By the fall of 1942, the fight for Guadalcanal that had kicked off the previous August was beginning to feel like a stalled-out affair perilously bereft of momentum. The sense of uplift that had come with the great U.S. victory at Midway that June was now stagnating as the protracted struggle for Guadalcanal dragged on. Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, sensing that his South Pacific Area commander had run out of steam, made a pivotal decision—appointing to that command some fresh blood: the man who had missed out on Midway because of an ailment, the fighting admiral bitterly disappointed to have been away from the action—Vice Admiral (soon to be Admiral) William Frederick Halsey Jr.
When the news came down that “Bull” Halsey henceforth would be running the show, the mood throughout the ranks was electric. And from the end of 1942 through 1943, Halsey lived up to expectations that he would prosecute the Solomon Islands campaign with an aggressive and unwavering sense of drive. With his pugnacious “hit hard, hit fast, hit often” approach, Halsey turned the situation around at Guadalcanal and proceeded to island-hop and leapfrog across the Solomons in an inexorable advance.
Our cover story this issue, which brings the estimable Barrett Tillman back to these pages, looks at what was unfolding in the South Pacific 80 years ago during this actionful chapter of Halsey’s career. In addition to his strategic successes so vital to the arc of the Pacific war, Halsey was giving the American public a fighter to cheer for. In this sense, he was not unlike his two-fisted Army counterpart, General George S. Patton, who during this same time frame was rolling up victories in North Africa and lifting morale after the disastrous U.S. defeat there at Kasserine Pass.
The similarities between these two hard-charging icons have been noted often—indeed, before the dust of war had fully settled, the comparison already was being made: A dual postwar book review of the admiral’s and the general’s wartime accounts (Admiral Halsey’s Story and War As I Knew It) in the 10 November 1947 issue of Time magazine finds their books “required reading” and notes, “Admiral Halsey was a kind of seagoing General Patton. Both Halsey and Patton took long, unorthodox chances and won brilliant victories. Both were profane and histrionic commanders. Each stubbed his well-polished boot when he stepped outside his own field of fire.”
Yes, 1944 would find Halsey embroiled in controversies that would tarnish his luster. But Halsey ’44 is a different story for a different time; herein is the story of Halsey ’43, when he was on a roll and driving back the Japanese with relentless brio.
Our Halsey coverage is just the opening salvo of an issue chock full of meaty World War II content (and what better way to start the summer!). Tim Gellel serves up a new angle on the Midway story: an analysis of the Japanese plans to land troops on the atoll and capture it by force. Ed Offley chronicles the apex of the wolf-pack threat in the spring of 1943 and the subsequent expulsion of the U-boats from the North Atlantic. And Arthur Nicholson presents a fascinating account of the USS Wasp (CV-7) and her crucial support in the British defense of Malta. It’s a story replete with an overboard admiral, a swashbuckling movie star turned U.S. Navy officer, and a U.S. flight deck blanketed with RAF Spitfires.
Finally, Halsey is joined here by other giants from the naval pantheon. In an excerpt from A New Force at Sea, David A. Smith offers a fresh take on Commodore George Dewey at the Battle of Manila Bay. And Thomas Sheppard recounts the exploits of Commodore Edward Preble in the Mediterranean, where he took on the foe with all the brash fighting spirit of a young nation. Here, early on in the American naval saga, can be seen the spiritual ancestor of Bull Halsey himself.