In all of our time together, we’ve spent plenty of time on and around the island of Guadalcanal. It’s no secret that the battle for this large chunk of rock and trees was absolutely pivotal in wresting the initiative from the Japanese in the Pacific War. But in all of our time spent concerning this largest of the Solomon Islands, we’ve talked very little about Admiral William Halsey.
Let’s do that for a couple minutes this evening.
At the time the Battle of Guadalcanal was being fought, Bull Halsey was a man on the mend. The 60-year-old had been debilitated by an extremely irritating skin disease, so much so that he had been forced to give up his command just before the Battle of Midway in June of 1942. Fortunately, as we well know, Admiral Raymond Spruance was more than adequate as his replacement. Now with October passing, Halsey was ready for command again.
It’s just a shame that, this time, he was called on to replace Admiral Robert Ghormley. Halsey and Ghormley had been friends for nearly 40 years, and there was a bit of discomfort for both men. But it was clear that, for the South Pacific Fleet, change was needed.
Richard Frank gives his thoughts in Guadalcanal, his terrific one-volume account of the battle. “However sympathetically Ghormley’s situation is viewed, his relief was amply justified. Contemporary explanations for Ghormley’s replacement share the common theme that he lacked aggressiveness, but this was really a symptom of defeatism, a disease that had become rampant at his headquarters.” Frank continues on that the Admiral had become a workaholic, denying himself recreation and exercise, which led to exhaustion and a general malaise.
With a nickname like “Bull”, it’s easy to picture Halsey as a the proverbial “bull in the china shop”, displaying a certain amount of recklessness and ram-rodding impetuousness. Frank sets the record straight. “He was not so impulsive as the nickname ‘Bull’ (which was not used by his friends) suggests, but he always displayed a certain indifference to detail that looked like carelessness.”
And whatever indifference to detail Halsey displayed was quickly forgotten on October 20, 1942. It was then, just two days after Halsey had taken command, that the Japanese sub I-176 put a torpedo smack dab in the middle of the USS Chester’s starboard side. The Northampton-class heavy, cruiser was rocked, but not sunk, and casualties were relatively light (11 killed and a dozen more wounded).
It’s probably no small coincidence that, also on this day, Halsey gave the order that all naval officers in the South Pacific would dispense with wearing ties with their tropical uniforms. Frank continues, “Halsey said he gave this order to conform to Army practice and for comfort, but to his command it viscerally evoked the image of a brawler stripping for action and symbolized a casting off of effete elegance no more appropriate to the tropics than to war.”
For Admiral Halsey, the gloves were coming off at Guadalcanal. Round 1?…The Battle of Santa Cruz.
Recommended Reading: Guadalcanal