The True Story of a Fighting Admiral, an Epic Storm, and an Untold Rescueby Bob Drury
“Absorbing . . . A vivid tale of tragedy and gallantry at sea.” —Publishers Weekly
December 1944, the Pacific theater. General Douglas MacArthur has vowed to return to the Philippines. He will need the help of Admiral William “Bull” Halsey’s Pacific Fleet. But at the height of the invasion, Halsey’s ships are blindsided by a typhoon of unprecedented strength and scope. Battleships are tossed like toys, fighter planes are blown off carriers, destroyers are capsized, and hundreds of sailors are swept into the roiling, shark-infested sea.
This is the story of World War II’s most unexpected disaster, one of its most devastating tragedies, and a daring rescue mission—a heart-pounding true tale of men clashing against the ruthless forces of war and nature.
In the final days of 1944, Bull Halsey is the Pacific’s most popular and colorful naval hero. After a string of victories, the “Fighting Admiral” and his thirty-thousand-man Third Fleet are charged with protecting General MacArthur’s flank during the invasion of the Philippine island of Mindoro. But in the midst of the landings, Halsey attempts a complicated refueling maneuver and unwittingly drives his 170 ships into the teeth of a massive typhoon.
His men find themselves battling 90-foot waves and 150-mph winds. The destroyer USS Hull is tossed from crest to trough until it eventually turns turtle as panicked sailors belowdecks attempt to claw their way free. The USS Spence absorbs so much punishment that it literally breaks in half, leaving scores of men scrambling for a few undamaged lifeboats. The fabled destroyer USS Monaghan implodes on itself, taking more than 90 percent of its crew to the seabed. And aboard the aircraft carrier USS Monterey, a young Gerald Ford dons a gas mask and leads a rescue team into an exploding hangar deck that is ablaze with the wreckage of loose aircraft slamming together.
Amid the chaos, nearly nine hundred of the fleet’s sailors and officers are swept into the Philippine Sea. For three days, small bands of survivors battle dehydration, exhaustion, sharks, and the elements to await rescue at the hands of the courageous Lieutenant Commander Henry Lee Plage, who, defying orders, sails his tiny destroyer escort, the USS Tabberer, back into the storm to rescue drifting sailors.
The typhoon ultimately inflicts twice as much destruction and loss of life as the Battle of Midway. But stunned Navy brass suppress the scope of the disaster to preserve the American advance on Tokyo—as well as the famed Fighting Admiral’s reputation back home. Following the ensuing Court of Inquiry, a chastened and angry Halsey never speaks of the investigation again.
Only now, thanks to documents that have been declassified after sixty years and scores of firsthand accounts from survivors—including those of President Ford—can the story finally be told. Informed by years of rigorous research and narrated with the immediacy of an action movie, Halsey’s Typhoon is a gripping true tale of courage and survival against impossible odds—and one of the finest untold World War II sagas of our time.
“A taut chronicle of the storm and its survivors, impeccably researched and thrillingly told.” —Men’s Journal
“This book is so good that I kept forgetting I was reading it to ensure accuracy instead of merely reading because it was captivating. What a terrific story. Where did we find such men?” —Captain Michael J. Jacobsen, United States Navy
“If the Beaufort scale were a thrill meter, Halsey’s Typhoon would rate a force 12.” —Anthony Brandt, National Geographic Adventure
“An impressive, long-overdue account of the U.S. Third Fleet’s encounter with a savage typhoon off the Philippines in the autumn of 1944 . . . Entirely gripping . . . A guaranteed hit with maritime buffs.” —Booklist
“A great strength of this book is how the reader is made to feel the tension between logistical necessity and fate in the form of a storm whose path was rendered unpredictable by the imperfect science of the day. The pay off is in the body of the book, a nonstop, teeth-gritting, nonfiction thriller that is made up of eyewitness accounts of nature doing her worst and men doing their best . . . under horrific circumstances. . . . Reads at a gallop and is extremely well researched. . . . Bob Drury and Tom Clavin have done it.” —Russell Drumm, East Hampton Star
“For more than 60 years, one of the country’s greatest tales of bravery and heroism has gone untold. The story, told in plain language by dozens of men who witnessed or survived the actual tragic events but kept mum for outdated reasons, spent that time gathering dust in a box amid hundreds of thousands of other boxes in a cavernous government warehouse. Until Tom Clavin and Bob Drury found it.” —Michael Wright, Southampton Press
“Not just a top pick for World War II history holdings, but for general interest collections strong in wartime adventure stories. . . . An extraordinary account of an extraordinary, little-revealed event which provoked extreme heroism under extreme conditions.” —Library Bookwatch
“Drury and Clavin’s book could not be better timed, given the renewed interest in the Pacific theatre . . . and public awareness now of the infighting between and among military and civilian leaders over policies and procedures in Iraq. Halsey’s Typhoon delivers a fine, fact-filled account of the various rivalries and disagreements of the major players. . . . The book also provides a suspense-laden account of extraordinary endurance and heroic risk that resonates as a contemporary disaster tale. . . . Easy, engaging and informative reading.” —Joan Baum, The Independent
“[Halsey’s Typhoon] is not just a top pick for World War II history holdings, but for general-interest collections strong in wartime adventure stories. . . . An extraordinary account of an extraordinary, little revealed event which provoked extreme heroism under extreme conditions.” —Internet Bookwatch
“A riveting tale of the fierce storm that capsized three ships, damaged dozens of others and killed 793 sailors.” —Carol Comegno, Courier-Post (NJ)
“It turns out the most deadly blow struck against the American Pacific Fleet in World War II was not inflicted by the Japanese, but by Mother Nature. Drury and Clavin tell a powerful and engrossing story of tragedy, survival, and heroism that is a surprising snapshot of the extraordinary skill and stubborn resolve of the Americans who prevailed in that conflict. They offer a memorable, warts-and-all portrait of Admiral William ‘Bull’ Halsey. Briskly written and carefully researched, Halsey’s Typhoon joins a rare shelf of must- read books about the most important conflict of the twentieth century.” —Mark Bowden, author of Black Hawk Down and Guests of the Ayatollah
“Superb . . . My father flew torpedo bombers off these same carriers in these same waters, perhaps with these same men. Drury and Clavin’s writing is as clever and compelling as it is rich with detail, and for me, my father lived in each line. He once told me that the second most magnificent sight he had ever seen (after my mother on a blind date) was while flying his TBM off Saipan, and being able to see in all directions nothing but the United States Navy steaming toward Japan. I wish he were still alive so I could present him with this magnificent book.” —Gary Kinder, author of Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea
“I thought I was a student of military history, but until I read Halsey’s Typhoon, I had no inkling that such an epic disaster—and an even more epic rescue mission—struck the U.S. Navy in World War II. This is a brilliant book, a rip-roaring read that puts you, sweating with fear, right in the middle of the action. It’s so good, I’ll ignore the fact that the navy guys are the heroes.” —Colonel (Retired) David Hunt, Fox News counterterrorism and military analyst and author of They Just Don’t Get It
“[Halsey’s Typhoon] tells the story of human heroes and human failure in terms of those who lived the ordeal and suffered great loss. The anecdotal aura, supported by scientific, technical, and naval tactical information, places this story in the peerless category with Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors. It is a part of our history that deserves the light of day because of its valuable lessons and the intrepidity of those who came courageously to the rescue of sailors at sea—a tradition that stands at the pinnacle of man’s responsibilities.” —Vice Admiral (Ret.) Edward S. Briggs, United States Navy
“[Halsey’s Typhoon] is a tale of high adventure that was carefully researched by two established writers . . . Drury and Clavin have done a fine job. Their work has first place on my Christmas gift list for Navy Friends.” —Colonel (Ret.) Gordon W. Keiser, U.S. Marine Corps, Proceedings
“I couldn’t put this great read down. This account of Admiral William ‘Bull’ Halsey’s Pacific Fleet facing a devastating typhoon during WW II has military history, naval operations, suspense, adventure, tragedy, and triumph interwoven in a little-known episode from the war in the Pacific.” —Rich Daley, Pass Christian Books, Pass Christian, MS, Book Sense quote
“With Halsey’s Typhoon, Drury and Clavin have discovered an epic nautical adventure worthy of Joseph Conrad. What’s more, their telling of the story is at once taut, poignant, and evocative. You can smell the blood in the water, but you can’t put it down.” —Mark Kriegel, author of Namath and Pistol: The Life of Pete Maravich
“Terrifying . . . This is not just a tale of men against nature. It’s also a tale of men for, and against, other men.” —Kirkus Reviews
“Absorbing . . . A vivid tale of tragedy and gallantry at sea.” —Publishers Weekly
A Book Sense Selection
December 18, 1944
The Philippine Sea, 500 Miles East of Luzon
Chief Quartermaster Archie DeRyckere was more astonished than frightened. He craned his neck to stare at the massive waves, churning gouts of water, some reaching ninety feet in height. The seas were not only mammoth, but confused by a backing wind that slammed into the sheer, flint gray walls of ocean and seemed to suspend them in midair, like looming, petrified hills. The USS Hull rolled at unprecedented angles, slip-sliding nearly stern-first into the trough.
DeRyckere had sailed through weather before, none like this. The rain blew hard, horizontal, pelting the bridge like grapeshot and pocking the skin of any seaman who had the hard luck to face it. As another huge comber marbled the Hull‘s deck with whitewater, the chief was reminded of a set of tumblers clicking into place, locking the 2,100-ton destroyer in irons.
For the better part of the morning DeRyckere had listened with mounting disbelief from his station on the bridge as the Hull‘s TBS (talk-between-ships) ship-to-ship wireless flashed scratchy distress calls from across the whole upheaval of the Philippine Sea. Vessels unaccounted for. Men swept overboard. Fighter planes blown into the sea off the decks of carriers. Cruisers dead in the water. The 170-odd ships comprising Adm. William F. Halsey Jr.’s Third Pacific Fleet, the United States Navy’s Big Blue Fleet, had been ambushed by a tropical cyclone, and the most powerful armada in the world was scattered and running for its life. This was far worse, DeRyckere thought, than anything the Japanese had thrown at them over the past three days.
As the long swells rocked the Hull, DeRyckere kept a wary eye on the ship’s inclinometer, the device used to measure the angle of a vessel’s horizontal sway. The wind and waves were beginning to push the instrument’s needle to its stop limit of 73 degrees. After each roll the destroyer would rebound painfully, as if wounded, and begin the slow, vertical climb to right herself. Belowdecks, pumpers and bucket brigades were encountering nightmares. With each seismic heel, sailors grabbed onto fittings and projections in the overhead, their feet hanging free of the deck. On some rolls they lost both their footing and their grips, and pitched shoulder-deep into water that sloshed up against the bulkheads.
DeRyckere remembered the Hull‘s variance; she had been certified to recover from a maximum roll of 72 degrees. Soon enough, he feared, there would come a heel from which the ship would not recoup. She was too top-heavy. The destroyer, one of the old Farragut-class “gold platers,” had been designed in the mid-1930s as a 1,500-tonner. Compared to the cumbersome four-stackers of the Great War, her lines and living quarters were considered luxurious. But over the course of this conflict the addition of radar mounts on the tip of her mast and extra armament on her deck had pushed her well past her projected sailing weight.
In the pilothouse, beneath the starboard portal, DeRyckere watched as Joe Jambor was knocked to his knees as the Hull was rocked by another mountainous surge. Jambor was the ship’s chief electrician, a pale, willowy sailor who looked as if daylight would kill him. The chief read the expression on Jambor’s face as he scrambled to his feet; it was as if he were mentally composing a suicide note. He told DeRyckere that water was pouring in through blown hatches from stem to stern, yet the ship’s pumps were not operating to full capacity because her new skipper, Lt. Comdr. James Alexander Marks, refused to divert electricity from the engine room.
The bilges were already overflowing, Jambor said, and he couldn’t pump them out. “He’s going full power because he’s getting reports from all over the fleet that ships are in trouble,” he said, his face turned away from the captain. “He thinks he can save them.”
Jambor wiped his brow with a dirty neckerchief. “Maybe he’d better think about saving us first.”
Then Jambor was gone, scrambling down the outside skipper’s ladder, bent double against the wind lashing the sea-washed deck. In seconds his silhouette disappeared behind a veil of gray rain and scud, and DeRyckere turned back toward Marks.
At six-foot-three, with wide, strong shoulders tapering down to a wasp waist, DeRyckere towered over the Hull‘s commander. Four days shy of his twenty-fifth birthday, the chief cut a figure with his jutting chin, long aquiline nose, and broad forehead shading hooded blue eyes that seemed to flicker with some hidden delight. Among the crew he was known for his self-deprecating humor and sea chest full of stories—including the time he’d inadvertently helped load the Hull‘s antiaircraft guns with star-shell flares instead of frags during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. “We’re trying to kill the bastards, not illuminate them!” an angry gunner’s mate had finally shouted.
His scant formal education belied DeRyckere’s intelligence, and he had “booked up” from seaman second class to chief quartermaster in his four years on the Hull. Chiefs were the backbone of the U.S. Navy, and DeRyckere fit the template. He was an adroit helmsman, skilled at navigation and celestial sailing, and one of his collateral duties was to synchronize each of the ship’s clocks. As such he was also considered a “walking newspaper” on his daily rounds belowdecks, spreading scuttlebutt, making small talk—a fair posture from which to take the temperature of the destroyer’s complement of 263 sailors.
He told friends that he’d inherited his affinity for the sea from his paternal forebears, one of whom, a Spanish sailor, had gone down with the Armada in 1588 and washed up on the lowland shores of the Netherlands. There he’d anglicized his name and begun a line of DeRyckeres that extended to Archie’s father, who’d emigrated to the United States, settled in Laurel, Montana, outside of Billings, and married a Norwegian girl whose parents still lived in the tiny arctic circle village of Sunndal.
DeRyckere liked to joke that it was from his mother’s side of the family that he’d acquired his “Viking blood.” But in truth, though a strong swimmer in lakes and rivers as a boy, he had never glimpsed the ocean until he enlisted in October 1940 with the notion of becoming a fighter pilot. He had spent part of his youth as a section hand, a gandy dancer, on the Northern Pacific Railroad, and when railroad work was scarce he’d picked cherries and thinned apple trees in orchards throughout Washington state. And he had a mechanical touch, which led to a stint as a grease monkey—”lubrication technician,” DeRyckere preferred—at a Montana service station. But before he’d joined the navy he’d rarely seen so much as a church steeple as tall as the breakers that now fashioned the liquid walls of the canyon engulfing the USS Hull.
The captain’s paralysis bewildered DeRyckere. The chief was aware that “Bull” Halsey was so anxious for a fight with the Japanese that he had directed every vessel of the fleet to remain on station despite the high seas. The smart move, the seaman’s move, would have been to allow them to run for their lives. And though it would later be made known that individual commanders throughout the fleet’s task groups had disobeyed Halsey and taken the initiative to dog down for a typhoon, no official typhoon warning had yet emanated either from the CINCPAC weather station at Pearl Harbor or from Halsey’s flag bridge on the battleship USS New Jersey.
The Hull‘s job was to screen for enemy submarines as Halsey’s fighting task forces rendezvoused and refueled, mid-ocean, from the bunkers of the lumbering oiler groups. Captain Marks’s stubborn insistence on maintaining station may have had admirable motives but, given the circumstances, the skipper’s fealty to duty in his first combat command did not instill in Chief Quartermaster Archie DeRyckere any great sense of confidence.
Just before 10:00 A.M. the largest wave yet, streaked with blue shadows, slammed into the Hull‘s starboard quarter. The ship lurched awkwardly and heeled to port. There she remained, “as helpless as a cork in a river eddy,” refusing to respond to any combination of rudder and engines. DeRyckere planted his feet on the bulkhead, the deck now at eye level. He was standing several paces behind Marks, who was staring straight ahead, wedged into the rear port corner of the pilothouse. The captain uttered not a word and refused to return DeRyckere’s measured look, as though unable to acknowledge that he was losing control of his ship.
DeRyckere wondered over the fate of the other vessels in Admiral Halsey’s flotilla.
The clipped words slid out of the judge advocate’s mouth as if slipped through a mail slot: “Admiral, did you consider that you had timely warning or did you know that a severe storm was approaching around the sixteenth and seventeenth of December?”
William Frederick Halsey Jr. surveyed the wardroom of the destroyer tender USS Cascade. Seated in hardback chairs to his left were two vice admirals and a rear admiral, each clad in crisp, starched khakis, their postures erect as jackstaffs. The stenographers sat on his right, four chief yeomen with their backs to him, recording testimony as it was given. A Marine colonel occupied the table directly opposite Halsey, who undoubtedly noted the green felt cloth draped over it. A court-martial in the U.S. Navy had long been referred to as “Sitting at the end of the long green table.”
This, however, was no court-martial, merely a court of inquiry. Nearly eight hundred sailors from the United States Third Fleet had perished during a typhoon, almost three times the number of men who died at the Battle of Midway. The catastrophe was not, as some of Halsey’s rivals suggested, Custer at the Little Bighorn, but, still, there were questions. The mood in the wardroom was somber, if polite. It was December 28, the dying wick of 1944, on a sunsplashed morning on Ulithi Atoll.
“I did not have timely warning,” Halsey answered in a clear, resonant voice sharp enough to cut falling silk. “I’ll put it another way. I had no warning.”
The navy’s judge advocate pressed on: “There has been testimony from other commanders that the local conditions indicated the approach of the storm. Was that evident to you?”
Although he was never to speak of it for the rest of his life, this could well have been the moment Admiral Halsey determined his need for legal counsel. Scuttlebutt had it that over dinner the previous evening he had joked to a friend, “Somebody ought to be court-martialed for this, either me or the Bureau of Ships.” Yet now he answered the judge advocate’s queries with a mixture of insouciance and ignorance. It was quite obvious, he said, that he’d needed his destroyers completely refueled in order to return as soon as possible to continue his strikes on Luzon, high seas be damned.
The implication was clear: There is a war on; General MacArthur was waiting. But Halsey also admitted to having no literal idea where the storm was heading, or whether, in fact, it was a severe storm or merely a local disturbance. “I am no weather expert,” he said.
No, he was “Bull” Halsey, the U.S. Navy’s Patton of the Pacific, the man who boasted he would ride the emperor’s white horse into Tokyo. And this was humiliating.
* * * *
Of all the naval heroes of World War II, none strode so large a stage as Adm. William Halsey. The self-proclaimed scion of “seafarers and adventurers, big, violent men, impatient of the law, and prone to strong drink and strong language,” Halsey sailed determinedly in their wake. By December 1944 the obscure skipper, whose command of the destroyer USS Shaw during the First World War had merited the Navy Cross, was, at sixty-two years old, not only the most famous man in the United States Navy, but the most famous living naval officer in the world. He had borne the Allied cause on his shoulders during the war’s first, flickering hours, and this would not soon be forgotten.
Halsey’s raids on the enemy-held Marshall and Gilbert Islands less than two months after Pearl Harbor were America’s first offensive assaults of the war. Twelve weeks later, in April 1942, his daring transport of Col. Jimmy Doolittle’s bombers to within hailing distance of Tokyo—though but a tactical and strategic pinprick—was, as one newspaper correspondent wrote, a dose of vitamin B-25 for a nation still staggering under the trauma of the Japanese sneak attack.
Halsey’s ascent was serendipitous. In the early miasma of World War II, America needed a hero. Halsey was it. His profile was as familiar to Americans as Clark Gable’s or Gary Cooper’s, and such was his fame that on a visit home to attend a Stateside reception a woman broke through the receiving line, clasped his arm, and cried, “I feel as if I were touching the hand of God.”
A rawboned seaman of slender build, the hatchet-browed Halsey was an early riser who drank ten cups of coffee a day, smoked precisely forty cigarettes, and, like his forebears, was known to enjoy a glass of scotch whiskey. An early-eighteenth-century ancestor, Capt. John Halsey, had in fact been a privateer-turned-buccaneer, and Halsey’s great-great-grandfather, Capt. Eliphalet Halsey, continued the tradition of sailing Halsey men by helming the first Sag Harbor whaler to round Cape Horn. Young “Willie” followed his father’s path from his home in Elizabeth, New Jersey, to the U.S. Naval Academy as the nineteenth century turned. The caption under his 1904 graduation photo reads, “A real old salt (who) looks like a figurehead of Neptune.” He was twenty-one years old.
Four years later, now an ensign, Halsey drew duty aboard the battleship USS Kansas, a ship of the line that famously circumnavigated the globe as part of Teddy Roosevelt’s Great White Fleet. During the Great War he captained a destroyer, running convoys across the Atlantic. He was remembered by fellow officers as a stolid and able commander, possessing a conspicuous gift for handling men. The war experience left Halsey, he recalled, “as proud as a dog with two tails.” In time his craggy face would come to reflect a map of the world’s ports of call.
Between wars—early on, Halsey had foreseen the next one coming—he grew impatient with what Tennyson called “the long, long cancer of peace” and intuited the vital role airpower would play in the looming conflict against Japan and Germany. In 1934 he petitioned his superiors to be allowed to enroll in the Naval Air Corps flight school in Pensacola, Florida. He was persistent, and as a half measure he was granted transfer to Pensacola as an observer. Equally gifted with guile and celerity, he somehow, at age fifty-one, already a grandfather, wangled a change in his designation from “student observer” to “student pilot.”
Competing against pilots half his age, and despite congenitally poor eyesight, he earned his wings. His flight instructor noted, “The worse the weather, the better he flew.” By the eve of World War II he was one of only four flag-rank officers in the United States Navy who actually knew how to fly an airplane.
When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Halsey was two thousand miles away, commanding a carrier task group delivering fighter planes for the unsuccessful defense of Wake Island. He cursed fate for his failure to intercept the Imperial strike force, although military experts unanimously agree that had his ships challenged Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto’s fleet, they would have been wiped out. Days later, when he witnessed the breadth of destruction at Pearl—his carriers sailed into the harbor through oil still seeping from the sunken vessels along Battleship Row—his reaction was emblematic. “Before we’re through with ’em the Japanese language will be spoken only in hell,” he said.
His carrier force refueled and immediately put to sea to hunt the Japanese, but more rotten luck followed. Halsey was laid up in the hospital with a severe case of dermatitis during the Battle of Midway. Powerless, sullen, itching, he was bedridden at Pearl Harbor’s medical center, covered in emolument, when he received fragmented reports of Adm. Raymond Spruance’s stunning victory. He considered missing this fight the worst break of his career.
In October 1942, by now a rear admiral, Halsey was plucked from his carrier task force by Adm. Chester A. Nimitz and charged with command of the South Pacific Theater. Nimitz, commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet (CINCPAC), realized he needed fighting sailors to relieve the “defeatist” U.S. Pacific commands. It annoyed Nimitz no end that his South Pacific commanders seemed to share General MacArthur’s view that islands such as Guadalcanal could not be held. In the face of this pessimism, Halsey’s “devil-may-care” reputation of being at his best when things seemed most desperate appealed to CINCPAC.
Nimitz wrote that he was looking for someone unafraid to sail west into Asia, north to Japan, “to sail into hell itself if need be,” to spread destruction among enemy-held island chains and disrupt Japan’s vital ocean supply lines. Halsey himself could hardly wait “to begin throwing punches,” and eight days after his promotion he defeated the Japanese at the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands. One month later, after inflicting severe damage on a huge enemy armada during a three-day shoot-out in the waters off Guadalcanal, he was promoted to full admiral.
There were whispers in Washington about Halsey’s rough edges, his pneumatic temper, his vocabulary’s profanity-laced default setting. But, to Nimitz, Halsey’s transgression, like Adm. Horatio Nelson’s admission before sailing to his death in Trafalgar, had not been that great. “If it be a sin to covet glory,” Nelson admitted to his mistress, Lady Emma Hamilton, “I am the most offending soul alive.” Moreover, he fit precisely the profile Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox had sent to fleet headquarters at Pearl Harbor.
“Men of the aggressive fighting type must be preferred over men of more judicial, thoughtful, but less aggressive characteristics,” Knox wrote Nimitz in a concise, frank memo whose prose limned the edge of poetry. “I presume most of us, if we had been required to choose at the beginning of the war between the brilliant, polished, socially attractive McClellan and the rough, rather uncouth, unsocial Grant, would have chosen McClellan, just as Lincoln did.”
Nimitz was not about to repeat the error. A different historical analogy may also have played into the selection. It was proverbial in military circles that the one question Napoleon asked his commanders prior to bestowing the field marshal’s baton was, “Are you lucky?” The techniques of war fighting may have changed in the decades since Austerlitz, but command instincts had not, and Halsey was acknowledged to possess deep reserves of good luck.
Not long after taking over the South Pacific Command, he demonstrated just this by ordering a feeder airfield hacked out of the jungles of Guadalcanal on terrain totally unsuited to the task. The ensuing, disastrous attempt at construction marooned a battalion of Marine Raiders. Trapped behind enemy lines, the Marines flanked the Japanese and broke through with a striking victory. As one Halsey biographer noted, “Even his mistakes turned out well.”
When Halsey received his promotion orders, he exclaimed, “Jesus Christ and General Jackson, this is the hottest potato they ever handed me!” When the announcement was officially posted, cheers resonated from the mess rooms of the lowliest scows tethered at Pearl to the muddy trenches encircling beleaguered Henderson Field on Guadalcanal. Said one air combat intelligence officer stationed on Guadalcanal, “I’ll never forget it. One minute we were too limp with malaria to crawl out of our foxholes; the next we were running around whooping like kids.”
Like many sailors, Halsey was a superstitious man. He had a lifelong dread of the thirteenth day of every month, and he carried or wore his totems proudly, in particular a tiki greenstone bracelet from New Zealand and a Hawaiian “good luck” strip of white linen. He was also something of a neat freak, to the point of obsession, and once had his steward follow the notoriously disheveled Vice Adm. John Sidney “slew” McCain around his flag bridge with a dustpan and brush to sweep up McCain’s cigarette ashes. His junior officers suspected him of being a “bathroom dawdler,” for at each staff briefing his shoes were invariably shined to a brown mirror, his tuft of hoar-gray hair meticulously slicked and parted, his fingernails clipped, cleaned, and buffed. And such was his reputation as an epicure that when he hosted a contingent of visiting army dignitaries aboard his flagship with a meal as sumptuous as a condemned man’s, one officer was heard to remark afterward, “Good God, why didn’t we join the navy?”
Despite this personal fastidiousness, ordinary seamen instinctively felt a special camaraderie with the admiral, sensing that he was willing to face their perils, able to bear their hardships. When Halsey’s twenty-seven-year-old son, Lt. (j.g.) William F. Halsey III, an aviation supply officer on the carrier USS Saratoga, went missing in the South Pacific in the summer of 1943, the admiral explicitly ordered that the search for him be conducted by the book. “My son is the same as every other son in the combat zone,” he told his operations officer. “Look for him just as you’d look for anybody else.”
Young Halsey and several crewmates were recovered four days later from a life raft floating near New Caledonia. But the admiral’s evenhandedness, and equanimity, in the face of personal privation was noted by U.S. sailors across the fleet. It was common knowledge throughout the Pacific Theater that Halsey enjoyed forgoing flag-country tradition to watch the regular shipboard movies with the enlisted men in the hangar deck, and he was known to complain loudly to Nimitz about the lousy films being shipped from Stateside. Once, when a sudden squall interrupted his regular afternoon game of deck tennis, he grabbed a mop and joined the maintenance crew in swabbing the teakwood weather deck.
Navy Secretary Knox often repeated a story that symbolized Halsey’s rapport with his enlisted men. One day, two sailors walking across the deck of the repair ship USS Argonne were discussing Halsey.
“I’d go through hell for that old son of a bitch,” said one.
The seaman was slapped on the back, and turned to find himself face-to-face with the admiral. “Young man,” said Halsey, “I’m not that old.”
The anecdote could be taken for apocryphal—Knox recognized the value of good advertising—were it not for dozens of similar tales. A Marine sentry assigned to Halsey’s cabin, for instance, once had the occasion to mention to the admiral that he hailed from the Bronx in New York City.
“Oh, yeah?” replied Halsey, who had been a gridiron star at the Naval Academy. “I’m from Elizabeth, New Jersey. You’re a big guy. You play football?”
The two then bantered for some time about sports—an exceptional, upstairs-downstairs exchange that rapidly made the rounds of mess decks throughout the fleet.
Ordinary sailors and Marines were not the only men who carried a special fondness for the “fighting admiral.” War correspondents loved Halsey, and he loved them back. Along with Patton in Europe, he was the closest thing Americans had to the mythic sinner-saint warrior, and he held lusty, detailed press conferences that composed, for the newspapermen, contemporary history.
Not only was he given to salty epithets deriding the Japanese as “yellow-bellied sons of bitches” and “fish-eating yellow bastards,” he knew what actions made good copy. In January 1942, when an enemy reconnaissance plane passing overhead inexplicably failed to spot his carrier task force steaming toward the surprise raid on the Marshalls, Halsey summoned his language officer to translate a message. “From the American admiral in charge of the striking force, to the Japanese admiral on the Marshall Islands,” he dictated. “It is a pleasure to thank you for having your patrol plane not sight my force.”
The next morning bombers from his carrier flagship USS Enterprise dropped copies of the leaflet along with their payloads. The flamboyant stunt was the talk of the Pacific Theater.
On occasion, however, Halsey’s spark-plug persona lapped itself. He was of the opinion that political language was the ability to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind, and during a summit in Auckland with New Zealand’s prime minister Peter Fraser in January 1943, he guaranteed reporters that the war would be won within a year. The forecast, wildly off base, not only infuriated the War and Navy Departments but embarrassed President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Tokyo Rose began cataloging the tortures Japan would inflict upon Halsey when he was captured, and even MacArthur, whose vanity brooked no competition, perceived in the banty admiral what the writer Ambrose Bierce called “a person of low taste, more interested in himself than in me.”
But to moms and pops and wives and sweethearts back home, newspaper dispatches filed from Halsey’s vicinity reflected a can-do American buoyancy that civilians yearned for. He often signed off correspondence with what came to be known as his slogan—”Kill Japs, kill Japs, and keep on killing Japs.” As one contemporary noted, “No one in the South Pacific forgot it.”
Two months after Halsey took command in the South Pacific, U.S. Marines drove the last of the Japanese from Guadalcanal. It was America’s first land triumph in the Pacific Theater—more important, it was seemingly impregnable Japan’s first defeat. It was left to an Englishman, commenting on a simultaneous Allied landing half a world away in North Africa, to frame what Americans back home felt upon receiving the news of the Marine victory on the Bloody Canal. “Now is not the end,” said Winston Churchill. “It is not even the beginning. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”
* * * *
In April 1943, Halsey achieved a measure of revenge for his “failure” to engage the brilliant Yamamoto off Pearl Harbor. Naval intelligence code breakers decrypted a message from the Japanese Imperial Staff revealing Yamamoto’s plan to make a morale-boosting inspection tour of his air squadrons in the upper Solomon Islands. The Japanese admiral was renowned as a punctilious officer, and the decoded communiqué helpfully listed his itinerary down to the minute. Nimitz studied his maps and determined that the first leg of Yamamoto’s flight would bring him to within three hundred miles of Guadalcanal, the very periphery of the range of U.S. fighter planes at Henderson Field. If they flew with supplementary belly gas tanks, they just might reach him and make it back alive.
But a decision to assassinate the Japanese admiral was well beyond Nimitz’s pay grade. He contacted Washington, where Secretary Knox consulted with a group of religious leaders about the morality of targeting a specific enemy commander, even one whose prominence in Japan was second only to that of the emperor. The churchmen gave the attack their blessing, and President Roosevelt signed off on the plot. Nimitz handed Operation Vengeance to Halsey with the message, “Good Luck and Good Hunting.”
Halsey and his staff devised their plan, and at first light on April 18 a flight of seventeen P-38 Lightnings fitted with belly tanks launched from Henderson Field. Two hours later they intercepted Yamamoto’s squadron of two Mitsubishi bombers and its escort Zeros near the southern coast of Bougainville. Eight of the American fighters engaged the Zeros. The rest sped after the two Mitsubishis, now diving for the treetops. The U.S. squad leader had not expected two bombers. Which one carried Yamamoto? Taking no chances, American cannon and machine gun fire sent one flaming into the jungle canopy. The other, also hit, pancaked into the sea.
The next morning Japanese troops hacked through the overgrowth and recovered the remains of Yamamoto. The admiral’s body was still strapped into its seat, unblemished except for the two tidy holes, crusted with dried blood, left by the bullet that passed through his jaw and exited his temple. He was still gripping his samurai sword. The Japanese navy never won another major sea battle.
“Pop goes the weasel” was the prearranged radio signal confirming Yamamoto’s death. When it was flashed from Henderson Field to Halsey, who was meeting with MacArthur in Brisbane, Australia, an aide in the room began hooting and applauding. Halsey silenced him with a wave and a scowl. “What’s good about it?” he demanded. “I’d hoped to lead that scoundrel up Pennsylvania Avenue in chains, with the rest of you kicking him where it would do the most good.”
A Stateside headline writer had christened Halsey “Bull,” and newsmen the world over invariably picked it up. Though he disliked the epithet—”I got that name from some drunken newspaper correspondent who punched the letter ‘u’ instead of ‘i’ writing Bill”—he tolerated it, and among his admirers he certainly lived up to the nickname’s snorting connotation. It was “Bull” Halsey’s lust for a good fight, anywhere, anytime, that secured his reputation. Once, aboard the destroyer Hull, Chief Quartermaster Archie DeRyckere was asked by a new sailor to describe the Third Fleet’s commander in one word. DeRyckere stroked his chin. “Attack,” he finally said.
In August 1944, Halsey took over the rotating command of the Pearl Harbor—based Pacific, or Big Blue, Fleet from his good friend, sometimes rival, and future in-law Vice Adm. Raymond A. Spruance. If, as was held, every ship of the U.S. Navy was stamped with the personality of its skipper, Halsey’s imprint loomed large over the entire fleet. In contrast to the buttoned-down Spruance, Halsey rarely stood on ceremony. A British Royal Navy liaison officer once skiffed ashore to introduce himself to the American admiral. The prim, proper Englishman found the usually fastidious Halsey larking about barefoot on his veranda, wearing only shorts and a khaki shirt with no insignia. Halsey mixed cocktails as the two settled in to swat mosquitoes, converse, and watch the sun set.
Later, the Brit recalled that out of uniform Halsey might have been mistaken for “Long John Silver.” But, he added, “When I left him and thought of what he had said, I realized I had been listening to one of the great admirals of the war.”
Halsey was also blessed with an appreciation that the wheel of fortune is oiled by whiskey—or, as he put it, “A bottle of Scotch on the table always bore fruit in our dealings with other commands.” He often said that “as a general rule I never trust a fighting man who doesn’t smoke or drink.” And his favorite toast soon became a staple in Pacific tiki bars frequented by American servicemen: “I’ve drunk your health in company; I’ve drunk your health alone; I’ve drunk your health so many times, I’ve damned near ruined my own.” This liquid diplomacy proved particularly felicitous in smoothing over simmering rivalries between Nimitz’s staff and army units under MacArthur’s command. Further, whenever an army outfit assisted the navy by any manner or means, Halsey went out of his way to ensure that the ground-pounders received full credit in the newspapers.
Though a newspaper reporter once made note of the close “affinity between [Halsey’s] foot and his mouth,” and sticklers may have found his humor too ribald and his references to the Japanese as “monkey meat” somewhat crude (given even the racial dictates of the age), the admiral’s loyalists rightly argued that the U.S. Navy was not a debating society. If Spruance, unencumbered with charisma, was a master of cautious planning and seemed to speak in italics, Halsey’s instinctive, seat-of-the-pants audacity inspired partisanship.
In a sense, the two admirals’ personalities, and their respective importance in spearheading America’s Pacific campaign, mirrored the personal disparity GIs observed between two warfighters on the other side of the globe, Dwight D. Eisenhower and George S. Patton. A fellow naval officer who worked with both Spruance and Halsey may as well have been writing about the two U.S. generals on the European front when he noted, “When Admiral Spruance was in command you knew precisely what he was going to do. But when Admiral Halsey was in command, you never knew what he was going to do.” At the end of the day, however, it was the swabbies who kept score. In their respective battles against Japanese fleets, Spruance, who was not an aviator, had sunk three of the nine enemy carriers he’d faced; Halsey had dispatched four of four.
It was against this backdrop that Admiral Halsey now found himself sitting in the dock at the end of the long green table on Ulithi Atoll, trying to explain the perfect storm that had just decimated his fleet.
* * * *
U.S. naval courts of inquiry were common during World War II, as regulations required that a formal investigation be held whenever a vessel was lost. Known throughout the officer corps as “captain-breakers,” their purpose was to examine in depth the circumstances that led to a ship’s sinking, to establish responsibility, to determine if any offense was committed, and to fix blame if necessary. But today’s was no routine hearing. Among the observers in the makeshift courtroom aboard the destroyer tender Cascade was CINCPAC himself, Adm. Chester A. Nimitz.
Tall, courtly, and strikingly handsome, with a patrician mien that lent an air of confident gravitas to his office, Nimitz was a map hobbyist whose profound interest in military literature contrasted starkly with Halsey’s preference for the Police Gazette. He had arrived on Ulithi from Pearl Harbor on Christmas Eve accompanied by Vice Admirals George D. Murray and John Howard Hoover, the latter a prickly officer with the hard look of a man who didn’t mind being known as a place where trouble started. Hoover and Murray, along with Rear Adm. Glenn B. Davis, would comprise the three-man court of inquiry.
On Ulithi, Nimitz “broke flag” on the New Jersey—navy slang for an officer of higher rank bunking on another officer’s flagship—and presented Halsey with a miniature Christmas tree complete with ornaments. He appeared miffed that Halsey and his staff noticeably preferred the nuts-and-bolts metal “tree” fashioned by the battleship’s engine room gang. The next morning, Christmas Day 1944, Nimitz formally convened the court. He appointed Admiral Hoover its presiding officer and named forty-three-year-old Capt. Herbert K. Gates, an expert in mechanical and marine engineering, as judge advocate. The position was equal parts prosecutor and legal adviser to the sitting admirals.
The hearing was closed to all but court officers, stenographers, witnesses, defendants, and “interested parties.” The record of its proceedings, classified “secret,” was kept so for over half a century. This not only shut out any casual observers, but left the frustrated war correspondents prowling Ulithi—several of whom had barely survived the typhoon themselves—on the outside looking in.
Naval courts of inquiry followed a fairly straightforward formula. The court determined if an officer or enlisted man should be classified as a defendant—”A person whose conduct is the subject of this investigation”—or an interested party—”Any person, not a complainant or defendant, who has an interest in the subject matter of the inquiry.” The proceedings would begin with the commanding officer of a lost vessel—or, as the case may be, her highest-ranking survivor—dictating in private a narrative of the circumstances under which the ship sank.
That narrative would then be read aloud in court in the presence of all the surviving officers and crew. The court would ask the officer if he had any objections to the narrative’s content and, if not, whether he had any charges to make against a fellow officer or enlisted man with regard to the ship’s destruction. If again the answer was no, the process was reversed, with each surviving seaman granted the opportunity to bring a complaint against any officer or fellow crewman. The court then followed up with questions of its own. Some hearings were perfunctory. Others were tense.
Before Halsey was sworn in on December 28, the court had been sitting for three days and had already heard the testimony of close to half of the fifty-four witnesses it would call over its eight-day session. When Halsey’s star turn arrived, Judge Advocate Gates was relentless.
“When fueling had to be stopped on the seventeenth of December due to increasing bad weather, what were your considerations?” he asked.
“The general picture was sour,” Halsey replied, and so by this point was the admiral’s mood. In his own defense Halsey again fell back upon his obligation to support MacArthur’s amphibious landings on the Philippine island of Mindoro. He told the court of his experiences encountering, and successfully riding out, previous Pacific typhoons. He also mentioned as a mitigating factor a warning weather report from a reconnaissance seaplane that, having reached his flagship, the battleship New Jersey, in plenty of time, was not decoded and read for another forty-eight hours. Judge Advocate Gates was unimpressed. Seven hundred and ninety-three men were lost. Three ships rested on the ocean floor. The Third Fleet was decimated.
“At what time did the storm considerations begin to govern the disposition of the fleet, if at all?” It was the “if at all” that blistered.
So it went. The judge advocate thrusting; Halsey parrying. This was not the admiral’s strength. By temperament and training he was accustomed to playing offense. As the questioning wore on, Halsey’s answers seemed to become more frustrated at the direction of the hearings. At the end of the day he requested the court to officially designate him an “interested party,” and asked to be represented by counsel. His appeal was granted.
The inquiry was the talk of Ulithi, if not the Pacific Theater. It was a story that was not only developing legs, but tentacles that might take down America’s most famous naval hero. Throughout engine rooms and mess halls, Halsey’s loyalists argued that the typhoon was an unfathomable act of God, tempered by a combinationof shoddy staff work and miscommunication. Battered survivors, most especially the sailors who had floated for days or watched their crewmates be torn apart by sharks, may have held a different view, but all remained too awestruck, overwhelmed by the presence of so much brass, to speak for the record.
Admiral Hoover, the court’s president, quietly let it be known that he believed Halsey should be court-martialed. Sailing the fleet into that storm, he thought, losing those men and ships, was a severe dereliction of duty.
Nimitz was more circumspect, at least in public. His admiration and friendship toward Halsey ran deep, and changing an admiral’s mind is akin to reversing a carrier’s course. It takes a lot of tack and persuasion. In private, however, CINCPAC seethed. The retaking of the Philippines was the most important American offensive of the Pacific war to date, the last stepping-stone before bringing the fight to the Japanese mainland, and Nimitz considered the debacle during the storm “a totally unnecessary disaster.”
He also feared that Halsey’s political enemies, both Stateside and in-theater, had finally the ammunition to sink him. Nimitz personally knew most of these sailors, and to a man he considered them respected officers of the line.
These were seamen who remembered—and still resented—Halsey’s performance during the largest naval engagement in history, the Battle for Leyte Gulf.
Adm. William Halsey, Commander of Third Fleet
Adm. John McCain, Commander of Task Force 38
Comdr. George Kosco, Chief Aerologist of Third Fleet
Adm. “Mick” Carney, Halsey’s Chief of Staff
Capt. Jasper Acuff, Commander of Task Group 30.8
Capt. Preston Mercer, Commander of Destroyer Squadron 1
Lt. (j.g.) Jerry Ford, USS Monterey
Capt. Charles Calhoun, USS Dewey
Capt. William Rogers, USS Aylwin
Capt. Stuart Ingersoll, USS Monterey
Capt. R. W. Bockius, USS Cape Esperance
Capt. Michael Kernodle, USS San Jacinto
Capt. Raymond Toner, USS Robert F. Keller
Capt. H. P. Butterfield, USS Nehenta Bay
Capt. Henry Lee Plage
Lt. Bob Surdam, Executive Officer
Lt. (j.g.) Howard Korth, Gunnery Officer
Louis Purvis, Bosun’s Mate 1st Class
Paul “Cookie” Phillips, Ship’s Cook 1st Class
William McClain, Mailman 3rd Class
Leonard Glaser, Shipfitter 3rd Class
John Cross, Signalman 3rd Class
Ralph Tucker, Chief Radioman
Tom Bellino, Gunner’s Mate
Lt. Frank Cleary, Medical Officer
Capt. James Marks
Lt. Griel Gherstly, Executive Officer
Lt. (j.g.) Lloyd Rust, CIC Officer
Archie DeRyckere, Chief Quartermaster
Pat Douhan, Petty Officer 2nd Class
Ray Schultz, Chief Bosun’s Mate
Tom Stealey, Fireman
“Spiz” Hoffman, Ship’s Cook 1st Class
Nick Nagurney, Fireman 1st Class
Capt. Bruce Garrett
Keith Abbott, Radar Technician
Joe McCrane, Watertender 2nd Class
Evan Fenn, Fireman
Joe Guio, Gunner’s Mate
Capt. James Andrea
Lt. (j.g.) Alphonso Krauchunas
Bob Ayers, Gunner’s Mate Striker
George Johnson, Chief Watertender
Floyd Balliett, Radar Technician
Adm. Ernest King, Chief of U.S. Naval Operations
Gen. Douglas MacArthur, Field Marshal, Combined
Adm. Chester Nimitz, Commander of Pacific Naval Operations
Arleigh Burke, Commander, DesRon 23, “Little Beavers”
Adm. Raymond Spruance, Commander of Fifth Fleet
Rear Adm. Thomas Kinkaid, Commander of (MacArthur’s)
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