Key Point: “I’m so Proud of You Men, I Could Cry”
Just before dawn, the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise turned into the wind to launch her planes. Nervous and excited pilots roared into the darkness of the vast Pacific toward the unsuspecting Japanese. The “Big E” would repeat this scene many times during the war, but this morning, January 31, 1942, in the Marshall Islands was the first time since Pearl Harbor that an American surface vessel had struck an offensive blow.
On the flag bridge, watching the planes disappear into the gloom, stood Rear Admiral William F. Halsey, overall commander of the U.S. Navy’s Task Force 16. He would still be on the bridge, chain smoking and chewing his nails, when the last pilot returned in the early afternoon. Then he turned tail and raced back to Hawaii. Angry Japanese bombers pursued him ineffectually until dark.
The quick strike and rapid withdrawal became Halsey’s trademark in the early days of the war. Delighted sailors called his hurried retreats, “Hauling ass with Halsey.” Halsey struck again on February 23, this time against Wake Island, and again on March 4 at Marcus Island (Minami-Torishima), just 900 miles from Japan.
For his encore in April, Halsey would command the naval force that carried Colonel Jimmy Doolittle’s strike group for their attack against Tokyo. When the Doolittle task force was discovered, it was Halsey who made the decision to launch the planes early.
None of these raids inflicted heavy damage on the enemy, but the American public did not care. Their Navy was at last doing something to avenge the dastardly attack on Pearl Harbor. The raids were particularly satisfying to Halsey. On that infamous December 7, 1941, he had been aboard the Enterprise returning to Pearl from a mission to deliver fighter planes to Wake Island.
The little task force was due back at its Hawaiian berth by Sunday at 7:30 am, but foul weather held it up and saved the precious carrier from the fate inflicted on Battleship Row.
“I’m so Proud of You Men, I Could Cry”
News of the deliberate and unprovoked attack reached Halsey at sea that morning. While the bombs still fell, Admiral Husband E. Kimmel, commanding at Pearl Harbor, ordered all ships then at sea to rally to Halsey’s task force. For the next few days Halsey was in operational command of what remained of the Pacific Fleet.
Americans, starved for good news, embraced the fighting admiral as a hero. He embodied the spirit of the aggressive naval commander, fearless and determined and a little rough around the edges. He was also a little sentimental. He once replied to an ovation from the crew of Enterprise by saying, “I’m so proud of you men, I could cry.”
The public soon learned that the admiral was born on October 30, 1882, in Elizabeth, NJ. His father was a Navy captain, so the sea was in his blood. His mother personally badgered President William McKinley for a presidential appointment to the Naval Academy for her son.
An indifferent student, young Bill graduated from Annapolis in 1904. At the time, President Theodore Roosevelt was busy building up America’s fleet and desperately needed young officers. Midshipman Bill Halsey’s first assignment was aboard the battleship Missouri, the “Mizzy” to her crew. Forty years later America’s newest and last battleship would also be named the Missouri, the “Mighty Mo,” and she would be Admiral Halsey’s flagship.
In 1908, Bill Halsey steamed with the Great White Fleet on its world tour. The most memorable port of call on the year-long cruise was at Tokyo Bay, where American officers were guests aboard the Japanese battleship Mikasa, flagship of Admiral Heihachiro Togo, victor over the Russian Baltic Fleet at the epic battle of Tsushima during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905. Halsey always remembered the game of blanket toss with which officers from each navy “honored” the rival commander. He would later write, “I wish we had thrown him [Togo] into the bay.”
During the Great War, Lieutenant Halsey commanded a destroyer on convoy duty. Much of his career would be spent commanding destroyers and destroyer task groups. That finally changed in 1935, when he was offered command of the Navy’s newest aircraft carrier, the Saratoga, on the condition that he attend flight school and become rated as an observer.
Many of Halsey’s Sayings Were too Profane to Publish in Papers
Halsey went to Pensacola for training, but insisted on being trained as a pilot despite one bad eye. At age 54, he proudly earned his wings along with men half his age. In every picture of him during the war, even in the minimalist khaki uniforms favored by admirals and ensigns alike, he is always seen wearing his wings. From carrier captain he soon advanced to flag admiral of carrier task forces. He was in command of Task Force 16 when war broke out in the Pacific.
So much was written about the admiral in the first months of the war that somewhere, it is believed, a reporter misspelled his name. “Bill” became “Bull,” and the famous nickname stuck. “Bull” was an appropriate moniker for the craggy faced, belligerent and profane sailor who admonished his forces to “Kill Japs, kill Japs, and then kill more Japs.” Many of his sayings were too profane to be published.
Enterprise and another carrier, Hornet, had barely returned to Pearl Harbor from launching the Doolittle raid when Halsey was ordered to sea again. The Japanese were reported to be transporting troops to Port Moresby in Southern New Guinea. If successful, they would control the whole of that vast island and place Australia in imminent danger of invasion.
The carriers Lexington and Yorktown, under the command of Admiral Frank “Jack” Fletcher, were already in the Coral Sea searching for the Japanese. Halsey steamed with all deliberate speed to support them, but he was too late. The Battle of the Coral Sea was fought before he arrived.
Having steamed hundreds of miles to the south, Halsey was ordered to expedite his return to Pearl. The Japanese were attempting a fresh offensive. Intelligence indicated that their next target would be Midway Island. The “Big E” rushed to refuel and rearm before heading north, but Halsey did not go with her. He had been at sea constantly in pressure- packed wartime conditions for five months. He was under such stress that a severe rash broke out over much of his body, causing him great pain. His condition could not have been helped by his two-pack-a-day smoking habit or the 10 cups of coffee that fueled his extended watches on the bridge. The ship’s doctor ordered him to take leave.
Halsey, the patient, followed the battle through reports he got on his way home. He was pleased that American forces had soundly thrashed the enemy, but disappointed that he was not able to command. By the time he returned to the Pacific in August, the situation had become desperate in the Solomon Islands.
Saratoga and Enterprise Severely Damaged; the Wasp was Sunk
Admiral Robert Ghormley commanded in the South Pacific Theater (SoPac). Under his direction and over all authority, the U.S. Marines landed on the island of Guadalcanal on August 7. Things immediately started to go wrong. The following night, a Japanese fleet skilled at night fighting and using superior Type 97 Long Lance torpedoes, sank four American cruisers during the Battle of Savo Island. Soon after that, the carriers Saratoga and Enterprise were severely damaged, and the carrier Wasp was sunk.
The Navy did not initiate further battle, allowing the Japanese to land reinforcements and supplies as well as to bombard Marine positions on Guadalcanal night and day. Ghormley’s headquarters aboard the aging repair ship Argonne, anchored at Noumea in New Caledonia, was choking on paperwork and despair. By mid-October, his boss, Admiral Chester Nimitz, Commander in Chief of the Pacific Fleet (CinCPac), decided to replace him.
Meanwhile, Halsey arrived at Noumea on an inspection tour. As he stepped into a waiting whaleboat for the short voyage to the Argonne, he was handed the orders to relieve and replace his old friend Ghormley. “Jesus Christ and General Jackson,” he muttered as he read his orders, “this is the hottest potato they have ever handed me.”
One of Halsey’s first actions was to meet with Maj. Gen. A. Archer Vandegrift, commanding the Marines on Guadalcanal. Vandegrift said he could hold if he had more support. Halsey told him that he would support him with everything he had. Despite the cost, Halsey kept his word.
The Battle of Guadalcanal—on shore, at sea, and in the air—lasted from August 1942 until February 1943, and was arguably the most important battle of the Pacific War. It was important because both sides made it so. Japan and the United States were fairly evenly matched at this point in the war, with a slight advantage to the Japanese who could usually bring a larger naval force to bear. On land, both sides endured malaria and a host of other tropical diseases and hardships to win this contest. The two combatants were locked in an all-out test of will.