Meet the U.S. Navy's Deadly "Bull" of World War II

June 16, 2021 Topic: History Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: U.S.NavyWilliam F. Halsey

Meet the U.S. Navy's Deadly "Bull" of World War II

Admiral William F. “Bull” Halsey earned a legendary reputation for daring and boldness as commander of the U.S. Third Fleet.

The full weight of the American manufacturing powerhouse had not yet been brought to bear on the war. The majority of new equipment that was coming off the line was earmarked for the forthcoming invasion of North Africa. Halsey had to make do with the remnants of the prewar Navy.

“Attack-Repeat-Attack!”

The first real test in his new command was not long in coming. The Japanese were sending a strong carrier force to the southeast of the Solomon Islands to outflank American forces, and it was moving in the direction of the carrier Hornet. Halsey sent out the order, “Attack-repeat-attack!” In the October 26, 1942, Battle of Santa Cruz Island, Hornet was sunk and two Japanese flattops were damaged. Both sides drew back. Meanwhile, the Japanese continued their build-up on Guadalcanal.

Early in November, two Japanese battleships were sighted heading south through the passage between the Solomon Islands known as “The Slot.” All Halsey had available to oppose them were two heavy and three light cruisers. The odds were long. The two armadas steamed toward each other in the darkness and became hopelessly entangled. They engaged in a savage ship-to-ship slugfest that ended with the sinking of the Japanese battleship Hiei. In the first naval battle of Guadalcanal, every American ship was either sunk or severely damaged. The survivors limped back to safety, but they were finished as a fighting force.

That left only the damaged Enterprise, which could only launch and land at half capacity; the battleship South Dakota, which could not employ one of its forward turrets; and the battleship Washington, which was relatively unscathed. Halsey soon sent them into the fray.

The day after the first naval battle of Guadalcanal, 11 large Japanese transports and their destroyer escorts were spotted heading toward the island. When the news reached the brass in Washington, D.C., there was much hand wringing and thought was given to evacuating the Marines from their desperate situation. Aboard the Argonne, however, Bull Halsey saw it differently. All available planes were dispatched to the area. Halsey told them to focus their attacks on the transports. By the end of the day, seven were sunk or dead in the water, but the Japanese kept coming.

Another enemy battleship force sought to bombard Henderson Field on the war-ravaged island, but South Dakota and Washington met them in the Second Naval Battle of Guadalcanal. Once again, both sides took a heavy pounding in one of the few World War II battles in which battleships opposed each other. The all-important Henderson Field, a serviceable airstrip for American planes on Guadalcanal, was spared.

A flattering portrait of Bull Halsey graced the cover of the November 30, 1942, issue of Time magazine. The accompanying article made no bones about the situation in the South Pacific: “Halsey saved Guadalcanal,” the story read. He had promised the Marines all he had, and he delivered. He was promoted to full admiral and awarded his fourth star.

The admiral’s staff soon outgrew the humid hold of the Argonne, so Halsey officially requested room ashore from French colonial officials. They had not permitted Ghormley to set up his headquarters ashore and dithered when asked by Halsey, but the “Bull” would not be denied. After a few weeks of inaction on the part of the French, he confiscated the empty mansion of a former governor and other space on the island. The war could not be won on protocol. Ashore, he continued his two-pack-a- day habit and often drank in the evening. “I don’t trust a fighting man who doesn’t smoke and drink,” he would say. His legend grew.

Halsey was the Only American Admiral who Gained MacArthur’s Trust

By mid-1943, the American position in the South Pacific had greatly improved and at last Halsey could go on the offensive. That meant attacking the islands north of Guadalcanal, which lay within General Douglas MacArthur’s Southwest Pacific jurisdiction, so Halsey had to deal with the strong-willed Army general.

The admiral flew to Brisbane for a meeting of the minds. Surprisingly, the two men hit it off. Halsey’s philosophy was that there should be complete cooperation between the services. There was only one enemy, the Japanese, and he would not tolerate interservice rivalry. He was the only American admiral who gained MacArthur’s friendship and trust. Their cooperation did much to speed up the war effort.

As the war progressed northward into the Central Pacific, Halsey’s domain became a backwater. He was transferred to command the Third Fleet, which had been outfitted with new ships and was designed to be a fast carrier strike force. It was exactly what the aging airman had dreamed of. Halsey believed in aggressive offensive action against the enemy, but that attitude caused the biggest flap of his career.

American forces landed on the Philippine island of Leyte in October 1944, and the ensuing Battle of Leyte Gulf was the largest naval battle in history. A Japanese counterattack included three naval strike forces, two of them steamed from the west through southern and central passages among the Philippine Isles. Admiral Thomas Kincaid’s Seventh Fleet guarded the southern approach.

The Japanese central force headed through the passage at San Bernardino Strait. Halsey’s Third Fleet, designated Task Force 38 when fully assembled and 34 when assembled in part, was steaming just east of this area at the time, and everyone on the American side thought that he was covering that area against enemy attack.

Then the third Japanese strike force was spotted coming down from the north. When the always aggressive Halsey was informed that the northern force was composed of Japanese aircraft carriers, he ordered all of the 64 ships of Task Force 34 then present to charge after what would prove to be only 17 enemy ships. That left San Bernardino Strait unprotected. The situation was complicated by an hour-and-a-half delay in coding and decoding the hundreds of urgent messages that flew about that day.

Japan’s Super Battleship Yamato

The Japanese central force broke through San Bernardino Strait and bore down on the scratch American force that stood in its way. Only the tiny escort carriers, destroyers, and destroyer escorts of Taffy 3, commanded by Admiral Clifton A.F. Sprague, stood between the powerful Japanese force and the troopships and transports standing off the beaches at Leyte. The Americans were low on bombs and torpedoes, so pilots made attacks on the Japanese with nothing more than their machine guns. The small warships sacrificed themselves in heroic charges. Among the heavy Japanese ships was the super battleship Yamato with its 18.1-inch guns. Also present with the enemy host were several heavy cruisers with 8-inch guns.

Frantic messages went out to Halsey asking for support. He replied that he was engaging the enemy­­—that, after all, was his job. In the eyes of the beleaguered forces at Leyte however, it was the wrong enemy. To them, Halsey had been lured out of position. Eventually, Admiral Nimitz in Hawaii sent a message, “Where is Task Force 34?” The decoder failed to delete a passage that was only meant to confuse the enemy and contained the line, “the world wonders.” Halsey read it as a rebuff of his engagement of the northern enemy force and he broke down under the perceived insult and sobbed.

Task Force 34 turned back to Leyte. Fortunately for Halsey, the Japanese had lost their nerve, and the central force turned back without accomplishing its mission of disrupting the American landings. The great flap over his leaving his defensive post to pursue offensive action turned out to be mere speculation about what might have happened. Halsey himself felt that his biggest mistake was in turning back and not completing the destruction of the Japanese northern force. As it was, his aircraft sank several Japanese vessels. This was the job for which the American fast carriers were designed. Halsey always chafed at their use in defense.

The Battle of Leyte Gulf saw a new development in warfare. The Japanese began employing Kamikaze suicide pilots who deliberately crashed their planes into American ships, causing appalling losses of men and ships. One of Halsey’s task force admirals developed tactics to counter this threat. Admiral John “Slew” McCain, grandfather of Senator John McCain, doubled the number of fighter planes and halved the number of dive-bombers on his carriers. He set up round-the-clock flyovers of the known airfields on Luzon, which prevented Japanese planes from taking to the air.

The term “Kamikaze” means “Divine Wind”. It was, however, a different Divine Wind that would vex Halsey. Receiving spotty weather reports, once again slowed by coding and decoding, he blindly steamed into the teeth of a raging typhoon. His destroyers, low on fuel, bobbed on the waves like corks. Giant waves heeled them over on their sides, and seawater poured through open vents and exhaust ports. Three of them sank.

On the aircraft carriers, planes came loose from their moorings, slamming about flight and hangar decks, starting fires, and falling overboard. A total of 186 planes were destroyed, seven ships were heavily damaged, and nearly 800 men were lost. The Third Fleet limped back to port. A court of inquiry found fault with Halsey, but Nimitz softened the wording in its opinion to keep the popular fighting admiral in the war.