Halsey ordered a carrier strike against Rabaul. Since the early hit-and-run raids in 1942, carriers had avoided attacking strongly defended Japanese bases. Halsey knew that Rabaul was one of the strongest Japanese bases in the Pacific. He boldly ordered the raid to proceed. He later remembered, "I sincerely expected both air groups to be cut to pieces and both carriers stricken if not lost. (I tried not to remember my son Bill was aboard one of them.)" In the event, the raid was a stunning success. It demonstrated the power of carrier task forces and paved the way for subsequent, far-ranging operations.
Admiral William Halsey was the most aggressive senior US naval commander of the war. A typical Halsey message was sent to his commanders in the Solomon Islands on October 26, 1942 at a time when the fate of Guadalcanal hung in the balance: "Attack - Repeat - Attack!" His message electrified his combat elements. He also inspired men throughout his command with his injunction to, "Kill Japs, Kill Japs, Kill More Japs!" These words, in letters two feet high, hung over the fleet landing at Tulagi, across the water from Guadalcanal. When Halsey became famous, newspapers corrupted "Bill" to "Bull" to capture his thrusting nature, but no one who knew Halsey personally ever called him that. Halsey's aggressive nature served him well until the invasion of Leyte, when he uncovered the invasion beaches as he led his carriers after a Japanese decoy force. He later wrote that when informed that Japanese battleships would soon be loose in Leyte Gulf, "There was nothing I could do except become angrier." (National Archives)
From the summer of 1944 on, Halsey and Spruance shared active command of the carrier task forces. The idea behind this notion was that each admiral and his staff would have time to rest and plan after a major operation but that the ships themselves would stay in action. Even though his fleet had grown tremendously, Halsey retained his improvisational command style. A staff officer observed that under Halsey "you never knew what you were going to do in the next five minutes or how you were going to do it, because the printed instructions were never up to date ... [Halsey] never did things the same way twice."
Successful carrier operations against the Philippines convinced Halsey to advocate an early invasion of Leyte. He did not expect the Japanese fleet to intercede against the October 1944 Leyte landing. He was wrong. When his scout planes located the Japanese carriers, he did not realize that these carriers were bait designed to lure his own carriers away from Leyte Gulf. Halsey gobbled up the bait but carelessly left the San Bernardino Strait unguarded, thereby allowing Japanese battleships to attack the invasion fleet. Arguments over Halsey's action continued for years but it is evident to most observers including, at the time. Admirals King and Nimitz, that Halsey had blundered. In 1944 Halsey's enormous popularity with both sailors and the public protected him from punishment and from possible relief. Halsey made another controversial decision when he sailed his fleet into the teeth of a terrific typhoon in December. Three destroyers sank, with the loss of 800 sailors. Many historians have roundly criticized Halsey's judgment and management during this storm. Halsey's fleet provided air cover for the Okinawa invasion during July and August 1945. His last combat command involved attacks against the Japanese home islands. The Japanese surrender occurred aboard Halsey's flagship, the battleship Missouri.
Halsey's dynamic leadership bolstered morale during the difficult early war months. His aggressive style usually paid enormous dividends. He was guilty of inefficient, sometimes careless, administration. In spite of these flaws, Halsey emerged from the war as a highly respected leader who attracted fierce loyalty from his men. Halsey died in 1959.