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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 1

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 3
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

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The fleet split up after the Round-the‑World Cruise, and I was ordered to Washington to be examined for promotion. The subjects included marine and electrical engineering, international law, ordnance and gunnery, navigation and seaman­ship, communications, Navy regulations, and courts and boards. I was not much of a scholar, and the cruise had given me little chance to study. My knees still shake when I think of the ordeal of those exams — six days of questions and answers, eight hours a day! Seven of us ensigns took them, and I was one of four who passed. Normally we would have spent the next two years or more as lieutenants junior grade. Actually we spent about two minutes. There were vacancies in the grade of senior lieutenant, so we were sworn in as j.g.'s, then promoted immediately afterward.

My new orders sent me to the Charleston Navy Yard, to take command of a torpedo boat, one of a motley assemblage of old buckets that had been laid up for years. Still, no subsequent command is ever as important or as thrilling as your first, and I was a proud man when we hoisted the colors and the commissioning pennant on the Dupont. Right there I began a career in torpedo boats and destroyers that lasted for twenty-three years. From this date until June, 1932, except for one year as executive officer of the Wyoming, I spent all my sea duty in destroyers.

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That fall, after maneuvers with the fleet off Provincetown, we steamed down to Jacksonville, where I was detached and granted a month's leave. I was going to get married. Three years before, the Don Juan had stopped at the Norfolk Navy Yard for some of the  p16 repairs she was continually requiring, and I was drilling a squad on her well deck one afternoon when something hit my cap and knocked it off. It was a muff, obviously thrown by a pretty girl standing near by with the wife of our exec.

I learned later that the girl had asked, "Who's that young officer over there — the one who takes himself so seriously?"

The exec's wife told her. Then came the muff.

I dismissed the men, who were laughing, and recovered the muff. The girl tried to get it back, but I refused until she told me her name. She was Frances Cooke Grandy, from Norfolk, a first cousin of Wiley Grandy, Charlie Hunter, and Armistead Dobie, all of whom had been close friends of mine at the University of Virginia. Despite the boys' sponsor­ship, the elder members of Fan's family were something less than enthusiastic toward the aspirations of a Yankee Navy officer. One of Fan's uncles had been chief engineer of the Merrimac in her historic battle with the Monitor, which had taken place almost within sight of the Grandy house, and I found myself branded with partial responsibility not only for the Merrimac's defeat, but for Gettysburg, the burning of Richmond, and the surrender at Appomattox as well. However, I persevered. Whenever I was given leave, I spent as much of it with Fan as her family would allow; I bombarded her with souvenirs and ardent letters from every port on the World Cruise; and when we returned, my double jump in promotion and pay gave me courage to propose. She accepted me, and our wedding was set for December 1, 1909.

While I was packing my gear at Jacksonville, Lt. Harold R. Stark came in and inquired precisely how and when I was going to the railroad station. His abnormal solicitude should have aroused my suspicions, but it didn't. Flooded with rapture and benevolence as I was, I assumed that something of my mood had infused my friends too. I foolishly gave "Betty" the information, and he saw to it that I was escorted the whole way by a brass band blaring "The Wedding March."

Fan and I were married in old Christ Church, at Norfolk. My best man was Dave Bagley, and my ushers were Tommy Hart, Husband Kimmel, and Karl Ohnesorg, all of the Navy. A few days before, my scabbard had tripped on the step of a Jacob's ladder and upended, and my sword had been given the deep six,  p17 so Fan had to cut the cake with a borrowed sword. Ever afterward, when I was required to board or leave a ship, I passed the upper sling of the belt between the grip and the guard, so that the sword could not fall out.

In April, 1910, after three months as exec of the destroyer Lamson, I was ordered to the Franklin, the receiving ship at the Norfolk Navy Yard, for duty in charge of the training camp. Now I became the prey of a specter that haunts most naval officers at least once in their careers; I contemplated retiring to civilian life. Fan had told me some news that cast a dazzling light over the prospect of years, not hours, with my family; of swift advancement in a business of my own choice; of an office that would be dry and steady; and of a permanent home. (Everyone has noticed how many old sailormen christen their houses "Dunroamin," "Snug Harbor," and the like.) I was interested in marine engineering and in personnel work, and believing that I could handle a job in either field or possibly both, I applied to a friend who had considerable weight in two large engineering firms. His advice was, "Stick to the Navy!" I stuck, but on many a sleepless night during the Guadalcanal campaign, nights when men were dying because my orders kept them there, I wondered whether the advice had been sound or whether I had been a fool to follow it. . . .

My quarters in Norfolk were a comfortable house on the Berkley side of the river, and here our daughter was born, on the tenth day of the tenth month of 1910; she didn't make her appearance at 10 o'clock, however, but around dawn. The band had the word by 8, when morning muster was held; they started the parade with "I Love My Wife, But Oh, You Kid!" We named her "Margaret" for two of her mother's relations, and "Bradford" for Brad Barnette, my roommate at the Academy.

My shore duty ended in August, 1912, when I was ordered to command the destroyer Flusser. I had hardly settled myself aboard when, to my chagrin, the division was placed in reserve at Charleston, owing to the shortage of personnel. We stayed there all winter, but early the next summer I received permission to bring two ships to Newport to exercise with the fleet, which was simulating war conditions by attacking various Army posts. The young destroyer skippers played for keeps. One of them secured to the Army dock  p18 at Fishers Island, led a landing force ashore, and arrested the commander of the Army garrison.​a

Presently I was directed to take the Flusser to Campobello Island, Canada, and report to the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Franklin D. Roosevelt, who wished to survey the naval installations in Frenchman Bay, Maine. Now began a friendship that endured until Mr. Roosevelt's death. Unlike most Assistant Secretaries of the Navy (and Secretaries, for that matter), he was almost a professional sailorman. I did not know this then. All I had been told was that he had had some experience in small boats, so when he asked me to transit the strait between Campobello and the mainland, and offered to pilot us himself, I gave him the conn (steering control) but stood close by. The fact that a white-flanneled yachtsman can sail a catboat out to a buoy and back is no guarantee that he can handle a high-speed destroyer in narrow waters. A destroyer's bow may point directly down the channel, yet she is not necessarily on a safe course. She pivots around a point near her bridge structure, which means that two‑thirds of her length is aft of the pivot, and that her stern will swing in twice the arc of her bow. As Mr. Roosevelt made his first turn, I saw him look aft and check the swing of our stern. My worries were over; he knew his business.

Ships of mine had the privilege of flying his flag twice again. Soon after the armistice in 1918, while I was commanding the destroyer Yarnall, I was ordered to take him from Dover across to Ostend. The coast of Belgium had been heavily mined, and although channels had been swept, they were poorly buoyed. A strong tide was running in our channel, and such a thick fog set in that we had to reduce speed. When we nearly passed on the wrong side of a buoy, I said, "The hell with it!", dropped my anchor, and sent Mr. Roosevelt the rest of the way in our motor launch. I might have risked him and the Yarnall separately, but not together.

The last time I had him on board was in San Francisco harbor, during the Democratic convention of 1920. A few days later I met him on Powell Street. "Bill," he said, "I've just had a fight."

He was a powerful man then, so it was natural for me to ask, "What hospital is he in, Mr. Secretary?"

He was referring to his scuffle for the Tammany banner, when  p19 its delegation refused to join the demonstration for President Wilson. It was at this convention, of course, that Mr. Roosevelt was nominated for Vice President.

In August, 1913, I took command of the Jarvis, a brand‑new oil‑burning destroyer. Those who have never served on a coal burner can't realize the bliss of an oil burner; with the exception of my one year on the Wyoming, I never again had to go through the nuisance and filth of coaling. We had target practice off the Virginia Capes during the fall, and in January we sailed for Guantánamo and the regular winter maneuvers — war games, ship's drills, and target practice with guns, torpedoes, and small arms.

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The Commander of the Atlantic Destroyer Flotilla was Capt. William S. Sims​b who, as a young lieutenant, had made such a cogent case against the fleet's poor gunnery that President Theodore Roosevelt appointed him inspector of target practice. Sims did an excellent job, and Roosevelt shoved him along, to the extent that he was only a commander when he was made skipper of the battle­ship Minnesota — the first and only time a commander has been permanent captain of a battle­ship in the Battle Fleet. This did not increase his popularity with his seniors, although his juniors loved him. I doubt if he was aware of either opinion; he cared no more for popularity than he cared for convention. He seemed to exult in affronting authority. When he was our naval attaché in Paris during the Spanish-American War, he sent back an expense account in which some bureaucrat disallowed a number of petty items, such as cab fares, on the ground that they were not accompanied by signed receipts. Sims replied that he could obtain an abundance of signatures in exchange for a loaf of bread, and if his country had reached a stage where evidence of that sort was preferred to the word of a naval officer, he would resign his commission.

In 1910, he made a speech in London in which he stated, "Speaking for myself, I believe that if the time ever comes when the British Empire is menaced by an external enemy, you may count upon every man, every drop of blood, every ship, and every dollar of your kindred across the seas."

The severe reprimand that President Taft sent him for his tactlessness, Sims framed and hung in his cabin. And when Secretary Daniels offered him a Distinguished Service Medal for his work  p20 in World War I, he refused to accept it; he said that it had been cheapened by indiscriminate award.

I remember him as tall and vigorous, a crisp, decisive talker, and a great believer in conferences. In Guantánamo, he liked to hold them at the officers' club, and frequently attended in tennis clothes. If he became bored or if the discussion got out of hand, he would break it up by heaving a tennis ball at the speaker.

From Guantánamo we proceeded to Pensacola. Conditions in Mexico had an ugly look, so we arranged that when the ships in the harbor blew a certain number of blasts, all personnel ashore would return aboard at once. The whistles blew on the morning of April 9 — the Tampico incident had occurred — and the entire flotilla put to sea at best possible speed. On the way down we were told to prepare landing forces. This was an unusual assignment for destroyers; we didn't have the khaki uniforms which a landing force requires, and all we could do was approximate the color, by boiling our whites in coffee. My whole ship smelled like a Greasy Spoon.

American refugees poured out from Tampico in two American yachts, one flying the German naval flag and the other the British ensign, since both these countries were neutral. It was humiliating for us to lie outside a foreign port and see our nationals protected by other flags, but we had strict orders not to provoke further incidents. The refugees were put on board the Dixie, which departed for Galveston, and right there trouble began. It began for the refugees, because there was no extradition treaty between Mexico and the United States; when they arrived in Galveston, a platoon of sheriffs was waiting on the dock. It began for the Dixie, because the refugees refused to leave her, and she couldn't return to Tampico with them aboard. And it began for us because the Dixie was our only tender; we ran out of fresh provisions and ice and could get no more until she returned. Ever since that week of canned salmon three times a day, I have never been able to look the stuff in the face.

Eventually the Jarvis was ordered to Veracruz. Bad luck had made me acquainted with a number of boisterous Marine officers on duty there, but plain stupidity was responsible for my accepting their invitation to join them on a horseback ride. I knew nothing  p21 about horses, and you may be sure my hosts took no pains to pick me a nice quiet one. I had hardly gotten aboard when he wheeled, hurdled a pile of trash, and started making 40 knots down the highway. There I was in the stern sheets with no steering or engine control, and if someone hadn't had mercy on me and overhauled us, he might be running yet.

I was still raw from this experience when a worse one befell me. The destroyers were taking turns at the mail run to Galveston. The afternoon before the Jarvis' turn, a fireman reported aboard. He must have thought we were a tourist liner, because he jumped ship two hours later, returned that night roaring drunk, and when the master-at‑arms went to put him under arrest, plunged over the side. Those are shark waters. We combed them with searchlights and small boats, only to discover that he had climbed aboard and hidden himself under the after torpedo tubes. He was hauled out and locked up, and next morning at mast I gave him a summary court-martial and made him a prisoner at large awaiting trial.

By then we were under way for Galveston. We touched there, picked up our mail, and had barely headed back to Veracruz when the master-at‑arms reported that our fireman had jumped ship again, and again had returned drunk and obstreperous. I had him brought before me and told him, "If you want to be treated like a man, act like a man. If you want to be treated like a mad dog, act like one, and by God, I'll chain you up!"

The man said meekly, "Aye, aye, sir. I'll behave myself."

Within an hour he was raising hell again. He was still crazy drunk, so — as much for his own protection as for his shipmates' — I gave orders for his arms and legs to be chained around a stanchion in the storeroom. Unluckily, his hands were left enough play to reach a file on a shelf near by; he cut his fetters, and hell broke loose for the third time. I had a bellyful of this brawler by now. I ordered him spread-eagled for the rest of the night, his hands chained to one stanchion and his feet to another.

When we released him after breakfast, sober at last, I learned for the first time that only two stanchions that permitted spread-eagling had a low court-martial between them. I was sorry our drunk had spent such an uncomfortable eight hours, but God knows I wasn't sorry when we reached Veracruz, and I was  p22 able to transfer him to a battle­ship's brig, since we had none. This sort of conduct bordered on mutiny, so I preferred charges and requested a trial by general court-martial. (The commanding officer of a ship could not order a general court; the only person then so empowered was the Secretary of the Navy.) My recommendation was approved, and the man was tried and convicted.

I hoped that this would end the incident, but some weeks later I received an official letter from the Navy Department enclosing a letter from the man's parents, who accused me of cruel and inhuman treatment in chaining their son, and additional inhumanity in endangering him by blundering around the congested waters of the Gulf of Mexico with no lights showing, and at a speed perfectly impossible to attain with my ship! Not only that, but with the letter came a personal note from a friend at court, warning me to reply with the utmost care, as Secretary Daniels had hinted that he was going to make an example of me!

At that moment my naval career was in its most serious jeopardy. Conscience and common sense told me that the steps I had taken were proper, but I doubted my ability to convey this to the Secretary. I sweated over a dozen drafts of my reply, then had it checked and edited by friends. The final version called attention to the inaccuracies in the parents' letter and pointed out that I had fully explained and acknowledged the restraining measures in my sample charges and specifications — in short, that the Secretary had been in possession of all the facts when he ordered the court.

I sent my letter and held my breath. Mr. Daniels never answered.

The destroyers proceeded north to Norfolk at the end of spring, and I was reunited with my family. At Haiti I had acquired a small, bold, vicious parrot who developed such an inordinate appetite for alcohol, and became so vulgar and irresponsible under its effects, that I was reluctant to take him home. However, my chief engineer enjoyed the company of this depraved bird and induced me to swap him for one of his own, a handsome Brazilian named Pedro. My wife's welcome to Pedro was cool, but young Margaret adored him. He had only two tricks: he would wail like a spanked child — suggesting to the neighbors that we were brutalizing Margaret — or he would laugh like a madman. Between tricks,  p23 he applied his criminal wits to escaping from his cage and perpetrating new deviltries.

I noticed he was unusually quiet one day, and when I investigated, I found him happily scissoring the crown from my only civilian hat. It is hard for me to find a hat to fit my large head; I am ashamed to say that I slapped Pedro across the floor. He had no use for me from then on and tried to nip me whenever I approached. He also hated our Negro maid. I have seen him back her into a corner and nip at her feet until she screamed.

That year, 1914, was the year that Secretary Daniels issued his famous Order 99, directing that all alcoholic beverages be removed from Navy ships before July 1. On the night of June 30, the Jarvis gave a party on her fo'c'sle to mourn the demise of the drinking Navy. It was a melancholy occasion for the officers, but the enlisted men took it in their stride. Although they had never been allowed to have liquor aboard, many of them habitually smuggled it in, and when it ran out, drank even alcohol from the torpedoes. The authorities had tried to make "torpedo juice" unpalatable by adding croton oil and other adulterants, but the thirstier bluejackets simply bought a loaf of stale bread, sliced off its heels, poured in their "torp," and squeezed out pure alcohol.

I have never been convinced of the wisdom of Order 99. True, it stopped midday drinking and thereby insured a full afternoon's work; but to a man who has just had a tense, hazardous flight or a cold, wet watch, there is no substitute for a tot of spirits, as the Royal Navy well knows. Soon after Pearl Harbor, I took the law into my own hands. As Commander Aircraft Battle Force, I directed my representative ashore, Rear Adm. Aubrey W. Fitch, to re­quisition 100 gallons of bourbon for our flight surgeons to issue to our pilots. This eventually became standard practice. I don't remember if it was ever officially approved, but I do remember that "Jake" Fitch accused me of inaugurating highly unorthodox procedure and leaving him to hold the bag.

However, we had little time for griping about Order 99. World War I broke out in August, and the Jarvis was assigned to patrol off New York Harbor. Part of our job was to keep an eye on the Winchester, a yacht so fast that one of the belligerents was expected to buy her and try to take her abroad, in violation of our neutrality  p24 as it was then interpreted. A British patrol — a cruiser or a battle­ship — also watched the Winchester. Early in the fall, our destroyers began a series of maneuvers which were to end off Sandy Hook Lightship. The weather shut in, and the Jarvis was unable to get a single celestial fix during the whole of a 600‑mile run on various courses at various speeds. One morning, with only the vaguest idea of our position, we popped out of the thick weather, and there, dead ahead, was a strange warship. It proved to be the Britisher, but both vessels had a miserable few minutes, each expecting the other trigger-happy crew to open fire.

We popped back back into the weather and into fresh danger. I didn't see it; I didn't even know what it was; I simply knew it was there — a hunch too strong to be ignored. I ordered, "Full speed astern!" and when our way was off, I hailed a fisherman close aboard and asked for my position.

He yelled back, "If you keep going for half a mile, you'll be right in the middle of the Fire Island Life Saving Station!"

What caused me to back my engines was probably a feeling of drag from the shoaling water, or the sudden appearance of large swells off the stern. I don't know; but something told me I had to act and act fast.

In 1915 I was assigned duty at the Naval Academy, in the Discipline Department. Excepting the plebes and a few upperclassmen, the midshipmen were on leave when I reported. The night they returned, I had another hunch — I knew that the first man I would have to put on report would be the son of a friend of mine. Sure enough, my routine inspection after supper took me into a room filled with contraband tobacco smoke. I asked, "Who's in charge of this room?"

fine-looking lad said, "I am, sir."

"Your name?"

"Midshipman Macklin, sir."

"Are you a son of General Macklin?"

"Yes, sir."

I cried, "My God, I knew it!"

I immediately started a one‑man campaign to have the smoking regulation changed. A regulation that can't be enforced is a poor regulation, and my own experience as a cadet had convinced me  p25 this was one of them. The Commandant of Midshipmen warned me that the medical officers would fight, and they did. But the regulation was eventually changed, and I hope that my efforts contributed.

By now I had eleven years' experience in handling enlisted men, and I saw no reason why midshipmen should not be handled the same way. I would punish trivial offenders with no more than a bawling out — a jacking up — but major offenders would have the book thrown at them. My theory was solid, but it ignored one factor which I should have kept in mind: midshipmen regard discipline as a game, with the duty officer their opponent and an unpunished infraction their goal.

For instance, there was a genius in the class of 1916 who rigged a smoke consumer in his shower. The smoke simply vanished; I have no idea how. Another genius in a later class established supernatural control of all the bells, buzzers, lights, and even elevators in Bancroft Hall, and operated them at his whim. My Chief of Staff in the South Pacific and in the Third Fleet, Rear Adm. Robert B. Carney, was a member of 1916. There is a persistent fable that I caught him in enough infractions to make his first‑class year miserable, but this is utterly untrue. "Mick" Carney himself admits that he was far too smart for me ever to catch him. (I have heard, however, that his last night at the Academy was spent on the Reina Mercedes, the prison ship.)

The midshipmen had a special adjective for these devil-may‑care lads who lived outside the regulations; they were "touge." Nonregulation clothing, such as trousers with side pockets, was considered the acme of tougeness; so was Frenching into town. As a plebe, I had been strongly impressed by a certain first-classman who not only was the commandant four-striper but stood at the top of his class scholastically; none the less, he Frenched regularly after supper and was never apprehended. He was a real touge cadet then; today he is a fleet admiral — Ernest J. King.

In the summer of 1916, Congress passed a bill to enlarge the Navy, and I became eligible for the rank of lieutenant commander. I wanted the promotion for many reasons, but chiefly because it carried a raise of about $100 a month, and I now had a son, William Frederick Halsey III, born September 8, 1915. First I had to  p26 hurdle another set of examinations. I boned for them night and day and managed to pass, but they left me exhausted.

The next year was a stale repetition of the one before. I was becoming bored with nursing midshipmen. Part of my sourness came from the fact that we weren't in the war. Back in May, 1915, I was reading the bulletin that announced the torpedoing of the Lusitania, and a workman broadside me declared, "By God, if we don't fight now, we ought to take a licking!" It is probably just as well that we didn't fight then; our national sympathies were too diffuse. By the winter of 1916‑1917, however, they had crystallized in favor of the Allies, and when it became clear that our participation was inevitable, we unfortunate officers ashore began itching to join our brothers at sea.

The declaration of war, in April, made my hopes soar. Every time the phone rang, I expected to be told to pack my gear. It was all laid out, but the days passed, and the weeks, and the months. I was relieved of my disciplinary duties and was made director of athletics. I was also assigned to drill a class of Reserve officers. They were the highest type of young Americans, all graduates of our leading colleges, and it was a privilege to work with them, but September came, and October, and I was still ashore. Then, in November, a friend of mine discovered that Admiral Sims, commanding our naval forces in Europe, had sent the Department a list of officers he desired, and my name was on his list! Thus armed, I approached the Commandant of Midshipmen, who told me that if the Superintendent agreed, and if proper relief were secured, I could go.

On December 26, 1917, I was detached from the Naval Academy with orders to proceed to Queenstown, Ireland, for duty with destroyers.

Thayer's Notes:

a This post commander must have been Lt.‑Col. Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Richmond P. Davis.

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b A good biographical sketch is given by C. S. Alden and Ralph Earle in Makers of Naval Tradition, pp291‑326.

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Page updated: 27 Jun 17