Fleet Admiral William Frederick Halsey, Jr., no doubt, is one of the top US Navy Admirals of World War II. Halsey was born on October 30, 1882. After attending Pingry School, he waited two years for an appointment to the US Naval Academy. Eventually, he chose to attend the University of Virginia and study medicine. He planned to join the US Navy upon graduation as a physician. During Halsey’s first year at the University, he received an appointment to the US Naval Academy, which he entered in the Fall of 1900.
Upon his graduation from the Academy in 1904, William Halsey spent time on various battleships. From 1907 to 1909, he sailed aboard the battleship Missouri as it sailed throughout the world. He then began serving on torpedo boats, which eventually – along with torpedoes - became a specialty of Halsey’s. He received a rare promotion from Ensign to full Lieutenant – bypassing the rank of Lieutenant. Halsey went on to command the 1st Group of the Atlantic Fleet’s Torpedo Flotilla from 1912 to 1913 and then on to several other torpedo boats and destroyers throughout the 1910s and 20s. During WWI, Lt. Commander Halsey served as commander of the USS Shaw (1918). He received the Navy Cross as a result of his distinguished service.
Below is a list of Halsey’s service during the interwar years:
- October, 1922: Naval Attache at the American Embassy in Berlin, Germany
- 1923: Received additional duties as Naval Attache at the American Embassies in Christiana, Norway; Copenhagen, Denmark; and Stockholm, Sweden
- After his Naval Attache duties were completed, Halsey returned to sea duties commanding the USS Dale and USS Osborne
- 1927: He serves on year as the Executive Officer of the USS Wyoming (battleship)
- The following three years, Halsey commands the USS Reina Mercedes
- 1930: Captain Halsey spends the next two years as Commander Destroyer Division Three of the Scouting Force and then returns to the Naval War College for additional studies.
- 1934: Navy Admiral King offers Halsey command of the USS Saratoga upon completion of the air observer course. Instead, Captain Halsey enrolls as a cadet and signs up for the full 12 week Naval Aviator course earning his Naval Aviator’s Wings on May 15, 1935 at age 52 making him the oldest man in Navy history to have done so.
- 1935: Upon graduation, Halsey commands the USS Saratoga and then eventually the Naval Air Station in Pensacola, FL. He was a strong proponent for the importance of airpower and aviation in a war situation.
World War II
Halsey’s first command of the war was aboard the USS Enterprise. The Enterprise was to be used to carry aircraft from Pearl Harbor to Wake Island, an area suspected of being a target of a surprise attack by the Japanese. On December 2nd in the wake of a sighting, Halsey gave orders to sink any ship that was sited and to shoot down an aircraft that were spotted. His operations officer vehemently opposed this position telling Halsey ‘(you) cannot start a private war of your own’. Halsey rebuked stating he would basically take down anything that got in his way and worry about defending his actions later.
On her return trip, she was delayed by a storm. She was notified on December 6th that the surprise attack was in fact not planned for Wake Island, but Pearl Harbor. The Enterprise received news of the attack from a radio transmission from an aircraft that was sent forward to Pearl Harbor. Attempting to identify itself as American was futile as the aircraft was shot down in the midst of the confusion and the pilot and crew perished. The USS Enterprise searched throughout the Pacific but was unsuccessful in locating Japan’s carriers.
On the evening of December 8th, the USS Enterprise returned to Pearl Harbor. Halsey took note of the catastrophic damage which may have served as a catalyst for the demanding leader he became. His energetic spirit would invigorate the men’s spirit even in their most desperate hours. As the Allies struggled, Halsey decided to take the fight to the enemy. At this time, he was still aboard the USS Enterprise, but was also commander of the Carrier Division 2.
He instigated a sequence of hit-and-run raids against the Japanese. These raids included both Gilbert and Marshall Island (February), Wake Island (March), and then the infamous Doolittle Raid (April), which targeted the Japanese homeland. His phrase ‘hit hard, hit fast, hit often’ was embodied by the entire Navy.
When Halsey returned to the United States in May, his health was suffering. Having spent six months of the bridge of the USS Enterprise heading up numerous counterstrikes had taken its toll. Suffering from a debilitating chronic skin condition, he was ordered ashore. After a week in the hospital and two months recovery time, Halsey received and accepted an invitation to speak at the Naval Academy in Annapolis. At the beginning of his speech, Halsey expressed his grave disappointment in being unable to participate in the Battle of Midway. He went on further to proclaim he would basically make up for this by returning to the Pacific and revel in the opportunity to personally ‘take a crack’ at the Japanese and their carriers.
South Pacific Command
When Halsey received medical clearance to return to duty, he was given command of a carrier task force in the South Pacific region. While the ships were being prepared for the journey, Halsey made a trip to the headquarters in New Caledonia to familiarize himself with the area. At the same time, the situation at Guadalcanal began to deteriorate. The Marines fighting on the island were barely holding on and the naval support was fragile at best. Pacific Fleet commander Nimitz felt at this point Vice Admiral Ghormley was both disheartened and exhausted. Nimitz decided – as Halsey was en route – to replace Ghormley with Halsey. When Halsey arrived, prior to boarding the flagship, he was handed a sealed envelope which contained his orders from Nimitz to “take command of the South Pacific Forces immediately”.
Halsey was taken by surprise especially since Ghormley had been a long-time personal friend. Both men were able to set any discomfort aside though and carry out their commands. Halsey would now have charge over all the South Pacific, which included ground forces and air forces as well as sea. The new command energized Halsey who began to immediately assess the situation in the area so he could determine what further actions would be required.
Like Ghormley, Halsey had no intention of withdrawing the Marine troops. But unlike Ghormley, who considered leaving them trapped, Halsey proceeded to devise a plan to secure the island. He intended to regain the edge by taking the fight to the Japanese.
Though the naval forces were limited Halsey committed to and saw them through a number of battles around Guadalcanal. His decision to commit two of his fastest battleships to confined waters off Guadalcanal for an evening battle ultimately led to the naval battle victory of Guadalcanal. It was a turning point for the South Pacific campaign.
In mid-1943, the South Pacific Command was anticipating additional air support they were to receive. The plan was to use the additional support for their next offensive. However, upon their arrival, they received new orders – return stateside. Upon return, they were to break up and the pilots were to become instructor and begin training new pilots. This tactic required a much deeper look at what was necessary to win the war, but not everyone agreed. Some felt this would put the US Navy on the defense, but Halsey insisted that he only needed was one plane and one pilot to stay on the offensive.
For the balance of 1943, Halsey and his forces battled their way up the Solomon Island chain. When they reached Bouganville, rather than land near one of the four Japanese airfields, Halsey instead landed 14,000 marines up the west coast of Bouganville. In this area, he had Seabees clear out debris and actually build an airfield.
Two days later, a nighttime engagement was imminent. Halsey sent one large cruiser force down to Rabaul. The Japanese however, had conserved their naval power and had a much heavier force which consisted of seven heavy cruisers, one light cruiser and four destroyers. Halsey could not match their strength. Despite the danger it would present to two nearby carrier airgroups (the Saratoga and the Princeton), Halsey ordered them to travel through the night in an effort to get within range of Rabaul so they could launch at raid at daybreak. In addition to all the aircraft on these two carriers being committed to the actual raid, recently captured aircraft were also sent in to offer combat air patrol above the carriers. In addition to the Japanese forces, Rabaul was heavily safeguarded due to their five airfields. The area also had a multitude of anti-aircraft batteries. Other than the surprise attack at Pearl Harbor, no mission was ever successful against such an extensive force using only an aircraft carrier. Incredibly enough, the mission was a success. The cruisers at Rabaul were extensively damaged and no longer threatened the US forces. US aircraft loss was minimal. Halsey admitted it was one of the most desperate emergencies that he faced during his entire term Commander of the South Pacific. After this operation, Halsey was able to isolate and neutralize Japan’s stronghold on Rabaul ending major operations in the South Pacific Command.
Later in 1943 and on into 1944, US ships, aircraft and crews began to arrive and the tide of the war began to shift in favor of the Allies.
The war in the South Pacific progressed to the Central Pacific and Admiral Halsey’s command followed as well. In May of 1944, Halsey was promoted to commanding officer of the Third Fleet commanding actions from the Philippines to Japan. He continued into January of 1945 leading a number of successful campaigns. As they established forward operating ports, it allowed the fleets to remain at sea for longer periods of time and continued to dominate any region they entered.
Eventually, the fleet was staggered – some operating under Raymond Spruance and some under Halsey. In general, the common sailors were proud to serve under Halsey, who was the aggressive risk taker. But the higher ranked officers preferred Spruance’s calculating, professional and cautious approach.
In October of 1944, Halsey and his Third Fleet were assigned backup for the US Seventh Fleet, who had received orders from General MacArthur regarding various landings on the Central Philippine’s island of Leyte. The Japanese responded in what would be their final major naval attempt in Operation Sho-Go. The Japanese would engage their 7 battleships and 16 cruisers in an attempt to attack the invasion shipping and lure the US from the Gulf. What ensued was the Battle for Leyte Gulf, which was not only the largest Naval battle of WWII, but by some standards was the largest in history. It was also the first time the Japanese engaged ‘kamikaze’ attacks. Despite their best efforts and new tactics, the Japanese were unsuccessful in meeting their objectives and suffered devastating losses.
After the Battle of Leyte Gulf, Halsey continued to lead the Third Fleet throughout the remainder of the war. They struck targets on Japanese homeland, conducted attacks on Tokyo and participated in the assaults on a number of Japan’s coastal cities. These assaults were part of the US Navy’s preparation for invading Japan, a plan which ultimately did not need to be carried out.
Admiral Halsey was on board the USS Missouri when the Japanese signed the papers officially surrendering on September 2, 1945.
After the War
After the final surrender, Halsey and 54 of his ships from the Third Fleet returned to the U.S. In November of that same year, he was assigned to the office of the Secretary of the Navy. And on December 11 1945, Halsey was promoted to Fleet Admiral. He was the fourth and the last officer to hold this rank. He covered close to 28,000 miles on a good will tour throughout Central and South America prior to his retirement in March of 1947. However, given his status as Fleet Admiral, William Frederick Halsey was not formally taken off active duty status.