Fleet Admiral Halsey was attending a reception in 1946 when a woman broke through the crowd around him, grasped his hand, and cried, "I feel as if I were touching the hand of God!"
On the day that Pearl Harbor was attacked, William Frederick Halsey, Jr., was a vice admiral with the signal number 41, which means that he ranked forty-first among the officers of the United States Navy. He had won the Navy Cross in World War I and also held the Mexican Service Medal and the Victory Medal with Destroyer Clasp. In addition, Greece had given him the Order of the Redeemer, and Chile, the Al Merito, Primera . His vice admiral's stripes and his long years of diversified service had made him well known in the Navy, but although he was listed in "Who's Who," as are all naval officers above captains, few civilians had heard his name.
By the time of the reception, five years later, he had become not only the most famous man in the United States Navy but the most famous living naval man in the world. He had jumped from the obscure pages of the "Navy Register" to the front pages of the world's newspapers, and from there into the pages of history.
He had been promoted two grades, his signal number was 7, and his five decorations had increased to twenty-four. He had been awarded the Navy's Distinguished Service Medal with three Gold Stars, the Army's Distinguished Service Medal, the Presidential Unit Citation with star, the American Defense Service Medal with Fleet Clasp, the Asiatic-Pacific Area Campaign Medal with twelve combat stars, the Philippine Liberation Campaign ribbon with two stars, the American Area Campaign Medal, and the World War II Victory Medal. Great Britain had made him an Honorary Knight Commander of the British Empire, and Guatemala, a Supreme Chief in the Order of the Quetzal. Chile had raised him to the Grand Cross of the Legion of Merit. Colombia had given him the Grand p. x Cross of Boyaca; Cuba, the Order of Naval Merit; Ecuador, the Abdon Calderón; Panama, the Grand Cross of Balboa; Peru, the Order of Ayacucho; and Venezuela, the Order of the Liberator.
Neither his renown nor its trappings impress him at all. His pleasure in the array of ribbons on his chest is a candid pleasure in something gaudy. He speaks of them as "my neon sign" and pretends to forget what some of them represent; others he dismisses with, "I got that one for having lunch with the Grand Vizier, or whatever he was." He considers them tributes not to himself but to the men he has commanded. Nor is he dazzled by the gold stripes that run from his cuff to his elbow. He says, "It's a blessing they can't promote me again; one more stripe, and I couldn't bend my arm to take a drink."
The public's refusal to accept him at his own value always bewilders and frequently irritates him. When the ecstatic woman at the reception had tottered away, he turned to his flag lieutenant: "Did you hear that idiot? For sixty-three years I've been plain Bill Halsey and now I'm suddenly God! It'll take some getting used to."
So far he has failed even to make the attempt. He stubbornly continues to regard himself as a simple mortal who has been projected into eminence partly by his ability, partly by luck, and mostly by the courage and resource of the United States Navy.
The Navy itself, however, has attributed to him at least one aspect of divinity; as early as his cadet days, forty years ago, his classmates noted that "he looks like a figurehead of Neptune." His head is appropriately heroic; his caps have to be specially made, and although he wear a 7¾, he feels "easier" in a 7⅞. A committee of illustrators recently announced that his head was "one of the six most startling and exciting in the world"; the others were the heads of Ernest Hemingway, Ernest Bevin, Walter Reuther, Tyrone Power, and J. Edgar Hoover. He has a heavy jaw which seems to pull him forward, so that his blue eyes peer up through his thick eyebrows, but his expression is never as Olympian as the comparison with Neptune implies. He has dignity when the occasion demands it, but he grins more readily than he scowls. Most of the photographs that show him scowling were taken at his desk. They libel his natural disposition; the scowl usually means that he has forgotten his glasses and is reading without them.
p. xi He has been tattooed and he has owned a parrot, but otherwise he resembles the popular conception of a "briny shellback" no more profoundly than he resembles Neptune. He stands •close to 6 feet, but far from toting a quarterdeck paunch, he weighs only •165 pounds, 10 less than when he was a cadet. His weight is in his chest; his belly is flat, and his legs are slender. Exercise keeps him trim; he played football at the Naval Academy and rowed on the crew, and he is still an excellent swimmer and a fair golfer. In recent years he played deck tennis daily when he was at sea, weather and combat permitting; ashore he takes long walks. His gait is not rolling, but a stiff march, with no swing to his square shoulders. His companions have observed that he invariably changes his step to match theirs. Walking out of step is lubberly; it makes him uncomfortable.
Mrs. Halsey accuses him of clumsiness. She once told him, "If a man has a nervous wife he wants to get rid of, all he has to do is send for you. Five minutes after you've come in, bumping into sofas and knocking over chairs, she'll be dead of heart failure."
His family and his staff tease him constantly — about the raucous neckties he wears with civilian clothes, his helplessness in the grip of bores, the terror he inspires when he takes the controls of a plane, the junk he collects and lugs around with him. Any present, no matter how with trivial, he treasures forever. In his right trouser pocket he carries a pouch of kangaroo hide, containing a New Zealand coin given him by the Governor General, and a silver dollar. In his wallet is a four-leaf clover mounted in isinglass, from "Clover Charlie"; a ten‑yen note with the inscription, "Recovered from the paymaster's safe of the Jap cruiser Nachi, sunk 5 Nov. 1944"; and a dozen membership cards for officers' clubs long since dissolved. His pet keepsake is a tiny strip of white linen on a straw staff, a Hawaiian symbol of good luck; he mislaid it once on his flagship and had flag country turned upside down until it was found.
His rooms are cluttered with Japanese swords and mess knives; souvenir ash trays, such as one made from the case of the first 5‑inch shell fired against Marcus Island on October 9, 1944; the flags that he flew from various ships and stations; a Swiss music box and a cloisonné urn that formerly belonged to the Japanese vice admiral commanding the Yokosuka Naval Base; and a large p. xii assortment of other trophies. Souvenir hunters level the balance by pilfering his caps, buttons, pins, and even his toilet gear. At Leyte, one of them made off with his class ring, which he had removed before going swimming; his staff presented him with a new one. Besides the ring and his gold identification bracelet, he wore a New Zealand tiki bracelet of greenstone until someone suggested that he was beginning to look like Carmen Miranda; he blushed and never wore it again.
Despite his talismans and luck pieces, he denies that he is superstitious. It is true that his old mistrust of Friday the thirteenth has cooled,a but he still knocks wood after an optimistic statement, and he still tries to avoid flying in the same plane with Fleet Admiral Nimitz, whose pilots are notorious for the poor luck that dogs them.
"That's not superstition," he says. "It's common sense. Chester is bad joss in the air."
When his son and daughter were children — both now have children of their own — and Mrs. Halsey caught them leaving towels in the basin or clothes on the floor, she used to remind them, "You never see your father doing that!" His neatness is almost an obsession. No member of his staff ever discovered how he spends the two hours between getting up and breakfast, but they suspect that he is a bathroom dawdler, that he clips and cleans his nails, shaves, bathes, dusts himself with powder, and brushes his hair, then goes through the whole routine again, and possibly a third time. When he eventually appears, he is immaculate enough to preside at an operating table instead of a breakfast table. He is never overdue on a haircut; his shoes are always polished, his buttons bright, his uniform crisp.
There is ample precedent for high-ranking officers to shade the regulations about uniforms — General MacArthur and General Patton, for example — but Admiral Halsey avails himself of the privilege only to the extent of wearing miniature wings below the Navy pin on his garrison cap; pilots have been forbidden to flaunt them there since 1943.
His neatness stops well short of dandyism or stiffness. If formality conflicts with his ease, whether in costume or conduct, formality never takes precedence. His staff always stood up when he came p. xiii in to breakfast, and he always ordered them, "Sit down, goddamit! How many times do I have to tell you?" He meant it, but they still stood up.
Few flag messes were freer than his. Junior officers were encouraged to speak as frankly as the Chief of Staff. Admiral Halsey provoked the discussions and arbitrated them but withheld his own opinion until the time for decision. The value of these square-table conferences was demonstrated repeatedly. The radical strategy of his speculator raid on the Marshall Islands in February, 1942, was suggested with the soup and approved by the dessert.
He eats lightly, whatever is set before him. Like most Navy men, he drinks coffee and smokes cigarettes all day long. Occasionally he takes a beer or a Martini, but his staple drink is Scottish whisky and plain water. He has said, "There are exceptions, of course, but as a general rule, I never trust a fighting man who doesn't smoke or drink." His favorite toast is
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.
He enjoys parties, especially dances where young people predominate. He has survived most of his contemporaries, and most of the rest are too sedate for his taste when he "hits the beach." Even his flag lieutenants were hard put to keep up his party pace. It is nothing for him to turn in at four o'clock on three mornings in a row and still get up at six. At breakfast after a party, he shakes his head and says, "It seemed like a good idea last night, but —". His son Bill, then an ensign, spent New Year's Eve of 1942 with him at his headquarters in Nouméa. Next morning, when the Admiral turned him out at six as usual, Bill protested, "Most people are going to bed at this time today, Dad, and here we are getting up!"
His talk is not "salty" to the extent of "shiver my timbers" or "avast and belay," but he would never be mistaken for other than a seagoing man. He tells his barber, "Cut off about 6 fathoms of my hair." The rear seat of an automobile is its "stern sheets." His baggage is his "gear." A farewell party is a "despedida" — a souvenir word from the Philippines. He says that one of his greatest p. xiv regrets is his ignorance of foreign languages, but he can stumble through a conversation in French or German, and during his tour of Central and South America in the summer of 1946, he delighted his hosts by his fluency in Spanish.
Two mysterious idiosyncrasies bob up in his speech: he accents "opponent" on the first syllable, and when he mentions a date, he says, "That was in nineteen and twenty‑six," or, "We've been friends since eighteen and ninety-four." A few names seem to elude him. Empress Augusta Bay, in Bougainville, he calls "Emperor Augustus Bay," and the former Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Air, "Di" Gates, he refers to as "Guy" Gates. "Diary" also gives him trouble. He will say, "It's in my war dairy — damn it, diary!" His staff could always tell when he had been chatting with Britishers; he would bring back a broad A which took an hour or so to evaporate.
Before Pearl Harbor, his brother officers knew him professionally as an able commander, not brilliant, but solid, with a conspicuous gift for handling men. Socially they knew him as a good companion who recognized no inferiority in fewer stripes or stars. Their wives held him up as a model of courtesy, an ideal guest, prompt, pleasant, and appreciative. Some of these old friends who have not seen him since Pearl Harbor and have followed his career only through the newspapers have expressed fears about the battle change he seems to have suffered. They gather that he is no longer the mild-spoken Bill Halsey of a few years back, but a fire-breathing swashbuckler, whose every other word is a blasphemy.
Their apprehension is understandable, but it has no base. He is still mild-spoken. His man-to‑man conversation is sprinkled with "hell" and "damn," but no more thickly than before; in mixed company, he sometimes looses a "heck"; never, under any circumstances, is he obscene. His heaviest broadside, detonated only by extreme stress, is "Jesus Christ and General Jackson!" He has not changed. He is merely a victim of the press's conviction that the American public requires its military heroes to be picturesque. Until he became Commander of the South Pacific in October, 1942, he had never been interviewed, and when the correspondents made clear their disappointment at his failure to fit their "gruff sea dog" mold — which is standard for senior naval officers — p. xv he obligingly rolled out the appropriate curses. (A member of his staff has said, "The Old Man can put on a good show when he wants to. He's a seagoing Hamlet.") In subsequent interviews, the correspondents noticed that the reek of brimstone was far fainter, but they had already cut the stencil of his public personality, and they never modified it.
Although he may color his phrases to suit circumstances, the opinions that they express are a fixed black or white. A friend of his once warned a toastmaster, "If you don't want to know what Bill Halsey thinks, don't call on him, or he'll certainly tell you." He speaks his mind bluntly, heedless of diplomacy and tact. Secretary Forrestal jocularly dubbed him "the Henry Wallace of the Navy." Unlike many public figures, however, he confines his opinions to his own province. This is not so much because of discretion as because the Navy absorbs him to the neglect of all other interests. He reads, but at random; he has no hobbies, no diversions. A casual acquaintance would think he had no life ashore, and even his staff officers have never heard him mention a personal problem. One of them said, "I don't know whether he shucks them off or buries them deep, but I know he doesn't wear them around his neck."
He has often declared that when he retires, he hopes to live within sight of the sea, but for all his devotion to the Navy, he has no special feeling for any of his many ships, except the Enterprise and, to a lesser degree, the Saratoga. Such indifference is strange in one so sentimental and emotional. An occasion that might bring a small lump to the throat of another man will move Admiral Halsey to tears. He speaks contemptuously of "my nut mail," yet the rare letters that accused him of callousness toward human life — every top combat officer has received them — made him mope for days afterwards. His staff lost him at Guadalcanal and discovered that he had slipped off to locate the grave of an acquaintance's son and have it photographed. When he had to order a dangerous mission, he would tell his staff — half defiantly, half apologetically, "You can't make omelettes without breaking eggs!" And until the mission was completed, he paced up and down, twiddling a cigarette, taking out his lighter, putting it back, twiddling the cigarette again.
p. xvi His conception of the Navy is the same as Nelson's: "a band of brothers." Driving near Pensacola one night, he came upon a wrecked motorcycle and a badly injured sailor. A Navy ambulance had already been sent for. Soon after it arrived a Navy doctor drove up. He loaded the sailor into the ambulance and signaled it to start back.
Admiral Halsey asked, "Aren't you going to ride with him?"
"No, sir. I've got my own car."
"Damn your car! Get into that ambulance!"
Sailors know that their welfare is his vital concern, so his "loyalty down," in the Navy phrase, is met more than halfway by their "loyalty up." Before he hauled down his flag for the last time, their respect and affection for him were evident whenever one of his men met a shipmate from a former command. To the Navy's immemorial greeting, "What ship you on now, sailor?", a Halsey man returned not the name of his ship, but a proud, "I'm with Halsey!"
His own loyalty goes up as well as down. Not even in private conversation with intimate friends has he ever been heard to disparage higher authority. His staff often tried to entice him to comment on certain national policies which he was believed to disapprove, but because these policies stemmed from the President, his Commander in Chief, he kept silent. In the early days of the war, General MacArthur's theatricals were a favorite topic among Navy men and Marines in the South Pacific. Criticism by Marines was especially acid, since MacArthur, as Chief of Staff, had attempted to abolish their Corps. But when Admiral Halsey was invited to endorse their opinion, he would say firmly, "You must be mistaken. The General is a good soldier."
Any summary of personality should include qualities of both the mind and the spirit. Admiral Halsey's mind is the Navy mind — well-trained within professional limits. But his spirit is the historic spirit of leadership. Here his courtesy and, by extension, his modesty count for little; they are merely bonuses. His loyalty counts for more. But his paramount quality, the stuff that men follow as an oriflamme, is his courage. He is a fighter, a combat man, blooded and proven. When he commanded the Third Fleet, he did not send men into battle; he led them in. It is morale that p. xvii wins wars, and what personal leadership does for morale is nowhere better stated than by Sir Thomas Malory, who describes a battle of King Arthur's, and then observes,
"All men of worship said it was merry to be under such a chieftain, that would put his person in adventure as other poor knights did."
Admiral Halsey is such a chieftain.
J. Bryan iii,
Lt. Comdr., USNR
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