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Halsey, William Frederick, Jr. (1882-1959)


Photograph of Admiral William Halsey

Naval Historical Center #NH 95552

William F. Halsey, Jr., was born in New Jersey to a Navy family and graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1904, standing 43rd in a class of 62. He sailed with the "Great White Fleet", commanded a destroyer, participated in the Vera Cruz expedition, and received a Navy Cross in the Atlantic during World War I. Between 1921 and 1924 he served as naval attaché in Germany and several other countries before returning to command destroyers and serve on battleships. He was a graduate of both the Army and Navy War Colleges:

... stimulating because of the instruction, the exchange of ideas, the chance to test your pet theories on the game board, and the opportunity to read up on professional publications.

Halsey was already a captain when he took flight training in 1935, motivated by a law passed by Congress that reserved carrier and naval air station command to qualified aviators. He was orignally enrolled as an observer, but somehow wangled his way into pilot training.

With his aviator qualifications and prior command experience, it is unsurprising that Halsey was given command of the Saratoga, then two carrier divisions and the Pensacola naval air station, before becoming commander of Aircraft, Battle Force, Pacific Fleet, in 1941. He was bringing Task Force 8, the Enterprise task force, back to Pearl Harbor on December 7, and was actually scheduled to be in port that morning. Foul weather delayed the force’s arrival and saved the Enterprise from the disaster. Halsey subsequently received high ratings from the secret ad hoc selection board convened by Navy Secretary Knox in March 1942, and he went on to become the most senior navy commander in the Pacific after Nimitz, participating in most of the early naval actions of the war. The prominent exception was Midway, which he missed because he was suffering severe dermatitis possibly brought on by nervous stress.

Nimitz asked Halsey to recommend his own replacement, and Halsey made the surprising recommendation of his task force's cruiser commander, Raymond Spruance, who had no aviation experience. However, Spruance had a reputation as as a cool, adaptable, intellectual officer, and he was slated to become Nimitz' chief of staff following the battle. Spruance was assisted by the brilliant but erratic Captain Miles Browning, Halsey's chief of staff. This did not work out well. "Halsey had the facility of taking the best advice of Browning and overruling him when his own judgement came into conflict", and he was sorely missed at the battle. Spruance's inexperience left him little choice but to let Browning run the air show, and Browning "did a terrible job" (Lundstrom 2006). However, Spruance was probably a better choice than the likely alternative.

Halsey had recovered from his dermatitis and was on an inspection tour of the South Pacific Area, in preparation for resuming command of carrier forces, when morale at Guadalcanal reached its low ebb in October 1942. Nimitz decided that Ghormley had to be relieved, and Halsey was the obvious choice to replace him. King concurred, and Halsey was handed the relief orders when he landed at Noumea. His response was "Jesus Christ and General Jackson. This is the hottest potato they ever handed me." However, he injected a new measure of determination into the men under his command. One intelligence officer described the reaction to the news that Halsey had relieved Ghormley (Tuohey 2006):

I'll never forget it! One minute we were too limp with malaria to crawl out of our foxholes; the next we were running around whooping like kids.

His leadership during the Guadalcanal campaign was probably Halsey's greatest contribution to the Allied victory.

By June 1944 Rabaul had been isolated and neutralized and the South Pacific Area was rapidly becoming a secondary theater. By this time, Halsey had become the darling of the press, who nicknamed him "Bull."  (His friends always called him "Bill.") It was unthinkable that he should simply fade away. Nimitz recognized this fact, but he wanted Spruance to lead the Big Blue Fleet (as it was informally called) of fast carriers and battleships now coming off the ways of the nation's shipyards. Nimitz came up with a compromise that might never have worked had not Halsey and Spruance been close friends: The two men alternated command of the Big Blue Fleet. It was designated as  3 Fleet when Halsey was in command and as 5 Fleet when Spruance commanded. This command arrangement allowed one commander and his staff to carry out combat operations while the other commander and his staff was ashore planning the next operation in meticulous detail. Halsey continued in command of 3 Fleet for the remainder of the war.

Flamboyant, vulgar, aggressive, and spectacularly ugly, Halsey was unquestionably the most colorful American naval leader of the war. But he also had his faults. His virulent hatred for the Japanese further poisoned an already bitter conflict. He was bold to the point of rashness. Nimitz once said that when he sent Spruance out in command of the fleet, "he was always sure he would bring it home; when he sent Halsey out, he did not know precisely what was going to happen." Halsey was by no means an intellectual and was notoriously sloppy with staff work. He selected intelligent staff officers and relied on them to make important decisions, but his staff included men like Browning, whose brilliance was exceeded by his instability. Most common sailors were proud to serve under Halsey; most higher-ranking officers preferred to serve under Spruance. Captain George Dyer said of the two leaders (Tuohy 2007):

My feeling was one of confidence when Spruance was there. When you moved into Admiral Spruance's command from Admiral Halsey's ... you moved from an area in which 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.... He never did things the same way twice. When you moved into Admiral Spruance's command, the printed instructions were up to date, and you did things in accordance with them.

The two leaders could not have contrasted more in personality and style, notwithstanding their close friendship.

Halsey does not seem to started out recklessly bold. Tuohy (2007) quotes a conversation during the the early raid on Kwajalein:

After his third strike, one Big E flight leader reported to the flag bridge and said impertinently, "Admiral, don't you think it's about time we got the hell out of here?"

"My boy," Halsey replied, "I've been thinking the same thing myself." So was formed the exclusive club called "Haul Ass with Halsey!"

Halsey's later rashness may have reflected a psychological need to live up to an unrealistic public image, a problem that bedeviled a number of otherwise competent officers and men during the Second World War. Ironically, while Halsey acted rashly at Leyte Gulf, Spruance may have been overly cautious during the Marianas campaign. It has been observed that perhaps Halsey should have been in command in the Marianas and Spruance at Leyte. However, both battles ended as decisive American victories.

Halsey was nearly relieved of command after twice sailing 3 Fleet into the path of a typhoon late in the war. He was likely spared only because he was a national hero. Many senior Navy officers privately felt that the findings of the Board of Inquiry confirmed what they had long suspected: Halsey was an inspiring carrier task group commander in the early days of the war, but during his time ashore commanding South Pacific Area the war had outgrown him, and he was simply not up to managing an organization as large and diverse as 3 Fleet had become. One aviator expressed a common perception (quoted in Tillman 2010):

Halsey is going wild on publicity and we are all fed [up] to the teeth listening to all the crap he is putting out.... Halsey is a big disappointment to me as he is to most of us.

Halsey had no known hobbies or interests other than the sea. Ashore, he seemed out of his element. His marriage was dysfunctional, and his wife once waspishly said to him, "If a man has a nervous wife he wants to get rid of, all he has to do is send for you. Five minutes after you've come in, bumping into sofas and knocking over chairs, she'll be dead of heart failure."

Halsey retired as a fleet admiral after the war and went into business. His battle to preserve Enterprise as a war memorial was in vain. It was a regrettable defeat, as the Enterprise was one of the most celebrated and successful warships in the history of the U.S. Navy.

Service record

1882-10-30     

Born  in Elizabeth, New Jersey
1904-2
Midshipman
Graduates from Naval Academy (43rd in a class of 62). Assigned to BB Missouri
1906-2-2
Ensign

1907

BB Kansas
1909-2-2
Lieutenant (junior grade)     

1909-2-2
Lieutenant
Commander, DD DuPont
1911

Commander, DD Lamson
1913

Commander, DD Flusser
1915

Commander, DD Jarvis
1915

Executive Department, Naval Academy
1916-8-29
Lieutenant commander     

1918

Commander, DD Benham
1918-2-1
Commander
Commander, Destroyer Division 32
1920-10

Commander, Destroyer Division 15
1922-10

Naval attache, Germany
1927-2-10
Captain
Executive officer, BB Wyoming
1928

Commander, Reina Mercedes
1930

Commander, Destroyer Division 3
1932

Naval War College
1934

Flight training, Pensacola Naval Air Station
1935

Commander, Saratoga
1937

Commander, Pensacola Naval Air Station
1938-3-1
Rear admiral     
1938-6     

Commander, Carrier Division 2
1939

Commander, Carrier Division 1
1940-6-3
Vice admiral
Commander, Aircraft, Battle Force, Pacific Fleet
1942-4-10

Commander, Carriers, Pacific Fleet
1942-7-11

Medical leave
1942-10-18     

Commander, South Pacific Area
1942-11-26
Admiral

1944-6-14

Commander, 3 Fleet
1945-11-22

Navy General Staff
1945-12-11
Fleet Admiral

1947-3-1

Retires
1959-8-16

Dies at Fishers Island Country Club

Photo Gallery

Photograph of Halsey in 1944
NARA
Photograph of Halsey reading
NARA
Photograph of Halsey postwar
NARA
Photograph of Halsey during a shipboard conference

U.S. Army


References

Boatner (1996)

Dupuy et.al. (1992)

Frank (2011; accessed 2012-6-16)

Naval Historical Center (accessed 2008-1-17)
Pettibone (2006)

Potter (1985)

Tillman (2010)
Tuohy (2007)



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