World War II: Fleet Admiral William Halsey Jr.

Fleet Admiral William 'Bull' Halsey
Photograph Courtesy of US Naval History & Heritage Command

William Halsey Jr. (October 30, 1882–August 16, 1959) was an American naval commander who achieved fame for his service during World War II. He played an important role in the Battle of Leyte Gulf, the largest naval battle of the war. Halsey was made a U.S. fleet admiral—the highest rank for naval officers—in December 1945.

Fast Facts: William Halsey Jr.

  • Known For: Halsey was a leading U.S. Navy commander during World War II.
  • Also Known As: "Bull" Halsey
  • Born: October 30, 1882 in Elizabeth, New Jersey
  • Died: August 16, 1959 in Fishers Island, New York
  • Education: University of Virginia, United States Naval Academy
  • Spouse: Frances Cooke Grandy (m. 1909–1959)
  • Children: Margaret, William

Early Life

William Frederick Halsey, Jr. was born on October 30, 1882, in Elizabeth, New Jersey. The son of U.S. Navy Captain William Halsey, he spent his early years in Coronado and Vallejo, California. Raised on his father's sea stories, Halsey decided to attend the U.S. Naval Academy. After waiting two years for an appointment, he decided to study medicine and followed his friend Karl Osterhause to the University of Virginia, where he pursued his studies with the goal of entering the Navy as a doctor. After his first year in Charlottesville, Halsey finally received his appointment and entered the academy in 1900. While he was not a gifted student, he was a skilled athlete and active in numerous academic clubs. Playing halfback on the football team, Halsey was recognized with the Thompson Trophy Cup as the midshipman who had done most during the year for the promotion of athletics.

After graduating in 1904, Halsey joined the USS Missouri and was later transferred to the USS Don Juan de Austria in December 1905. Having completed the two years of sea time required by federal law, he was commissioned as an ensign on February 2, 1906. The following year, he served aboard the battleship USS Kansas as it took part in the cruise of the "Great White Fleet." Promoted directly to lieutenant on February 2, 1909, Halsey was one of a few ensigns who skipped the rank of lieutenant (junior grade). Following this promotion, Halsey began a long series of command assignments aboard torpedo boats and destroyers beginning with the USS DuPont.

World War I

After commanding the destroyers Lamson, Flusser, and Jarvis, Halsey went ashore in 1915 for a two-year stint in the Executive Department of the Naval Academy. During this time he was promoted to lieutenant commander. With the U.S. entry into World War I, he took command of the USS Benham in February 1918 and sailed with the Queenstown Destroyer Force. In May, Halsey assumed command of the USS Shaw and continued to operate from Ireland. For his service during the conflict, he earned the Navy Cross. After he was ordered home in August 1918, Halsey oversaw the completion and commissioning of the USS Yarnell. He remained in destroyers until 1921 and ultimately commanded Destroyer Divisions 32 and 15. After a brief assignment in the Office of Naval Intelligence, Halsey, now a commander, was sent to Berlin as the U.S. Naval Attaché in 1922.

Interwar Years

Halsey later returned to sea service, commanding the destroyers USS Dale and USS Osborne in European waters until 1927, when he was promoted to captain. Following a one-year tour as executive officer of the USS Wyoming, Halsey returned to the Naval Academy, where he served until 1930. He led Destroyer Division Three through 1932, when he was sent to the Naval War College.

In 1934, Rear Admiral Ernest J. King, the head of the Bureau of Aeronautics, offered Halsey command of the carrier USS Saratoga. At this time, officers selected for carrier command were required to have aviation training and King recommended that Halsey complete the course for aerial observers, as it would fulfill the requirement. Halsey instead elected to take the full 12-week Naval Aviator (pilot) course rather than the simpler aerial observer program. In justifying this decision, he later said, "I thought it better to be able to fly the aircraft itself than to just sit back and be at the mercy of the pilot."

Halsey earned his wings on May 15, 1935, becoming the oldest individual, at age 52, to complete the course. With his flight qualification secured, he took command of the Saratoga later that year. In 1937, Halsey went ashore as the commander of Naval Air Station, Pensacola. Marked as one of the U.S. Navy's top carrier commanders, he was promoted to rear admiral on March 1, 1938. Taking command of Carrier Division 2, Halsey hoisted his flag aboard the new carrier USS Yorktown.

World War II

After leading Carrier Division 2 and Carrier Division 1, Halsey became Commander of Aircraft Battle Force with the rank of vice admiral in 1940. With the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the U.S. entry into World War II, Halsey found himself at sea aboard his flagship USS Enterprise. Upon learning of the attack he remarked, "Before we're through with 'em, the Japanese language will only be spoken in hell." In February 1942, Halsey led one of the first American counterattacks of the conflict when he took Enterprise and Yorktown on a raid through the Gilbert and Marshall Islands. Two months later, in April 1942, Halsey led Task Force 16 to within 800 miles of Japan to launch the famed "Doolittle Raid."

By this time, Halsey—known as "Bull" to his men—adopted the slogan "Hit hard, hit fast, hit often." After returning from the Doolittle mission, he missed the critical Battle of Midway due to a severe case of psoriasis. Later, he led Allied naval forces to victory in the Guadalcanal Campaign. In June 1944, Halsey was given command of the U.S. Third Fleet. That September, his ships provided cover for the landings on Peleliu, before embarking on a series of damaging raids on Okinawa and Formosa. In late October, the Third Fleet was assigned to provide cover for the landings on Leyte and to support Vice Admiral Thomas Kinkaid's Seventh Fleet.

Battle of Leyte Gulf

Desperate to block the Allied invasion of the Philippines, the commander of the Japanese Combined Fleet, Admiral Soemu Toyoda, devised a daring plan that called for most of his remaining ships to attack the landing force. To distract Halsey, Toyoda sent his remaining carriers, under Vice Admiral Jisaburo Ozawa, to the north with the goal of drawing the Allied carriers away from Leyte. In the resulting Battle of Leyte Gulf, Halsey and Kinkaid won victories on October 23 and 24 over the attacking Japanese surface ships.

Late on the 24th, Halsey's scouts sighted Ozawa's carriers. Believing Kurita's force to have been defeated, Halsey elected to pursue Ozawa without properly informing Nimitz or Kinkaid of his intentions. The next day, his planes succeeded in crushing Ozawa's force, but due to his pursuit he was out of position to support the invasion fleet. Unknown to Halsey, Kurita had reversed course and resumed his advance toward Leyte. In the resulting Battle of Samar, Allied destroyers and escort carriers fought a valiant battle against Kurita's heavy ships.

Alerted to the critical situation, Halsey turned his ships south and made a high-speed run back toward Leyte. The situation was saved when Kurita retreated of his own accord after becoming concerned about the possibility of an aerial attack from Halsey's carriers. Despite the stunning Allied successes in the battles around Leyte, Halsey's failure to clearly communicate his intentions and his leaving the invasion fleet unprotected damaged his reputation in some circles.

Final Campaigns

Halsey's reputation was again damaged in December when Task Force 38, part of the Third Fleet, was hit by Typhoon Cobra while conducting operations off the Philippines. Rather than avoid the storm, Halsey remained on station and lost three destroyers, 146 aircraft, and 790 men to the weather. In addition, many ships were badly damaged. A subsequent court of inquiry found that Halsey had erred, but did not recommend any punitive action. In January 1945, Halsey turned the Third Fleet over to Spruance for the Okinawa Campaign.

Resuming command in late May, Halsey made a series of carrier attacks against the Japanese home islands. During this time, he again sailed through a typhoon, though no ships were lost. A court of inquiry recommended that he be reassigned; however, Nimitz overruled the judgment and allowed Halsey to keep his post. Halsey's last attack came on August 13, and he was aboard the USS Missouri when the Japanese surrendered on September 2.


Following the war, Halsey was promoted to fleet admiral on December 11, 1945, and assigned to special duty in the Office of the Secretary of the Navy. He retired on March 1, 1947, and worked in business until 1957. Halsey died on August 16, 1959, and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.


Halsey was one of the highest-ranking officers in U.S. naval history. He accumulated numerous honors, including the Navy Cross, the Navy Distinguished Service Medal, and the National Defense Service Medal. The USS Halsey was named in his honor.

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Hickman, Kennedy. "World War II: Fleet Admiral William Halsey Jr." ThoughtCo, Jul. 31, 2021, Hickman, Kennedy. (2021, July 31). World War II: Fleet Admiral William Halsey Jr. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "World War II: Fleet Admiral William Halsey Jr." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 28, 2023).