Halsey in the Dock

By Robert M. Citino
9/20/2009 • Battle Of Wake Island, Fire for Effect, Pearl Harbor

During World War II, Americans liked their military heroes to be tough talkers–and no one did it better than Admiral William F. (“Bull”) Halsey.

From the start of the Pacific War to the end, from Pearl Harbor to Tokyo Bay, the Bull was the ultimate quote machine, a reporter’s dream.  His response to Pearl Harbor was pithy enough:  “When we’re through with them,” he growled, surveying the wreckage of the U.S. Pacific Fleet on December 8th, 1941, “the Japanese language will be spoken only in hell.”  During those awful early months, when one western bastion after another was falling to the Japanese, Halsey remained defiant.  His view of the war was fairly easy to summarize:  the U.S. had to find a way to “Kill Japs! Kill Japs! Kill more Japs!”  And indeed, talk of “killing Japs” and “dead Japs” fills an inordinate amount of space in a list of his most famous quotations.

But let’s give his Halsey his due.  He was more than a talker.  He was a “do-er” and a fighter at a time when the nation seemed paralyzed, and the U.S. Navy wasn’t even sure what it was supposed to be “doing.”  Halsey spearheaded what early response there was to Pearl Harbor:  hit and run raids on the Gilbert and Marshall islands in February, 1942, and on Wake island in March; command of the “Doolittle Raid” (to many at the time, the “Doolittle-Halsey Raid”) in April, center stage for those tough naval battles off Guadalcanal in the fall.  To an American public looking for heroes in a dark time, Halsey was the man.  A fortuitous typo by a reporter even turned “Bill” Halsey into “Bull,” and a legend was born.

Unquestionably a hero–at least that’s how the U.S. public saw him.  And yet, who can deny that the very qualities that made him a hero also amounted to his undoing?  Sure, war requires killing, but it also requires thought, a cold eye, and careful planning.  Such qualities were not always high on Halsey’s list of priorities.  The battle of Leyte Gulf is the classic example, where he abandoned his post at the San Bernardino Strait to chase down a force of Japanese carriers deliberately dangled as a decoy.  If it wasn’t for those brave “tin can sailors” manning the escort carriers of “Taffy 3,” the Japanese might well have smashed the U.S. invasion force off Leyte.  That was bad enough of course, but even worse was his deliberate hesitation to admit error and return when summoned by Admiral Chester Nimitz, a result of a message that looked to Halsey like it was framed in insulting terms.  Indeed, he didn’t even RESPOND to the message for an hour, while Taffy 3 fought for its life.  And then there was the great typhoon of December 1944, with Halsey ignoring the warnings and continuing operations in the face of worsening weather conditions.  Three destroyers capsized and 790 U.S. sailors paid with their lives.

Suffice it to say that Halsey was, and always will be, controversial.  So here’s your chance to weigh in.  The Bull:  thumbs up or thumbs down?

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