Halsey in the Dock

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?

20 Responses

  1. Adam Rinkleff

    But without Halsey, the Caine Mutiny would never have had its climatic typhoon scene!

    Reply
  2. Rob Citino

    Future installment on the blog: “The Strawberries.”

    Reply
  3. Bill Murray

    I think you do a great diservice in this article pinning the near disaster at Leyte Gulf on Adm. Halsey. A numbers of errors were made during this battle that contributed to Taffy 3’s fight for their lives.
    – No single commander of the entire operation, one had to go back to the President before you find the joint commander for MacArthurs invasion force and Halsey’s covering force.
    -Orders issued by Nimitz’s staff to Halsey that gave him freedom of action to persue the Japanese carrier fleet if the opportunity presented itself. These orders were specifically included for Halsey because of a percieved belief that Spruance had not been offensive enough in the Phillipine Sea battle.
    -Kinkaid’s misreading of Halsey’s communication (which he had not been an addressee of anyway) that stated Halsey’s intention to form TF34. The formation of this group was made however no order was ever given to detach this group. Kinkaid counted on a force being present that he had never formally been told was there.
    -Halsey did in fact attempt earlier to send aid to Taffy 3 in the form Adm. McCain and TG38.1 which was to belay orders to fuel and strike Kurita’s center force. Halsey’s mistake here would have been in his not also immediately detaching TF34 at this time to block the escape of Kurita.

    For the typhoons yes, the blame falls predominently on Halsey for his judgement. For Leyte Gulf, by far others involved were just as culpable for the near disaster as was Halsey.

    Reply
    • James Duffy

      Mr. Murray – I have been searching for a copy of the orders giving the freedom you describe to Halsey with no luck. Do you know where I can locate a copy? My email is jp@duffy.net. Thanks

      Reply
      • clint

        operational plan 8-44 Nimitz to Halsey over Leyte

        Halsey did not have a permission; he had an order.
        Google “operational plan 8-44.” You will find several comments and sources.

  4. Adam Rinkleff

    Should Halsey be criticized for his actions at (or rather, not at) Leyte? The world wonders…

    Reply
  5. Gunner

    Halsey has been criticized that is why you don’t here vry much about him. It was a monumental bad decision on his part to take the bait. Three Stars means you weigh your decisions and not let emotions take over. He was the Patton of the Pacific.

    Reply
  6. Greg Eddy

    Halsey should have been put on a shorter leash before any of his”mistakes” were made. Nimitz knew him well enough to know that he needed at least some controls.

    Reply
  7. Dennis Largess

    My dad, who was then the Senior Watch Officer on the Yorktown (CV10) saw Bill Halsey a number of times as he visited the ships of his command.
    During the second typhoon, the Hornet and Task Group one were badly knocked about. Admiral Jocko Clark had to stand a court martial for the damage to his Task Group.
    He did not trust Halsey because of the way Marc Mitscher was pushed aside by the admiral and his staff. So as the storm approached, and the admiral ignored it, Clark had his staff document all transmissions and take photos of the radar returns.
    Introducing this material in the courtmartial, Halsey could give no explanation of why he refused to allow Clark’s Task Group to maneuver. Clark was totally exonerated.
    Later, when asked by the Yorktown’s XO why it happened, Clark replied, “That old man was so tired.”

    Reply
  8. Dennis Largess

    In discussing this with my father, who was on Yorktown, he mentioned a sea story from the Fast Carriers.
    At one point in the last days of the war, Halsey was leading the Fleet up and down the Japanese mainland.
    One destroyer was refueling from New Jersey, his flagship, when the admiral strode out to the wing of the bridge and yelled to the destroyer’s captain, “Sheer off, coxswain! I’ve got bandits coming in.” Meaning

    Reply
  9. Dennis Largess

    Sorry, hit the wrong button. To continue,
    Admiral Halsey meant to stop the refueling and for the destroyer to pull off, so if Japanese planes attacked the two ships wouldn’t be sitting ducks.
    However, the way he said it by addressing the ship’s captain as “Coxswain” was an insult. In the old navy, that was the commander of a ship’s longboat.
    The DD’s captain got angry and turned around away from the New Jersey and started cursing, “That goddamn old, blankety-blankd so and so…”
    Ran on for about a minute and then noticed all his bridge crew staring at him in horror. He looked back to the battleship bridge and Halsey was glaring at him, looking like he was going to leap over the gap.
    By a trick of the wind, his tirade had carried over to the admiral.
    Scowling fiercely, he yelled back, “How DARE you call me old!”

    Bill Halsey never did trust the Japanese. On receiving the information that the war was over, he sent a message to the fleet.
    “Cease Firing. The war is over.
    But if any Japanese planes fly over, shoot them down in a friendly manner.”

    Reply
  10. Sapper

    Admiral Halsey was an American.The right man in the right place at the right time.He set the standard for the US Navy early in the war,sure he wasnt perfect,but how many Battles did he lose?Leadership is not all calculation,you have to have the fire in the belly as well!

    Reply
  11. Eddie Crutchfield

    Halsey is by far, not my favorite admiral of the Pacific war. that being said he was from 1942 to mid 1943 what was needed in the south pacific. It was his drive to keep the pressure on the Japanese with limited resources that resulted in a war of attrition that weakened the Japanese navy to a point that it was really unable to defend against the attacks of late 1943 and into 1944. From 1944 he seems to have lost touch with the changes in carrier warfare, especially from the US perspective. Attacking first while still desirable was not as important as it one was. the US carrier forces had developed a defense, based on improved tactics, technology and pilots that would make the fleet extremely difficullt to attack. Halsey seemed not to see that change. Nor did the Japanese. I think it was Hughes, in Fleet Tactics that pointed out this change, and that Spruance seemed to instinctively see it. I wonder about instinctively, or was it more it fit into his style and his mission goals in most cases.

    Reply
  12. Chuck

    Hey, we won the war, didn’t we!
    Leave the old man alone…

    Reply
  13. john clements

    it was once said of admiral king,”king deserved the highest medal,the iron cross” such was the sad effect of Halseys mistakes in the pacific theater.. we were fortunate to win the war in spite of these two. as a member of a family that lost dear relatives because of the “bull” im sorry they didnt court martial the pair!!

    Reply
  14. Dave P.

    Facts of Halsey at Samar:
    – He was the only one guarding the straight.
    – A very large IJN formation had tried to use that straight earlier.
    – When he left, he left not so much as a sailor in rubber dingy w/ a radio to watch the straight.

    When you recklessly put that many men’s lives at risk (Taffy1, Taffy2, the invasion beachhead, not just Taffy3), I would court martial the hard-headed, miserable SOB.

    Reply
  15. Sean Mc.

    Admiral Halsey was my fathers great uncle. He and the other great admirials and Generals got us to Tokyo Bay. There has been alot of compairison over WWII Iraq and Afghanistan. If we had Halsey, Nimitz, McArthur, Patton, Eisenhower, and Bradley, and let them kill the enemy, that war would have lasted about 36 minutes.

    Reply
  16. Cory Attra

    War is planned chaos. It’s not a perfect world and casualties happen. Admiral Halsey’s move on the carriers was not impetuous but it was a move on bad intel. You have to act on intel, good or bad, or you would not act at all. Using storms is a natural disguise to ship movements and a tactic used throughout history. Our strengths are our weaknesses and if we critique Admiral Halsey, he was a stubborn warrior with a lot of courage. Thats going to leave a bloody trail in combat, but its a trail. This was at a time when most of Admiral Halsey’s running mates were more concerned with making mistakes that could potentially tarnish their post-war careers than being the spearhead that actually wins the war.

    Reply

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