Halsey’s Typhoon

In December 1944, Task Force 38, under Admiral William Halsey, sailed straight into a typhoon in the Philippine Sea. 790 sailors were lost, and many other ships suffered serious damage.

Previously, on October 25, Halsey had been decoyed into chasing empty Japanese carriers while leaving the American invasion force largely unprotected, resulting in the Battle off Samar – the last major naval battle. Six American escort carriers, 3 destroyers, and 4 destroyer escorts faced 4 Japanese battleships (including the Yamato), 6 heavy cruisers, 2 light cruisers, and 11 destroyers.
My uncle Frank was on the Raymond, one of those destroyer escorts. We won, no thanks to Halsey, but lost 1500 men.

In early June, 1945, Halsey sailed into a typhoon again. A number of ships suffered serious damage, but only six sailors were lost this time.

Halsey fucked up, repeatedly. It’s obvious even to fictional characters, like Marko Ramius in The Hunt For Red October. If not for pressure from the top, Halsey would have been relieved. But Nimitz had reasons for sparing him. Not ones I agree with, but reasons. Halsey was an important symbol of the Navy to the general public, and it was thought that letting it all hang out would hurt the Navy in the expected budgetary fights after the war. And to be fair, Halsey wasn’t a traitor or anything: he was just dumb. Or, as a kinder person than I once said, by 1944, the war had become too complicated for Halsey.

Christ, they gave Halsey five stars, more than Spruance.

Problem is, this seems to be standard policy. Once you soar above a certain level, you never get punished for fucking up. Mangle a major company (like HP) and they whip you with hundred dollar bills – your failure is the stepping stone to a Presidential campaign. Invade the wrong country, turn another into an anarchic sand pile, misread the Soviet Union as the coming thing – you have foreign policy ‘experience’. Reminds me of an 11 year old’s definition of experience – what you have after you’ve forgotten her name..

I’m not quite ready to say ‘off with their heads’ – but surely we could cut back on rewarding high-level failure.

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52 Responses to Halsey’s Typhoon

  1. Sandgroper says:

    Hell, any dumb Chinese fisherman knows not to sail into a typhoon, and that he needs to do the exact opposite. And Chinese fishermen are not distinguished by their obvious high intelligence.

    But I have seen this phenomenon played out in the engineering profession, and outside of America too – people who have seriously screwed up, so got shifted into higher positions to get them away from the sharp end, and it becomes repetitive until they end up heading organisations – until it dawns on people that they are actually idiots who need to not get their highly remunerated contracts renewed.

    • albatross says:

      At my first job out of college, there was a lady in charge of the single biggest, highest profile project in the organization. The project’s endless promises and deadline-slippages became something of a joke among the programming staff there, but she and her higher management kept doubling down–this project would be ready any day now, and would solve every problem anyone wanted solved. After dragging on for many years, reality finally hit and the program was acknowledged to be a failure. The big boss was fired for incompetence. And the lady who had run the disaster-program was promoted into his place.

    • Anonymous says:

      Halseys behavior during the typhoon episodes raises my question.
      Was he in his cabin, drinking, ie was he drunk at the time?

  2. As I understand by 1943, a pivotal year in the European War, it became pretty clear to the German staff officers operating in the field that it was game over. Even before the July 1944 explosive escapade, in which the one man who could never afford to sue for surrender narrowly escaped getting blown up, it was obvious as well.

    But no one would take the initiative to throw in the towel; ditto for the Japanese government. Those who claim the atomic bombings (which shook up the Imp and finally forced his hand) were unnecessary have most likely never had to deal with the ‘ganko’ fanatic stubbornness of the Japanese personality – even in the face of disaster.

    All reports from contemporary observers in the Pentagon is that the careerists reign supreme, which is a bit different – but the result is the same. When the economy goes down the toilet, market shelves are bare, fuel & food supply lines break down, riots and looting sweep urban centers, there are persistent rolling blackouts and Washington is helpless (and sharing blame every which direction), don’t count on the military for a Latin-American type “save the nation” takeover. They’ll all be covering their asses (and exterminating rambunctious citizens).

    The kind of personality that seizes that opportunity – Suharto, Stalin, Mao – can only work it early in the game. Once the system is fossilized nobody wants to support radical action, no matter how desperate the situation gets. That’s my take anyway.

  3. Anonymous says:

    I live in Sweden, I would gladly begin cutting off heads.

  4. amac78 says:

    That’s two other countries turned into anarchic sand piles, Go Team! And some inside the beltway Deep Thinkers keep musing aloud about the merits of attacking a third.

  5. ziel says:

    “You do have experience…but it’s bad experience…” Is that so hard to understand?

  6. ziel says:

    Another factor is that “Admiral Halsey” flows off the tongue more easily – has a nice ring to it. “Admiral Spruance” would not have made it into a song lyric, that’s for sure.

  7. My grandfather was in the South Pacific as well and he would never talk about his time on the USS Canberra, but what he did say was “Bull” Halsey was the best Admiral the Japanese had.

    • PRCD says:

      “Bull” Halsey is the epitome of American-style 2nd generation Mahanesque naval warfare: charge ahead until you bump into something. If you can’t find anything to charge into, keep charging, hence “Bull.”

  8. teageegeepea says:

    “Halsey was an important symbol of the Navy to the general public”
    Why was that?

    • gcochran9 says:

      He had done pretty well around Guadalcanal although even then he tended to screw up on the details. The number of ships involved then was much smaller than later in the war: the war really did become much more complicated.

      Halsey was confident, quotable. His predecessor, Ghormley, was pessimistic and let the pressure get to him.

  9. pyrrhus says:

    It was not always thus. There was a time when the Royal Navy hanged admirals….

  10. Yudi says:

    Meanwhile elites like Lawrence Summers and James Watson get thrown out immediately for being offensive. It is not that we don’t punish; it’s that we punish for the wrong things.

  11. dearieme says:

    There is a deeper question. Why waste so many American lives reconquering the Philippines? The route to victory over Japan was to island-hop until there was lots of airfield capacity for bombing attacks on Japan, and to keep US subs sinking Japanese ships. The Philippines could then have been mopped up after a Japanese surrender. The whole Philippines sideshow was an appalling act of incompetence.

    • Ursiform says:

      “I shall return.”

      • dearieme says:

        Then rather a lot of men died to satisfy the conceit of one man. Shame on FDR and Marshal for allowing it.

        • Ursiform says:

          You make this sound like an unusual thing.

        • Let us not forget to acknowledge the [impossible to verify] tale that ‘Dugout Doug’ was allegedly presented gold bullion to the tune of five hundred thousand dollars (back when dollars were dollars) by President Manuel Quezon, in the PT boat zooming them away to safety in Australia. A little “thank you” gift from the Treasury of the Republic of the Philippines.

          Meanwhile all the Allied soldiers left behind holding their dicks in their hands faced the likes of Bataan. “I shall return [when it’s safe to return]”, indeed.

          • gcochran9 says:

            Apparently the gold story is authentic. I knew of it. “On 1 January 1942, MacArthur accepted $500,000 from President Quezon of the Philippines as payment for his pre-war service. MacArthur’s staff members also received payments: $75,000 for Sutherland, $45,000 for Richard Marshall, and $20,000 for Huff.[142][143] Eisenhower—after being appointed Supreme Commander Allied Expeditionary Force (AEF)—was also offered money by Quezon, but declined.[144] These payments were known only to a few in Manila and Washington, including President Roosevelt and Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, until they were made public by historian Carol Petillo in 1979. The revelation tarnished MacArthur’s reputation.[145]”

      • JerryC says:

        There was that, plus the interservice rivalry factor, with the central Pacific campaign being a Navy/USMC affair. The Army brass wanted to keep the south Pacific campaign so that the Army could get some glory, too.

      • athEIst says:

        As soon as my troops kill all those Japs.

    • saintonge235 says:

              Very few lives were wasted reconquering the Philippines.  MacArthur’s casualty ratios were consistently better than just about any other Pacific theatre commander.

              And the Filipinos were Americans, sort of, and we had an obligation to them.

              What I think was really screwed up was the whole Pacific War strategy.  Why did Japan attack?  Because we’d cut off their oil.  So, cutting off the oil they got from the captured Dutch colonies should have been the main goal.  Base out of Darwin, and strike North Northwest at Timor and Malaku. and then the Philippines.  With air bases in those places, the tankers can’t get through, and their armed forces grind to a halt.

      • dearieme says:

        “Very few lives”: how many, across all the services?

        “we had an obligation to them”: won’t do. Britain had an obligation to the Channel Islanders but still left them occupied by Germany until the war was won. Quite right too: hard-headedness saves live in the end.

      • Yes, note that when the Japanese Imperial Army first hit the Indies they ignored the cities and headed straight for the oilfields in Balikpapan and Pekanbaru.

      • aguila2011 says:

        In the big picture, the 38,000 soldiers buried at the Taguig American Cemetery in Manila is not a huge number but your tone stinks. “Very few lives were wasted …” Man, you need to consider how you say things. Seriously. And some of those number are Filipino Scouts who helped Americans. So regardless of the “reason” they did their duty and paid the ultimate price. Have some respect, please.

      • Larry Larkin says:

        Not only was the invasion of the Phillipines not necessary, but when they did land they landed, as planned, in the wrong place for that initial landing.

        It was a classic bit of Dougism, completely ignoring the correct intelligence and doing what he wanted to do because it looked good.

    • jasonbayz says:

      Hindsight is 20/20. It was not obvious that Japan could be defeated from the air. The British had been bombing Germany for years, it weakened them, but did not defeat them. They believed an invasion of Japan would be necessary. In that case, the soldiers in the Philippines weren’t tied down, the Japanese would have noticed if only islands in range of Japan were attacked. Some of them could have been evacuated and sent to Japanese beaches, on which casualty ratios for the allies wouldn’t have been nearly so favorable to the allies.

      They also might of thought inflicting a defeat on the Japanese would make them more likely to surrender. Not sure how much they understood the Japanese mentality.

      It’s the same reason for the Italian campaign in Europe. Italy wasn’t very useful to the Germans, but it was a propaganda victory and it was easier to kill Germans there than in Germany itself.

      • James says:

        In point of fact it was extremely difficult to kill Germans in Italy. The mountainous terrain had a Kraut behind every rock and the Allies suffered over 300,000 casualties in less than two years of fighting. Anzio, Monte Cassino, and the only partial breaching the Gothic Line were all notorious bloodbaths.

        The American general staff had the foresight to oppose the entire campaign and wanted to concentrate all forces on an earlier invasion of France but were over-ruled by the politicians. When lobbying for the bloody fiasco the Italian campaign became, Churchill infamously called Italy and Greece “the soft underbelly of Europe.” He was wrong yet again.

        Our limited success in pushing the enemy into the Alps in the final few weeks of the war only happened because the Germans had to withdraw so many men to fight in the last ditch defense of the Fatherland.

        • gcochran9 says:

          If we had landed in Normandy in 1943, we would have lost.

          • James says:

            Be that as it may there is still no excuse for the poor generalship of Mark Clark whose dubious decisions were exploited by Kesselring at every turn. The veterans of the Italian campaign were damn bitter about it and none that I have heard speak about the war ever hesitated to voice their opinions to that effect.

      • dearieme says:

        “Some of them could have been evacuated and sent to Japanese beaches”: no – once the US had naval and aerial supremacy the Japanese troops there could not be evacuated for use elsewhere.

  12. saintonge235 says:

            This comes back to what I wrote in the “12 Battle of the Isonzo” comment.  People in organizations have their own agendas, and “protect the organization” is a big one.  They blur responsibility.

            But how to spot the “careerists” and the incompetents, and keep them out of power they can’t handle, is more than I can tell you.

  13. oldmiseryguts says:

    C Northcote Parkinson wrote about the process where the lower orders get shafted but the CEO just goes on to bigger and better things, That was back in 1955, his book ‘The Law’ is still a great read and still explains much of the modern world, we seemed to have learned nothing.
    https://www.amazon.com/Parkinsons-Law-C-Northcote-Parkinson/dp/1568490151

  14. I know this is classic West Hunter, but still, it’s an outstanding post. This trend is awful and it needs to stop.

  15. Jim says:

    The people who did the most to contribute to the 2008 financial crisis did very well.

  16. James says:

    Cdr. Ernest E. Evans’ Medal of Honor citation:

    For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty as commanding officer of the U.S.S. Johnston in action against major units of the enemy Japanese fleet during the battle off Samar on 25 October 1944. The first to lay a smokescreen and to open fire as an enemy task force, vastly superior in number, firepower and armor, rapidly approached. Comdr. Evans gallantly diverted the powerful blasts of hostile guns from the lightly armed and armored carriers under his protection, launching the first torpedo attack when the Johnston came under straddling Japanese shellfire. Undaunted by damage sustained under the terrific volume of fire, he unhesitatingly joined others of his group to provide fire support during subsequent torpedo attacks against the Japanese and, outshooting and outmaneuvering the enemy as he consistently interposed his vessel between the hostile fleet units and our carriers despite the crippling loss of engine power and communications with steering aft, shifted command to the fantail, shouted steering orders through an open hatch to men turning the rudder by hand and battled furiously until the Johnston, burning and shuddering from a mortal blow, lay dead in the water after 3 hours of fierce combat. Seriously wounded early in the engagement, Comdr. Evans, by his indomitable courage and brilliant professional skill, aided materially in turning back the enemy during a critical phase of the action. His valiant fighting spirit throughout this historic battle will venture as an inspiration to all who served with him.

  17. PRCD says:

    Sailer refers to this as “failing upward.” As long as you have the right intentions and outward forms to your failure, you are worthy to advance to the next level.

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