Greek dramatists would have loved Admiral William F. Halsey Jr.’s tenure in the Pacific. His stirring leadership from December 1941 into the first half of 1944 anchored his position among the pantheon of American naval heroes, while blunders from late 1944 into 1945 tarnished that reputation and illustrated the fallibility of the man.
The dramatists’ imagined interest and the real interest of countless historians who have researched the admiral pale in comparison to the adulation the American public bestowed on Halsey during the war. He became the nation’s initial war hero, and remained its champion into September 1945, when he commanded the victorious collection of warships that proudly steamed into Tokyo Bay for the surrender ceremonies.
His list of achievements rings familiar. At a time when the smoke had yet to clear from the damaged and sunken ships in Pearl Harbor, Halsey muttered, “Before we’re through with them, the Japanese language will be spoken only in hell.” The public pined for Halsey’s exuberance, as dismal news dominated headlines for six months. In early January 1942 Time magazine ran an article titled, “Where Is the Fleet?” In Japan, propagandist Tokyo Rose ridiculed the Navy by sarcastically asking in a broadcast, “Where, oh where, is the United States Navy?”1 Halsey provided an answer with daring island raids in early February and March that, while inflicting relatively light damage, bolstered home-front morale.
The nation needed a hero, and Halsey smoothly stepped into the role. He was a protagonist who charged into battle armed with shells and grenades when he had them and quotable phrases when he did not. Halsey quenched the American public’s thirst for optimism and bombast at a time when defeat had been near-daily fare.
Guadalcanal is where the love affair between Admiral Halsey and the home front gained steam. “Shift to Offensive Is Seen in Washington Selection of ‘Fighting’ Admiral Halsey as Commander in the South Pacific,” trumpeted The New York Times. Time placed Halsey on its 30 November 1942 cover, praised the man it called “a knuckle-swinger,” and claimed his command could mean the difference between defeating the Japanese in two years or in ten.2
Halsey, knowing the press would relay his words to the American public, peppered his remarks with profanity-laced, highly quotable phrases that resonated back home. When the Roman Catholic chaplain then ministering to the Marines on Guadalcanal, Father Frederick P. Gehring, informed Halsey that many of his Leathernecks worried Guadalcanal might become another Bataan, the Philippine site of an Allied surrender to the Japanese, Halsey shouted: “This won’t be another Bataan, dammit. We’re going to win, and you and I will both see Yamamoto in hell!”3
The admiral told a correspondent that to defeat the Japanese he followed one dictum: “kill Japs, kill Japs and keep on killing Japs.” Halsey asserted to reporters that “When we first started out, I held that one of our men was the equal of three Japs. I have since increased this to twenty. Japan’s next move will be to retreat; and they will keep on retreating.”4
People across the country sent the admiral thousands of letters and postcards that nearly overwhelmed his staff, building with their words a bond between home and battle front that strengthened as the war wound on. Halsey’s official papers, housed at the Library of Congress, contain folder after folder of letters written to the admiral, as well as copies of the responses his staff, or in some cases Halsey himself, penned. They came from former shipmates and elementary-school children, from jubilant adults and grieving fathers and mothers. It was as if a public that felt cleaved from a war fought thousands of miles distant had discovered a thoroughfare to the front in Halsey, a bridge that brought them emotionally closer to loved ones and to the war itself. General Douglas MacArthur may have gained their admiration, but it was Halsey who came across as the next-door neighbor, the affable person with whom they could share a beer and a hearty laugh.
Congratulations came not only from those he knew, but from strangers who felt the need to bond with the man who did so much to lead the nation into calmer waters. After reading about Halsey on the morning of 16 November 1942 in the Los Angeles Examiner, 60-year-old Ephraim M. Williamson wrote that for many years he had been using a derogatory term to describe the Japanese: “so it was most heartening to know that one of your exalted rank holds the same ideas. Even the good wife who attends church regularly smiles indulgently when I use this expression.”5
A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, class of 1903, Captain W. R. Auken worked in the Bureau of Ordnance, which arranged for ammunition to reach the front. After Halsey’s exploits off Guadalcanal, Auken fired off a letter to another sea salt from the same academy. “May you live to be a thousand years,” Auken wrote. “You have no idea how proud the country is of you and how much your old friends are squeezing for you to keep in good health and carry the ball over the Jap line for a touchdown in short order.” Auken promised that everyone in the Bureau of Ordnance labored hard to ensure Halsey’s South Pacific received what it needed, and added, “So, Bill Old Boy, keep it up and don’t leave any of our ammunition to bring home from the Pacific.”6
Owen Cedarburg from Bonne Terre, Missouri, may have best expressed the home front’s feelings when he shared with Halsey: “Ever since I heard of your exploits I have liked you. I like your seagoing looks and the manner in which you fight and just about everything else. Your [sic] my ideal.” Cedarburg concluded of the dramatic turnaround in the Solomons, “When you went in the Japs went out.”7
On 18 November, C. S. McDowell, who worked at an ironworks factory, highlighted the boost that Halsey’s command in the South Pacific had given to home-front morale. McDowell explained that his factory produced propelling machinery for merchant vessels, and “I don’t think that I have been mistaken in my belief that there was a marked step up in the morale in production plants such as ours when word came out that you had been placed in command in the South Pacific.” McDowell claimed that everyone believed from “a feeling from your past record that there would be aggressive action, and certainly the results of the last few weeks have borne this out.” McDowell added, “You, of course, know that you are a great hero at the moment.”8
W. Chilton Day could hardly contain the exuberance with which he assessed Halsey’s feats in the Solomons. “Admiral, you are made of the stuff it takes for us to win this war! A few more like you in there and those damn Japs would yell bloody murder! Everyone admires a man that can make up his mind when the right time comes . . . one that knows what to do in a crisis.” He added: “Let me tell you, Admiral, the people of the United States are right behind you, sir . . . body and soul. Keep up the fine work!”9
Citizens mailed gifts to Halsey along with their congratulatory words. Marshall B. Henshaw of Honolulu purchased subscriptions in Halsey’s name to five leading magazines, including The Saturday Evening Post, Time, and Reader’s Digest. Elias Bernstein of Staten Island, New York, mailed three cribbage boards, one which was fashioned from an ebony chest once belonging to Ralph Waldo Emerson. Hector E. Lynch Jr. of Brockton, Massachusetts, explained that the Howard & Foster Shoe Company wanted to send the admiral the one millionth pair of Navy shoes manufactured at their factory. Halsey wrote back that he accepted “your gift as a representative of the finest body of fighting men in the world,” and added that “these shoes will lead the march to Tokyo.”10
It is not surprising that Halsey conveyed not only his thanks, but a sense of duty to his home-front correspondents. Clark Adams, who had served with the admiral on board the destroyer Yarnall (DD-143) in 1919, was now the general manager at the Electric Auto-Lite Company in Bay City, Michigan. In December 1942 he wrote his old naval chum and wondered if Halsey could send a letter that he could post on the company bulletin board to help morale and let the employees know the importance of their work in building directional gyro indicators for Navy combat planes.
Halsey did not disappoint his friend, telling the workers:
You have no doubt heard of the part aviation is playing in the Battle of the Solomons. The effectiveness of our operations is, as you know, dependent on the reliability of aircraft instruments. Since the Electric Auto-Lite Company is now engaged in the manufacture of Directional Gyro Indicators, Automatic Pilots and Gyro Horizons for our aircraft here in the South Pacific, I would like to point out that the success of a mission or the life of one of our brave pilots may be directly dependent on the thoroughness of the job done by you and your men.11
When a naval aviator complained that his duties as a fighter instructor made it “rather difficult to read of the fights in the South Pacific from a soft berth at Pensacola,” Halsey told him to bear down and concentrate on the task handed him by the Navy, as “after all we go where we’re sent and I’m sure you are doing a good job of the new VF training and that is a big part of the whole picture.”12
Halsey received a second avalanche of letters after a much-reported trip to New Zealand. With conditions improving on Guadalcanal following a series of fierce naval encounters at sea and Marine victories on land, in January 1943 Halsey accepted a long-standing invitation from New Zealand’s government to visit that country. He used the occasion to bolster New Zealand’s confidence as well as send additional messages to the American home front.
He opened with a bang, telling a large gathering of reporters: “Japan’s next move will be to retreat. They will not be able to stop going back.” Getting warmed up, he predicted that with the skills and fighting prowess of the forces gathering in the South Pacific, victory was assured in 1943. He added of his opponent, “They are not supermen, although they try to make us believe they are,” and cautioned Hirohito, “As Emperor and leader of traitorous and brutal Japan during the years of her foul attacks on peaceful peoples, your time is short.” He warned Japan’s prime minister, Hideki Tojo: “When you unleashed your cowardly attack on Dec. 7 you started something you can’t finish. Beneath your thin veneer of civilization lies the dominant instinct to kill. Because of this you have released the greatest instinct to fight in the American people ever in history.”13
Halsey’s words produced the intended reaction. Tokyo Rose threatened him with special tortures, but the citizens of New Zealand and of the United States loved the rousing utterances from a fighting admiral. The New Zealand Herald reported that Halsey’s confidence “was infectious, and as statement succeeded statement it became very clear why it is said of Admiral William ‘Pudge’ Halsey by his officers and men that they would follow him to Hell. He is a man whose confidence could clearly win battles.”14
Halsey understood that the United States lacked the manpower and resources to win the war within a year, but later explained that his words were directed to his men in the Solomons, the weary Marines and exhausted sailors who were beginning to think that they
were abused and forgotten, that they had been fighting too much and too long. Moreover, the new myth of Japanese invincibility had not yet been entirely discredited. Prior to Pearl Harbor, the United States in general had rated Japan as no better than a class-C nation. After that one successful sneak attack, however, panicky eyes saw [them] as supermen. I saw them as nothing of the sort, and I wanted my forces to know how I felt.15
Particularly heartwarming were the letters schoolchildren sent to Halsey, which could elicit laughter, anguish, or both. In December 1943 the students from Miss Lillian Craig’s elementary class in Roanoke, Virginia, hoped Halsey would enjoy a blessed Christmas, but “we guess it can’t be exactly merry with the war going on and no Christmas trees.” They asked Santa to send extra gifts to his sailors, and one student stated that even though the war caused a shortage of toys and candy at home, “we’ll let Santa off this year if it will make the war end sooner.”16
In November 1942 elementary-school student Edward Riley from Little Rock, Arkansas, joined adults in complimenting the admiral before inserting his request. “I am writing you this letter to congratulate you on your great and glorius [sic] victory to let you know that all over the United States people are praying for you and your brave men. This country is proud of men like you who are every day doing gallant deeds. I am praying for more victorys [sic] like yours.” He then added, “p.s. Will you please send me your autograph.”17 Riley received the autograph the next month.
“The Boy Scouts of Troop #326 ‘Congratulates’ you and the men under you for your fine work in blasting the Japanese Navy and wishes you continued success in destroying it from the face of the earth,” wrote scoutmaster Ben Kohn in November 1942. When Mrs. David Doerksen of Corning, California, informed Halsey in a letter signed by six boys that her Sunday school class had added him to its prayer list, Halsey replied: “I note with interest the names of Richard, Don, Elmer, Gordon, Lester and Arling—representative names of young Americans, and names of many of our fighting men of the South Pacific. I hope these boys of yours will grow into young manhood with a keen sense of appreciation of the sacrifices now being made by the men and women in the Military Service, and, likewise by their families.”18
Ten-year-old Bush Cowley of Indian Head, Maryland, scribbled ten lines about war on stationery that contained images of a teddy bear, a youth swinging a baseball bat, a toy train, and ducks. “Dear Admiral Halsey,” the letter started, “I heard you were dropping bombs on Guam island. Will you drop a bomb on Guam for me, with my name on it.” Cowley explained that he had been born there in 1934, and that he wished “you and your men good luck” in hitting the enemy. Cowley ended, “Hit them Hard. Your friend, Bush Cowley.” In a return note Halsey thanked Cowley and praised his attitude. “You are showing the right spirit, and we will, as you say, ‘Hit them Hard.’”19
While the letters could evoke laughter and momentary relief from the burdens of command for Halsey, they could also remind him of the ultimate effect of his orders. “I’m writeing [sic] this letter because I would like to know if my daddy could come home,” wrote Leslie Dever of McCool Junction, Nebraska, about her father, a Seabee on Okinawa. “I haven’t seen him in 29 months and I was six when daddy left me and I’m eight years old now.”20
Mrs. Joseph Meyer of the Bronx, New York, enclosed a photograph of her little girl, Janie, along with the message: “Her Daddy has never seen her. He is a Lieutenant (j.g.) on your Staff, and has been in the Pacific since June 31st, 1943.” She added, “It will be two years in January since he entered Notre Dame as a Midshipman,” and that her husband left two weeks before the girl was born. “I have just one prayer in my heart—that he could come home this Christmas and see her.” Halsey replied, “I wish I could play Santa Claus and deliver your lad to you on Christmas, but I would not be doing you any kindness if I held out a hope that I do not feel confident is justified.” He reminded her of the arduous task that lay ahead and that one day the opportunity will arise “to let your husband go home to his fine young wife and that sweet youngster. So keep your chin up.”21
Most troubling for Halsey were the plaintive letters sent by mothers seeking details of the death or disappearance of their sons; some of the grieving parents accused him of needlessly wasting a precious life. Staff members knew whenever Halsey read such a letter, for the admiral brooded over it for days.
Halsey received such an enormous volume of mail that he could not personally scan each letter—he had a war to run, after all—but he asked to be given a sampling, especially from inconsolable parents. As difficult as they were for him to read, they reminded Halsey that his decisions exacted a frightening cost, one he chose not to disregard.
Some inquired about their missing sons or those who had been taken captive. “I am counting on you to liberate those poor fellows,” stated Mrs. Arthur McInnis of Enid, Oklahoma, whose son, Lieutenant Harry McInnis, had been captured on Guam in December 1941 and languished in a Japanese prison camp. Distraught that her son, aviator Lieutenant (junior grade) Robert W. Neel Jr. was missing after ditching over Kwajalein in January 1944 and was last seen swimming toward a life raft, Mrs. Robert Neel of Atlanta, Georgia, implored Halsey to help her. “With a prayer in my heart that God has spared my boy’s life, I write to beg you, Admiral Halsey, to please advise your scouting and search plane pilots and crews.” She ended her letter by telling the admiral, “My only other son, serving with USA Air Forces in England, was killed last June.”22
Mrs. Glenn E. Woodruff of Roseburg, Oregon, explained that her son, Glenn Byron Woodruff, musician first class in the Helena (CL-50), was reported as missing when the ship sunk at the 6 July 1943 Battle of Kula Gulf. “As he was an expert swimmer I don’t believe he would have waited in that oily water all those many hours to be rescued. I think if he had struck the water unhurt, that he would have set right out to swim, and may be on one of those many islands, perhaps all alone & suffering.” She added, “I beg you, if it is within your power, to continue to search those islands thoroughly.” Mrs. Woodruff informed Halsey that Glenn had been on board the Honolulu (CL-48) in Pearl Harbor during the 7 December 1941 attack, and “Is it asking you too much to do all you possible [sic] can to find my son Glenn for me?”23 Halsey was so moved by this that he asked Force Chaplain W. H. Rafferty to gather all the information he could and mail it to Mrs. Woodruff.
Mrs. F. C. Bainbridge of Irwin, Pennsylvania, sent the note that most haunted Halsey. Her son, Seaman Second Class George Frederick Bainbridge, perished with most of the ship’s crew, including the five Sullivan brothers, when Japanese torpedoes sank the cruiser Juneau (CL-52) off Guadalcanal in November 1942. So much anger, disappointment, and torment leaped off the pages of Mrs. Bainbridge’s lengthy letter that Halsey would carefully craft a long reply.
“I was the mother of a beautiful christian [sic] boy of 23,” she wrote. After learning that her son’s cruiser had been sunk:
We lived in a state of near collapse until Jan. 11, 1943 when we got that telegram stating Fred was missing in action. . . . Everything went wrong, our meals were untouched, Thanksgiving was a terribly lonesome day, And Xmas we nearly died. Dad and I were here all-alone. Fred always trimed [sic] the tree, this year the corner was a bare wall. . . . We had plenty of heat, but our hearts had groun [sic] cold. All we could do was talk of Fred and where was he. Was he hungry and was he safe and well?
Mrs. Bainbridge explained that they contacted 40 hospitals inside and outside the United States, as far as Fiji and New Caledonia, hoping to locate “a boy that didn’t know who he was. Maybe he was demented, but still I could recognize my Fred. Somebody without his Dog Tags, known only to me and God.”
The Bainbridges tried unsuccessfully to find a survivor from the ship who could provide details of the incident. “I want somebody to tell me Fred was a hero. It will help.”
Mrs. Bainbridge’s emotions intensified as she neared the end of the letter:
I don’t want to go on without Fred, he was my all. . . . Life will be so lonely without him. I want my boy back. I only loaned him for a while. He was too nice to be blowed to bites [sic]. It is cruel. . . . He hadn’t started to live yet, just 23. . . . I loved Fred too much and am brokenhearted now. I can’t stand it. I can’t get away from the house or the town because of the gas ration, so it faces me every thing I do or touch. Even to church, Fred should be in the choir. It is awful. His musical instruments stair [sic] me in the face everytime I enter his room, even the piano. Everything. God Forbide that I should have a cross so heavy to bear.
She closed by beseeching Halsey to “Write me a nice letter for my scrap book and I know you’ll recommend Fred for a medal. . . . The cross would be a little easier to bear. I could hug the medal and think it was my Fred when I say my prayers at night. I wouldn’t be so lonely then. It would bring him nearer to me.”24
In his response, Halsey struggled to find the proper words. “My dear Mrs. Bainbridge,” he opened:
I have your letter of July 1, 1943. As I begin my answer to it I do so realizing words are of little avail, either in bringing you real help and comfort at this time or in expressing my own feelings when face to face with one of the war’s many tragic situations. I know what Frederick’s loss means to you and Mr. Bainbridge and I confess that this sad picture of a home mourning for a son missing somewhere in action is perhaps the heaviest burden of one who finds himself in command of so many in time of war.
Halsey explained that their son’s ship, the Juneau, was sunk so rapidly that few survivors remained from whom she could obtain information, but conveyed his admiration for her son. “I want you and all of Frederick’s friends to know that he was at a hero’s station, as you know, a member of a gun crew, serving his country nobly and bravely at the time the Juneau was destroyed.”
Halsey ended by saying “how insufficient I know words to be in bringing consolation to your home in this dark and lonely hour,” but told Mrs. Bainbridge that her family’s strong religious beliefs would comfort her. “The fond memories which no one can ever take from you, the knowledge that your son rests now side by side upon the altar of freedom with brave men of all ages, time itself, and above everything the mysterious and all-sufficient care of Him whom Frederick loved and worshipped, these all, I feel sure, will in some day, not too far off, bring comfort and hope to you and Mr. Bainbridge.”25
Halsey promised to send a copy of her letter to the senior survivor of the Juneau asking the man to write a letter to Mrs. Bainbridge telling whatever he knew about the ship and her son.
Halsey continued to play a key role in defeating the Japanese and bringing an end to World War II. On 16 August 1959, while vacationing on Fisher’s Island off Connecticut’s shore, the admiral died of a heart attack. Eleanor Roosevelt, who had grown fond of the man during a 1943 tour of the South Pacific, wrote in her syndicated newspaper column, “To me, as to many other people, Admiral William F. Halsey’s death seems a real personal loss.”26
Mrs. Roosevelt’s words captured the bond the American public formed during the war with Admiral Halsey. He was not an unreachable figure commanding in a distant battle zone, but was their admiral, their fighter, and their confidante. He was their antidote to the defeats of 1942 and was the battler who would pave the way to victory. In their letters to Halsey, men, women, and children expressed the vast range of emotions felt during those turbulent years. His replies, whether personally written or fashioned by one of his staff, illuminated a deeply personal side to the public figure who so greatly contributed to ultimate victory.
1. Fleet Admiral William F. Halsey and Lieutenant Commander J. Bryan III, Admiral Halsey’s Story (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1947), 81. “Where Is the Fleet?” Time, 12 January 1942, 10. John Toland, But Not in Shame: The Six Months after Pearl Harbor (New York: Random House, 1961), 103.
2. The New York Times, 25 October 1942. Time, 2 November 1942, 31 and 30 November 1942.
3. Donald F. Crosby, S. J. Battlefield Chaplains (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1994), 47.
4. Foster Hailey, “Halsey Defends Battleship’s Role,” The New York Times, 19 November 1942.
5. Ephraim M. Williamson letter to Admiral William F. Halsey, 16 November 1942, in “Halsey Letters, 1942–1943,” William F. Halsey Collection, Library of Congress (hereafter Halsey Collection).
6. Captain W. R. Auken letter to Admiral William F. Halsey, 25 November 1942, in “Halsey Letters, 1942,” Halsey Collection.
7. Owen Cedarburg letter to Admiral William F. Halsey, 25 January 1944, in “General Correspondence, November 1943–March 1944,” Halsey Collection.
8. C. S. McDowell letter to Vice Admiral William F. Halsey, 18 November 1942, in “Halsey Letters, 1942.”
9. W. Chilton Day letter to Admiral William F. Halsey, 29 December 1943, in “Halsey Letters, 1943,” Halsey Collection.
10. Hector E. Lynch Jr. letter to Admiral William F. Halsey, 14 May 1943, in “Halsey Letters, 1943.”
11. Clark M. Adams letter to Admiral William F. Halsey, 18 December 1942, and Halsey letter to Clark Adams in “Halsey Letters, 1942–1943.”
12. J. S. Gray, Jr. letter to Admiral William F. Halsey, 21 November 1942, in “Halsey Letters, 1942.”
13. Halsey and Bryan, Admiral Halsey’s Story, 143. J. Norman Lodge, “Halsey Predicts Victory This Year,” The New York Times, 3 January 1943. “Halsey Minimizes Foe,” The New York Times, 7 January 1943.
14. Halsey and Bryan, Admiral Halsey’s Story, 144.
15. Halsey and Bryan, Admiral Halsey’s Story, 141–42.
16. Students of Room #3, Miss Lillian Craig’s class, letter to William F. Halsey, 14 December 1943, second letter sent December 1945, “Halsey Letters, 1945–1946,” Halsey Collection.
17. Edward Riley letter to Admiral William F. Halsey, 21 November 1942, in “Halsey Letters, 1942.”
18. Ben Kohn letter to Admiral William F. Halsey, 21 November 1942, in “Halsey Letters, 1943.” Mrs. David Doerksen letter to Admiral William F. Halsey, 31 January 1944, in “Halsey Letters, 1944,” Halsey Collection.
19. Bush Cowley letter to Admiral William F. Halsey, 26 February 1944, in “Halsey Letters, 1944.”
20. Miss Leslie Dever letter to Admiral William F. Halsey, undated, in “Missing Persons,” Halsey Collection.
21. Mrs. Joseph V. Meyer letter to Admiral William F. Halsey, 1 October 1944, in “Missing Persons.”
22. Mrs. Arthur McInnis letter to Admiral William F. Halsey, 18 July 1945, in “Missing Persons.” Mrs. Robert W. Neel, Sr. letter to Admiral William F. Halsey, 8 March 1944, ibid. LT Neel was never found.
23. Mrs. Glenn E. Woodruff letter to Admiral William F. Halsey, 31 July 1943, ibid. Mus1C Woodruff was lost with the Helena.
24. Mrs. Bainbridge letter to Admiral William F. Halsey, 1 July 1943, ibid.
25. Admiral William F. Halsey letter to Mrs. Bainbridge, 14 July 1943, ibid.
26. Eleanor Roosevelt, “My Day,” 19 August 1959.