There are no great men, there are only great challenges, which ordinary men like you and me are forced by circumstances to meet.
Admiral William Halsey, Jr.
Last week I was watching the movie The Gallant Hours (1960), starring James Cagney as Admiral William Halsey, Jr. (Halsey hated the nickname “Bull” that the press fastened upon him during the War.) The film focuses on the time in late 1942 to 1943 when Halsey was theater commander during the Guadalcanal campaign. This was in tandem with my reading of the latest bio of Halsey, Admiral Bill Halsey: A Naval Life, by Thomas Alexander Hughes.
Halsey is an interesting figure partially because his public image is so at odds with the reality. During World War II Halsey was the “Patton of the Pacific”, a fighting Admiral who swore as he viewed the carnage of Pearl Harbor on December 7, that by the time the US was done the only place that Japanese would be spoken was in Hell. Halsey in the popular perception was a rampaging bull in a Japanese china shop.
The reality was different. Halsey, who got his wings at the advanced age of 52, was an inspired commander of carriers. Strike quick and run was his method in the early days of the War, when his daring carrier raids on Japanese held islands in the Pacific gave a very badly needed boost to national morale. (“I hauled ass with Halsey” was a fond remembrance of veterans of those raids for decades after the War.) However, unlike his unwelcome “Bull” image, Halsey was a thoughtful and careful planner, who paid close attention to such un-glamorous, but essential, topics as logistics and intelligence as he plotted every move his forces made. He was also an officer beloved of his men because of his reputation of making sure that they were taken care of regarding food, leave and mail. Throughout his career Halsey was known as a sailor’s officer who always looked out for the enlisted men under his command. (A typical story told about Halsey by his sailors. On board a carrier sailors were waiting in line for some prized ice cream. An Ensign decides to cut to the head of his line. He suddenly hears a stream of profanity directed at him. He turns around to chew out the sailor cussing him. He finds out that the man yelling at him is four star Admiral Halsey who has been patiently waiting his turn in the line with his men.)
Cagney captured these largely forgotten aspects of the man. He gives a fine, understated performance in this his second to last film before his retirement, Cagney subsumes himself in the role and makes the audience believe that they are looking at Halsey rather than Cagney playing Halsey. The film is far from the typical war picture. Mini voice over biographies are given for many of the characters, both major and minor, American and Japanese. The scenes of the film showing the Japanese high command have the Japanese actors speaking Japanese, a rarity for American films of that time. No combat action, other than the rumblings of bombardments on Guadalcanal, are shown in the film. Combat takes place off screen as the focus is on the chess like moves of stroke and counterstroke between Halsey and Yamamoto during the latter portion of the Guadalcanal campaign, where Halsey out thought and out fought the Japanese effort to take control of Guadalcanal, and its all important air strip, Henderson Field. The film is almost a treatise, albeit an entertaining one, on this all important Pacific campaign involving naval, air and ground combat. It is a tribute to the willingness of Americans of that day to enjoy a somewhat intellectually challenging film that it did well at the box office.
Among the men that Halsey encounters during the film is Father Frederic Gehring, a soon to be legendary Navy chaplain serving with the Marines on Guadalcanal. Go here to read about him. As Halsey and his entourage are leaving, Father Gehring says “God bless you!” to Halsey. An aide comments that Gehring sounds like he means it. Halsey (Cagney) responds, that he, Gehring, wouldn’t know how not to mean it.
Halsey was an American original who served this nation magnificently in perilous times, and the film is a fitting tribute to him.