Monday, August 31, 2009

Admiral Halsey - Much More Than a Song From a Former Beatle

Last week, while meeting with my collaborator, I mentioned Admiral Halsey. To which my young friend inquired, “Wasn’t he a British admiral?” I almost choked on my latte. When I informed him that Admiral Halsey was a great American admiral, he asked, “If he wasn’t British, why did Paul McCartney mention him in the song ‘Hands Across the Water?’”

Oh, Jesus Christ and General Jackson. Pardon me for using Admiral Halsey’s favorite expression.

William Halsey graduated from Annapolis in 1904 and spent more than three and a half decades to fight what turned out to be a war with Japan. In some respects, his record was similar to Churchill’s. He made some operational errors, but as an inspirational leader, he had no equal. On the evening of December seventh, 1941, he was on board the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise as it entered Pearl Harbor, just hours after the devastating Japanese surprise attack. Everywhere, Americans were shocked that we’d lost 2,000 men and so many ships had been severely damaged. Halsey looked at the burning wreckage and said, “When we get done out here, Japanese will be spoken only in Hell.”

From that day forward, Halsey was eager to take the fight to the enemy, even with the skimpiest of resources. He was the commander of the Naval task force that launched the Doolittle raid against Tokyo in April, 1942. A few months later, he had the bad fortune to be seriously ill with dermatitis. It was so severe that he had a lengthy stint in the hospital, causing him to miss the Battle of Midway: a lifelong regret.

When Halsey finally left the hospital, Admiral Nimitz, commander of the Pacific fleet, invited him to a game of horseshoes. It was not merely a social call. Nimitz watched carefully to see if Halsey’s hands were steady. Apparently, they were. In October of 1944, Nimitz sent Halsey to command the Allied forces defending Guadalcanal. That proved to be an inspired choice.

I’ve read memoirs of men who served on Guadalcanal who relate that when the news arrived that Halsey was running the show, soldiers, sailors and Seabees alike were cheering and jumping for joy. In one carrier battle, Halsey’s flagship took a near-miss that literally knocked Halsey off his feet. When he struggled to regain his footing, Halsey was a bit unsteady because of his shaking legs. A young seaman a few feet away was trying to keep from snickering. Halsey demanded to know what the sailor’s rating was. Upon learning that he was a yeoman second class, Halsey replied, “Not anymore. Any man brave enough to be laughing at me when I’m a little shaky deserves a promotion. You’re yeoman first class.”

Critics can point out the errors Halsey made, especially at the Battle of Leyte Gulf. He was found responsible on two occasions when the Third Fleet was unable to avoid a monsoon. The most important thing about Halsey’s leadership is that he was completely confident of success and he imbued the whole Pacific Fleet with that confidence.

One apocryphal story has it that when his intelligence officer informed him that they’d intercepted a Japanese radio transmission from headquarters to a reconnaissance unit inquiring about the location of the American fleet, Halsey was held to have said, “Send them our location.”

Perhaps Halsey’s most inspired bit of psychological warfare took place when a newspaper reporter asked him if his aircraft were going to bomb the Imperial Palace. Halsey knew perfectly well that it was American policy not to target the Imperial Palace. However, he did manage to say something calculated to completely enrage every Japanese Army and Navy officer throughout the rapidly shrinking Japanese Empire.

This brought many laughs from the assembled reporters and, no doubt, howls of outrage from the Japanese. Furthermore, it later caused dismay for the mail clerks on Halsey’s ship. A few weeks after Halsey’s declaration, the mail clerks were dumbfounded when Halsey began receiving large numbers of bulky packages. Upon opening them, Halsey’s staff was flabbergasted to discover that their boss now had a collection of saddles, bridles, riding crops and spurs big enough to outfit a whole league of polo players.

In the immediate aftermath of V-J Day, Admiral Nimitz sent Halsey a message to pipe down on the insulting remarks. While they may have been useful in wartime, they were counterproductive in a time of peace.

Somewhat to Halsey’s chagrin, the pool of reporters did insist on photographic him riding a white horse. (Alas, not Hirohito’s mount.) Since Halsey was past sixty at the time, he was not going to enter any steeplechase events.

My favorite Halsey story is perhaps apocryphal. The story goes that, immediately after receiving word of the Japanese surrender, one of his staff officers saw Halsey sitting in the Officer’s chair of his flagship, the USS New Jersey with tears running down his cheeks. Halsey commented softly, “Thank God I am never going to have to send another young man to his death.”

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