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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 13

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Admiral Halsey's Story

Fleet Admiral
William F. Halsey, USN

published by
McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc.
New York : London

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 15
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

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The Battle for Leyte Gulf ended on October 26, 1944. On January 26, 1945, I was relieved in command of the Third Fleet. The intervening three months were a repetition of the months before — strike and strike again, in support of Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.MacArthur's advance — but with this difference: each of the three months brought us a new and unforgettable experience. In November, it was kamikazes; in December, a typhoon; in January, our foray into the China Sea.

The kamikazes picked the date of their debut shrewdly. Our long weeks at sea, culminating in a three‑day battle, had depleted our planes and exhausted our men. Since the end of August, TF 38 had lost 220 of its planes in combat and roughly fifty more in operational accidents. Now the normal level of these accidents was tilting upward, because of fatigue. For instance, a flight surgeon on the Wasp reported that only thirty of his 131 pilots were fit for further fighting. The whole task force was overdue for retirement to Ulithi for rest and replenishment, particularly because our next operation would be the most rugged of all — a smash into the heart of the Japanese Empire, Tokyo itself.

But we couldn't retire yet. They still needed us in the Philippines. Although General Kenney had assumed responsibility for direct air support of the Leyte area, Kinkaid asked us to stand by. He wasn't satisfied with the cover that Kenney was providing his Seventh Fleet, and so many of his CVE's had been sunk or crippled in the action off Samar that he couldn't provide his own. Accordingly, I postponed the strike against the Empire, sent two of our  p229 task groups — McCain's and Ted Sherman's — back to Ulithi, and kept the other two at the front, as tired as they were. Davison's group cruised off Samar; Bogan's, which included my flagship, was now, off Luzon.

It happened at 1214 on October 29. A flight of Japs bored in on our group. Our vigilant CAP managed to shoot down twenty‑one of them, and the ships' AA shot down another, but one plane broke through and dived into a carrier. Of course, it was Bogan's flagship, the Intrepid. I say "of course" because the Intrepid was the unluckiest ship in the Navy. Like the Saratoga, she could hardly poke her nose out of port without getting it rapped. She has the grim distinction of having taken a total of five kamikazes, and she has spent so much time in drydock that the fleet calls her "the Decrepit" and "the Dry I." This kamikaze, her first, struck her a glancing blow in a gun gallery. Only six men were killed, and her slight damage did not impair her operating efficiency, so we were more concerned about the weapon than about its target.

I didn't know the term at the time, but I had seen a kamikaze before — the plane that had tried to crash the Enterprise during the Marshalls raid in February, 1942. That plane was already doomed; its pilot would have been killed anyhow. But the plane that struck the Intrepid had not been damaged; the dive was obviously a deliberate sacrifice. Intelligence had warned us that "the Divine Wind Special Attack Corps" had been organized, but even after we had seen this sample performance, I think the most of us took it as a sort of token terror, a tissue-paper dragon. The psychology behind it was too alien to ours; Americans, who fight to live, find it hard to realize that another people will fight to die. We could not believe that even the Japanese, for all their hara-kiri traditions, could muster enough recruits to make such a corps really effective.

We were violently disillusioned the very next day. They missed the Enterprise, in Davison's group, but they hit two of his other carriers, the Franklin and Belleau Wood, killing a total of 158 men, destroying forty-five planes, and requiring the withdrawal of both ships for repairs. Our CV's were obvious targets: their huge tanks of aviation gasoline were as vulnerable as they were inflammable, their fire power was light, their armor was thin, and damage to their flight decks meant the neutralization of around 100 planes.  p230 On November 1, however, the kamikazes switched to Kinkaid's destroyers in Leyte Gulf; they sank one and damaged five. On the fifth, they struck at Sherman, whose group was fresh from Ulithi; one of them missed the Ticonderoga, and another missed the Lexington, but the third hit the Lexington's signal bridge, killing forty-seven men. We had dismissed the Special Attack Corps as a flash in the pan. Now it seemed less a flash than a blast.

Captain Dow:

For some mysterious Jap reason, their radio at Manila chose the day of the attack on Admiral Davison's group to scream, "We dare the American public to ask where Halsey is!"

When I reported this to the Admiral, he said, "If CINCPAC would let me, I'd send 'em my latitude and longitude!"

Incidentally, that day was his sixty-second birthday.

Our adjustment to the kamikazes was complicated by the enemy's stubborn refusal, despite his staggering naval defeat, to consider Leyte lost. He began to pour planes into his fields on Luzon, Mindanao, and the Visayan Islands, and to rush troops through his inland waterway, across the Sibuyan Sea. Kenney could neither stop them nor protect our own troops and shipping. His fighters were useless against convoys, and he had few bombers. Moreover, the rains had begun; construction of his new airfields was delayed; and his only serviceable field, Taclobán, was not adequate to handle enough planes for steady offense and defense. On one overcrowded night, a scattering of Jap bombs wiped out twenty-seven of his parked P‑38's. The enemy became bolder; our Leyte advance slowed down; so MacArthur requested the first carriers to lend him a hand again.

This meant a further postponement of the rest we urgently needed, and the abandonment of my cherished hope of making the first carrier raid on Tokyo since Jimmy Doolittle's (the honor fell to the Fifth Fleet, in February), but the critical situation at Leyte took precedence over everything else. There are two theories of how best to use carriers in support of shore operations: one is passive — keep them close by in a small area, as bases for CAP's; the other is active — crush enemy air power at its source. I have always held the second theory. I told MacArthur that we could  p231 accomplish more if he would let us strike the feeder fields on Luzon, and as soon as he gave his permission, we struck. In fact, between November 5 and 25, we struck six times. We destroyed 756 planes; we wiped out a ten‑ship convoy headed toward Leyte; and we sent a surface force to bombard the air installations at Iwo Jima, which was being used as a search-plane base and a staging point for aircraft en route from the Empire to the Philippines.

Meanwhile, we had also taken a vicarious hand in furnishing close air defense for Leyte. I had had under my command in the South Pacific a Marine air group which had proved its versatility in everything from fighting to blasting enemy vessels. I knew that this group was now under MacArthur's command, and I knew, too, without understanding why, that when Kenney was not keeping it idle, he was assigning it to missions far below its capacity. Kinkaid's complaint of insufficient air cover prompted me to take a step which was more than a liberty; to a man of meaner spirit than MacArthur's, it would have seemed an impertinence. I called these Marines to his attention. He ordered them forward, and within twenty-four hours of their arrival, they had justified my recommendation. Thanks to them and to our strikes on Luzon, Kinkaid's daily report began to read, "No bogeys."

The November 25 strike was our last in support of Leyte. There were moments when I was afraid it would be our last anywhere. Until then our new tactics had smothered the kamikazes; this time they were ready for us and staged a counterattack. One plunged into the carrier Essex, in Sherman's task group, but the rest concentrated on our group, so I saw them clearly. The first dived at the carrier Hancock, which shot him down directly overhead; a fragment of his wing fell on her flight deck and started a fire. The second and third, both loaded with bombs, crashed into the luckless Intrepid. The fourth dived through the light carrier Cabot's forward ramp; two minutes later, the fifth hit close aboard her port side.

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The Essex's fire was soon extinguished; fourteen of her men were killed and damage was heavy, but she was able to stay at sea. The Hancock had no deaths and negligible damage. Although the Cabot lost thirty-four men and was badly damaged forward, she too could stay at sea. But the Intrepid went through hell. An instant after she was hit, she was wrapped in flames; blazing gasoline  p232 cascaded down her sides; explosions rocked her; then oily black smoke, rising thousands of feet, hid everything but her bow. Despite this inferno, she kept her bearing, speed, and distance in the formation; and Jerry Bogan surrendered control of the task group for only half an hour, and only because his communications had been burnt away. It was as fine a display of guts as I've ever seen.

The Intrepid had sixty-nine men killed or missing, seventeen planes destroyed, and damage severe enough to send her back to Pearl. Thus, in less than a month, kamikazes cost the Third Fleet 328 men, around ninety planes, and the use of three carriers. Apparently they had proved their effectiveness, for when a carrier can be temporarily disabled, or a destroyer sunk, at the price — as the public believed — of one pilot and one ramshackle plane, it seems to be a bargain. So it might be, if that were the true price. But our statistics show that of all the kamikazes attempting to dive on us, about 1 per cent succeeded; the rest either crashed harmlessly or were shot down. The true price therefore becomes 100 pilots and 100 planes.

More important, while planes are expendable, pilots are not. Long before these attacks, it was clear that the quality of Jap pilots was degenerating. We suspected that we had killed off their good ones, deep into the reserves, and the kamikazes confirmed our suspicion. They were bungling amateurs who, having demonstrated their unfitness for combat flying, had been dosed with fanaticism and press-ganged into the Special Attack Corps. To me, the kamikaze was a weapon not of inspiration, but of desperation — an unmistakable sign that the Japanese war machine was close to collapse.

I would be a damn fool to pretend that individual kamikazes did not scare me; they scared me thoroughly and repeatedly. But the kamikaze conception did not scare me for a moment. I was confident that we could devise tactics to counter it, if our men were rested, our complement of planes was full, and our fleet was on the offensive. The early attacks, I reemphasize, caught us with tired men and few planes. Besides, the Intrepid was first hit while we were confined to a narrow area, searching for pilots downed by a storm the evening before; and the Franklin and Belleau Wood were hit just after part  p233 of the CAP over their task group had been sent to cover our near‑by tankers, which had been discovered by a snooper. (We would have been crippled by the loss of our indispensable tanker force, but the Japs were too stupid to strike it.)

Slew McCain had relieved Pete Mitscher as CTF 38 on October 30. With the help of Slew and his staff, we set to work on our defense against the kamikazes. It fell into three parts: short, medium, and long range.

Short-range defense was our AA. There was nothing we could to improve it except devote more time to practice.

Medium-range defense took study. When we examined the attacks, we found that they followed three patterns. The kamikaze pilots were trailing our own planes home and thereby foiling our IFF (a radar device for the automatic Identification of Friend or Foe); or they were making a long, fast glide for high altitudes, tunneling through the nulls on our radars; or they were skimming the water so that our radars could not detect them until they were too close for interception by our CAP. We countered the first type by stationing picket destroyers well out from the force, and ordering our homing planes to approach them on specified bearings and circle them in a specified manner. We countered the second by sending our CAP higher and farther. And we countered the third by establishing "Jack" patrols to orbit at low altitudes.

Our long-range defense was the "constant CAP," which entailed keeping a blanket of fighters over all enemy airfields on a twenty-four hour, heel-and‑toe schedule. Our day fighters shot down the Japs when they tried to take off, and our night fighters discouraged them from even trying it.

Of course, a constant CAP requires a great many fighter planes. We obtained them by changing the complements of our large carriers from thirty-seven fighters, thirty‑six bombers, and eighteen torpedo planes to seventy-three fighters, fifteen bombers, and fifteen torpedo planes. (Our powerful new F6F's and F4U's had proved that they could double as bombers on demand, and we were finding only limited use for our torpedo planes.) We also asked for, and eventually were given, two large carriers with air groups trained in night flying to supplement the one group we already had.

None of these improvements was developed by merely rubbing  p234 a lamp. Each had to be discussed, tested, and modified. Nor did their adoption put an abrupt end to the kamikazes. A few of them, through fewer than before, occasionally broke through our defenses and scored damaging hits. But what had once loomed as a monstrous, bone-crunching jinni was soon brought into perspective and reduced to the size of a normal occupational hazard.

Strategic as well as tactical adjustments were required. The withdrawal of the crippled Franklin, Belleau Wood, and Intrepid, with destroyers to escort them, forced the consolidation of TF 38 from four task groups into three; and the strain of the kamikaze attacks, on top of our long stretch of combat, made an adequate rest period obligatory at once. MacArthur's next move, the invasion of Mindoro, was scheduled for December 5. We hated to request a postponement, but there was no help for it. Almost as soon as his obliging reply was decoded, we turned our prows toward Ulithi.

When we entered the atoll on November 27, the New Jersey had steamed 36,185 miles since leaving Pearl Harbor in August; and of those ninety-five days, she had spent only ten in port. I was tired, in mind, body, and nerves. So were we all. I did not carry a physical burden, as did the crews of our ships and planes, but the burden of responsibility seemed quite as heavy. Heaviest was the tension that built up under the constant threat of air attack; the attack itself was almost a relief, because you knew that things couldn't get any worse. This tension did not begin to slack off until late on the final day of a strike series, when the force had come to its retirement course. Even then it took me a long time to unwind. Other men may have done it with the help of noble literature; I used to read The Police Gazette.

My day at sea began around 0500, when I turned out to watch the first strikes take off, and it ended around 2400. Our only recreations were the movies and, when we were clear of the combat area, a game of deck tennis.

Capt. Carnes Weeks, Admiral Halsey's staff medical officer:

The Admiral hated anything to interrupt his game. One afternoon he had to quit for a rain squall. As soon as it stopped, word was passed over the bull-horn, "Dry down all weather decks!" He didn't wait for a working party; he grabbed a swab and turned to.

I guess it's just as well that Farragut and Dewey were dead already.

 p235  After the movie, I sat in on the nightly meeting of my Dirty Trick Department — Mick Carney, Ham Dow, Doug Moulton, Harold Stassen, and Johnny Lawrence — and listened to them concoct new methods of bedeviling our gullible enemy. (The Navy prefers me to drop this topic right here.) They were still at it when I left, just before midnight. I went out on flag bridge for a last look around the formation, and into flag plot for a last look at the charts and dispatches. In my sea cabin, I had one more cup of coffee (my tenth) before turning in, and one more cigarette (my fortieth). I always hoped for five hours' sleep, but I seldom got it. This cruise was a poor sedative for a natural worrier. Besides, it's hard to sleep soundly when you know that the next second may bring the clangor of the gong calling you to general quarters.

Our two weeks at Ulithi were like two weeks in the country, God‑forsaken though the country was. Most of the time we rested and tried to relax. We couldn't relax completely, because something still goaded our minds: the kamikaze attack on November 25. With the understandable exception of Formosa, which had been alerted for us on October 12 by our strike against the Nansei Shotos on the tenth, this was the very first time that we had failed to achieve complete tactical and strategic surprise. Why? What had tipped off the Japs? After days of discussion, we narrowed the possibilities to these three:

1. A leak in SOWESPAC.

2. The sudden inactivity of Kenney's planes.

3. The pattern of our radio traffic.

The last, we agreed, was the most likely, so we tested it by setting up "the Picnic Strike," so called because the day it was "launched," my staff and I had a picnic ashore at "Kessing's Last Resort," a beach named in honor of Scrappy Kessing, the atoll commander.

The "strike" consisted of no more than dummy radio traffic in a pattern exactly duplicating the pattern normally preceding a strike. At once all Jap merchant shipping around Luzon fled to safety across the China Sea. We had our answer. From then on, we varied our radio patterns broadly and resumed our pleasant practice of catching the Japs asleep.

The fleet sortied from Ulithi on December 11, primed to  p236 support the invasion of Mindoro, on the fifteenth. Mindoro lies about 250 miles northwest of Leyte, under the shadow of Luzon, so our job was to hold down the enemy's fields there and keep him from intercepting our transports. We indexed every known or suspected field in the entire area and assigned each one to a specific carrier for neutralization. Then we struck with all our strength, for three days running. When we retired on the evening of the sixteenth, we had destroyed 270 planes at a cost of twenty-seven; we had sunk thirty-three ships; and not a single bogey had been able to penetrate closer to our formation than 20 miles.

Commander Kitchell:

There was no possible way for our pilots to know it at the time, but one of these ships was carrying American prisoners of war. We learned of the tragedy only because two of them managed to swim ashore and were subsequently rescued. Months later, the mother of a prisoner who had been lost on the ship wrote the Admiral a letter in which she said, "Even the detestable Germans occasionally stop and pick up people, whereas you run off and leave them. You ought to be hung as a war criminal!"

It made him miserable. He kept referring to it for days: "Doesn't she realize that these things are bound to happen in a war?" And he asked us over and over, "How could our pilots have known?"

We planned to fuel on the seventeenth and begin another three‑day series of strikes on the nineteenth, when the congestion of supplies on the Mindoro beachhead and of ships offshore would demand all available air cover. But by the time we were able to strike Luzon again, MacArthur was striking it himself, and a disaster had struck us — a typhoon that rolled the fleet on its beam ends, swamped three destroyers, cost the lives of 790 men, wrecked some 200 planes, and damaged twenty-eight ships, nine so severely that they had to be detached for repairs. It was the Navy's greatest uncompensated loss since the Battle of Savo Island.

Our earliest hint of foul weather ahead appears in my war diary for the forenoon of the seventeenth: "A moderate cross swell and a wind varying from 20 to 30 knots made fueling difficult." We were then about 500 miles east of Luzon, with the destroyers trying to "drink" from the heavy ships, which would later fill their own bunkers from the fleet oilers. The New Jersey's first customer was  p237 the Spence. My war diary shows the trouble that soon beset her and the other destroyers:

1128. Both forward and after hoses to Spence parted.

1208. The Collett reported conditions very bad alongside the Wisconsin, and that both hoses had carried away.

1220. The Stephen Potter reported that she had just parted forward fueling hose.

1227. The Mansfield reported that she had broken loose from her station.

1229. The Lyman K. Swenson reported both hoses parted.

1238. The Preston reported casualties to both hoses and lines.

1240. The Thatcher reported parting one hose and being forced to cut loose.

With the wind and sea increasing, I ordered fueling suspended at 1310 and appointed a new rendezvous with the tanker force for 0600 next morning, 200 miles northwestward. We chose this position because my staff aerologist now estimated that a "tropical disturbance" — not necessarily a typhoon — was located about 500 miles east of us; he estimated further that it was moving north-northwest at 12 to 15 knots, and would presently collide with a cold front and recurve to the northeast.

An hour later, however, I received an unaccountably delayed dispatch from the aircraft tender Chandeleur, reporting that at 1000 she had observed a definite storm center less than 200 miles southeast of our present position. This was our first positive information. I immediately canceled the rendezvous I had just set, since it would be dead in the storm's probable path, and set another, southwest of us. Still later, I had to change it for one closer; the weather would not permit the tanker force to cover the original distance. My choice was restricted, of course, by the necessity of staying close enough to strike Luzon as we had promised.

We ran southwest all that night. At 0508 on the eighteenth, our aerologists placed the storm center northeast of us, about 250 miles, and still moving north-northwest at 12 knots. At our position, the wind was blowing 38 knots from almost due north, and the barometer stood at 29.67, which was .09 off from seven hours before. (Fair weather at sea level is 29.92.) Fueling would be even harder than on the day before, but we had to try it, not only for MacArthur's sake  p238 but for ours. Our destroyers had operated at high speeds for three days and had fought the weather on the fourth; by now their fuel was so near exhaustion that their speed and range were severely restricted; worse, the less their fuel, the higher they rode and the less seaworthy they became. The Colahan, Brush, Franks, and Cushing were down to 15 per cent of capacity; the Maddox, Hickox, and Spence had somewhere between 10 and 14 per cent.

We began our attempt to fuel at 0700, but I soon had to face the fact that it was impossible, and I regretfully notified MacArthur that we could not meet our commitment. The weather continued to deteriorate. The escort carriers with the tanker force were pounding heavily in mounting seas. The wind increased to 43 knots, and the barometer fell another six points. Typhoons are notoriously capricious; by 0830 it was plain that this one was no exception; instead of recurving to the northeast, as our aerologists expected, it had turned westward. Its center was now only 150 miles away, and from all indications, it would pass us close aboard.

My war diary gives an outline of the next few hours:

0841. The Wasp reported a life raft to her port, which appeared to have three persons on it.

0907. The Independence reported man overboard.

0911. The [light carrier] Monterey reported that, due to excessive roll, planes on her hangar deck had broken loose and caught fire.

0925. The Monterey reported she had lost steerageway.

0931. The Independence reported two men overboard.

0942. The [escort carrier] Kwajalein reported she had lost steering control.

1007. Wind 62 knots from 356. Barometer 29.52.

1012. The Wisconsin reported 1 Kingfisher [an observation-scout plane] overboard.

1016. The [heavy cruiser] Boston reported 1 Kingfisher overboard.

1017. The [escort carrier] Rudyerd Bay reported she was dead in the water.

1051. The [light carrier] Cowpens reported fire on her hangar deck.

1100. Wind 55 knots from 350. Barometer 29.47.

1128. The [escort carrier] Cape Esperance reported fire on her hangar deck.

1300. Wind 66 knots from 358. Barometer 29.30.

1310. Wind velocity increased sharply from 75 to 83 knots, with gusts reaching 93 knots between 1330 and 1400. Barometer 29.23

 p239  1358. Commander Task Force 38 reported the center of the typhoon showed on his radar at 000 [due north], distance 35 miles.

This was the peak of the storm. No one who has not been through a typhoon can conceive its fury. The 70‑foot seas smash you from all sides. The rain and the scud are blinding; they drive at you flat‑out, until you cannot tell the ocean from the air. At broad noon I couldn't see the bow of my ship, 350 feet from the bridge. The New Jersey once was hit by a 5‑inch shell without my feeling the impact; the Missouri, her sister, had a kamikaze crash on her main deck and repaired the only damage with a paintbrush; yet this typhoon tossed our enormous ship as if she were a canoe. Our chairs, tables, and all loose gear had to be double-lashed; we ourselves were buffeted from one bulkhead to another; we could not hear our own voices above the uproar.

What it was like on a destroyer one‑twentieth of the New Jersey's size, I can only imagine. I was told that some of them were knocked down until their stacks were almost horizontal and were pinned there by the gale, while water rushed into their ventilators and intakes, shorting the circuits, killing their power, steering, lights, and communications, and leaving them to drift helplessly. For instance, here is a report on the damage suffered by the Hickox:

Both steering motors out of commission. Main switchboard and emergency Diesel boards out. Numerous power panels and electrical wiring damaged. One boiler salted. All radar antenna down or carried away. Twenty-six‑inch searchlight stripped. Longitudinal frame 14, starboard side, deflected inward. After deckhouse overhead buckled upward. Depth charge rack extension smashed with 6 holes in main deck where extension pulled out. Carpenter shop and clipping room aft flooded. Motor whaleboat and forward starboard davit carried away.

The Hickox was on our northern perimeter, the sector that caught the worst of it. As soon as the course of the typhoon was established, I had turned south to leave the storm center astern and bring the fleet within the left, or navigable, semicircle. Most of our ships cleared the center, but a few stragglers didn't. Some of them managed to ride it out. The rest we never saw again.

Soon after 1400, the weather mended. By 1500, the wind had dropped to 56 knots and the barometer had risen to 29.40; an hour  p240 later, the wind was 35 knots and the barometer 29.46. By dusk we were able to start searching the area for survivors.

2002. The [light cruiser] San Juan reported hearing a whistle.

2006. The Cabot reported a whistle.

2016. The Hancock reported a light in the water astern.

There were many such reports, but a man in a life jacket is almost impossible to spot in a rough sea on a black night. The destroyers found nothing.

We continued the search while we fueled the next day, the nineteenth, and for the two days following. It was the most exhaustive search in Navy history. Every ship and plane in two task groups took part. We had marked off an area large enough to include the extreme limits of drift, and destroyer divisions crisscrossed it abreast, with lookouts doubled. An occasional swimmer was picked up, and sometimes a raft-load. With their help, we compiled our casualty list. Three ships had been lost, the destroyers Spence, Hull, and Monaghan, with almost all hands. The survivors of the Spence — there were twenty-four of them — told us that her rudder had jammed full right in the wildest hour of the storm, capsizing her instantly. Forty-four men were recovered from the Hull, and six from the Monaghan; both these ships had also capsized and foundered.

For awhile we feared that a fourth ship, the destroyer escort Tabberer, would be added to the list. No one sighted her, and nothing was heard from her. Finally a message was relayed to us: her foremast had carried away, and all her radios and radars had been wrecked, but she was otherwise sound and was bringing in ten more survivors of the Hull. These men reported that they owed their lives wholly to the Tabberer's captain. While ships around them were barely keeping afloat, he maneuvered alongside and hauled the men aboard; even the shellbacks among them had never seen such seaman­ship.

His name, I found out, was Lt. Comdr. Henry L. Plage, of Atlanta. I sent him a "Well done for a sturdy performance!" and later I had the pleasure of awarding him a Legion of Merit. His shiphandling had been so brilliant that I inquired about his experience. I expected to learn that he had cut his teeth on a marline-spike, but he proved to be a Reserve who had been to sea exactly  p241 once before, for a short cruise during his ROTC course at Georgia Tech! How could any enemy ever defeat a country that can pull boys like that out of its hat?

Our postponed strike was finally set for December 21, but during our run‑in the weather again became so foul that flight operations would have been impossible, and again I had to give MacArthur an excuse instead of an attack. By now we could stay at sea no longer; we had to retire to Ulithi and repair our storm damage. We stood in on the morning of the twenty-fourth. That afternoon Chester Nimitz arrived from Pearl by plane. He was not quite a week old in his rank as fleet admiral, and when he was piped aboard the New Jersey, a five-star flag was broken for the first time in the Pacific Fleet.

With characteristic thoughtfulness, Chester had brought us a Christmas tree decked with ornaments. Everybody enjoyed it, but even if Santa Claus had come down one of the New Jersey's stacks that night, I doubt if we could have summoned the proper holiday spirit. As for myself, four consecutive Christmases away from home, four Christmases of sea and sand instead of snow and holly, had so saturated me with war on the ocean that I could not get into the mood of peace on earth.

The ten days preceding our return to Ulithi had brought us several reports of Jap warships in the China Sea; two fat plums, the battle­ships Ise and Hyuga, were specifically located in Camranh Bay, on the Indo-China coast. I had wanted to raid the China Sea area ever since I took command of the fleet. This stolen empire supplied oil, rubber, rice, and other materials essential to Japan's survival, and I was certain that a slash at her shore facilities and shipping would stagger her severely. Three months before, in conversations with MacArthur's staff at Hollandia, we had stressed the necessity of his opening Surigao Strait at the earliest possible moment, to give us access to the South China Sea through the central Philippines; and on October 21, I had reminded him again by dispatch.

Ernie King read a copy of it and at once asked Nimitz, "What has Halsey in mind?"

Chester passed the question to me. My answer brought a firm order to stay out until I received CINCPAC's authority. (I am afraid that my superiors worried about my judgment in the presence  p242 of a juicy target.) I was disappointed, but not yet frustrated. There was one target in the area which I could hit without violating Ernie's injunction — a concentration of Jap warships in Brunei Bay, on the northwest coast of Borneo. My plan was to slip in close to the east coast and throw a strike across the island. If it worked — and we were quite confident that it would — we might revenge Pearl Harbor then and there. What balked us was neither COMINCH nor CINCPAC, but Kenney's inability to give Leyte effective air support. I had to stand by and attend to his knitting for him. We found some compensation in sinking the convoys attempting to reinforce General Yamashita, commanding the Japanese forces on Leyte, but that too should have been Kenney's business.

We were free again at the end of December, however, so I asked Chester's permission to enter the China Sea on completion of our next assignment — covering MacArthur's landing at Lingayen Gulf on January 9. Chester approved. The day after we sortied was New Year's Eve. That night I picked up the TBS and broadcast a message to all hands, under my code name.

"This is Blackjack himself," I said. "Your work so far has been superb. I expect even more. Keep the bastards dying!"

Incidentally, the last entry in my war diary for 1944 gave us particular satisfaction:

Prisoner of war interrogation in the Southwest Pacific confirmed previous sinkings claimed by the Commander Third Fleet, and also confirmed extensive damage to the remaining Japanese battle­ships. It is now definite that the Japanese suffered a greater loss in the Second Battle of the Philippine Sea [as the Battle for Leyte Gulf was originally known] than in any other naval engagement.

The last entry in my flag log for 1944 also gave us satisfaction. It says simply, "Steaming as before."

We had hoped that the price we paid for the typhoon would buy us clear skies for a while, but more foul weather dogged us off and on for the next three weeks. It aborted half our strikes against Formosa on January 3 and 4, but kept our score down to 111 planes destroyed and sixteen ships sunk; it also helped send our own losses up to seventeen planes. The only bright spot was a childish attempt at deception on the part of some Japanese pilots; pretending to  p243 be lost American pilots, they begged over the radio for vectors to our force, but their English was so crude that we laughed at them.

MacArthur had previously forbidden TF 38 to strike below the top half of the dome of Luzon except in self-defense, the rest of the Philippines being reserved for the Army and the CVE's of the Seventh Fleet. Now he requested us to cross the line, since his planes were not neutralizing the enemy's Luzon fields as thoroughly as he had expected. We fueled on the fifth and struck on the sixth, through weather that made it impossible to maintain a holeproof blanket, and enough kamikazes broke out to plunge on sixteen Seventh Fleet bombardment and mine-sweeping units which were preparing Lingayen Gulf for the landing.

We had intended returning to Formosa on the seventh, but MacArthur asked us to stand by one day more. I consented reluctantly; I have already said that my conception of carrier warfare rejects passive defense of an area in favor of stifling the opposition at its source — in this case, Formosa. Our photo interpreters pored over their pictures of Luzon, searching for planes which the enemy had dispersed and concealed; and thanks to their diligence, we located and destroyed seventy-five on the ground. Only four others managed to take off — briefly.

This was our last strike in the Philippines. We fueled on the eighth and hit Formosa next day with everything we had, to cover the landing. That night, when all our planes were back aboard, we headed into the China Sea. Even now it is hard for me to realize that we slipped past the Japs; at one point in our passage through Bashi Channel, just south of Formosa, we were only 80 miles from their air base at Koshun. I imagine that either MacArthur's appearance at Lingayen panicked them into forgetting to send out patrols, or all their planes were being diverted to evacuating their key men from Manila. Three large transport planes, on a course from Manila to Formosa, closed us before daylight next morning, and all three were splashed by our night fighters; the second one went down only a few miles from my flagship and burned brilliantly until it sank. The Jap radios immediately became so hysterical that we guessed our bag was fairly heavy. Our code experts confirmed it: the transports were evacuating the entire operations section of the Philippine Air Command.

 p244  The China Sea venture — Plan Gratitude — was extremely ticklish. Jap airfields encircled the area almost completely, and no part of it was beyond easy range of their fighter planes, yet our huge fleet was trying to cross it undetected. If the enemy spotted us, his ships would run for Singapore, where we did not dare follow. On the other hand, if we could creep up and pounce, not only might we disrupt his supply lines from southeast Asia, but we might even sink enough shipping, both merchant and combat, to affect the course of the war drastically. Everything depended on surprise.

Mick Carney usually wrote his night orders in black ink. On the night of the tenth, he made this entry in heavy red crayon: "Skunks to be sunk!" (A "skunk" was our code term for a surface contact, a companion term to a "bogey" in the air.) And on the following night he wrote, "Concealment is paramount!"

Several pages back, I listed certain kamikaze-inspired modifications in our air arm. These had already been put into effect: additional fighter planes had been assigned to the Essex and Wasp, replacing their dive bombers (the new fighter pilots on the Essex were Marines, making their debut in TF 38); and the Independence, our only carrier with an air group specially trained in night work, had been supplemented by another, the Enterprise.

As soon as we were through the gate to the China Sea, we organized the two night carriers and their screens into a separate task group, commanded by Rear Adm. Matthias B. Gardner, and put it in the van of the force, along with Bogan's group, which we had beefed up with two more heavy cruisers and a division of destroyers. Our battle plan was this: Bogan and Gardner would lead our run‑in toward Camranh Bay, where we expected to make our richest haul; and when they had marked it down, Bogan's would cripple it for eventual destruction by the planes and guns of the other two groups, Ted Sherman's and Rear Adm. Arthur W. Radford's.

We fueled on the eleventh from Capt. Jasper T. Acuff's courageous tanker force, which, though virtually defenseless, was following us into these dangerous waters, and at 1400 the run‑in began. Almost at once we had a close call — three bogies loomed on our radar screen. They were Jap fighters, "Jakes," pursuing a  p245 SOWESPAC patrol plane, but our CAP overhauled them and shot them down before they could cry the alarm. That night I sent a message to the force: Give them hell × You know how to do it × God bless you all. Next morning would tell the story.

Gardner's planes flew off at 0300 and fanned out to search the Indo-China coast from Saigon south to Tourane, a distance of 500 miles. At dawn we launched our strike, and at 0707 we formed TG 34.5 — two fast battle­ships, two heavy cruisers, three light cruisers, and twelve destroyers — and sent it forward to intercept any warships that might try to break out of Camranh Bay. None were there, unfortunately, but our planes caught a convoy of eleven ships near Cap St. Jacques and sank them all; two other convoys were severely battered; and still other ships were sunk or damaged in various ports. We also tore up docks, air installations, and fuel dumps until the whole coast was a shambles.

As later verified by French Intelligence, we sank forty‑one ships that day, totaling 127,000 tons, and damaged twenty-eight, totaling 70,000 tons. Moreover, many of the damaged ships were driven ashore and wrecked by an obliging monsoon which swept in as stood out. We missed the Ise and Hyuga, which had gone to Singapore, but we sank the captured French cruiser Lamotte-Picquet at Saigon and the Jap light cruiser Kashii at sea. It was one of the heaviest blows that Jap shipping ever sustained. It was also a strongly worded notice that control of the South China Sea had changed hands. The Jap supply route from Singapore, Burma, Borneo, and the Dutch East Indies was shattered. We left the pieces to be picked up by our submarines and land-based planes.

AA was intense and effective, costing us sixteen planes, but air opposition was light; we found only fifteen planes to shoot down and only forty-seven to burn on the ground. That evening the Japs showed that experience had taught them a lesson. Their air commander at Singapore sent fifty Bettys up to Saigon to arm and refuel before attacking our force. He timed their arrival with the departure of our last strike, which was smart, but he wasn't quite smart enough; he didn't allow for our night fighters. They caught the Bettys in a neat line on the Saigon field and burnt up every one of them.

The monsoon that backed our attack brushed us harmlessly  p246 with its northern edge, but it was the forerunner of a week of weather that dislocated our entire schedule. It delayed our first fueling a full day; it hindered our next series of strikes by ceilings that hid the targets — Formosa, Hong Kong, Canton, and Amoy; and it not only postponed our second fueling for two days, until the nineteenth, but forced us to set the rendezvous inconveniently far south, under the lee of Luzon.

By now, however, we had wrung the China Coast dry of profits and had proved that its defenses were flimsy. Only one mission was left on our agenda — photographic coverage of Okinawa, in preparation for the spring invasion. The shortest course was through Balintang Channel, north of Luzon, but the seas were still so heavy that our passage would be dangerously slow — an invitation to air attack. The other course, through Surigao, was sheltered, but it was far longer and would concentrate the force in narrow waters. CINCPAC directed us to use Balintang. We approached it uneasily on the afternoon of January 20. As we reached a point on the flight line between Luzon and Formosa, bogeys began to clutter our screen. In the next two hours, our CAP shot down fifteen. The night promised to be rugged. But just as we entered the channel, the wind and sea abated, and we sprinted through safely.

During the eleven days and 3,800 miles in the South China Sea, not one of our ships had suffered battle damage, and as at Mindoro, no enemy combat plane had been allowed within 20 miles of our force. We were congratulating ourselves on our luck when it washed out abruptly. On the twenty-first, heading northeast toward Okinawa, we sent a final strike against Formosa as we ran past. It was extremely successful; we sank twelve ships and destroyed 149 planes, but the Japs came boiling out, and four of them broke through our CAP and AA. One dropped a small bomb on the carrier Langley, killing one man and inflicting negligible damage. (Worse, one of the Hancock's own bombs accidentally detonated on her flight deck that same day, killing forty-eight men.) The other three were kamikazes. The first and second plunged headlong into the Ticonderoga, killing 140 men and severely damaging the island structure, the flight deck, and the hangar deck. The third hit the destroyer Maddox, killing four men. This attack was the last, with one exception, that succeeded in damaging a ship of TF 38 while I  p247 commanded the Third Fleet; the exception was when a kamikaze hit the destroyer Borie only a week before the surrender.

For awhile, next day, I thought that our curse was still riding us. Of the three photo planes assigned to map the most important section of the Okinawa coast, two turned back with engine trouble, and the third's camera failed, which meant that we would have to cancel our retirement and stand by for another run. Just as I was working myself into a rage, word came that a photo pilot assigned to a low‑priority area had been weathered out of it, and on his own initiative had covered the important one. I immediately asked his carrier, the Lexington, whether he preferred Scotch, rye, or bourbon, and when we returned to Ulithi on the twenty-fifth, I obtained six bottles of his choice and had them delivered to him.

At 2400 on January 26, Ray Spruance relieved me, and Pete Mitscher relieved Slew McCain in command of TF 38. So ended my first cruise with the Third Fleet. In our five months at sea, we had destroyed 7,315 enemy planes, and had sunk 90 warships and 573 merchant vessels totaling more than 1,000,000 tons. I sent a dispatch to all hands, No words can express my pride . . . . superlatively well done. The possibility that I was telling these splendid men good‑by forever clouded my pleasure at prospect of going home and seeing my family again. I was moping around, waiting to shove off for Pearl, when something happened that blew away my depression and made me break out laughing. A communications officer brought me a dispatch from General MacArthur. I assume it was meant to be read, Your departure from this theater leaves a gap that can be filled only by your return. But the word filled had been garbled. It came out fouled.

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Page updated: 23 Aug 17