What Made Admiral Halsey such a Formidable Leader in World War II?

tags: WWII, Admiral Bill Halsey

David L. O’Connor teaches history at Paul D. Schreiber High School in Port Washington, NY

Thomas Alexander Hughes’s recent biography of Bill Halsey examines the life and career of one of the most famous military men in American history. Admiral Bill Halsey: A Naval Life takes on many of the myths surrounding the controversial Navy man, and offers balanced assessments of his considerable contributions to the Allied victory in the Pacific during World War II. Through this biography, the reader can also witness the vast changes to the United States Navy as it harnessed the power of the Industrial Revolution in the twentieth century. Thomas Alexander Hughes is Professor of Strategy and Security Studies at the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies (SAASS). The following interview was conducted by email.

Before we're through with them, the Japanese language will be spoken only in Hell.” –Admiral Bill Halsey

David O’Connor: Admiral Bill Halsey is among the most studied military leaders of the twentieth century. What prompted you to undertake this project?

Thomas Alexander Hughes: My grandfather’s friend, Harold Stassen, served as Halsey’s flag lieutenant during World War II. He first suggested this project to me many years ago, believing no existing account had accurately portrayed Halsey the man. After some preliminary research I agreed, and dug into the topic.

Why did you not refer to him as “Bull,” a name most people associate with Admiral Halsey?

Halsey himself felt, and I agree, that only people who did not know him called him Bull. The origins of the actual moniker are obscure—some people feel Halsey earned the nick name as a Midshipman, others believe it originated with a typo of his first name in news accounts early in the war, and still others that it came via adoption from an inter-war admiral important in the development of aircraft carrier doctrine, Joseph Reeves, who was also known as Bull.

One of the myths surrounding Halsey was that he came from a long line of hard-drinking, salty seamen, which wasn’t really the case. Where did the myth come from? To what extent was Halsey responsible for this?

America needed heroes in the early going of World War II, and Halsey was among the few that fit the bill. War correspondents floated this particular myth as an appealing personal interest angle. Since then, anybody who’s written about Halsey has adopted the story-line, even though his family tree is fairly easy to trace to some of the nation’s most prominent and wealthy families. After Halsey became a war-time celebrity, he greatly aided and abetted this part of his legend with appropriate antics, stories, and language. By the end of the war, Halsey—like many a celebrity after him—came to regret the extent to which he had become a caricature.

You examine the lives of Halsey and his father, William, in the context of a rapidly changing United States Navy. How well did each man adjust to an industrialized navy?

William struggled with the crest tide of a navy moving from sail to steam in the late nineteenth century. He was an honorable officer and a natural leader, but ultimately failed to adjust to the many changes in the Navy and nation as both industrialized. This may well have contributed to the alcoholism that ended his career. His son Bill was determined to ride the waves of change better than had his dad, who he greatly admired. Bill pursued service on new-fangled destroyers as a young officer and went into aviation as a senior captain at the age of 51, when few others did. In the end, however, the son, like the father, struggled with the massive change wrought by World War II. By 1945 Bill was not adept at large-scale fleet maneuvers, which had earlier been among his great strengths.

Halsey’s family had to pull some strings to get him into the United States Naval Academy, an institution that he loved. What aspects of life at Annapolis were most important to him and how did they shape him?

The academy was as close to a home young Halsey had—he lived there as a youngster while his father served on the Academy faculty, and his dad was back teaching there when Bill was a Midshipman. For many youth, the Academy could be a jarring introduction to naval mores, but not Bill Halsey, for whom Annapolis was more familiar than any other place. It was this familiarity and even comfort that were most important to him—though very few of his Midshipman compatriots would have felt the same way about the Academy.

I found Halsey’s relationship with Captain William Sims before World War I to be one of the most interesting parts of your book. How did Sims’s style of leadership and his theories on the offensive uses of destroyers impact Halsey and his use of aircraft carriers in World War II?

With the exception of his dad, Bill Halsey’s greatest professional influence was Sims. From Sims he took, first, a nurturing view of leadership which was somewhat at odds with the harsh code of command prevailing at the time, and, second, an offensive ‘meleeist’ or cavalry spirit of attack which was again somewhat at odds with the formalist battleship tactics prevailing before and through World War I. Early in World War II, Halsey effectively employed both Sims influences when conducting carrier raids with the Enterprise, which were the operations that first set him apart from the many admirals that had their turn at combat early in the war.

Why did Halsey train to become a pilot at the age of fifty-one when he was already established as a captain?

At the risk of practicing psychology without a license, I think his father’s failure to navigate analogous naval changes in his time played a role in Halsey rising to the challenge of flying late in his career. Also, he knew well his chances for flag rank were slim as a line surface officer, but probably better than even as an aviator.

Halsey’s notorious anti-Japanese quotes date from the earliest days of the war. Like General Patton, he was a leader the press could always count on for good copy. Yet you note that after the war, he was respectful of the Japanese. To what extent were his wartime quotes part of his effort to create and maintain a fighting spirit among his men?

To a great extent, I think. He did hold, as did many (most?) Americans at the time, racial beliefs that would be out of the mainstream today. But the intensity of his war-time anti-Japanese rhetoric was temporal, and designed in part to rally his forces from a trough of morale when the Japanese seemed ascendant everywhere. This he was very conscious of as a leader when he arrived to take command of the South Pacific in the fall of 1942.

How did Halsey’s assault on the Marshall Islands in early 1942 demonstrate his ability as a commander?

Relative to other (mostly) failed carrier raids at the time, Halsey’s strike into the Marshalls was bold and confident. It set him apart from other carrier task force commanders and identified him to Chester Nimitz as a fighter at the precise time the nation and navy most needed a fighter.

Why did Admiral Nimitz choose Halsey to replace Robert Ghormley as commander of all forces in the South Pacific in the early stages of the Battle of Guadalcanal?

Nimitz gave Ghormley time to prove his mettle in the South Pacific. Through the first ten weeks of the Guadalcanal fight, Nimitz gave Ghormley the benefit of the doubt when the latter persistently pleaded the negative case for South Pacific operations. By early October 1942, Nimitz was convinced Ghormley, a fine naval officer with perhaps unmatched diplomatic skills among flag officers, was also a natural worrier and not the man to cajole from his charges the super human effort then required at Guadalcanal. Nimitz also wondered if Ghormley, his friend of forty years, was near some kind of mental breaking point, a concern he forthrightly later shared with Ghormley’s son. When he looked around for a fighter, Nimitz found himself drawn to Halsey, who had recently returned to the Pacific from a summer time convalescence to recover from a nasty skin ailment. At the time, Nimitz was surer of his relief of Ghormley than of his assignment of Halsey, but I think subsequent events in the South Pacific indicate Nimitz had made an inspired choice sending Halsey to the south.

From Guadalcanal to the Battle of Leyte Gulf, Halsey was the man stuck in the middle of the bitter power struggle between Nimitz and MacArthur. There’s nothing in the legend of Bull Halsey that would suggest that he possessed diplomatic skills necessary for a position like that, but you maintain that he did it quite well. How did he manage the competing demands of the two leaders?

Barely. Straddling the physical, intellectual, and operational ground between Nimitz and MacArthur would have taxed anybody’s capacities. But if Halsey’s diplomatic skills were not extraordinary, his interpersonal skills were. He, nearly alone among officers of high rank, got along well with both Nimitz and MacArthur—mostly authentically but sometimes through effective duplicity. This personal bridge to both men helped smooth the many strategic and operational fault lines separating the Central and Southwest Pacific areas which could have otherwise bedeviled and perhaps crippled the Allied war effort.

You give high praise for Halsey’s performance in the South Pacific from Guadalcanal to the isolation of Rabaul. What do you consider his most important contributions in this period of the war?

Not as a seagoing commander, for he was not that in the South Pacific. Given that Halsey’s historical reputation stems mostly from perceptions of his seagoing exploits and mistakes, it is ironic that his greatest contribution to the war effort took place behind a desk, in area command, in the South Pacific. Among other accomplishments, he reorganized his combined and joint command along functional lines in a way American forces would not do again for fifty years—especially in the air. His most important contribution in the South Pacific was as a sinew, sometimes tenuous but always there, between Nimitz and MacArthur at a time when those two principals and their respective command staffs barely spoke to each other.

By 1943, Halsey had become a major celebrity in the US for his bold leadership style. Was this a function of his courting the press or a wartime necessity for a nation looking for heroes? How did he become ambivalent about his own celebrity?

Halsey courted the press and the nation needed celebrity heroes. It was hard for me to separate the two; they happened in such close proximity and with such swiftness that a causal relation was hard to delineate. Like many celebrities, Halsey at first liked the idea of fame, and then came to loath it even as he reaped its benefits. In the end, he thought celebrity obscured real accomplishment, and that its blinding light consigned to the shadows many other important matters of operations and strategy. In this he was right, but if he was ever inclined to identify conspirators in the celebrity business, he would have had to start with a gaze in his wardroom mirror.

No biography of Halsey is complete without an assessment of his actions at the Battle of Leyte Gulf. You, like many historians, are critical of Halsey’s decision to chase Ozawa’s fleet northeast of Luzon, leaving the San Bernardino Strait vulnerable. Given the fact that Nimitz himself had encouraged Halsey to deliver a knockout punch to the Japanese fleet and he did inflict significant damage to Ozawa’s fleet, why was his decision so ill-advised?

Chasing Ozawa’s fleet was not a mistake; leaving San Bernardino Strait unguarded was. Halsey had ample force to accomplish both by that point in the war, but his decision-making was hamstrung by the age-old dictum about never dividing the fleet. In this way, his mistake at Leyte Gulf did not spring so much from audacity, as many historians argue, but was rather the product of orthodoxy to naval mores and habits.

Early in the war, Halsey used a collegial style of leadership with his subordinates, which you claim had a very positive effect on the morale of US forces in the South Pacific. Yet you assert that by the eve of the Philippines invasion it had become harmful. Why was it no longer effective?

Halsey employed a direct, almost tactile style of leadership that fostered intense loyalties up and down the chain of command. This served him well in the smaller commands he led early in the war, when the Japanese seemed ascendant. But this style transferred poorly to the massive organizations he led later in the war, where a managerial approach may have aided him more. Also, his style of leading flirted with popularity and its sometimes corrosive corollary, approval, which ultimately proved a detriment to the free flow of ideas within his command late in the war.

Between the Battle of Leyte Gulf and the Japanese surrender, what do you consider Halsey’s most significant contributions to the war effort?

This is a tough one. His major contributions to the war were, firstly, as commander in the South Pacific and, secondly, as a fast carrier task force commander in the war’s early months. I frankly feel many others could have commanded the Third Fleet in 1945 as well as Halsey, and some could have been better than he in the billet.

I found it somewhat painful to read the last chapter of the book about Halsey’s post-war life. Why did he have such a difficult time after the war?

Biography often sees a person’s formative years a prelude to what will come; I think the same is true in reverse and of old age: shorn of the pomp and circumstance of a very public life, Halsey’s final years reveal the elemental man, who was fairly tentative in his relationships and unsure of his footing in nearly every aspect of his life beyond a naval ship’s bridge. Halsey’s was a naval life, but in the quiet of his private life we can see that his very visible audacity, confidence, and assuredness were not personality traits, but professional skills, honed over decades at sea and in command.

How would you assess Halsey’s standing among other twentieth-century military leaders?

Another tough one. Everyone who cares about naval history has an opinion of Halsey, and these sentiments range from the great to the ugly. I think Halsey was a natural leader without peer among his age cohort. He also had no equal as an aggressive, confident fighter when America needed that most from its naval leaders. He believed that leadership was earned from below and that command arrived by fiat from above, and he valued the former more than the latter. He was not among the Navy’s brightest lights, and would have not taken offense at the charge. His ability to adopt through his career was notable until the very end, when at last he exhausted his capacity to change with the times, and he faltered as the Third Fleet commander. In the end, however, he surely must rank among the greatest admirals of all time, even with all the foibles of humanity that he brought with him.       

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