In the final days of 1944, Admiral William “Bull” Halsey is the Pacific theater’s most popular and colorful naval hero. After a string of victories, the “Fighting Admiral” and his thirty-thousand-man Third Fleet are charged with protecting General MacArthur’s flank during the invasion of the Philippine island of Mindoro. But in the midst of the landings, Halsey attempts a complicated refueling maneuver—and unwittingly drives his 170 ships into the teeth of a massive typhoon.
Halsey’s men find themselves battling ninety-foot waves and 150 mph winds. Amid the chaos, three ships are sunk and nearly nine hundred sailors and officers are swept into the Philippine Sea. For three days, small bands of survivors battle dehydration, exhaustion, sharks, and the elements, awaiting rescue. It will be up to courageous lieutenant commander Henry Lee Plage to defy orders and sail his tiny destroyer escort, the USS Tabberer, back into the storm to rescue drifting sailors.
Revealing a little-known chapter of WWII history in absorbing detail, this is “a vivid tale of tragedy and gallantry at sea.” (Publishers Weekly).
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The clipped words slid out of the judge advocate's mouth as if slipped through a mail slot: "Admiral, did you consider that you had timely warning or did you know that a severe storm was approaching around the sixteenth and seventeenth of December?"
William Frederick Halsey Jr. surveyed the wardroom of the destroyer tender USS Cascade. Seated in hardback chairs to his left were two vice admirals and a rear admiral, each clad in crisp, starched khakis, their postures erect as jackstaffs. The stenographers sat on his right, four chief yeomen with their backs to him, recording testimony as it was given. A Marine colonel occupied the table directly opposite Halsey, who undoubtedly noted the green felt cloth draped over it. A court-martial in the U.S. Navy had long been referred to as "sitting at the end of the long green table."
This, however, was no court-martial, merely a court of inquiry. Nearly eight hundred sailors from the United States Third Fleet had perished during a typhoon, almost three times the number of men who died at the Battle of Midway. The catastrophe was not, as some of Halsey's rivals suggested, Custer at the Little Bighorn, but, still, there were questions. The mood in the wardroom was somber, if polite. It was December 28, the dying wick of 1944, on a sun-splashed morning on Ulithi Atoll.
"I did not have timely warning," Halsey answered in a clear, resonant voice sharp enough to cut falling silk. "I'll put it another way. I had no warning."
The navy's judge advocate pressed on: "There has been testimony from other commanders that the local conditions indicated the approach of the storm. Was that evident to you?"
Although he was never to speak of it for the rest of his life, this could well have been the moment Admiral Halsey determined his need for legal counsel. Scuttlebutt had it that over dinner the previous evening he had joked to a friend, "Somebody ought to be court-martialed for this, either me or the Bureau of Ships." Yet now he answered the judge advocate's queries with a mixture of insouciance and ignorance. It was quite obvious, he said, that he'd needed his destroyers completely refueled in order to return as soon as possible to continue his strikes on Luzon, high seas be damned.
The implication was clear: There is a war on; General MacArthur was waiting. But Halsey also admitted to having no literal idea where the storm was heading, or whether, in fact, it was a severe storm or merely a local disturbance. "I am no weather expert," he said.
No, he was "Bull" Halsey, the U.S. Navy's Patton of the Pacific, the man who boasted he would ride the emperor's white horse into Tokyo. And this was humiliating.
Of all the naval heroes of World War II, none strode so large a stage as Adm. William Halsey. The self-proclaimed scion of "seafarers and adventurers, big, violent men, impatient of the law, and prone to strong drink and strong language," Halsey sailed determinedly in their wake. By December 1944 the obscure skipper, whose command of the destroyer USS Shaw during the First World War had merited the Navy Cross, was, at sixty-two years old, not only the most famous man in the United States Navy, but the most famous living naval officer in the world. He had borne the Allied cause on his shoulders during the war's first, flickering hours, and this would not soon be forgotten.
Halsey's raids on the enemy-held Marshall and Gilbert Islands less than two months after Pearl Harbor were America's first offensive assaults of the war. Twelve weeks later, in April 1942, his daring transport of Col. Jimmy Doolittle's bombers to within hailing distance of Tokyo — though but a tactical and strategic pinprick — was, as one newspaper correspondent wrote, a dose of vitamin B-25 for a nation still staggering under the trauma of the Japanese sneak attack.
Halsey's ascent was serendipitous. In the early miasma of World War II, America needed a hero. Halsey was it. His profile was as familiar to Americans as Clark Gable's or Gary Cooper's, and such was his fame that on a visit home to attend a Stateside reception a woman broke through the receiving line, clasped his arm, and cried, "I feel as if I were touching the hand of God."
A rawboned seaman of slender build, the hatchet-browed Halsey was an early riser who drank ten cups of coffee a day, smoked precisely forty cigarettes, and, like his forebears, was known to enjoy a glass of scotch whiskey. An early-eighteenth-century ancestor, Capt. John Halsey, had in fact been a privateer-turned-buccaneer, and Halsey's great-great-grandfather, Capt. Eliphalet Halsey, continued the tradition of sailing Halsey men by helming the first Sag Harbor whaler to round Cape Horn. Young "Willie" followed his father's path from his home in Elizabeth, New Jersey, to the U.S. Naval Academy as the nineteenth century turned. The caption under his 1904 graduation photo reads, "A real old salt (who) looks like a figurehead of Neptune." He was twenty-one years old.
Four years later, now an ensign, Halsey drew duty aboard the battleship USS Kansas, a ship of the line that famously circumnavigated the globe as part of Teddy Roosevelt's Great White Fleet. During the Great War he captained a destroyer, running convoys across the Atlantic. He was remembered by fellow officers as a stolid and able commander, possessing a conspicuous gift for handling men. The war experience left Halsey, he recalled, "as proud as a dog with two tails." In time his craggy face would come to reflect a map of the world's ports of call.
Between wars — early on, Halsey had foreseen the next one coming — he grew impatient with what Tennyson called "the long, long cancer of peace" and intuited the vital role airpower would play in the looming conflict against Japan and Germany. In 1934 he petitioned his superiors to be allowed to enroll in the Naval Air Corps flight school in Pensacola, Florida. He was persistent, and as a half measure he was granted transfer to Pensacola as an observer. Equally gifted with guile and celerity, he somehow, at age fifty-one, already a grandfather, wangled a change in his designation from "student observer" to "student pilot."
Competing against pilots half his age, and despite congenitally poor eyesight, he earned his wings. His flight instructor noted, "The worse the weather, the better he flew." By the eve of World War II he was one of only four flag-rank officers in the United States Navy who actually knew how to fly an airplane.
When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Halsey was two thousand miles away, commanding a carrier task group delivering fighter planes for the unsuccessful defense of Wake Island. He cursed fate for his failure to intercept the Imperial strike force, although military experts unanimously agree that had his ships challenged Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto's fleet, they would have been wiped out. Days later, when he witnessed the breadth of destruction at Pearl — his carriers sailed into the harbor through oil still seeping from the sunken vessels along Battleship Row — his reaction was emblematic. "Before we're through with 'em the Japanese language will be spoken only in hell," he said.
His carrier force refueled and immediately put to sea to hunt the Japanese, but more rotten luck followed. Halsey was laid up in the hospital with a severe case of dermatitis during the Battle of Midway. Powerless, sullen, itching, he was bedridden at Pearl Harbor's medical center, covered in emolument, when he received fragmented reports of Adm. Raymond Spruance's stunning victory. He considered missing this fight the worst break of his career.
In October 1942, by now a rear admiral, Halsey was plucked from his carrier task force by Adm. Chester A. Nimitz and charged with command of the South Pacific Theater. Nimitz, commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet (CINCPAC), realized he needed fighting sailors to relieve the "defeatist" U.S. Pacific commands. It annoyed Nimitz no end that his South Pacific commanders seemed to share General MacArthur's view that islands such as Guadalcanal could not be held. In the face of this pessimism, Halsey's "devil-may-care" reputation of being at his best when things seemed most desperate appealed to CINCPAC.
Nimitz wrote that he was looking for someone unafraid to sail west into Asia, north to Japan, "to sail into hell itself if need be," to spread destruction among enemy-held island chains and disrupt Japan's vital ocean supply lines. Halsey himself could hardly wait "to begin throwing punches," and eight days after his promotion he defeated the Japanese at the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands. One month later, after inflicting severe damage on a huge enemy armada during a three-day shoot-out in the waters off Guadalcanal, he was promoted to full admiral.
There were whispers in Washington about Halsey's rough edges, his pneumatic temper, his vocabulary's profanity-laced default setting. But, to Nimitz, Halsey's transgression, like Adm. Horatio Nelson's admission before sailing to his death in Trafalgar, had not been that great. "If it be a sin to covet glory," Nelson admitted to his mistress, Lady Emma Hamilton, "I am the most offending soul alive." Moreover, he fit precisely the profile Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox had sent to fleet headquarters at Pearl Harbor.
"Men of the aggressive fighting type must be preferred over men of more judicial, thoughtful, but less aggressive characteristics," Knox wrote Nimitz in a concise, frank memo whose prose limned the edge of poetry. "I presume most of us, if we had been required to choose at the beginning of the war between the brilliant, polished, socially attractive McClellan and the rough, rather uncouth, unsocial Grant, would have chosen McClellan, just as Lincoln did."
Nimitz was not about to repeat the error. A different historical analogy may also have played into the selection. It was proverbial in military circles that the one question Napoleon asked his commanders prior to bestowing the field marshal's baton was, "Are you lucky?" The techniques of war fighting may have changed in the decades since Austerlitz, but command instincts had not, and Halsey was acknowledged to possess deep reserves of good luck.
Not long after taking over the South Pacific Command, he demonstrated just this by ordering a feeder airfield hacked out of the jungles of Guadalcanal on terrain totally unsuited to the task. The ensuing, disastrous attempt at construction marooned a battalion of Marine Raiders. Trapped behind enemy lines, the Marines flanked the Japanese and broke through with a striking victory. As one Halsey biographer noted, "Even his mistakes turned out well."
When Halsey received his promotion orders, he exclaimed, "Jesus Christ and General Jackson, this is the hottest potato they ever handed me!" When the announcement was officially posted, cheers resonated from the mess rooms of the lowliest scows tethered at Pearl to the muddy trenches encircling beleaguered Henderson Field on Guadalcanal. Said one air combat intelligence officer stationed on Guadalcanal, "I'll never forget it. One minute we were too limp with malaria to crawl out of our foxholes; the next we were running around whooping like kids."
Like many sailors, Halsey was a superstitious man. He had a lifelong dread of the thirteenth day of every month, and he carried or wore his totems proudly, in particular a tiki greenstone bracelet from New Zealand and a Hawaiian "good luck" strip of white linen. He was also something of a neat freak, to the point of obsession, and once had his steward follow the notoriously disheveled Vice Adm. John Sidney "Slew" McCain around his flag bridge with a dustpan and brush to sweep up McCain's cigarette ashes. His junior officers suspected him of being a "bathroom dawdler," for at each staff briefing his shoes were invariably shined to a brown mirror, his tuft of hoar-gray hair meticulously slicked and parted, his fingernails clipped, cleaned, and buffed. And such was his reputation as an epicure that when he hosted a contingent of visiting army dignitaries aboard his flagship with a meal as sumptuous as a condemned man's, one officer was heard to remark afterward, "Good God, why didn't we join the navy?" Despite this personal fastidiousness, ordinary seamen instinctively felt a special camaraderie with the admiral, sensing that he was willing to face their perils, able to bear their hardships. When Halsey's twenty-seven-year-old son, Lt. (j.g.) William F. Halsey III, an aviation supply officer on the carrier USS Saratoga, went missing in the South Pacific in the summer of 1943, the admiral explicitly ordered that the search for him be conducted by the book. "My son is the same as every other son in the combat zone," he told his operations officer. "Look for him just as you'd look for anybody else."
Young Halsey and several crewmates were recovered four days later from a life raft floating near New Caledonia. But the admiral's evenhandedness, and equanimity, in the face of personal privation was noted by U.S. sailors across the fleet. It was common knowledge throughout the Pacific Theater that Halsey enjoyed forgoing flag-country tradition to watch the regular shipboard movies with the enlisted men in the hangar deck, and he was known to complain loudly to Nimitz about the lousy films being shipped from Stateside. Once, when a sudden squall interrupted his regular afternoon game of deck tennis, he grabbed a mop and joined the maintenance crew in swabbing the teakwood weather deck.
Navy Secretary Knox often repeated a story that symbolized Halsey's rapport with his enlisted men. One day, two sailors walking across the deck of the repair ship USS Argonne were discussing Halsey.
"I'd go through hell for that old son of a bitch," said one.
The seaman was slapped on the back, and turned to find himself face-to-face with the admiral. "Young man," said Halsey, "I'm not that old."
The anecdote could be taken for apocryphal — Knox recognized the value of good advertising — were it not for dozens of similar tales. A Marine sentry assigned to Halsey's cabin, for instance, once had the occasion to mention to the admiral that he hailed from the Bronx in New York City.
"Oh, yeah?" replied Halsey, who had been a gridiron star at the Naval Academy. "I'm from Elizabeth, New Jersey. You're a big guy. You play football?" The two then bantered for some time about sports — an exceptional, upstairs-downstairs exchange that rapidly made the rounds of mess decks throughout the fleet.
Ordinary sailors and Marines were not the only men who carried a special fondness for the "fighting admiral." War correspondents loved Halsey, and he loved them back. Along with Patton in Europe, he was the closest thing Americans had to the mythic sinner-saint warrior, and he held lusty, detailed press conferences that composed, for the newspapermen, contemporary history.
Not only was he given to salty epithets deriding the Japanese as "yellow-bellied sons of bitches" and "fish-eating yellow bastards," he knew what actions made good copy. In January 1942, when an enemy reconnaissance plane passing overhead inexplicably failed to spot his carrier task force steaming toward the surprise raid on the Marshalls, Halsey summoned his language officer to translate a message. "From the American admiral in charge of the striking force, to the Japanese admiral on the Marshall Islands," he dictated. "It is a pleasure to thank you for having your patrol plane not sight my force."
The next morning bombers from his carrier flagship USS Enterprise dropped copies of the leaflet along with their payloads. The flamboyant stunt was the talk of the Pacific Theater.
On occasion, however, Halsey's spark-plug persona lapped itself. He was of the opinion that political language was the ability to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind, and during a summit in Auckland with New Zealand's prime minister Peter Fraser in January 1943, he guaranteed reporters that the war would be won within a year. The forecast, wildly off base, not only infuriated the War and Navy Departments but embarrassed President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Tokyo Rose began cataloging the tortures Japan would inflict upon Halsey when he was captured, and even MacArthur, whose vanity brooked no competition, perceived in the banty admiral what the writer Ambrose Bierce called "a person of low taste, more interested in himself than in me."
But to moms and pops and wives and sweethearts back home, newspaper dispatches filed from Halsey's vicinity reflected a cando American buoyancy that civilians yearned for. He often signed off correspondence with what came to be known as his slogan — "Kill Japs, kill Japs, and keep on killing Japs." As one contemporary noted, "No one in the South Pacific forgot it."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Halsey's Typhoon"
Copyright © 2007 Bob Drury and Tom Clavin.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
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Table of Contents
Book I: The Fleet,
Book II: The Storm,
Book III: The Rescue,