During World War II, Americans showered adulation on Douglas MacArthur, George S. Patton—and upon William F. Halsey Jr. Afterward, biographers flocked to chronicle the generals’ lives; less so the admiral’s. Now this stellar work, which seamlessly blends deep eesearch and shrewd analysis, emerges as the most complete and sophisticated Halsey portrait.
Hughes impresses immediately by debunking Halsey’s yarn of springing from a line of seafarers “prone to strong drink and strong language,” instead documenting the Halsey family tree’s generations of aristocratic landlubbers. Graduating from Annapolis in 1904, the young officer found a métier in destroyers; leadership skills he development aboard them shaped his later performance. However, acknowledging his subject’s glowing reputation as a destroyer officer, the author argues that only a late-career shift to aviation won Halsey flag rank. Hughes handles with great decency wife Frances’s descent into mental illness.
Hard after Pearl Harbor, Halsey’s aggressiveness secured the loyalty of new Pacific Fleet Commander Chester W. Nimitz and the affection of the press, which popularized his nickname, “Bull.” Hughes reveals that the ailment that beached Halsey on the eve of Midway was neither the first nor the last episode of significant skin disorders to afflict him. Halsey certainly deserves the fame he secured through inspirational leadership at Guadalcanal, a regard Hughes enhances by breaking important fresh ground on Halsey’s least appreciated service, as commander of the 1943-44 advance up the Solomons. In that campaign Halsey exhibited skill at multi-service relations, including maintaining an unexpectedly warm relationship with Douglas MacArthur. Hughes also flags missteps on that campaign, including several inept interactions with Marine Corps generals.
Named Third Fleet commander in August 1944, Halsey daringly proposed a thrust at Leyte; ironically, the ensuing Battle of Leyte Gulf blighted his reputation. Hughes assigns blame in rational increments for
Halsey’s blunder in leaving the enemy a path to close on Leyte Gulf. Misadventures with typhoons in December 1944 and June 1945 also tarred his record, but public favor deflected a recommendation after the latter to relieve him of command. Halsey received the last of the navy’s appointments to five-star rank. In retirement, when a little
contrition might have tempered historians’ attitudes toward him, he kept up an ill-advised defense of his actions at Leyte. Hughes adds nuance to the
latter-day Bull with revelations about late-life observations that contrast with his image and prior opinions.
Biographers recently have illuminated the careers in the European theater of Walter Bedell Smith, Jacob Devers, and other senior American officers. We should hope Hughes’ effort inspires similar authorial interest in the war’s much neglected American naval leaders.
—Richard B. Frank, the author of Down- fall: The End of the Imperial Japanese Empire, is at work on a three-volume
history of the Pacific War