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Admiral "Bull" Halsey: The Life and Wars of the Navy's Most Controversial Commander

by John Wukovits

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The definitive biography of America's best-known naval officer, who commanded the legendary fast carrier force during WWII.

From the tragic aftermath of Pearl Harbor, when he fashioned America's first response to the attack, to the war's final day in Tokyo Bay when he witnessed Japan's surrender, Admiral William F. Halsey stamped a mighty imprint on the Pacific during World War II. He led or participated significantly in the Navy's first offensive strikes against the Marshall Islands and Wake Island, the Guadalcanal campaign, and the offensive toward Japan. As a commander, he never shied from engaging the enemy, but boldly entered into battle, ready for a fight. As a consequence, Halsey became the face of the Navy and its most attractive public relations phenomenon. Due to his bold tactics and quotable wit, Halsey continues to be a beloved and debated figure.

In this balanced biography, historian John Wukovits illuminates the life of a man who ultimately deserves recognition as one the great naval commanders in U.S. history. Europe had Patton; the Pacific had Admiral William "the Bull" Halsey.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780230109599
Publisher: St. Martin's Publishing Group
Publication date: 07/06/2010
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 535,646
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

John Wukovits is the author of Pacific Alamo, One Square Mile of Hell, and Eisenhower. His writings have appeared in numerous publications including The Washington Post and The Chicago Tribune. He lives in Trenton, MI.

JOHN WUKOVITS is the author of Pacific Alamo and Devotion to Duty. His writings have appeared in numerous publications, including The Washington Post and the Chicago Tribune. He lives in Trenton, Michigan.

Read an Excerpt

Admiral "Bull" Halsey

The Life and Wars of the Navy's Most Controversial Commander

By John Wukovits

Palgrave Macmillan

Copyright © 2010 John Wukovits
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-230-60284-7



William F. Halsey came by his combativeness honestly, for belligerence had nourished a family tree spotted with sea dogs and sinners. Though he counted spirits tame and bold among his forbearers—"On one side I had a lot of Puritans and on the other a hard drinking, hard living set from around New York"—the latter clearly caught his fancy. Halsey loved to relate anecdotes of those ancestors he described as "seafarers and adventurers, big, violent men, impatient of the law, and prone to strong drink and strong language."

Halsey could have been talking of himself, for he exhibited those same traits throughout his life. He loved action the way previous generations of Halseys did. He resorted to profanity and drink, and when he thought of the sea, he thought of his ancestors' manner of seamanship—sailors chanting sea ditties as they labored while sails snapped in the wind, and audacious captains staring adventure and danger in the face. Men were men, which to Halsey meant going where the fight and the grog flowed freely.

He felt a special kinship with individuals of strong, almost reckless, will combined with a penchant for the bottle. Captain John Halsey of Massachusetts especially intrigued the future admiral. After attacking French shipping for the British as a privateer during Queen Anne's War (1702–1713), Captain Halsey continued his raiding in peacetime as an independent buccaneer. William Halsey later wrote, "I enjoy reading how his little brigantine once took on four ships together and captured two of them, with $250,000 in booty."

Halsey could even point with pride to the page mentioning his ancestor in a 1926 book on brigands, The History of the Lives and Bloody Exploits of the Most Noted Pirates. According to the volume, when John Halsey died of a fever in Madagascar in 1716, fellow sailors revered him so highly that they placed his sword and pistol in the coffin with the body and mounted a 46-gun-salute to honor the 46-year-old veteran of the seas. The book concluded that Captain Halsey "was brave in his person, courteous to all his prisoners, lived beloved, and died regretted by his own people."

A century later, Captain Eliphalet Halsey added to family sea lore when in 1815 he became the first to sail a Long Island whaler around South America's Cape Horn into the Pacific. The Halseys had thus made a name on the Seven Seas in both the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The current Halsey hoped that he, too, could record similar deeds in the twentieth century.

Halsey's paternal grandfather, Charles Henry Halsey, was both a lawyer and an Episcopal minister. He married the daughter of the president of Columbia College, Eliza Gracie King, and they had either six or seven children depending upon which person or record you believe. The youngest, William Frederick Halsey, became the admiral's father. While still in his early teens, William mentioned his desire to enter the Naval Academy. With the assistance of a family friend, he received an appointment to Annapolis and graduated in 1873.

In 1880 William Halsey married his childhood friend Anne Brewster, a direct descendant of William Brewster, the famed spiritual leader of Plymouth Colony. On October 30, 1882, the couple welcomed their firstborn child—William Frederick Halsey Jr., who was born in Elizabeth, New Jersey.

While he inherited a love of the sea from his father, Halsey's mother proved to be the dominant influence in his life. The Navy might dispatch her husband to foreign ports—Halsey lived in six cities before he reached his teenage years—but she held the family together, dispensing advice to young William and his sister, Deborah, and making ends meet on the miserly income provided officers in the 1880s and 1890s. "She always had very sterling qualities of right and wrong," he noted in his memoirs, "and God only knows how she raised two children on $200 a month which we lived on for much of my childhood."

After residing for two years in Elizabeth, New Jersey, while working at a hydrographic office, Lieutenant Halsey was assigned to duty aboard a survey vessel based in California. Anne Halsey remained behind to pack the family belongings, then accompanied the children for the grueling trip to California. The trio first boarded a transport that took them down the U.S. East Coast, then switched to a train to endure a sweltering crossing of the Isthmus of Panama, a dreaded stretch during which Anne constantly worried that her son and daughter would contract the deadly yellow fever. Once the family reached the west side of Panama, they boarded a second transport for the sea voyage north to California.

Despite the rigors of this journey, the younger Halsey, not yet of school age, loved the excitement offered by life at sea. His inquisitiveness prodded him into impromptu scouting expeditions, excursions that not only broke the monotony that came with lengthy voyages but also permitted him to inspect what lurked in the ship's hold. On one of his outings he suddenly disappeared, causing a frantic Anne to worry that he had fallen overboard, but a thorough search by the ship's crew unearthed the youth below, watching the ship's butcher kill livestock for the day's meal. "It is reported that they found me with my shoes and stockings off wading in blood," remembered Halsey of his youthful adventure.

The family eventually settled in Coronado, California, a short distance from the Mexican border. There, Halsey entered kindergarten, where his boisterous nature often clashed with the classroom's strictures and his fellow students' taunts. His body seemed tailor made for heckling: a powerful upper torso featuring a barrel chest, muscled arms, and oversized head balanced precariously on short, stocky legs. Classmates delighted in calling him "Billy Big Head" in attempts to provoke a reaction. Being more Bowery Boy than altar boy, Halsey willingly obliged.

The sunny sojourn in California ended in 1891 when the Navy transferred Lieutenant Halsey to Annapolis, Maryland, to teach physics and chemistry. The young Halsey wasted little time finding trouble on the quaint city streets. He joined a neighborhood football team that called themselves "Little Potatoes" because "we considered ourselves hard to peel," and he received a spanking from his father after breaking a string of street lights with his slingshot.

Halsey loved Annapolis. Ships cluttered the waters, sailors prowled the city streets, and in the midst, sparkling and shiny on its waterfront perch, stood the Academy. The more he absorbed the salty atmosphere, the more determined Halsey became to follow his father into the Naval Academy.

He selected a challenging path, for rarely in his school career did he let academics interrupt his fun. If classmates needed help in math or history, they looked elsewhere, but if they wanted someone to fire up the football team or to guarantee an amusing afternoon or evening, Halsey was their person.


As he approached his fifteenth birthday, the earliest a young man could then enter the Naval Academy, Halsey's interest in attending Annapolis intensified. "I had no other thought except going into the Navy," he recalled. "I always intended going in the Navy ever since I can remember." The youth faced a monumental problem, however—since his father's frequent relocations had constantly uprooted the family, he lacked the necessary political connections to gain a Congressional nomination. Undeterred, the young hopeful wrote every politician he could think of—including the president of the United States, William McKinley.

The fourteen-year-old Halsey pleaded his case in a January 26, 1897, letter to the president. "I want to ask you, if you have not already promised all your appointments to the Naval Academy that you will give me one." He explained that the appointment from his district had already been filled, that his father currently served as a naval officer, and added, "I know people do not like to give important positions such as this is away without knowing the person they are giving them to. But then you know that a naval officer would not keep his position long if he were not the right kind of man." Hoping to impress the president, Halsey mentioned a family connection with the current secretary of the Navy, then turned to sentiment. "I have been with my father on shore and on ship board a great deal, and have always wanted to enter the Navy." Pulling out all stops, Halsey ended the letter with a hearty helping of flattery. "It is almost needless to congratulate you on your grand victory [the presidential election of 1896] which every good American sees is for the best. It has been told you so many times by men it is hardly worth while for us boys to say it."

The letter, remarkable for someone just entering high school, nevertheless failed to provoke a response from the president. Disheartened but not defeated, Halsey penned more letters to officials. When in the following summer his father returned from four years of duty in the Far East with the Asiatic Fleet, he added his entreaties, but lacking the appropriate connections, all failed. Lieutenant Halsey even enrolled his son in one of the numerous preparatory schools that existed solely to ready boys to take the harsh Academy entrance examinations, but that tactic also fell short of drawing an appointment. Near desperation, the family sent their son to medical school, hoping the step might permit easier entrance into the Navy as a medical officer. So in the fall of 1899, Halsey entered the medical school at the University of Virginia. But try as he might—and he never tried all that hard—Halsey could not put the classroom above his favorite pastimes. As he did throughout his military career, he applied himself to what he thought was important and avoided what he considered frivolous. Histology class lacked appeal, especially when fun and football lurked. The real Halsey appeared on the football field, a legal arena for the roughhousing and aggression he so loved. Though Halsey lacked the size and talent of a first-stringer, the coaches loved his spirit and recklessness. He charged through practices and games as if each play determined victory or defeat.

Halsey received a break in 1900 when Congress passed a bill permitting the president to name five additional appointees to the Academy. Anne Halsey sought the aid of family friend Edgar Grigg, then New Jersey's attorney general. Grigg escorted Anne to the White House where, according to her son, she "camped out in President McKinley's office until she secured a promise of an appointment for me." The president agreed to meet with Mrs. Halsey, who told McKinley of her desire to see her son follow his father into the Navy and that, "I have been praying. I have been praying very sincerely." McKinley replied, "Madam, your prayers have been answered."

With only the entrance exams standing between him and Annapolis, Halsey immersed himself in textbooks for one of the few times in his student life. "I had to cram like the devil to pass the entrance examinations, but I managed to and was sworn in on July 7, 1900."

The spectacular showing by the U.S. Navy during the Spanish-American War of 1898, in which its exploits handed the nation a ready-made Pacific empire, created both a feeling of pride in the Navy and a desire among politicians and the people to expand American interests around the globe. The elevation in 1901 of Theodore Roosevelt to the presidency handed the Navy a worthy ally. The young executive had avidly read Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan's seminal The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1600–1783, and at age twenty-four he had written a highly regarded book about the Navy during the War of 1812. Roosevelt quickly turned his persuasive powers to convincing Congress to approve funds for one battleship a year and for expansion at the Naval Academy.

It was during this time of transition and expansion that Halsey entered the Academy. His was the last class to contain fewer than one hundred members, and after his group, the students would be called midshipmen, the term employed by Great Britain's Royal Navy, rather than naval cadets.

Starkness and rigidity defined the Academy. Founded in 1845, the institution rests on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay, which provides a perfect location for training seamen. Cadets lived in spartan rooms that contained wooden table desks, unpainted chairs, a wash basin, and iron beds. A book titled Regulations of the United States Naval Academy listed hundreds of infractions in twenty-two pages of small print.

Halsey quickly made a mark at the Academy—as always, outside the classroom rather than inside. Fellow cadets continued the process begun by Halsey's elementary school tormentors by teasing him about his immense head, but updated the criticism by stating that he "looks like a figurehead of Neptune." A photograph of the time shows that a heavy jaw dominated the lower half of his face, while thick eyebrows camouflaged deep-set, piercing blue eyes. Neatly combed hair swept to the right across his forehead, underneath which beamed a face exuding confidence.

Halsey, now grown to six feet, encountered few difficulties adapting to the rigid atmosphere. Whenever a social event occurred, the fun-loving Halsey could be found directly in the middle, laughing and slapping classmates on the back. He considered demerits for infractions a necessary evil to be tolerated, not a deterrent to fear. In his second year alone he amassed an alarming number of demerits, usually for offenses such as smoking, being late for formations, or talking in the ranks. Not surprisingly, at a time when 4.0 was perfect and 2.5 was considered barely passing, Halsey floundered in the lower half of his class, often perilously approaching failing grades.

Halsey could not comfortably operate in a rigid curriculum that stifled individual initiative and creativity, qualities he had in abundance. Since instructors lacked experience in classroom skills, having typically been career naval officers rather than educators, they usually taught in the same fashion as their predecessors, with a heavy emphasis on memorization. For a free spirit such as Halsey, who would have better thrived in an environment that challenged pre-existing ideas and formulated fresh ways to examine problems, the Academy's dry tedium was oppressive.

The only time Halsey's ears perked up was when classroom discussion focused on one topic. With U.S. possessions scanning the Pacific from Hawaii to the Philippines, instructors often debated strategy with their next likely enemy—Japan. They also pointed to British Admiral Horatio Nelson as the model officer to emulate. Nelson, said Halsey's teachers, best combined the attributes of triumphant leaders—the willingness to fight, an absolute trust in the officers under him, and a concern for the welfare of his men.

A controversy that rocked the Navy in the early years of the century would later benefit Halsey. Following the spectacular naval defeat over Spain in 1898 two American commanders—Commodore Winfield Scott Schley and Acting Rear Admiral William T. Sampson—distastefully vied for the honors that ensued. Their vehement arguments, in which each man contended that he had been in charge for the crucial victory in Santiago, Cuba, split the Navy into two camps, provoked an official court of inquiry, and turned the Navy into a laughingstock in the nation's newspapers. Only President Theodore Roosevelt's edict to end the quarreling prevented the feud from becoming worse.

Though Halsey took little apparent notice of the Sampson-Schley controversy, another midshipman at the Academy did. One year behind Halsey, future Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz hated watching his beloved Navy torn apart. He vowed that if he ever became a commander, he would never allow a similar controversy to demoralize the Navy as this one had done. In 1944, Nimitz would face such a predicament involving Halsey.

Football led the list of his extracurricular activities. The coaches admired his grit, which even monstrous athletes could not break, but a lack of talent and size confined Halsey to the bench until an injury to the starting fullback handed him the opportunity to play. Halsey held the spot for the next two years.

One activity that held Halsey's attention was the annual summer cruise. Rather than some obscure piece of information to be memorized for a classroom examination, summer cruises offered Halsey a practical application of knowledge, something tangible that could be used by a seaman. Let others scrutinize past campaigns and memorize elaborate equations—he would take the open seas and action any day.

He called the cruises "a delight" and claimed they turned cadets from "landlubbers to real sailormen." Veteran officers and sailors passed along the intricacies of life at sea to Halsey and his classmates, from the engines in the ship's bowels that powered the craft to the signal flags high above. The ships were floating classrooms, but Halsey relished the experience, for here he was doing what he had come to the Academy to learn. He rapidly excelled in navigation, surpassing the performances of fellow cadets who routinely posted better grades in the classroom.


Excerpted from Admiral "Bull" Halsey by John Wukovits. Copyright © 2010 John Wukovits. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
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Table of Contents

Introduction: 'When You Went in, the Japs Went Out'
'I Had No Other Thought Except Going into the Navy'
'Shoot First and We'll Argue Afterwards
'Admiral Halsey's Seagoing Commandos'
'This Force Is Bound for Tokyo'
'A Knuckle-Swinger Like Halsey'
'I Will Stay on the Offensive'
'The Hunters Had Become the Hunted'
'Destruction of the Enemy Fleet is the Principal Task'
'Attack Was His Watchword'
'A Wholly Frightening Situation'
'Victory Has Crowned Your Efforts'
I Want to Fight

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