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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 4

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 6
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

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I arrived in Pensacola on July 1, 1934. Lt. Bromfield B. Nichol, who afterwards served on my staff for many years, was assigned as my instructor, and my training began at once. Squadron 1, the beginners' squadron, spent half its day at ground school and half in the air. At ground school we studied engines, radio, aerial navigation, gunnery, bombing, and torpedoes; in the air we practiced straightaway flying, primary tactics, and dead-stick precision landings.

After Brom had flown me around a few days, I decided I wanted my designation changed from "student observer" to "student pilot." From the standpoint of simple safety, I considered it to be better to be able to fly the plane myself than just to sit at the mercy of the pilot, who might get wounded or otherwise incapacitated. Besides, with a carrier command ahead of me, I wanted a clear understanding of a pilot's problems and mental processes. My eyes still could not pass the tests for a pilot, and how I managed to become classified as one, I honestly don't know yet, and I'm not going to ask. The fact remains, I began learning to fly.

Captain Nichol:

There was one thing about his flying I'll never understand: the worse the weather, the better he flew.

A student pilot is required to solo after not less than eight hours of dual instruction, and not more than twelve. I took the limit, and when I finally soloed, it was the thrill of my life. One of Pensacola's customs is to dunk the last soloist in each class. I was the last in  p57 mine, and when I taxied my plane back to the ramp — Squadron 1 trained in seaplanes — my classmates were waiting for me. Most of them were ensigns, so they hesitated a moment before tossing a captain into the harbor, but only for a moment. In I went.

My family was at Jamestown, Rhode Island, that summer. I had soloed more than ten hours before I mustered nerve to tell my wife that I had changed to the pilots' course. I knew she'd give me the devil.

Mrs. P. Lea Spruance, Admiral Halsey's Daughter:

Mother met me when I got off the ferry from Newport one morning. She was waving a letter from Daddy and she was as mad as a hornet. "What do you think the old fool is doing now?" she asked. "He's learning to fly! It must be that flying is the only thing left that will make him feel young again. He can't turn somersaults on the ground any more, so he's going to turn them up in the air. Did you ever hear such a thing? It's all your fault! You made him a grandfather!"

When we had completed our course in Squadron 1, the class was promoted to Squadron 2 and primary land training planes. Here we were taught three-plane formation flying and such elementary stunts as the loop, snap roll, falling leaf, and split‑S. We also put in more work on precision landing. Something went wrong with an approach of mine one day; I overshot the circle and headed for a fence, rolling fast. It was a choice of hitting the fence or ground-looping, so I chose a ground loop. The plane wasn't damaged, and I wasn't hurt. In fact, the experience did me good; it took some of the cockiness out of me.

One of the final courses in Squadron 2 was cross-country flights with landings at outlying fields. We would take off from our home field in a formation of three planes, and each student would lead for one leg of the flight. The first time it was my turn to lead, I drew the homeward leg, and here my eyes got me into trouble. Although a student pilot flies a training plane from the rear cockpit, the only compass is mounted on the cowling of the front cockpit, 5 feet away, which is too far for me to read. I tried to brazen it out by the old trick of "flying the iron compass" — that is, following a railroad track — but my luck was out; the track branched, and I picked the wrong branch. (An instructor was flying  p58 along with us, herding the sheep, but he deliberately let me go astray to teach me a lesson.) As a result, I was so late getting back to our home field that I caused considerable anxiety. For that matter, I had the unflattering impression that whenever I got in the air, my base was always anxious until I landed.

In Squadron 3 we flew service planes instead of trainers. These were OU's, the biplanes flown by our carrier scouting squadrons, and treacherous devils they were. Thanks to their free-swiveling tail wheels, they would ground-loop as soon as dammit. However, one maneuver that I executed, a front flip, was no fault of the plane's. I had touched down and was making a perfectly normal landing run when my wheels hit a soft spot and the plane went over on its back. The men in the tower recognized my number, and out dashed the crash truck and ambulance, with sirens screaming. They wanted me to lay off and take a breather, but I demanded another plane and went up immediately, to make sure that my nerve had not been shaken. It was all right.

Squadron 4 introduced us to the T4M, a single-engine patrol plane that carried a torpedo between its floats. We didn't drop the torpedoes; we flew the T4M's chiefly to get the feel of a heavy plane on the water before we moved up to the big twin-engine patrol jobs, which came next. In these we practiced flying on one engine and had our first lessons in horizontal bombing. I wasn't able to work with Squadron 4 as thoroughly as I wanted. The complete flight-instruction course required between twelve and thirteen months, but because spring was upon us, and I was scheduled to take command of the Saratoga early in July, the latter part of my training had to be condensed; I had to skimp Squadron 4 and hurry on to Squadron 5.

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This was the most interesting and exciting part of the whole course. The "old fool" was flying fighting planes, F3B's and F4B's, so he had the illusion of being a combat pilot. Now we took up advanced stunting, and here let me emphasize the fact that stunt flying is not taught with ostentatious aerobatics as the sole end. On the contrary, it has definite and tremendous military value. Every stunt is designed to help a pilot evade an enemy or get into position for an attack. To be sure, the aerobatics frequently displayed by  p59 Japanese pilots in the recent war did not seem to bear out this statement, but we learned later that they, too, had a practical end; the Japs' airborne radios were capricious, and when communication failed, the flight leader would use a certain stunt to signal a certain maneuver.

Two stunts we had never tried in Squadron 2 were the slow roll and the roll on top of a loop. When you make a slow roll, you have to reverse your controls twice, which takes both quick thinking and perfect coordination. I remember the first time I tried one. Halfway through it, I was beginning to think how easy it was, when I looked at my instruments; I had dived 2,500 feet and was making better than 200 knots. Even after long practice, I never mastered any stunt that took delicacy, but when it came to stunts where you simply kicked the plane around, I could usually get by.

"Jumping the rope" was another trick we met in Squadron 5. (I call it a trick because it wasn't really a stunt.) A rope hung with streamers was tied to the tops of two poles, about 10 feet high and 15 feet apart, set at the near end of the landing strip, and the trick was to clear the rope and land as close to it as possible, as practice for landing in a short field. Here my eyes handicapped me again. From the point where my approach should begin, I couldn't see the rope, and by the time I had picked it out, it was too late to adjust my flight.

Until now I had never worn corrective lenses, on the theory that unless I learned to fly without them, I would be almost helpless if I lost them in the air or broke them. Although I still didn't consider them essential to normal flying, I realized that an emergency might require them, so I had them fitted into my goggles and from then on my mistakes could be blamed only on my normal clumsiness.

Capt. John Raby:

I was one of the instructors in Squadron 5 — a lieutenant j.g. When the Admiral came to us, I told him I would have his parachute carried out to his plane for him before every flight. He refused; he said he was no different from the other students and wanted no special privileges of any kind.

In those days we had an emblem called "the Flying Jackass" — an aluminum breastplate in the likeness of a jackass, with straps that buckled  p60 over your shoulders and around your waist. If you taxied into a boundary light, you were awarded the Jackass and had to wear it — except when you were actually flying — until the next man "won" it away from you. Pretty soon the Admiral taxied into a light and went up on his nose. Our skipper, Lt. Comdr. Matthias B. Gardner (later commander of a task group in the Third Fleet), lined up the entire squadron of students and enlisted men, read out a citation we had written for the Admiral, and buckled the Flying Jackass to his chest.

He had worn it a couple of weeks when a student in Squadron 2 hit a light, so I told the Admiral that he had served his time and asked him to turn in the Jackass for the new winner. He said, "No, I want to keep it. I won't wear it around here any more, but when I take command of the Sara, I'm going to put it on the bulkhead of my cabin. If anybody aboard does anything stupid, I'll take a look at the Jackass before I bawl him out, and I'll say, 'Wait a minute, Bill Halsey! You're not so damn good yourself!"

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My last month of instruction, May, 1935, was like a game of going to Jerusalem. I'd fly a fighter, then rush down to the beach and fly a patrol plane, then rush back to the fighters again. Between the first of the month and the twenty-eighth, I spent more than eighty hours in the air. But school was out eventually; I was designated "naval aviator," my wings were pinned on, and my wife and I drove across the continent to Long Beach, to my new duty as skipper of the Saratoga.

Fan had joined me in Pensacola the preceding December. When I had left her six months before, I weighed close to 200 pounds. When she saw me next, the heat and the strain of flying had peeled me down to 155. Still, I rather fancied my sylphlike figure, so I hinted that compliments were in order. Instead, she stood me in front of a mirror, grabbed a handful of the loose skin flapping under my jaw, and demanded, "What are these wattles? You look like a sick turkey buzzard!"

It was only temporary. I was back up to 175 when I got my wings.

A footnote to the year at Pensacola: One day some student pilots told me about a broadcast they had just heard by a certain notorious commentator. According to their account — and in justice to the blackguard, it should be borne in mind that I am setting down something I was told more than ten years ago — his  p61 thesis was that the Navy had sly little ways of circumventing congressional laws, for instance the law requiring the commanding officer of a carrier to be either a pilot or at least an aerial observer. Let us say, he continued, that an officer of the grade of captain is ordered to Pensacola to take the observers' course. The commandant is an old friend. The captain greets him by nickname and tells him why he has arrived.

"That's fine!" the commandant says. "I've got just the man for you!" He sends for a personable and politic young lieutenant and tells him, "Captain X here is going to take our observers' course, and you will be his instructor. . . . Is everything quite clear?"

"Yes, sir, the lieutenant says, and he starts Captain X on a series of mild, sight-seeing hops under sunny skies.

A few weeks pass. Captain X again drops in to see the commandant, again addresses him by nickname, and informs him, "I've completed the course; a delightful experience!"

"Splendid!" says the commandant. "It gives me great pleasure to award you these wings. Congratulations!"

Well, as I was the only captain of the line then at Pensacola, and the only one eligible to command a carrier, the fledgling pilots got the impression that the commentator had me in mind. In fact, they were sore as hell about it. I didn't care a hoot. All I did was write Ernie King and ask him to invite Big‑Mouth to come for a ride with me. I added that I happened to be in the middle of the stunt course in Squadron 2, and I felt pretty sure that if the scoundrel had guts enough to accept, I could make him throw them up. He never answered my invitation, but — to be fair again — I don't know if Ernie ever passed it along.

The Saratoga was not designed to be a carrier. She and her sister, the Lexington, started as battle cruisers and were converted under the terms of the Washington Disarmament Conference of 1922. This made them somewhat stiffer than a carrier should be, but it also made them the largest warships in the world. They had power to match their size — 185,000 hp. When Tacoma's power plant failed in 1929, the Lex hooked onto the cables and delivered enough juice to carry the whole city until it could take care of itself again, thirty days later.

 p62  Hitherto, the largest ship I had handled was a destroyer, except the single occasion when I brought the Wyoming into an anchorage, and I was curious to feel the difference between the Sara and the Benham or the Yarnall. I am not being an obvious idiot when I say that it was one of size and nothing else. She was simply an overgrown destroyer, and I handled her as such. I could even make a flying anchorage with her. At Coronado Roads once, I let go the hook when she was making 9 knots, backed her full, and had her dead in the water by the time we had paid out 75 fathoms of cable. That was an emergency, I admit, but it shows what she could do when you called on her.

I never had any combat experience on the Sara. If the Enterprise later became my favorite, it was because she was my flagship when the Japs attacked Pearl Harbor and because we afterward went through so many fights together. But there are two reasons why I will always think of the Sara as a queen and why she will always have a secure place in my heart. First, I loved her as a home; I commanded her for two years and flew my rear admiral's flag on her for two more, which means that I lived on board her longer than I ever lived anywhere else. Second, I loved her as a ship; she helped me make my debut in the carrier Navy, and she initiated me into the marvels of fleet aviation.

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To employ this mighty arm of naval warfare and employ it properly, you have to know its limitations as well as its potentialities. I think I know something about them now, after six years of carrier experience; but I knew little enough then, and I had to learn the hard way — from others, while bearing the responsibility for their actions.

Carrier flying requires special training and special courage. I can say this objectively, because although I have been a passenger in many carrier take-offs and landings, I have never been the pilot. All combat pilots, land-based or carrier-based, must know how to fly, navigate, operate a radio, and shoot and bomb, but this is only the beginning of the demands on a carrier pilot's abilities, and it ignores the extraordinary hazards that confront him.

For instance, his engine may cut on take‑off as he crosses the bow. Then his plane goes into the water, his wheels trip and throw it onto its nose or back, and he may be knocked unconscious. His  p63 safety belt or his canopy may jam, and he will drown. Or he may extricate himself only to be trampled down by his own ship. He faces all these possibilities every time he goes over the ramp.

Say that his take‑off is normal. Say that an enemy does not cripple his plane over the ocean 200 or 300 miles from his ship, and that his engine does not fail. He still has to find his ship again. A land-based pilot departs from a fixed spot and returns to one. But the carrier may be 50 miles or more from where the pilot left it, and there are no landmarks on the ocean, no "iron compasses," no signposts. His radio will help him, of course, but the best radio is not infallible, and if it fades in foul weather, only split-second navigation will bring him back.

Here I mean split seconds of latitude and longitude, not of time. He needs split-second timing when he tries to come aboard. I have said that a ship usually pivots around a point about one‑third aft of her bow, which means that the horizontal arc of her stern is twice that of her bow. A heavy sea may make this arc as wide as 25 feet, and it may also make the stern rise and fall the same distance. Add a gusty, shifting wind, and the difficulties of entering the narrow lane are evident. Carrier pilots have what it takes. They have to have it.

Something else they seem to have is an addiction to practical jokes. I remember a period on the Sara when "Country" Moore found that he was being treated as a pariah. No sooner would he take a seat in the wardroom or the ready room than his neighbors would offer some excuse and move away. One of them finally whispered an explanation, as they do in advertisements, and Country rushed to consult a dental officer, who asked him what toothpaste he was using. Country brought it down to show him. His friend "Cap" Brown, it developed, had taken a hypodermic syringe and shot the tube full of oil of garlic.

In the early fall of 1935, the Saratoga went to the Bremerton Navy Yard for a three-month overhaul, then to Panama on a winter cruise, then back to her base at Long Beach. The naval landing there was next to a merchant dock, and it was then, in the spring of 1936, that I first noticed something that I have had excellent cause to remember ever since: the constant presence of Japanese shipping. It was a rare day when I passed this dock without seeing  p64 a Jap freighter loading scrap iron. Every time we put to sea, we met a Jap tanker coming in for oil. (Am I wrong, or were the tankers handled Navy-fashion?) And, of course, part of the fishing fleet, working out of San Pedro was manned by Japanese.

(I am not wrong when I state that these fishing boats frequently bobbed up in the midst of our maneuvers, with no commercial excuse. The Hawaiian fishing fleet was also Jap‑manned to a large extent and also showed an unbecoming curiosity. In the summer of 1941, when Carrier Division 2 was operating off the Hawaiians, one sampan was so persistently intrusive that I ordered my destroyers to give it a dose of smoke and then search it. They did so, and found an alien Japanese not listed on the ship's rolls.)

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Jack Towers relieved me in command of the Sara in June, 1937, and I did not return to the West Coast for two years. By then the Panay had been bombed,​a so my apprehension was increased by the spectacle of the Jap ships still loading scrap at Long Beach. My conviction — and it was general in the Navy — was that this scrap would eventually return to us in the form of shells and bombs. There was friction between Japan and the United States at too many points. We resented the closed-door policy in Manchuria, and they resented our Exclusion Act. But overshadowing all political and economic considerations was the inescapable fact that Americans did not like the Japanese and did not trust them.

Lt. (j.g.) Melvin Carr:

Before Pearl Harbor, I used to drive the Admiral around Honolulu. A lot of people out there are like wild men in automobiles, but when one of them bumped us, the Admiral always insisted it was our fault and took the whole blame — unless the other driver was a Jap. In that case, no matter whose fault it was, he gave the Jap hell.

My father and I disagreed on this; he was friendly with many of them. One of his classmates at the Naval Academy, the first Japanese to matriculate there, was Jiunzo Matsumura, who died a vice admiral in the Imperial Navy. In my early days in the Navy, many of our mess attendants were Japanese. Two of them I remember clearly: Kosu was a simple rickshaw puller, burnt I have always believed that Shozi, who was smart, quick, and crooked, was a naval officer in masquerade.

 p65  When I was relieved from the Sara with orders to return East, I telephoned from San Diego to my wife in Wilmington, Delaware, and told her that I had a chance to fly home in a fast two‑seater, as copilot to an excellent aviator. . . .

I disobeyed her and flew anyway. Through inexperience, I kept the volume of my radio turned too high during the flight, and when we landed at Washington, I was temporarily stone-deaf. I phoned Fan again, to report my arrival, but I had hardly done so when she took charge of the conversation for $1.80 worth of time. I could gather from her tone that she was ripping off my skin, but I couldn't distinguish a single word. I have never been that lucky again.

My new orders took me back to Pensacola, as commandant. Our official residence was comfortable; we enjoyed seeing so many old friends again, and I was able not only to fly to my heart's content, but to bring myself abreast of the latest developments in aviation. I was particularly interested in the progress of instrument flying, and I monopolized so much of the instructors' time that they asked me to slack off for the benefit of their regular students.

I had been selected for rear admiral in December, 1936, but because promotion takes effect only when there are vacancies in the grade, I did not "make my number" for fifteen months, until after I reported in at Pensacola. It was gratifying to become a flag officer, but it cost me exactly $3,000. The difference in pay between a captain and a rear admiral of the lower half was only $300 a year, which barely defrayed my new gold lace and insignia. Then Congress passed a law — effective July 1, 1938 — that only one officer of flag rank was entitled to draw flight pay (an additional 50 per cent of base pay), and I was not that officer. This law lasted only a year, at the end of which flight pay was restored to flag officers actually engaged in flying, but my flight pay for that year would have amounted to $3,000.

Meanwhile, in May, 1938, I was detached from Pensacola and ordered to command Carrier Division 2, which consisted of two brand‑new sister ships, the Yorktown, Capt. Ernest D. McWhorter commanding, and the Enterprise, Capt. Charles A. Pownall. The Yorktown was on her shakedown cruise, so I hoisted my flag in the "Big E," which was in the Norfolk Navy Yard for repairs and  p66 alterations following her own shakedown. She was ready early in January, and we sailed for the Caribbean, to join the Battle Fleet for spring maneuvers.

At the end of World War II, the United States Navy included about 100 aircraft carriers. In January, 1939, the Navy had five. The Saratoga was in the Pacific, but the others were together — my two in CARDIV 2, and the Lexington and Ranger in CARDIV 1, all four being under command of Ernie King, as Commander Aircraft Battle Force. The Lex, commanded by Capt. John H. Hoover, who later became my Chief of Staff, and the Ranger, by Capt. John Sidney McCain, who later commanded Task Force 38 in my Third Fleet, were both veteran ships, smooth and efficient. The greenhorn Yorktown and Enterprise had a rugged time trying to match them, but we had no reason to be ashamed when the maneuvers were over and the fleet stood north to Hampton Roads.

Captain Nichol:

During these maneuvers, an officer on the hangar deck made a mistake that delayed our launching one morning. Admiral King cracked down right away with a signal demanding to know who was responsible. Admiral Halsey replied, "COMCARDIV 2" — assuming the responsibility himself.

He's got broad shoulders. He takes it without passing it on. For my money, that's the mark of greatness as a naval officer. It's also the stuff that loyalty is built on.

From Hampton Roads, the fleet was going to New York for leave and liberty. A few afternoons before we were due to sail, I was driving through Norfolk when an excited yeoman from my staff stopped my car and told me that we had been ordered to proceed to the West Coast at once. We sailed next day, so suddenly that the officers and men who had been granted leave could not be recalled in time and had to meet us out there. No official explanation was ever given, but I have been told informally that our orders came direct from the White House, on the strength of a report that the Japanese were plotting to blow up the Panama Canal around July 1.

By the time we reached the West Coast, however, the tension had relaxed and the fleet went about its routine. But the Jap  p67 freighters were still loading scrap at Long Beach, and their tankers were still taking on oil. . . . I had plenty of opportunities to watch them this time; I was in and out of there for ten months, until the Battle Fleet cruised to the Hawaiians in April, 1940.

Meanwhile, the carrier divisions and their commanders were reshuffled, and I was appointed COMCARDIV 1, with my flag in the Saratoga. That year we conducted war games jointly with the Army. Their problem was to defend a section of California's coast against "invasion" by a division of troops; the Battle Fleet's problem was to convoy the division. My "air force" — one carrier — acted independently, harassing the Army's shore-based air. Of all the simulated attacks we made on their fields, one stands out. Capt. William D. Oldb had brought his bombers across from the East Coast and had based them at Reno. He was so certain that carrier planes could not penetrate 200 miles inland that he did not post patrols, and the first he knew of our attack was when our fighters swarmed over him. Some of them were impertinent enough to drop alarm clocks by parachute, with messages suggesting that it was time the Army woke up.

On the way to Pearl the Battle Fleet split into two forces, one commanded by Adm. Charles P. Snyder and the other by Vice Adm. William S. Pye. I was detailed to Admiral Pye's force. By now I had formed certain opinions on how naval aviation should be employed and certain ideas for increasing its efficiency. One of our problems was radio communication. At that time each ship had its own wave length, or channel, to its own planes. Obviously, the sooner the enemy's position is reported, the sooner you can take the offense; but under the radio doctrine then current, there was a dangerous waste of critical time. Say that planes from all ships — carriers, battle­ships, and cruisers — were scouting for the enemy, and that a cruiser plane made the first contact. Before the carrier commanders could order action, the cruiser had to receive the report, read it, and readdress it to the flagship, which had to read it and readdress it to the carriers.

My contention was that a single wave length should be shared by all scout planes, so that no matter who reported the first contact, the carriers could be alerted. I strongly recommended this to Admiral Pye, who concurred. We both knew that we would meet  p68 opposition and we did. However, he overruled it, and our system, or one similar, has been in effect ever since.

I got into another fight over radio at about the same time. A good many communications officers were arguing that our ship-to‑plane radiophones could be jammed, and that the only reliable transmission was by key. I disagreed for two reasons: (1) I maintained that the phones could not be jammed, and (2) whereas it takes only a few minutes to teach a man to use a radiophone, it takes months to teach him Morse. This was the spring of 1940, when the Navy was beginning to expand at an unprecedented rate. Our dive-bomber and observation-scout pilots were begging for rear-seat men, men who could operate the free gun as well as the radio. We could spare only so much time to train them; every hour devoted to Morse was an hour stolen from the guns; and I considered it more important for them to learn how to attack and to defend themselves than for them to become expert telegraphers.

Eventually we agreed to settle the argument by a test, as we should have done at the start. The communicators rigged three high-powered transmitters on a ship, and we sent out our planes. Despite every attempt to jam us, the ship and the planes exchanged oral reports at a distance of 150 miles. Our fight was won.

A month after we arrived at Pearl, I was detached from command of CARDIV 1 and appointed Commander Aircraft Battle Force, with additional duty as COMCARDIV2. This made me a naval Pooh‑Bah. As COMAIRBATFOR, I commanded all the carriers in the Pacific Fleet and their air groups; therefore, as COMCARDIV2 I was directly responsible to my other self, just as later, for example, Fleet Adm. Chester W. Nimitz as CINCPAC was responsible to himself as CINCPOA (Commander in Chief Pacific Ocean Areas). On the same day, June 13, I was promoted to the temporary rank of vice admiral. This, too, had its Gilbert and Sullivan aspects. When Ernie King was relieved at COMAIRBATFOR, he reverted from temporary vice admiral to rear admiral. so I now became his senior and, in fact, remained so until he was promoted to admiral. (All this is inconsequential; I mention it only to illustrate the curious leapfrog of temporary rank.)

That summer at Pearl, the men in the Pacific Fleet had their first sight of a strange contraption. The California displayed it.  p69 She had gone to the West Coast as a normal battle­ship, but when she returned after her overhaul and refit, she was a changed old lady; she looked as if she were wearing a bedspring on her bonnet. It was a new invention, top secret, and was said to be almost supernatural — radar.

I had been introduced to it the year before, when Capt. Roscoe C. MacFall, then in charge of fleet training at Washington, told me how their radar had picked up a plane over the east coast of Maryland and had tracked it into the Anacostia Naval Air Station, near Washington. The possibilities of such an instrument were too tremendous to grasp. I was told that it would be installed throughout the fleet, and I was impatient to see it on the Yorktown, my new flagship. Almost as soon as we received it, we had a chance to test it in a war game, and I remember how awe‑struck I was when it located the opposing force, out of sight over the horizon, at a distance of 35,000 yards. A few months later, when the Yorktown went back to San Diego for overhaul, our radar not only picked up a destroyer squadron at 78,000 yards, thanks to a freak weather condition, but enabled us to find our anchorage despite a thick fog.

If I had to give credit to the instruments and machines that won us the war in the Pacific, I would rank them in this order: submarines first, radar second, planes third, bulldozers fourth.

The Enterprise completed her overhaul in December, so I shifted my flag to her and sailed back to Pearl early in January, while the Yorktown took her turn in the yard. Our next big excitement came on February 1 when, as part of a general shake‑up of flag officers, my friend and classmate, Rear Adm. Husband E. Kimmel, was relieved of his command of the Cruiser Battle Force and was appointed Commander in Chief of the Pacific Fleet, with the rank of admiral.

There was no doubt of his qualifications, but he was a comparatively junior officer, and his promotion to a post of such responsibility astonished him as it did the rest of us. His splendid record gets most of the credit, of course, but part I attribute to the impression he had made during Secretary Knox's visit to the fleet the summer before. Mr. Knox had had the word passed that he wished every flag officer to call on him, and each was informed that he would be expected at a set time. This procedure was unusual, but  p70 sound; it gave us a chance to meet the Secretary of the Navy against our own background, and it gave him a chance to size us up individually. I am convinced that when Husband Kimmel paid his call, his personality made an indelibly favorable impression, to the extent that his name leaped to Mr. Knox's mind when it was time to pick a successor to Adm. "Jo" Richardson.

I don't believe there was a flag officer in the Pacific Fleet who did not feel that Kimmel was an ideal man for the job. Unfortunately, even an ideal man can't do a job without proper tools, and Kimmel did not have them. The blame falls on the ostrich policy which the United States adopted after World War I. We refused to recognize the existence of predatory nations; therefore, they did not exist. On the theory that sweetness and light would prevail and that we would have no further need for the Navy, appropriations to maintain it were cut and cut again. Enlistments had to be restricted; for want of crews, ships were laid up; few new ships were built.

As our strength waned, the ambitions of the predators waxed. Providentially, President Roosevelt came into power in time to save our military establishment from complete collapse. He began to restore it at once, and although it was still perilously — almost fatally — weak when war broke out, he had managed to shore it up enough to survive the first assault. When I say "weak," I have especially in mind the Pacific Fleet. I quote from Kimmel's testimony before the Joint Committee on the Investigation of the Pearl Harbor Attack:

The Pacific Fleet was inferior to the Japanese Fleet in every category of fighting ship. . . . Japan, at the outbreak of hostilities, had nine aircraft carriers in commission. We had three carriers in the Pacific and those did not have their full quota of planes. Although the battle­ships of the fleet were all approximately the same age as the heavy ships of the Japanese Navy, our ships were particularly deficient in short-range anti-aircraft weapons. . . .

And so on. We realized the disparity, but despite emphatic warnings from officers who had served in the Far East — notably from Adm. Harry E. Yarnell — many of us were inclined to underrate the Japs, chiefly their aviation. Let me confess here that I revised my opinion  p71 after December 7. The Jap naval officers who made that attack were good — very good indeed.

It is a bitter paradox that some of our worst deficiencies were caused by the program aimed to remedy them. When the Navy began to expand in 1940, trained men were needed as cadres for new organizations. Thousands were drawn from the Pacific Fleet and were replaced by raw recruits. As Kimmel has stated, more than 50 per cent of his officers were newly commissioned Reserves, and there were times where 70 per cent of the men aboard individual ships had never heard a gun fired.

The fleet's most desperate shortage was patrol planes and their crews. Proper defense of an island requires an 800‑mile, 360‑degree search by patrol planes, supplemented by a scouting force of submarines and fast surface vessels. Kimmel had neither sufficient planes nor an adequate scouting force. I am not exaggerating when I say that he did not have enough planes to maintain complete coverage of a 60‑degree sector. As for crews, his original shortage was increased by orders to transfer twelve trained crews to the mainland every month. This situation offered him two alternatives: he could work his available planes and crews to the point where few, if any, would soon be operative; or he could reduce his search and conserve them for the outbreak of war. Kimmel chose to reduce his search, and although this was one of the factors that enabled the Japs' sneak attack to succeed, any admiral worth his stars would have made the same choice.

All our plans accepted the possibility of such an attack, but most of us believed that Japan's first strike would be southward, against the Malay Peninsula; we hoped so, because this would give us warning. However, if Pearl were struck first, we believed it would probably be by submarines, synchronized with sabotage. (The Hawaiian Islands have a Japanese population of 155,000.) Admiral Richardson, Kimmel's predecessor, had observed that our regular anchorage at Lahaina Roads, between Maui and Lanai, was dangerously exposed to submarines, and had ordered it abandoned. With the fleet thus concentrated at Pearl Harbor, Kimmel reorganized it into three task forces and scheduled their operations so that, as a general rule, only one would be in port at a time. As further protection against espionage, he forbade fleet  p72 movements to be mentioned; hitherto we had been allowed to discuss them freely.

By the fall of 1940, we had known that war with Japan was inevitable. By the next spring, we knew it was impending. One of our first indications was received on April 4, when we were ordered to strip ship — to remove all inflammable or splinterable gear not needed for fighting: boats, cushions, wooden chests, canvas awnings, excess cordage, paint. We rigged splinter shields for the crews of our AA guns. We installed degaussing cables, to neutralize magnetic mines, and listening gear to detect submarines. On Kimmel's insistence, we stepped up war‑training exercises of all types. The carrier air groups staged gunnery, bombing, and torpedo runs almost daily, and practised night take-offs and landings. We arranged for submarines to maneuver with the carriers, so that our pilots could learn to spot them at different depths. We experimented with our radars to determine their resources and their limits.

For instance, the Enterprise's radar was excellent at reporting the distance of a plane, but not its altitude. We evolved a rough solution to the problem by sending a squadron 100 miles from the ship with orders to shuttle at each 1,000‑foot level, up to 20,000 feet. Tracking them, we found that they disappeared from the screen at certain intervals, then reappeared. We plotted the curve, established the nulls (blind spots), and computed the altitudes. This information we gave to the Army as well as the fleet. In the course of the test, our screen once showed that our second division of planes, then some 50 miles away, was straggling out of position. The pilots were not yet aware of radar's powers and were mystified when we called them and told them to close up.

Kimmel conferred frequently with his task-force commanders — Vice Admiral Pye, commanding TF 1, myself commanding TF 2, and Vice Adm. Wilson Brown, commanding TF 3. Every scrap of information that came to him, he passed along to us and to Rear Adm. William L. Calhoun, Commander Base Force, and Rear Adm. Claude C. Bloch, Commandant of the Fourteenth Naval District. I recall with special clarity a conference on the morning of November 27, the day that the famous "war warning" arrived from Washington. Kimmel was always concerned about our picket-line islands — Midway, Wake, Johnston, and Palmyra — which were as  p73 inadequately armed and manned as was the fleet. He had sent them all the reinforcements he could spare and had requested Maj. Gen. Charles F. B. Price of the Marines, who was making a tour of the area, to inspect and criticize their defenses. These included, on Wake and Midway, newly completed airfields, which the War and Navy Departments had agreed to stock with Army pursuit planes, to be delivered by the Enterprise. The conference was called to decide what types of planes to send, old ones or new ones. The officers present were Lt. Gen. Walter C. Short, commanding the Hawaiian Department; Maj. Gen. Frederick L. Martin, commanding Short's air force; Vice Admiral Brown; Rear Admiral Bellinger, Commander Air Force Scouting Force; myself, and members of Kimmel's staff.

General Short stated that inasmuch as these planes would probably be the first to meet the enemy, we should use the best we had.

I asked General Martin, "Isn't it a fact that your pursuit fliers are forbidden to venture more than 15 miles from shore?"

He nodded. "That is true."

"Then," I said, "they are no good for our purpose. We need pilots who can navigate over water."

We decided to take Marine planes, twelve F4F's. The conference broke up then, but I stayed with Kimmel the rest of the morning, returned after lunch, and remained until six, discussing this project. The utmost secrecy was imperative. We wanted no Japanese agent in the Hawaiians to warn Tokyo that we were arming Wake and Midway with planes. Indeed, except for the officers at the conference and the other members of Kimmel's staff whose duties required the information, only two officers were told — Comdr. Miles R. Browning, my Chief of Staff, and Maj. Paul A. Putnam, commanding Marine Fighting Squadron 211, which had been selected for the assignment. In order to get his pilots onto the Enterprise without arousing suspicion, Putnam told them they were going out for two days' experimental work. They landed aboard with overnight kits and the clothes they were wearing. The next time their heroic survivors returned to that longitude was after almost four years in the hellholes of Japanese prison camps.

We fully expected that this cruise would take us into the lion's  p74 mouth, and that at any moment an overt act would precipitate war. Before we shoved off, I asked Kimmel, "How far do you want me to go?"

His reply was characteristic: "Goddammit, use your common sense!"

I consider that as fine an order as a subordinate ever received. It was by no means an attempt to pass the buck. He was simply giving me full authority, as the man on the spot, to handle the situation as I saw it, and I knew that he would back me to the hilt.

Thayer's Notes:

a C. S. Alden & Ralph Earle, Makers of Naval Tradition, pp349‑351.

[decorative delimiter]

b William Donald Old was a crack pilot, having just set the year before a speed and distance record as the pilot of the Army's XB‑15 experimental bomber; details of the flight, including photographs, can be found at This Day in Aviation. He flew the first aerial supply "over the Hump" for Jimmy Doolittle's bombers in 1942, and eventually retired as Major General in the Air Force, having commanded the Alaskan Air Command. His wider career, with further photos, is outlined at Davis-Monthan Aviation Field Register.

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