Copyright © 2017 John F. Oyler
February 9, 2017
Admiral William (Bull) Halsey
The Bridgeville Area Historical Society welcomed back Dr. Jack Aupperle for its January program meeting. As is its custom, the Society holds its January and February program meetings on Sunday afternoons, to minimize potential winter weather complications for its members.
Dr. Aupperle has a remarkable talent for reviewing current historical books and using their content as a basis for presenting a comprehensive picture of a relevant event or individual. This time it was “Admiral Bill Halsey: A Naval Life” by renowned historian Thomas Alexander Hughes. The speaker drew on Hughes’ biography of the well-known World War II hero to portray Halsey as a legitimate hero, an ordinary man who reacted heroically to great challenges.
Halsey was born in 1882, the son of a career Naval officer whose career was nondescript. He followed his father to Annapolis, where he too graduated in the lower half of his class. Once on active duty, however, he began to show great promise as a Naval officer at a time when the U. S. Navy was in a massive transition from romantic sailing vessels to mechanized fleets akin to floating industrial facilities.
In 1904 while an officer on the USS Missouri he was witness to a frightful example of this transition when a accident with one of her port guns resulted in the death of thirty one officers and men, an experience which haunted him for the rest of his life. From 1907 to 1909 he served as a deck officer on the USS Kansas as part of “the Great White Fleet”, Theodore Roosevelt’s triumphant demonstration of the Navy’s new-found power by its circumnavigation of the globe.
In recognition of his accomplishments Halsey was promoted directly from Ensign to Lieutenant, skipping the rank of lieutenant junior grade, a very unusual honor. When World War I broke out he was promoted to lieutenant commander and commanded a destroyer the USS Shaw so well that he earned the Navy Cross.
In 1934 Admiral Ernest King offered him command of the aircraft carrier USS Saratoga. Captain Halsey accepted, with the provision that he be permitted to learn to fly at Pensacola. At age 52,He became the oldest officer in the Navy to earn his wings. After commanding the Saratoga and then the Pensacola Naval Air Station he was promoted to Rear Admiral in 1938.
In 1940 his carrier division was relocated to Hawaii, and Halsey was promoted to Vice Admiral. In early December 1941 his division, including the carrier USS Enterprise, was transporting aircraft to Wake Island to fend off a potential sneak attack by the Japanese, when they learned that Pearl Harbor was the actual target. Although they missed the opening act of the Pacific War, members of the division soon saw significant action.
In April they rendezvoused with the USS Hornet and provided cover for the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo. In October 1942 Halsey assumed command of all the forces in the South Pacific Command. His first task was salvaging the Allies’ position on Guadalcanal. That was followed by successful campaigns in the Solomon Islands and the Bismarck Archipelago. Halsey’s aggressive use of Naval aircraft was a key factor in their success.
When the war shifted from the South Pacific to the Central Pacific he was given command of the Third Fleet, which operated effectively in campaigns in the Palaus, Leyte, and Luzon. Halsey’s fighting career ended when he stood on the deck of the USS Missouri and witnessed the signing of the articles of surrender that terminated World War II. In 1947 a grateful nation honored him by promotion to (five star) Fleet Admiral, a distinction shared by three of his peers (Nimitz, Leahy, and King).
According to Dr. Aupperle, Halsey’s trademarks were integrity, loyalty to the men who served with him, aggressiveness, and impulsiveness. The latter trait betrayed him occasionally. During the landing on Leyte his decision to pursue part of a retreating Japanese fleet left the invasion uncovered, permitting another part of the enemy fleet to attack it with nearly disastrous consequences.
The speaker summed up his presentation by concluding that we must accept the fact that even our greatest heroes are not entirely perfect. His presentation was informative and entertaining; we look forward to hearing him again in the future.
In the near future, the Society’s next program meeting is scheduled for 1:30 pm, Sunday, February 26, 2017, in the Chartiers Room of the Bridgeville Volunteer Fire Department. Todd Wilson will speak on “Pittsburgh’s Bridges”, the subject of an Arcadia book he recently authored. The public is welcome, as always.