Mar 1

On Naval History’s Scope

Tuesday, March 1, 2016 12:01 AM

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Cover-March-16

On 20 September 1945, two-and-a-half weeks after he’d hosted the formal Japanese surrender on board his flagship, Admiral William F. Halsey Jr. headed for home. Among the many respects paid to the celebrated commander was one he especially treasured. “Your departure leaves all your old comrades of the Pacific war lonesome indeed,” messaged General of the Army Douglas MacArthur. “You carry with you the admiration and affection of every officer and man. May your shadow never decrease.”

That was a tall order because “Bull” Halsey had cast an enormous shadow during the conflict. His battle accomplishments were many, but in this issue’s cover story, “‘Dear Admiral Halsey,’” John Wukovits touches on a different aspect of the admiral—his larger-than-life persona. Halsey’s bold talk, spiced with salty language, caused his superiors “anxiety and embarrassment,” according to historian Thomas Buell, but reporters and the public ate it up. Letters from average Americans flooded Halsey’s office. Ranging from humorous to haunting, they form the core of Wukovits’ article and illustrate how the home front supported the admiral’s efforts as well as sought answers and comfort from him.

Reporters interview Admiral Halsey on Bougainville in late 1943. (National Archives)

Reporters interview Admiral Halsey on Bougainville in late 1943. (National Archives)

In “Halsey and Spruance: A Study in Contrasts,” E. B. Potter analyzes the two admirals who alternately led the Central Pacific Force during the final 16 months of the Pacific war, and in the process highlights Halsey’s penchant for publicity. Excerpted from an article in the January 1969 issue of Proceedings, the piece contains a long quote from the famously tight-lipped Admiral Raymond Spruance in which he explains how “Personal publicity in a war can be a drawback because it affects a man’s thinking.”

Buell, in his biography of Spruance, The Quiet Warrior, provides some context. The admiral uncharacteristically had expounded on the subject to a friend while they were off Iwo Jima, where the battle was raging. “Spruance had Halsey in mind—among others—because Halsey recently had given an interview that was more flamboyant than usual,” Buell wrote.

Potter’s take on Halsey, as contained in the original Proceedings article, agitated former Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Robert Carney enough that he wrote a response, which we’ve included as a sidebar. Carney had served as Halsey’s chief of staff during the latter half of the Pacific war.

Carney’s predecessor in that role, Captain Miles Browning, is the complex and controversial subject of Alan Rems’ article, “Out of the Jaws of Victory.” A naval-aviation savant with a caustic disposition, Browning served as Spruance’s chief of staff at Midway while Halsey was temporarily sidelined. The captain earned praise for his role there, and historian Samuel Eliot Morison later credited him with advising Spruance to give the order that likely decided the battle’s outcome.

But according to Rems, Browning’s Midway performance was anything but laudatory. Thomas Buell had uncovered the facts, which he’d initially heard from Spruance’s former flag lieutenant, retired Captain Robert Oliver. As Buell revealed in his U.S. Naval Institute oral history, he had shown Oliver a draft of his Midway chapter from The Quiet Warrior. The captain’s reaction: “That’s not the way it happened at all.” Oliver then gave his account of the battle, which the author incorporated into the book.

“I can still remember when he started talking about Miles Browning,” Buell recalled. “He was very, very hesitant. He said, ‘I don’t know quite how to tell you this. It’s very, very touchy. But I have to tell you about the confrontation that Spruance had with Miles Browning and the aviators.’” In his article, Rems recounts this story as well as many other eye-opening anecdotes about a gifted naval officer who proved to be his own worst enemy.