'Halsey Knows the Straight Story'

By Alan P. Rems

By the spring of 1943, Admiral Halsey, the South Pacific Force commander, wanted Vogel replaced.

But, perhaps influenced by his close friendship with Vogel, Halsey was reluctant to take action himself. 3 Instead, Halsey had a Marine general on his staff write to the Marine Corps commandant, Lieutenant General Thomas Holcomb, claiming that "since its inception [IMAC has] been characterized by an almost total lack of initiative and punch." 4 The letter suggested that Vogel be promoted "to some worthy job in the States" and replaced by Major General Alexander Vandegrift, the hero of Guadalcanal. All this was to be done while concealing Halsey's role. Holcomb reacted by writing to Halsey's superior, Vice Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, complaining about this backstairs maneuver since Halsey "had the power to act on his own responsibility if he wished." 5

Nimitz, after visiting Halsey at his Noumea, New Caledonia, headquarters, responded to Holcomb. 6 The problem was Halsey's "definite lack of confidence . . . in Vogel's military ability and professional competence." What provoked this scathing assessment was the general's performance in preparing the New Georgia campaign plan. It was considered "unrealistic and ignored the forces available," causing "loss of considerable time which was favorable to the Japs." No less serious, in an environment where the Army and Navy hotly competed for dominance, the plan eventually adopted through interservice cooperation placed an Army general and division in charge of an operation "primarily the dish of Marine amphibious troops." Nimitz agreed with Holcomb that if Vogel needed to be relieved, then Halsey should do it.

In the end, recognizing Halsey's and Nimitz's desire, Holcomb stopped waiting for Halsey to act and took action himself. 7 Later, after learning that Halsey told Vogel he was relieved because of dissatisfaction in Washington, Vandegrift grumbled to Holcomb, "Nothing about how he himself felt." 8

Whatever chance Vogel had to plead his case in front of Nimitz was lost by his being stranded in New Zealand. In a situation that was itself embarrassing to the Marine Corps, this general officer, whose command extended over thousands of miles of ocean, was waiting for a ship because he would not fly. 9 Vogel was shuffled off to stateside training commands for the rest of the war, and if he is remembered at all, it is for service before IMAC, when he bought the idea that Navajo Indians could be useful as code talkers.

Halsey's South Pacific—Guadalcanal to New Georgia

Halsey had become the South Pacific Force commander in October 1942, the same month IMAC had been formed, replacing Vice Admiral Robert Ghormley. According to the definitive history of the Guadalcanal campaign, Ghormley's problems stemmed from a lack of aggressiveness caused by defeatism, working endless hours through an exaggerated sense of duty, and overimmersion in details. 10 These characteristics were polar opposite of the pragmatic, energetic qualities that Halsey possessed in abundance and expected from others.

The situation on Guadalcanal was then desperate. Pressed by Halsey to say if he could hold out on the island, Vandegrift promised that, with the necessary support, his Marines would do so. A bond was then forged about which Halsey later said, "Archie Vandegrift was my other self." 11 After the general and his 1st Marine Division troops were relieved, ground command passed to Army Major General Alexander Patch Jr., later one of General Dwight D. Eisenhower's most highly rated commanders in Europe. 12 Whatever else occurred during the trying Guadalcanal campaign, Halsey was blessed with ground commanders whose skill and determination matched his own.

Benjamin Carson's retelling of events at Guadalcanal in

the Naval Institute's Americans at War Series

The next step up the ladder of the Solomons was New Georgia, but unsatisfactory planning proved a harbinger of greater difficulties. Sensing a problem early in the campaign, Halsey dispatched Lieutenant General Millard Harmon, commander of U.S. Army forces in the South Pacific Area, to investigate. Harmon found that Army Major General John Hester was not exercising effective command. Despite vehement protest by Hester's superior officer, Rear Admiral Richmond Kelly Turner, new leadership took over. 13 According to the official Army history, "Harmon and Halsey went into conference immediately, and before the meeting was over Halsey had made his decision." 14 Praise was given here to "the promptness with which higher headquarters acted . . . a mark of the efficiency of the South Pacific command."

In fact, the removal of officers was more widespread. Reflecting on this period, including the relief of Vogel, Halsey would wryly observe that "the smoke of charred reputations still makes me cough." 15 Halsey's experiences at Guadalcanal and New Georgia could only have encouraged him to act in the future without delay to remove a commander about whom he felt unsure.

The Vandegrift Interregnum

When Vandegrift replaced Vogel at IMAC in mid-1943, it was understood that the appointment was temporary. By virtue of his inspired leadership on Guadalcanal, Vandegrift was slated to become commandant of the Marine Corps after Holcomb's retirement at year's end.

IMAC's problems were found to be even more serious than thought. 16 To correct them, staff officers who proved themselves on Guadalcanal were brought in, including operations officer Lieutenant Colonel Merrill Twining, who would become a useful witness to events. 17 Manpower and logistical reforms were instituted for the handling of replacements, senior appointments, and equipment supply. 18 At the 2d Marine Division, Vandegrift identified command deficiencies that required major personnel changes, including appointment of a new division commander and chief of staff. 19 Further demonstrating what an activist corps command could accomplish, Vandegrift used Twining to remove a bottleneck in the delivery of amphibian tractors (LVTs ), a critical need in the coming invasion of Tarawa. 20

During this period, IMAC learned it was both to plan and lead its first combat operation, Bougainville, with the new 3d Marine Division at the fore. In mid-August 1943, six weeks after Vandegrift took command, his coming departure was announced as well as the identity of his replacement, the commander of the 3d Marine Division, 58-year-old Major General Charles D. Barrett.

The Strange Death of Charles Barrett

Barrett came from a distinguished family with a strong tradition of humanitarian service. 21 His impressive resume included graduation from the prestigious Ecole Suprieure de Guerre , a lead role in formulating landing operations doctrine, numerous important staff duties including serving as assistant to the Marine commandant, and activating and training the 3d Marine Division. As his biographer, Tom FitzPatrick, accurately stated, "There was hardly an area of Marine Corps activity . . . that [Barrett] did not play a role in or contribute to in some notable way." 22

The unanimous choice of Holcomb, Nimitz, Halsey, and Vandegrift to lead IMAC, Barrett had been named some months before as one of just four Marines qualified for corps command, the other three being the not-yet-deposed Vogel, Vandegrift, and Major General Holland Smith. 23 In fact, except for the fact that Vandegrift had combat experience, Holcomb considered Barrett the more qualified of the two to lead a corps. 24

Despite superlative credentials, there were negatives. With greater foresight than he could have imagined, Holcomb regretted having to appoint Barrett to corps command before he had experience commanding a division in combat. 25 Also, Barrett's deeply inbred humanitarian instincts could be harmful if not held in check. Further, according to a letter written later by Vandegrift, "even when a regimental commander [Barrett] felt it was his duty to constantly step out of character and endeavor to run . . . whatever higher echelon to which he was assigned." 26 The same letter mentioned the downside of Barrett's keen mind: an imagination that "could draw up all kinds of imponderables that would prevent him solving the problem given him." This soft-spoken general of unassuming demeanor possessed a personality that would not easily mesh with Halsey's.

Vandegrift and Barrett worked together for a month until 15 September 1943, when Vandegrift turned over command of IMAC and departed for a tour of Pacific bases before taking up his new post in Washington. Many years later IMAC's operations officer, Twining, recalled what ensued: "[Barrett] did not adhere to General Vandegrift's philosophy of doing what you are ordered to do and doing it to the best of your ability with the forces placed at your disposal." Instead, Barrett laboriously took apart whatever plan was formulated and sought a safer solution, "allow[ing] his humanitarian instincts to prevail over every dictate of dire military necessity." 27 Much time was wasted in the process, at the expense of other staff work, while Halsey expressed his exasperation with the lack of progress.

Barrett flew from Guadalcanal to Noumea on 7 October 1943—22 days after assuming command of IMAC and just 24 days before the scheduled landings on Bougainville—under orders to meet with Halsey. After a series of meetings at the South Pacific commander's headquarters, in the late afternoon on 8 October, Barrett died in a fall from a second-story veranda window of IMAC's headquarters building.

Conspiracy of Silence

Halsey immediately convened a court of inquiry. 28 Of 18 witnesses who were called, only a few had anything consequential to contribute. They included Brigadier General David Brewster, Barrett's administrative deputy based at IMAC headquarters in Noumea, who described how particularly worn and harassed Barrett appeared on the morning of the 8th. A second lieutenant, who was the only other person on the floor with Barrett during the incident, testified that except for the open shutter and window, the area was "in excellent police and there were no signs of any disorder." No photographs, however, were taken to support the claim. 29  

In questioning witnesses, the court was strangely incurious about Barrett's movements after his arrival at Noumea and how events might have affected his appearance and conduct. Except for a mention that Barrett was in Noumea under orders of the South Pacific Force commander and Brewster's testimony of seeing Barrett at Halsey's headquarters, the admiral's involvement was entirely ignored. Halsey, in fact, was unavailable to the court, having been absent from Noumea while the court sat but returning in time for the general's funeral. 30

With no basis to decide otherwise, the court ruled that Barrett died "in an accidental fall . . . in the line of duty and not [as] the result of his own misconduct." The proceedings remained immune from criticism for the next five years, while the report remained confidential and then forgotten. Meanwhile, as Barrett's biographer put it, a "fog" relating to the cause of death "persisted for many decades." 31

In 1996 a half-century-long silence was broken when Twining's tell-all memoir, No Bended Knee , was published. In addition to including his recollections of the Bougainville planning deadlock, the then-retired general contended that "confronted with a command problem . . . Halsey for the second time sent for his old friend Vandegrift." 32 According to Twining, Barrett's death occurred after the general was told of Halsey's intention. Twining's statement about Barrett's expected relief and intimation of suicide were closely in line with statements made by Vandegrift in a letter to Holcomb, quoted previously, that was written six days after Barrett's death. 33

In 2003, Barrett's biographer counterattacked. Addressing Twining's and Vandegrift's assertions, author Tom FitzPatrick questioned their objectivity and motivations. Acknowledging the planning problems, he saw insufficient reasons to believe that Halsey really intended to relieve Barrett, removing in the process the motive for suicide. 34

In 2007, after compilation of Holcomb's extensive papers by the Marine Corps Archives in Quantico, Virginia, two previously unknown letters emerged. Written by Vandegrift and separately by Brewster two days after Barrett's death, they told the commandant the facts. 35

While nothing in the court testimony indicated Barrett had visited Halsey on the 7th after arriving in Noumea, Barrett was actually at Halsey's headquarters until late that evening. This was almost certainly when the admiral told Barrett he was being relieved. The next morning, Brewster saw Barrett at Halsey's headquarters looking, as he told Holcomb, "worn and gray and haggard," staring blankly and unable to shake hands for a time. Later, as he explicitly put it, Barrett "cracked." The porch windowsill being nearly four feet from the floor (something never mentioned in the court record), Barrett drew up a chair to the window, stepped from the chair to the windowsill while grasping the sides of the window frame high up, and threw himself to the street, some 25 feet below. This reconstruction, about which Vandegrift and Brewster essentially agreed, was possible from footprints on the chair and windowsill and fingerprints on the window frame.

According to Brewster, only those present that night knew these details. Still, many must have been parties to the conspiracy of silence in varying degrees. Certainly this included the officer who testified about the porch area displaying "no signs of any disorder," as well as the incurious court, which must have understood that Halsey was to be kept immune. It goes without saying, although said anyway by Vandegrift in his letter, that "Halsey knows the straight story."

The motivations of the parties to the charade are clear. For Brewster, a friend of Barrett's from boyhood whose daughter married Barrett's son, there was need to ease the family's pain and preserve Barrett's good name. For Vandegrift, preparing to take over the commandant's chair, the truth could only have hurt Marine Corps morale and provided a propaganda coup for its foes in Tokyo and Washington. 36 But none had more at stake than Halsey. He could easily be branded as the admiral who hounded a Marine general to his death, the idea reinforced by his well-known pugnacity. That suspicion could poison his relations with Nimitz, who would later ostracize Holland Smith for the less lethal removal of an Army general on Saipan. 37

As Holcomb put it in his response to Vandegrift: "It would have been terrible if H[alsey] had relieved him; and few people would have believed that H[alsey] was right." 38 Halsey kept up the subterfuge in his autobiography, bemoaning the sudden blow of losing Barrett and having to come up with a replacement for Bougainville, though he had already laid the groundwork for the return of Vandegrift. 39

Given the intense agony Barrett would have undergone had he lived, and the successful concealment of the cause of death until a generation had mostly passed on, perhaps all was for the best. For his considerable lifelong contributions to the success of American arms, Barrett remains fully deserving of his biography's title- A Character That Inspired

Bougainville and Beyond

 

If Barrett entertained fears about the Bougainville operation, they were certainly justified. However, naval success at the Battle of Empress Augusta Bay, and daring carrier raids on Rabaul arranged by Halsey, eliminated threats from the sea. The land campaign, as characterized in one study, "stands as an example of the manner in which the entire Solomons fighting should have been waged," with success largely attributed there to Vandegrift's "experience and keen sense of tactical judgment." 40 Another analysis gives credit to Barrett's basic plan that Vandegrift refined in operation. 41  Proving the quality of their long training under Barrett, the 3d Marine Division swiftly seized and expanded a perimeter within which airstrips were constructed that helped eliminate Rabaul as a military threat.

Within days of the landings, Vandegrift was succeeded by Halsey's first choice for command of the I Marine Amphibious Corps, Major General Roy Geiger. 42 This fifth and last IMAC commander, who had led the air effort on Guadalcanal, directed the perimeter battle for some weeks and then turned operations over to the U.S. Army.

Halsey's South Pacific command then rapidly completed its mission. In April 1944, IMAC was redesignated the III Marine Amphibious Corps, continuing under Geiger for the invasions of Guam, the Palaus, and Okinawa. In testament to his abilities, Geiger was briefly elevated to command of the Tenth Army on Okinawa after the death of Army Lieutenant General Simon B. Buckner Jr., the highest battlefield position ever attained by a Marine officer. As the ultimate honor, Geiger was the single Marine invited to join the front rank of commanders on board the USS Missouri (BB-63) at the Japanese surrender.

Halsey also moved on, to command of the powerful Third Fleet. In addition to great successes, there would be costly errors at Leyte Gulf and in two typhoons that nearly caused his forced retirement. 43

Although the period has received less attention than his operations at sea, a fair evaluation of Halsey's wartime performance requires that due weight be given to his 20 eventful months in the South Pacific. Notwithstanding the toll on military careers and, indirectly, one commander's life, Halsey's refusal to retain commanders he was unsure about doubtlessly saved many lives. While we will never know how Vogel and Barrett might have performed on the battlefield, their planning missteps and hesitations created risks that this confirmed risk taker could not accept.

One wishes that someone with Halsey's outlook was in charge before Anzio, an operation much like Bougainville in its surprise element and initial success, where use of an unproven, cautious general converted a brilliant tactical success into dismal failure. If Halsey was more devious than his popular image has suggested, this ultimate pragmatist achieved the necessary results and served his country well in the South Pacific.

 



Sources and notes:

Much of this study is based on unpublished letters among the papers of General Thomas Holcomb, which were fully arranged and indexed by Alisa Whitely of the Archives and Special Collections Section, Library of the Marine Corps, Quantico, Virginia. Letters used are filed chronologically in boxes 6, 10, and 21. Citations are given as Holcomb, followed by the letter date with the year understood in all cases except citation 36 as 1943, followed by the identity of the sender or recipient.

1. Field Marshall William Slim, Defeat Into Victory (New York: David McKay Company, 1961), p. 3.

2. Holcomb, 4 June, to Nimitz.

3. Ibid.

4. Holcomb, 26 April, from Brigadier General DeWitt Peck.

5. Holcomb, 4 June, to Nimitz.

6. Holcomb, 19 June, from Nimitz.

7. Holcomb, 29 June, to Nimitz and separate letter to Vandegrift.

8. Holcomb, 16 July, from Vandegrift.

9. Holcomb, 26 July, from Vandegrift.

10. Richard B. Frank, Guadalcanal (New York: Random House, 1990), p. 334.

11. Fleet Admiral William F. Halsey and J.Bryan III, Admiral Halsey's Story (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1947), p.139.

12. Mark M. Boatner III, The Biographical Dictionary of World War II (Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1996), p. 412. In ranking subordinates, Eisenhower placed Patch ahead of Hodges and Simpson.

13. Louis Morton, The United States Army in World War II, The War in the Pacific, Strategy and Command: the First Two Years (Washington, DC: Office of the Chief of Military History, Department of the Army, 1962), p. 509.

14. Ibid, p. 510.

15. Halsey and Bryan, Admiral Halsey's Story , p. 161.

16. Allan R. Millett and Jack Shulimson, Commandants of the Marine Corps (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2004) p. 295.

17. General Merrill B. Twining, No Bended Knee , edited by Neil Carey (Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1996), p. 181.

18. Millett and Shulimson, Commandants of the Marine Corps , p. 295.

19. Twining, No Bended Knee, p.182.

20. Ibid.

21. Tom FitzPatrick, A Character That Inspired: Major General Charles D. Barrett, USMC (Fairfax, VA: Signature Book Printing, 2003), p. 40.

22. Ibid, p. 385.

23. Holcomb, 28 July, to Barrett.

24. Holcomb, 4 June, to Nimitz.

25. Holcomb, 28 July, to Barrett.

26. Holcomb, 14 October, from Vandegrift.

27. Twining, No Bended Knee , pp. 185-189.

28. FitzPatrick, A Character That Inspired . A full account of the proceedings, including a complete transcript of the testimony, is given at pp. 512-543.

29. Ibid, p. 569, note 6.

30. Ibid, p. 551.

31. FitzPatrick, A Character That Inspired , p.544.

32. Twining, No Bended Knee , p. 189.

33. Holcomb, from Vandegrift, 14 October.

34. FitzPatrick, A Character That Inspired , pp. 500-502, 544-547, 552.

35. Holcomb, 10 October, from Vandegrift. Holcomb, 10 October, from Brewster.

36. Writing to Major General Holland Smith on 16 November 1942 after his return from a tour of the South Pacific, Holcomb contrasted life in the South Pacific with Washington: "The climate in the South Pacific is pleasanter and all your enemies are distinguished by wearing a special uniform."

37. "Howling Mad" Smith fired an army general, Ralph Smith, for lack of aggressiveness, touching off an interservice war for which he was never forgiven by Nimitz and which effectively ended his career as a battlefield leader.

38. Holcomb, 22 October, to Vandegrift. In this note, Holcomb added, "If Barrett could only have had combat experience in a smaller unit it might have been different?or maybe not."

39. Halsey and Brian, Admiral Halsey's Story , p. 174.

40. Jeter A. Isely and Philip A. Crowl, The U.S. Marines and Amphibious War (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1951), p.177.

41. Millett and Shulminson, Commandants of the Marine Corps , p. 294.

42. Holcomb, 19 October, to Vandegrift; also, 18 October to Major General Schmidt.

43. E. B. Potter, Nimitz (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1976), p. 377.

 

Mr. Rems is a retired certified public accountant. He is currently coauthoring with his wife a book of historic maps tentatively titled Virginia—A Place in the American Imagination—Selected Maps from the Library of Congress (Globe Pequot Press, 2009).
 

Rear Admiral Hicks is Program Director, Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense, the sea-based element of the Ballistic Missile Defense System under development by the Missile Defense Agency.

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