Halsey commanded the Enterprise and Hornet task force and enjoyed considerable success since that dark day when he looked from the Enterprise’s flag bridge and saw the disaster of December 7. He later shepherded Jimmy Doolittle’s B-25s near enough to the Japanese home islands to launch the daring raid. His carrier task force then raided the Japanese-held islands in the Central Pacific and, while not inflicting much damage, kept the Japanese guessing what the next American move would be.
The Japanese and the Americans had just finished their historical conflict at the Battle of the Coral Sea in May 1942. The Japanese sank the American carrier Lexington and inflicted heavy damage on the Yorktown. She was on her way back to Pearl Harbor for repairs.
After he had returned to Pearl Harbor, he reported to Nimitz with a severe skin disease. Its effects were readily apparent to his superior. Halsey had lost 20 pounds and looked gaunt and exhausted. He visited Nimitz to urge his superior to name his replacement to command his task force. Halsey recommended that Rear Admiral Raymond A. Spruance to temporarily take command of the two-carrier task force. Later, had said this act was “the most grievous disappointment of my career.” Nevertheless, Halsey checked himself into a hospital with a debilitating attack of dermatitis.
Spruance became the newest American naval hero after making the risky decision to launch the Enterprise and Hornet’s planes from maximum range. Midway was a severe strategic defeat for the Japanese, and Halsey, while not jealous of Spruance’s victory, wished with every bone in his body he had been at sea instead being confined to a hospital bed. While the Navy kept Halsey’s hospitalization a secret, the dermatitis seemingly had run its course, and Halsey was on the mend. He anxiously waited to find out what his next assignment would be.
He finally left the hospital in Richmond, Virginia on August 5, 1942 and went to Washington to find out more about his next assignment. After spending some time in the Washington area, he and several of his staff officers flew to the West Coast on September 1.
He inspected some naval aviation facilities and later met Nimitz at the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco. Nimitz and his staff were there for a series of meetings with Admiral King. When Halsey walked in with Nimitz at the Federal Building, many officers wholeheartedly greeted him with vigorous handshakes and backslapping. He did not actively participate in the meetings for the next three days but listened intently to catch up with the latest events in the Pacific War.
During the meetings, much discussion analyzed the Battle of Savo Island. Another topic was whether Ghormley could continue being COMSOPAC. The questions were about his health and the rumors of defeatism and vacillation in Nouméa. Nimitz said he would personally investigate the situation about Ghormley’s health and report his findings to King.
After the conference ended, Halsey had a clearer picture of the situation in the South Pacific and flew with Nimitz to Pearl Harbor. Nimitz gave him the temporary duty as Commander, Air Force, Pacific Fleet and put him in an office in the newly constructed CINCPAC office building. His new assignment was a desk job. He just bided his time and strongly felt a combat assignment would soon come his way.
When the torpedoed carrier Saratoga arrived in Pearl Harbor on September 21, Nimitz went aboard to give medals to members of the crew and took Halsey with him. Not many officers recognized Halsey as he came aboard the big ship. The Saratoga’s flight deck seemed the appropriate place for Nimitz to announce Halsey’s return. The carrier had once been his flagship. Since his absence from the public because of his illness, he was not on the mind of the public or mentioned in the newspapers. However, his reputation as a fighting admiral and the commander of the Doolittle raid was not that easy to forget. The crew crowded the carrier’s flight deck when Nimitz stepped to the microphone and gestured Halsey to join him. Nimitz said, “Boys, I’ve got a surprise for you. Bill Halsey’s back!” The ship’s crew was supposed to be standing at attention. Nonetheless, all that ceremony suddenly became a celebration when all of them broke into a boisterous, raucous cheer. Tears immediately welled in Halsey’s eyes.
Halsey continued to attend all of Nimitz’s morning strategy conferences. The news from Guadalcanal continued to be bad.
Nimitz decided he had to go Guadalcanal himself. After returning and deciding Ghormley had to be relieved, he met with his staff to discuss the serious command situation. He asked them if he should replace Ghormley. Their answer was a unanimous, “Yes!” The discussion moved to who should relieve him. The group decided Halsey had the senior rank and personality to turn around the situation.
Meanwhile, Halsey, Spruance, and several other officers were on their way to the South Pacific under Nimitz’s orders. Halsey wanted to go to Guadalcanal before going to Nouméa. When their plane landed at Canton Island to refuel, Halsey received a message from Nimitz to go immediately to Nouméa.
His plane landed in Nouméa’s harbor as a whaleboat came alongside before the plane’s propellers stopped turning. Ghormley’s flag lieutenant snapped a salute and handed a sealed envelope to the admiral. Halsey opened the envelope and read the letter inside. The message said that was to relieve Ghormley and become the new COMSOPAC.
After reading it twice and finding it difficult to believe what he read, Halsey exclaimed, “Jesus Christ and General Jackson. This is the hottest potato they ever handed me.” The whaleboat then took him to Ghormley’s flagship, and two good friends reviewed the situation. Halsey knew this was to be the toughest assignment of his naval career. As events transpired, it would be his finest demonstration of his command abilities.
When the Marines, sailors and soldiers heard Halsey had arrived, they knew they finally had a commander in the model of General Ulysses S. Grant – someone who fights. The situation was bound to get better. However, much blood would spill before victory was theirs.