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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 7

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 9
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

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We returned to Nouméa on the afternoon of November 9. Miles Browning was waiting for me, with news that another enemy offensive was brewing, one that would employ a vast number of ships and planes on a schedule which Intelligence estimated as follows: planes would bomb Guadalcanal on the eleventh; ships would bombard Henderson Field on the night of the twelfth; and after a day‑long carrier attack on the thirteenth, troops would land.

First reports credited this combined assault and invasion fleet with two carriers, four battle­ships, five heavy cruisers, about thirty destroyers, and possibly twenty transports and cargo vessels. To intercept it, I had a fleet that would have been inferior even if two of its heaviest units were not crippled; moreover, not only was it dispersed, but it was already committed, in part, to delivering the support I had promised Archie Vandergrift. The exact situation was as follows:

Rear Admiral Scott's force — one light cruiser and four destroyers — was escorting three cargo vessels from Espiritu to Guadalcanal, where it was due to arrive on the eleventh.

Rear Admiral Turner's force — one heavy cruiser, one light cruiser, and four destroyers — was escorting four transports from Nouméa to Guadalcanal, where it was due to arrive on the twelfth.

Rear Admiral Callaghan's force — two heavy cruisers, one light cruiser, and six destroyers — would sail from Espiritu on the tenth and rendezvous with Turner on the eleventh.

Rear Admiral Kinkaid's force — the Enterprise, the battle­ships  p125 South Dakota and Washington, one heavy cruiser, one light cruiser, and eight destroyers — was still at Nouméa, where the Enterprise and South Dakota were under repair for damages suffered in the Battle of Santa Cruz.

If the enemy kept to his probable schedule, our supply ships would have to discharge and be clear of the area before the night of the twelfth, so that the warships escorting them could join the battle free of responsibility. Meanwhile, Kinkaid's force would be sent forward the moment it was able to sail. The South Dakota's No. 1 turret was completely out of commission, but the Enterprise was crippled far worse. When we sent her back to sea, eighty-five repairmen were still aboard, one of her tanks was still leaking oil, and her forward elevator was still jammed, as far as we knew, at flight-deck level. I say "far we knew," because we didn't dare test it. If we had lowered it and had been unable to raise it again, she would have been useless. As it was, she could conduct flight operations at slow speed, and this was a time when even half-ships counted.

Norm Scott's force reached its anchorage off Lunga Point at 0530 on the eleventh and began to unload at once. The enemy gave him four hours' grace, then attacked with dive bombers. All were shot down, but not before the three cargo vessels had been damaged, one of them seriously enough to require its return to Espiritu, with a destroyer. While the other two continued unloading through the night, Scott took his remaining warships into Indispensable Strait and joined Callaghan's force, which had sprinted ahead of Turner's. They made two sweeps east and west of Savo Island, but found nothing, and retired at dawn on the twelfth to protect the unloading of Turner's four transports, off Kukum Beach.

That morning our scouts reported a strong enemy force bearing down on Guadalcanal and already close enough to arrive during the night. No transports were sighted; this was a bombardment force. Turner rushed his unloading and might have completed it by nightfall, if he hadn't had to suspend for two hours to beat off an attack by torpedo planes. Even so, his transports — all credit to their captains and the unloading crews — were 90 per cent empty when he withdrew them, accompanied by three destroyers and two fast mine sweepers.

 p126  Callaghan, Scott's senior, was now left with a total strength as follows: the heavy cruisers San Francisco (flagship) and Portland; the light cruisers Atlanta (Scott's flagship), Helena, and Juneau; and the destroyers Aaron Ward, Barton, Monssen, Fletcher, Cushing, Laffey, Sterett, and O'Bannon. (In addition to the four destroyers detached to escort the transports, three more and a heavy cruiser had been sent to reinforce Kinkaid.) This was little enough with which to face two battle­ships, a light cruiser, and fifteen destroyers, so all we hoped for was an action that would delay the enemy long enough to be within reach of the Enterprise's planes next morning, Friday the thirteenth.

Callaghan entered Lengo Channel at midnight. At 0124, the Helena's radar picked up three groups of ships, the nearest group 27,100 yards away. The moon was down, near‑by land masses confused the radar readings, and TBS (Talk Between Ships) transmission was poor. Almost before Callaghan was aware, his column had steamed between two of the groups. Searchlights suddenly pinned him from both sides, and he was under fire at the point-blank range of 3,000 yards.

The action lasted twenty-four minutes. In Admiral King's opinion, it was "one of the most furious sea battles ever fought." Back on the Argonne, in Nouméa, all we knew was that the battle was raging. I had sent Callaghan and Scott into it, and now I could do nothing but wait for the results. The waiting was hard, as always. I walked the decks, re‑examined reports and charts, and conferred with my staff. I must have drunk a gallon of coffee and smoked two packs of cigarettes. When the tension became unbearable, I skimmed through the trashiest magazine I could find.

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Official USN Photo

Ping Wilkinson*

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Official USN Photo

Norm Scott*

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Wide World Photo

Dan Callaghan*

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Official USN Photo

Tip Merrill

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Official USN Photo

Pug Ainsworth

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Official Marine Corps Photo

Archie Vandergrift

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Official U. S. Army Air Force Photo

Miff Harmon

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Official U. S. Army Air Force Photo

Nate Twining

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Sandy Patch

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Official Marine Corps Photo

Roy Geiger*

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Official Marine Corps Photo

Oscar Griswold

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Official Army Signal Corps Photo

John Hodge

It was broad daylight when a communications watch officer brought me the first official word. As in all battles, the bad news came first. This was a dispatch from the Portland: Steering room flooded and rudder jammed hard right by torpedo hit starboard quarter × Cannot steer with engines × Request tow.

Half an hour later the Atlanta reported, Help needed. Then, about 0900, came this one, from the Helena: Helena San Francisco Juneau Obannon Fletcher Sterett in company proceeding course one seven five [toward Espiritu] × Helena senior ship × All ships are damaged so request maximum air coverage.

 p127  Where were the Portland and Atlanta? What had happened to the five other destroyers? And why was the Helena the senior ship when Dan Callaghan's San Francisco was present? The implication was plain: Dan was either dead or badly wounded.

Late in the afternoon, Guadalcanal began to round out the story: Ten miles north Savo Island five enemy DDS [destroyers] attempting assist Kongo-class BB [battle­ship] which has been hit by seven torpedoes and 1000 lb bomb × After part of ship burning fiercely × Ship believed hostile DD beached and smoking north coast Olevuga Island × Large vessel burning Indispensable Strait × USS Cushing burning five miles SE Savo Island and USS Monssen dead in water both abandoned × Atlanta and Portland badly damaged × USS Laffey has sunk × 700 survivors picked up 25% of these wounded.

And ten minutes later the Portland stated, Atlanta unable to control water × abandoning and sinking her with demolition charges × I am proceeding under tow to Tulagi.

Presumably the Atlanta could not speak for herself for the same reason that the San Francisco had not spoken; like Dan Callaghan, Norm Scott was dead or wounded. We eventually learned that both these splendid men were dead. Dan was killed when the battle­ship Hiyei's third salvo smashed into the San Francisco's bridge. Norm was killed at some subsequent time, never established. I had known and loved Norm Scott for years; his death was the greatest personal sorrow that beset me in the whole war.

But Guadalcanal had been saved. As Archie Vandergrift expressed it in a dispatch to me: To Scott, Callaghan, and their men goes our greatest homage × With magnificent courage against seemingly hopeless odds, they drove back the first hostile stroke and made success possible × To them the men of Guadalcanal lift their battered helmets in deepest admiration.

Our loss of the Atlanta and the Barton, Cushing, Laffey, and Monssen (and, hours later, the Juneau) was balanced by the enemy's loss of the Hiyei and two destroyers. What made this opening phase of the battle an American victory had been excellently described in CINCPAC's official report:

"This action, in which a brave and gallant leader . . . took in brave men against superior forces, was a turning point in the  p128 Solomons Islands campaign. Had the powerful enemy fleet succeeded in its mission of bombarding our airfield on Guadalcanal, the task of preventing a major enemy attack and landing of large-scale reinforcements would have been much more difficult, if not impossible. . . . The resolution with which Rear Admirals Callaghan and Scott led the ships in, the well-directed fire and courage of our personnel, merit the highest praise."

The Battle of Guadalcanal was fought in three stages. The main action in the first stage ended about 0225 on the thirteenth, but there were sporadic skirmishes for a few hours more, and air attacks on the stricken Hiyei all through the day. One of these attacks marked the first participation of the Enterprise and therefore opened the second stage.

When we sent Kinkaid to sea on the eleventh, we hoped that his force would be able to break up the invasion which we expected to begin on the night of the thirteenth. We knew that his speed of advance was geared to the Enterprise, and that the Enterprise's depended on the wind. If it was southerly, she would have to reverse course whenever she launched or landed her planes; but if it was northerly, she could log a steady speed. The force was keeping radio silence. No data reached us. Nevertheless, I was so confident of the wind's loyalty that I sent Kinkaid a dispatch on the afternoon of the thirteenth, ordering him to put his two battle­ships and four of his destroyers under command of Rear Adm. Willis A. Lee, Jr., with instructions to lay an ambush that night east of Savo Island.

This plan flouted one of the firmest doctrines of the Naval War College. The narrow, treacherous waters north of Guadalcanal are utterly unsuited to the maneuvering of capital ships, especially in darkness. The shade of Mahan must have turned even paler. But if any principle of naval warfare is burned into my brain, it is that the best defense is a strong offense — that, as Lord Nelson wrote in a memorandum to his officers before the Battle of Trafalgar, "No Captain can do very wrong if he places his Ship alongside that of an Enemy."

My explanation — my excuse, if historians prefer — is that a dilemma confronted us. The dispatches I had received that morning made it obvious that the remnants of Callaghan's force were in  p129 no condition to fight another battle. Yet if I did not take positive action, if I let the enemy enter the combat zone unmolested, to bombard our troops and their positions and their airfield and to land reinforcements, not only would he increase his strength at the expense of ours but our morale would be riddled. Lee's ships were my only recourse, so I ordered them in.

Editor's Note:

After the Battle of Guadalcanal, Admiral Nimitz said of Admiral Halsey, "He has that rare combination of intellectual capacity and military audacity, and can calculate to a cat's whisker the risk involved."

Kinkaid's acknowledgment of my order was a shock: From Lee's present position impossible for him to reach Savo before 0800 tomorrow. The wind had betrayed us, and Guadalcanal was in for a savage bombardment.

Sure enough, before dawn next morning, the fourteenth, I received this dispatch from Archie Vandergrift: Being heavily shelled. The shelling was concentrated on Henderson Field and lasted an hour and twenty minutes, then stopped abruptly. None of us at Nouméa could imagine why. Later we learned that a squadron of PT boats, Lt. Hugh M. Robinson commanding, had dashed out from Tulagi and harried the enemy ships — six cruisers and five destroyers — until they broke off and fled. Three planes at Henderson had been wrecked and seventeen damaged.

Five hours later, Henderson struck back. A mixed formation of twenty planes, including three Enterprise torpedo planes which had landed there after attacking the Hiyei the day before, found the fleeing bombardment group and hit two of the cruisers. At about the same time, more Enterprise planes — these from her dawn search — sighted the same group and inflicted further damage, which was increased by a concerted attack by sixteen of her SBD's.

I had ordered the Enterprise north early that morning, in response to information that the enemy's invasion group had started its run down the Slot. Actually, this proved to be two groups — one, consisting of eleven transports and thirteen destroyers, following the other, consisting of three heavy cruisers, a light cruiser, a carrier, and a destroyer. Our instructions were for the Enterprise to keep 100 miles westward of the axis of the Solomons, while "Ching" Lee's  p130 force took a parallel course inboard, midway between her and the chain, thereby permitting her planes to strike across the screening battle­ships. We told her, Your objective transports.

Documents captured later suggesting that there may have been as many as 13,500 troops aboard these transports. All we knew when we struck was that the pickings would be rich, and we threw in every plane that could take the air — planes from the Enterprise, Marine planes from Henderson, Army B‑17's from Espiritu, fighters, bombers, dive bombers, and torpedo planes. Their attacks began at 1000 and continued until twilight. They would strike, return to base, rearm and refuel, and strike again. When "the Buzzard Patrol," as they dubbed themselves, had finished its work, one heavy cruiser and six transports had been sunk, and the three other cruisers had been damaged, as had four more transports and two destroyers. The prize of the day fell to a division of Marine fighter pilots who discovered a sleek speedboat spurting away from one of the sinking ships, presumably attempting to salvage the high command. The Marines dove on it, opened up with all their guns, and chewed it in half.

The four damaged transports straggled down to Guadalcanal and beached themselves near Tassafaronga next morning, to be shelled by our artillery, bombed and strafed by our planes, and finally riddled at leisure by the destroyer Meade, which took them under fire at popgun range. Some of their troops may have reached shore, but having no food or other supplies, they must have succeeded only in adding to the misery of the destitute troops already there.

Many hours elapsed between these actions and my receipt of reports about them, but it gradually became obvious that we had rattled Hirohito's protruding teeth. As the damage mounted, so mounted our spirits. As Rising Suns sank, our sun rose. The attack on the transports was the climax. I showed the dispatch to my staff and told them, "We've got the bastards licked!"

The Japanese, however, did not seem to realize it. Despite their appalling losses in ships and men on the fourteenth, they doggedly, or rashly, sent another force against us that same night. We sighted it in the afternoon, when it was still 150 miles north of Guadalcanal, so I had ample time to get Ching Lee into position  p131 near Savo Island for an interception around midnight. The enemy force consisted of two heavy cruisers, two light cruisers, nine destroyers, and the battle­ship Kirishima, a sister ship of the sunken Hiyei. Ching had, as before, the Washington and South Dakota and the destroyers Walke, Benham, Gwin, and Preston.

The action of the third stage opened at 0016 and lasted fifty minutes. We lost the Walke, Benham, and Preston, and the Gwin was damaged, as was the South Dakota. But the enemy lost a destroyer and the Kirishima. Though I am a destroyer man, I will gladly exchange two of my destroyers for an enemy battle­ship whenever the chance is offered. (Incidentally, of twelve battle­ships that Japan possessed eleven were sunk, eight by forces under my command.)

This engagement of Sunday, November 15, concluded the five‑day Battle of Guadalcanal. The complete score follows:

Enemy Ours
    Sunk Damaged     Sunk Damaged
Battleships  2 1
Heavy cruisers  1 2 2
Light cruisers 1  3
Destroyers  3 6  7 4
Transports and cargo ships 10
Totals 16 9 10 7

This battle was a decisive American victory by any standard. It was also the third great turning point of the war in the Pacific. Midway stopped the Japanese advance in the Central Pacific; Coral Sea stopped it in the Southwest Pacific; Guadalcanal stopped it in the South Pacific. Now, nearly five years later, I can face the alternative frankly. If our ships and planes had been routed in this battle, if we had lost it, our troops on Guadalcanal would have been trapped as were our troops on Bataan. We could not have reinforced them or relieved them. Archie Vandergrift would have been our "Skinny" Wainwright, and the infamous Death March would have been repeated. (We later captured a document which designated the spot where the Japanese commander had planned to accept Archie's surrender.) Unobstructed, the enemy would have driven south, cut our supply lines to New Zealand and Australia and enveloped them.

 p132  But we didn't lose the battle. We won it. Moreover, we seized the offensive from they. Until then he had been advancing at his will. From then on he retreated at ours.

Editor's Note:

When news of the Battle of Guadalcanal was released in the United States, the Mayor of Elizabeth, New Jersey, Admiral Halsey's native city, proclaimed November 20 as "Halsey Day" and ordered public buildings decorated, schools closed early, and church bells rung.

President Roosevelt, Secretary Knox, Admiral King, Admiral Nimitz, and others sent me messages of congratulations. I had no illusions about who deserved them, so I passed them on to the men who had done the fighting, along with a tribute of my own:

From: Halsey
To: All ships SOPAC, all comd'g generals SOPAC

To the superb officers and men under the sea and on the sea and in the air who have in the past few days performed such magnificent feats for the U. S.: Your names have been written in golden letters on the pages of history and you have won the everlasting gratitude of your countrymen × No honor for you could be too great × My pride in you is beyond expression × Magnificently done × To the glorious dead: Hail heroes, rest with God × God bless you all.

Vice Adm. William L. Calhoun, former Commander Base Force Sopac:

On November 18, President Roosevelt nominated Bill for four stars. The news astonished us as much as it pleased us. Unwritten law forbade the Navy to have more than four full admirals on the active list at the same time, and we already had them — "Betty" Stark, Ernie King, Chester Nimitz, and Royal Ingersoll. However, Congress ignored the law and approved the nomination at once.

The word found Nouméa short of four-star pins, as it was of almost everything else in those days, so I obtained four two‑star pins from a major general of Marines and had them welded in pairs, while regulation Navy pins — our stars are smaller than the Marines' — were being cut on a repair ship in the harbor.

When I gave Bill the makeshifts, he handed me his old three-star pins and told me, "Send one of these to Mrs. Scott and the other to Mrs. Callaghan. Tell them it was their husbands' bravery that got me my new ones."

 p133  It was my privilege to recommend a large number of decorations after Guadalcanal, but few gave me as much pleasure as recommending the Enterprise for the Presidential Unit Citation. This was the Big E's eighth operation in less than a year, and the Japanese had reported sinking her so many times that she had acquired an additional sobriquet, "the Galloping Ghost of the Oahu Coast." She helped open the war, and she helped close it. She is obsolete now, but, as Secretary Forrestal said of her, "She is the one ship that most nearly symbolizes and carries with it the history of the Navy in this war." Thank God that someone had the sentiment not to anchor her at Bikini!​a

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I cannot close this account of the Battle of Guadalcanal without adding my confession of a grievous mistake. I have already confessed it officially; now I do so publicly.

Early on the morning of November 13, the light cruiser Juneau, bringing up the rear of Callaghan's column, was torpedoed and badly damaged. The first I knew of it was that afternoon, when the Helena's dispatch included her among the ships limping down to Espiritu. When Espiritu reported their arrival, however, her name was no longer on the list.

I called Miles Browning and asked, "Where's the Juneau?"

"I don't know, sir," he said. "I'll have to check."

It transpired that she had been torpedoed again and had sunk so suddenly, in such a hail of debris, that the other ships at first thought they were under a high-altitude bombing attack. The senior officer present, Capt. Gilbert C. Hoover of the Helena, now faced a grim decision. Although few men if any, in his opinion, could have survived the terrific explosion, common humanity urged him to search for them. (Capt. Lyman K. Swenson of the Juneau was one of Hoover's closest friends.) On the other hand, the O'Bannon had been sent off on a special mission, so he now had only the Fletcher and the crippled Sterett as escorts for his crippled force; rescue operations would almost certainly invite a second torpedo attack; and at that critical stage, the loss of another ship — and possibly more — might jeopardize the whole campaign. Hoover chose to continue his withdrawal toward Espiritu. He notified a patrol plane that he was doing so and gave it all pertinent information.  p134 This information never went through. As a result, of some 120 men left alive in the water (it developed), only ten made the beach.

When the Helena eventually reached Nouméa, Hoover reported to my headquarters. After interrogating him thoroughly, my advisers — Jake Fitch, Kelly Turner, and Bill Calhoun — agreed that he had done wrong in abandoning the Juneau, and recommended his detachment. Reluctantly, I concurred. Hoover's record was outstanding — he had won three Navy Crosses — but I felt that the strain of prolonged combat had impaired his judgment; that guts alone were keeping him going; and that his present condition was dangerous to himself and to his splendid ship. In this conviction, I detached him with orders to CINCPAC.

Much later, when I reviewed the case at the instigation of Rear Adm. Robert B. Carney, who had become my Chief of Staff, I concluded that I had been guilty of an injustice. I realized that Hoover's decision was in the best interests of victory. I so informed the Navy Department, requesting that he be restored to combat command, and adding that I would be delighted to have him serve under me. The stigma of such a detachment can never be wholly erased, but I have the comfort, slight as it is, of knowing that Hoover's official record is clean. I deeply regret the whole incident. It testifies to Captain Hoover's character when I say that he has never let it affect our personal relations.

Our most reliable barometer of enemy intentions was the amount of shipping in the Shortlands-Southern Bougainville area. After the Battle of Guadalcanal, this barometer fell rapidly and stayed low until November 24, when it began to rise again. By the twenty-seventh, reconnaissance was reporting the presence of more than twenty-five ships, not counting small craft. Another attempt either to attack or to reinforce was imminent.

The strength of our surface forces, too, had been increasing. The Enterprise, the Washington, and the light cruiser San Diego were at Nouméa. At Nandi in the Fijis were the Saratoga, the battle­ships North Carolina, Colorado, and Maryland, and the light cruiser San Juan. And at Espiritu were the heavy cruisers Northampton, Pensacola, New Orleans, and Minneapolis, with the light cruiser Honolulu,  p135 and the destroyers Drayton, Fletcher, Maury, and Perkins. On the night of the twenty-ninth, we sent the Espiritu group toward Guadalcanal, under Rear Adm. Carleton H. Wright. Two more destroyers, the Lamson and Lardner, joined him a few hours before this action, which began close to midnight on the thirteenth.

As usual, the scene was the waters southeast of Savo Island — "Iron Bottom Bay," as it was becoming known. The title to the nickname was strengthened by the Battle of Tassafaronga. One enemy destroyer was sunk by gunfire, and our Northampton by a torpedo. Our other three heavy cruisers were also torpedoed, but managed to make port and lived to fight again. For an enemy force of eight destroyers, as it was estimated, to inflict such damage on a more powerful force at so little cost is something less than creditable to our command. But once again the tactical loss was overbalanced by strategic profit. This was the enemy's last surface offensive against Guadalcanal. Except for desultory help brought his troops by the Tokyo Express, they were abandoned to die from disease or starvation, or at the hands of the United States Army and Marine Corps.

Thayer's Note:

a Despite attempts to find the funds to save her, the Enterprise was scrapped in 1958‑1960.

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