Tag Archives: Biography

Halsey: The Unstoppable

By Johna Till Johnson


Admiral Halsey in a WWII poster (from Naval History & Heritage Command)














There are no extraordinary men, just extraordinary circumstances that ordinary men are forced to deal with.

—Admiral William (“Bull”) Frederick Halsey, Jr.

This sketch is one of several inspired by the book, The Admirals: The Five-Star Admirals Who Won the War at Sea, by Walter R. Borneman. It’s about Admirals Halsey, Nimitz, King, and Leahy, each of whom played critical roles in World War II, and were the only admirals to earn five stars in all of American history. (For the other sketches in the series, see Triptych: Three Admirals.)

More than that, the book is about leadership, character, and how a flawed individual can rise to greatness—not in spite of, but often even precisely because of, those flaws.

Halsey was a pugnacious fighter, wisecracking and hotheaded, whose passion was winning the game (or battle). His courage and determination helped re-energize and inspire a Navy demoralized and depleted by the hideous surprise of Pearl Harbor. Yet his appetite for the fight paradoxically cost him participation in some of the defining battles of the Pacific, and could have cost the war. But anything he did, he did wholeheartedly—and there was never any question of stopping him.

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Triptych: Three Admirals

By Johna Till Johnson

Sailors preparing for the funeral

Sailors preparing for the funeral, May 2014 (photo provided by Steve Hannifin)

Medicine, the ministry, and the military. Those were the “three Ms” that—according to my mother—defined the callings of our family, dating back to before the American Revolution. Each is characterized by a commitment to a greater good than self, or even family: Healing, God, country.

That sense of commitment is likely one reason my mother came to marry my father, a naval officer, and it permeated my life growing up.

When we uprooted ourselves to move across the country or around the world for the fifth (or the seventeenth) time, it wasn’t for personal gain. It was because the Navy needed us there to protect our country. That’s what my parents said, and that’s what we believed. When our country called, we came—particularly my father, who spent years underwater in a nuclear submarine.

Some day I’ll write about my father. But meantime, this is enough to explain how I came to spend a recent Friday in Annapolis, at the Naval Academy cemetery, where the ashes of my father’s former commanding officer, Vice Admiral Patrick J. Hannifin, were laid to rest.

It was an uncharacteristically gray, cold, and drizzly day in late spring. I’d gotten up at 3:30 AM to make the four-hour drive to Annapolis. I arrived an hour and a half early, giving me plenty of time to think, and to remember.

As I sat in the white marble open-air “columbarium” overlooking the gray-green water of College Creek, the memories came flooding back. I’d spent three years living on the Naval Academy grounds from ages 8 to 11, while my father was head of the division of Math and Science.

Like many children, I was oblivious to the weight of history. To me, the Academy was a delightful, safe, and well-tended park. I never thought about the fact that the green torpedoes I loved to play on (just the size for an 8-year-old to ride!) were taken from Japan during World War II. Or that I practiced gymnastics, fencing, and swimming in MacDonough Hall (named after a remote ancestor on my mother’s side, Admiral Thomas MacDonough). Though from time to time I passed by Nimitz Library, the Halsey Field House, and the King Hall dining facility, these were all just names to me.


Nimitz Library from the air (photo by United States Naval Academy)

Even this May, as I looked out at the flowing water and the campus beyond, I didn’t think about history. I thought about my father, who died in 2008. I thought about Admiral Hannifin. I thought about all the men I’d known who shared my father’s commitment—and what they had exemplified as leaders, and as human beings.

The AdmiralsMaybe that’s why, walking through an airport on a business trip a few days later, I was inspired to pick up a book called “The Admirals”, by Walter R. Borneman.

It’s subtitled, “The Five-Star Admirals Who Won the War at Sea”, which pretty much says it all. It’s about Admirals Nimitz, Halsey, King, and Leahy, each of whom played critical roles in World War II (and who were the only admirals to earn five stars in all of American history).

The book is fantastic. It’s about more than just the people, or the events. It’s about leadership. And it’s about character, and how a flawed individual can rise to greatness—not in spite of, but often even precisely because of, those flaws.

Of the four men profiled by Borneman, three really resonated with me: Nimitz, Halsey, and King.

Nimitz was even-tempered and genial, a consummate engineer who threw himself into every project that was handed to him, and whose supreme satisfaction was a job well done. Halsey was a pugnacious fighter, wisecracking and hotheaded, whose passion was winning the game (or battle). And King was a brilliant careerist, convinced (usually correctly) that he was smarter than anyone else, and determined to win the accolades to which he felt entitled.

Their individual responses to learning of the war’s end sum each up perfectly. In each case, an aide burst into the Admiral’s office with the news that the goal of four years’ uncompromising and exhausting effort had been achieved: the Japanese had surrendered unconditionally.

Halsey’s response was to leap to his feet and begin pounding the aide’s shoulders in joy.

King reportedly looked stricken, and said, “But what am I going to do now?”

And Nimitz? He said nothing, just allowed himself a small, perfectly satisfied smile.

In three following posts, I will post a short sketch of each of these unique leaders, drawn largely from Borneman’s book (which again, I highly recommend) with some additional research:

Halsey: The Unstoppable
Nimitz: The Unflappable
King: The Impossible

Lessons from the Life of Nelson Mandela

By Johna Till Johnson

Nelson Mandela

“We must use time wisely and forever realize that the time is always ripe to do right” — Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela is dead.

It’s hard to believe—not that he’s dead, but that it happened today.

His life was so epic, so mythic, that it’s hard to believe he was actually alive in our time. He has always seemed to me to be one of the heroes of yore, the kind that doesn’t live any more in these diminished times.

And although I know shamefully little about South African politics or history, I’ve always been captivated by one part of his story: that he spent 27 years in prison—a significant chunk of his life sentence—before not only being set free, but becoming President of South Africa.

I often try to imagine that: being sentenced to life in prison, and actually spending 27 years, a lifetime by itself, imprisoned under brutal conditions.

How do you keep believing in yourself, your cause, and in the possibility of having some kind of impact on the outside world? What keeps you from just giving up, as year after year goes by, with no hope, or reason to hope?

Only Nelson Mandela knew the true answer, and now he’s gone. But as I try to imagine it, here’s what I imagine:

–That after the first shock of the realization settles in, you recognize that although you can’t control your circumstances, you can control your response to them. (And really, that’s no less true in the outside world—we think we have control over circumstances, but how much of your day do you actually spend reacting to them, rather than creating them?)

–That you never give up hope that the dream itself will exist one day, whether or not you are there to see it. And you take faith and nourishment from that dream, and from your ability to believe in it.

–That you remind yourself constantly that your adversaries are humans, too, and seek a genuine connection with them. (Mandela learned Afrikaans in prison, and ultimately succeeded in making friends with the guards.)

–That you refuse to let your failures define you. By then, Mandela had failed many times in his life—he didn’t pass his law examinations, his first marriage ended because of his unfaithfulness, and the fact of being imprisoned (no matter how unjustly) had to have felt like a failure. But none of those defined him. What defined him was his belief in the dream.

These are all easy to write, and inspirational to think about.

But living them—day by day, hour by hour, moment my moment—must have been difficult.

Each moment he had to have made up his mind to resist hopelessness and embrace the dream, to work passionately towards his goals while detaching himself from the desire to be present when they were achieved.

And do all that not once, or twice, but over and over again—there are a lot of moments in 27 years. That takes not just inspiration, but persistence (stubbornness, if you will) and consistency.

There are many lessons here, but this is the lesson I take away from the life of Nelson Mandela: The way to survive, and triumph, is not just to believe in your dreams, but to work doggedly, persistently, with a strong heart, towards achieving them. Day by day. Moment by moment. And focus not on your failures, but upon your efforts.

RIP Nelson Mandela.

And thank you.

Happy Birthday, Colette!

By Johna Till Johnson 

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You probably knew this, but January 28th is the 140th birthday of the French writer Colette.

Colette, in costume

Colette, in costume…

Okay, you probably didn’t know that. You might not even remember who Colette is, though chances are, you’re familiar with at least one of her works.

And you’re probably wondering why you should care about her birthday, or her.

Let me take a step back. This year,  Vlad and I have adopted a new tradition: We’ve selected a pantheon of personal heroes, and heroines—people whose spirits and lives matter to us—and are making a conscious effort to celebrate their birthdays.

Colette’s is the first, but there will be plenty of others.

So why did we select her?

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