Join our crew and become one of the 106,849 members that receive our newsletter.

FADM Bull Halsey smoking and writing letters

Photo of WW2 US Navy Fleet Admiral William "Bull" Halsey writing a letter to a citizen. Photo via USNI

Dear Admiral, Bull Halsey Did Not Have A Recruiting Crisis – OPED

John Konrad
Total Views: 6619
April 28, 2024

by Captain John Konrad (gCaptain OPED) In the crucible of World War II, iconic figures like Fleet Admiral William “Bull” Halsey and General Douglas MacArthur didn’t just command forces; they commanded respect and admiration through their exceptional engagement with both the media and the public. They understood a powerful principle of influence — reciprocity via direct engagement. By taking the time to meet with journalists and respond to public letters, they cultivated a connection that not only boosted their reputations but also significantly bolstered public morale and support. Today, however, as our ranks of flag officers have swelled and modern communication tools like Salesforce make direct engagement simpler, this tradition of accessibility and personal connection has lamentably disappeared.

Early this month, I attended Sea Air Space, the premier naval conference in the United States, held near the bustling heart of the nation, Washington D.C. The agenda was packed with urgent topics: shipbuilding challenges, strategic concerns in the Red Sea, and the complexity of logistics in contested waters. Yet, among these critical discussions, the issue that repeatedly surfaced as the most pressing was manpower.

Our shipyards are struggling to fill their ranks, the Navy is falling short of its recruitment goals, the Coast Guard is decommissioning cutters for want of crew, and the Merchant Marine is grappling with its most severe officer shortage since the Vietnam War. Driving home from the conference, a persistent question haunted my thoughts: Why is this happening?

The question is… why?

Let’s reflect on 1943—a year when American shipyards were launching one and a half Liberty ships every single day and thousands of warships annually. Notably absent from the conference discussions was the staggering fact that America’s population has more than doubled since the Second World War. According to the 2020 census, we are now a nation of more than 330 million, compared to the 1940 figure of around 130 million. That is 200 million more citizens. And during the war, sixteen million young men, potential contributors to the civilian shipbuilding workforce, were in uniform.

Two hundred million.

The discrepancy is stark. It’s clear that a world war can, indeed did, galvanize the public. Yet, even with a population that has doubled, even with millions eager to immigrate to America, even with less than four percent of the ships we had in active duty in 1945… the numbers don’t align. This disconnection presents not just a logistical problem but a profound leadership challenge.

There are multiple causes for the current workforce shortage. Some of these reasons are valid. Indeed, America was on a war footing in 1943. True, a higher percentage of citizens were accustomed to manual labor. Certainly, the nation was recovering from a depression. Undoubtedly, bureaucratic desk jobs have absorbed a significant part of today’s workforce. Immigration reform is a contested issue. Also, our population is now older. However, other reasons often cited for this shortage are highly debatable. For instance, it’s not accurate to state that every young person today is lazy and addicted to video games.

What shocked me the most was not the validity of the concerns, but the sheer scale of the comparison. Two hundred million, more than double the population, is an enormous number. Even if half the population is lazy, elderly, or subject to any theory, we still have more workers than in 1943. Furthermore, our allies in South Korea and Japan have implemented systems and automation that have significantly increased the productivity of each shipyard worker.

However, none of this realization answered the question: why?

Over the next week, I came across two issues with serious implications that have not yet been linked to the problem of manpower.

Naval Leadership Outreach Is Failing

In my pursuit to grasp the strategic shifts of the US military towards the Pacific, a response to China’s burgeoning naval power, I found myself buried in a collection of historical texts about the Pacific campaigns. Initially, my focus as a maritime journalist was on the logistical hurdles faced during those monumental times. However, my curiosity as a non-fiction author led me down a slightly different path—I began to explore how these histories were constructed, particularly the sources from which the authors drew their vivid accounts.

One striking revelation came while poring over William Manchester’s seminal book American Caesar a detailed biography of General Douglas MacArthur. This book was rich with personal correspondence MacArthur exchanged with ordinary citizens, which illuminates a stark contrast with today’s military leadership practices. MacArthur, even amidst the intense demands of war, took the time to engage directly with the public through letters. Moreover, journalists during that era had direct and frequent access to him, gaining insights that allowed them to craft detailed, compelling narratives of the war’s realities.

Captivated by outspoken ‘Bull’ Halsey’s ability to back his tough talk with bold action, average Americans—from schoolchildren to grieving mothers—deluged the admiral with rousing and heartfelt letters during World War II.

‘Dear Admiral Halsey’ By John Wukovits – US Naval Institute Press

Consider the actions of Eisenhower before the Sicily invasion. He shared classified war plans with a select group of journalists to deepen their understanding of the strategic challenges ahead. This wasn’t merely about transparency but was a strategic engagement that allowed the media to convey the complexities of war to the public, and write the more vivid and truthful prose that fosters deeper national support.

Here was a five-star general fully engrossed with the strategy and operational details of war, and he still found time each day to reply to questions mailed to him on the front line. He brought journalists out to the field with him too and made himself and his staff available to answer questions. Those journalists were not allowed to publish everything they learned but they had access and used that to paint vivid pictures of the struggle.

In contrast, today’s military often classifies routine studies to keep them out of the press.

Eisenhower was not alone in this approach. As I thumbed through more books in my library, I discovered numerous instances where military leaders like Admirals King, Nimitz and Halsey, and Generals MacArthur and Marshall, engaged in direct correspondence with everyday Americans. This level of engagement fostered a strong bond between the military and the public, enhancing trust and morale.

Today, however, such practices seem like relics of the past. The only current example I can cite is Captain Chris “Chowdah” Hill of the USS Eisenhower, known for his responsiveness, particularly to the families of his crew. But such cases are the exception rather than the norm, which is disconcerting. Despite having fewer operational demands in peacetime and an order of magnitude more flag officers and senior civil service members per ship—today, with 294 ships compared to the 7,601 on V-J Day—the engagement with the public and media has significantly waned.

Today’s Military Journalists Are Dental Surgeons

Last year, aiming for better coverage of naval affairs for gCaptain, I sought advice from the White House press secretary, Rear Admiral John Kirby. He suggested that we apply for a seat in the Pentagon press corps. However, the associated complexity and costs made this option impractical for a modest outlet like gCaptain. Even if we were accepted, there was no guarantee of substantial benefits. Many Pentagon press conferences, which are widely available on YouTube, only allow each journalist one question. This question is often left unanswered or sidetracked to a different subject.

The Pentagon press corps sometimes accompanies senior officials, such as the Secretary of Defense, on trips. While this can offer a chance to delve into topics more deeply, it also carries risks. Probing too deeply may result in not being invited back. Furthermore, if your political views do not align with the Administration’s, you may not be invited at all. This situation has been well documented recently by Mike Glenn, a military journalist with the right-leaning Washington Times.

The exclusive nature of these media events, often held in high-security venues such as the Naval War College, complicates direct journalistic engagement. These locations are sometimes inaccessible to civilians (even Merchant Marine veterans like myself) due to lacking the necessary security clearances. Additionally, the limited scope for questions and scarce opportunities for follow-ups make it difficult to redirect discussions when they stray off course.

The scenario has worsened this year as exemplified by the Baltimore bridge collapse when, in the crucial early weeks, the Army Corps of Engineers barred reporters from attending press briefings or gaining access to the incident command center. No questions were allowed at the State of the US Coast Guard address or Sea Air Space US Coast Guard Commandant’s breakfast this year. The annual sea service chief panel transitioned from a live microphone to an app and the moderator “consolidated questions in the interest of time”.

A particularly telling moment occurred early this month at the Secretary of the Navy’s address at the Sea Air Space conference. After an expensive and exhaustive journey, I found myself relegated to the press box in the far back of the room. When Secretary Del Toro opened the floor, I managed to be third in line, only for the microphone to be cut off just as my turn approached. Although Secretary Del Toro did invite me on stage afterward, the interaction was brief and rushed by the hostility of his NCIS security detail who evidently assessed me as a potential security threat and physically blocked me from getting within conversation range.

This might seem like a rational security measure, and it is, but it stands in stark contrast to General MacArthur who routinely handed journalists a side arm and pulled them closer to the sounds of enemy gunfire.

While some readers may interpret these reflections as complaints, they are not. I acknowledge Secretary Del Toro’s gesture; however, these experiences underscore the broader challenge of accessing clear, straightforward responses from military leadership.

Fortunately, the conference provided other avenues for obtaining information. While there were numerous high-ranking officials present, pinpointing the correct admiral or general to answer specific questions was challenging due to their specialized roles and the high ratio of admirals to ships. To keep track of all this some naval journalists like US Naval Institute editor Sam LaGrone, now utilize intricate time management spreadsheets and reference organizational charts resembling nuclear reactor schematics. The days of a pen and simple journalist notepad are over.

The media can alternatively establish a connection with a particular individual via the Department of Defense public affairs specialists. The right specialist can arrange an interview, although locating a suitable public affairs officer (PAO) can be difficult. Once a PAO is involved, they often act as a mediator between the high-ranking officer and the journalist, frequently advising the Admiral on what to avoid saying, instead of promoting full transparency.

Journalists, however, have a simpler method for acquiring information. After Del Toro’s speech, I observed a prominent defense industry consultant and an executive on one side of the hallway, with several well-known military journalists on the other side. During the 15 minutes I observed, multiple Admirals stopped to converse with these defense industry professionals, but none interacted with the journalists.

Obtaining information from a Navy leader can be challenging. You might struggle to get a satisfying answer from a Public Affairs Officer (PAO) or to get an admiral on the phone, but it is far simpler to communicate with defense industry executives. Many of them have almost unrestricted access to military installations and senior officers. Unlike uniformed officers, these executives appreciate good press and are often willing to exchange information. Additionally, unlike journalists and citizens, admirals typically respond directly to their calls.

Using defense contractors as sources often works but you are never certain of their angle, especially when the information they share may embarrass a competitor.

The purpose of this editorial is not to complain. As a commercial maritime news site, we are not heavily dependent on military sources. Instead, I aim to shed light on some of the challenges that military journalists encounter. This situation is unfortunate for the military for several reasons, of which I’ll mention three. Firstly, military journalists are professionals, but also human. It’s challenging to prevent frustration from seeping into their work. Secondly, prospective recruits seek strong leadership, excitement, and honesty in a story. Factors that are often missing from interviews. Last, suppression of the media results in fewer people talking. The result is when someone inside the DoD has really good news they think twice before sharing. This leaves us with sources who leak information because they are frustrated. Without solid access and an open-door policy, the reporting naturally tilts negative. Negative press does not win recruits.

The most troubling issue is the burden placed on journalists to extract information from reluctant flag officers, akin to a dental surgeon’s task. The Navy doesn’t seem to understand the financial strain this puts on smaller publications like gCaptain. Attending an event like Sea Air Space can cost a small fortune. Expenses including travel, meals, hotels, and other costs can easily reach into the thousands. To save money, I stayed at a modest hotel hotel 30 minutes away. Arriving early, I noticed that the defense contractors who had accommodations in the nearby 4-star hotel appeared noticeably more refreshed.

The crucial aspect is not the precise details of each journalistic challenge, but the stark contrasts.

Consider the contrast in access between journalists and defense contractors.

Reflect on how the ratio of admirals to ships today contrasts with historical precedents.

Consider the contrast between a population of 130 million in 1941 and over 300 million today.

Think about the contrast between the Navy’s $257 billion budget and military news outlets operating with budgets under $1 million who have to seek out Admirals.

Consider that the Secretary of the Navy (and many top defense executives) travels in private jets but many journalists drive to events to save money.

Teenagers Want Access The Navy Doesn’t Provide

My son recently turned 18 and has expressed interest in joining the Navy. He is inspired by powerful military machinery and the valor of servicemen and women but I, as a father, found myself grappling with a disheartening reality. Despite his enthusiasm, facilitating inspirational experiences has become increasingly challenging. While all the branches share a similar confrontational approach to the media, the Navy uniquely denies access to our nation’s teenagers.

Although we aren’t members of any youth organizations, my son has friends who are. Local Boy Scout troops have invited him to Army bases to see tanks, and Civil Air Patrol friends have taken him to air shows where he has climbed into the cockpit of Army helicopters and advanced Air Force planes. The US Coast Guard Auxiliary has also invited him out on small boats. The problem is we don’t know any Sea Scouts. This isn’t surprising, considering the Boy Scouts boast over 1.6 million youth members and adult volunteers, the Civil Air Patrol has 65,000 members, the USCG has 21,000 Auxiliarists, and there are only around 12,000 Sea Cadets nationwide. I contacted several Sea Cadet leaders for this editorial. They mentioned that aside from recruitment challenges, they are also grappling with new safety regulations and reduced support from the Navy, which complicates the process of getting cadets onto ships.

The Navy has also withdrawn from other civilian programs, such as the Military Auxiliary Radio Service (MARS), which it closed in 2014 (Army and Air Force MARS programs are still active).

Today, my son has decided to pursue a career in aviation and is seriously considering joining the Air Force. This decision is primarily influenced by his multiple interactions with Reserve and Air National Guard members at recruitment events, military museums, and air shows. The Navy does not have a national guard. Army Reserve has tanks and the Air Force Reserve has planes but the US Navy Reserve has a sum total of zero ships.

The Navy usually shines during Fleet Weeks, but unfortunately, the event fell short. Last year, I attended one and discovered that ships would not be docking downtown due to security concerns. My son couldn’t attend, but I promised to explore it and bring him to the next one.

Upon arrival, my friend and I waited for an hour to board a bus, which then took us to a secure location 15 minutes away. At that location, we had to choose between touring a destroyer or an LCS; we couldn’t do both. Then, we spent 3 hours waiting in line. Upon leaving, we faced another 2-hour line to board the bus that would take us out of the secure location.

While standing in the hot sun waiting to leave, we watched off-duty sailors catching Ubers just on the other side of the fence. I asked a public affairs officer, “Can I call an Uber and leave?” His response was, “No sir, you must wait.”

The most disappointing moment in fleet week was a young child waiting near us. Throughout our wait, he spoke excitedly about seeing the captain’s chair on the bridge dozens of times. However, he left in tears when he was informed that the bridge and engine room were secure locations not accessible to visitors.

Upon my return home, my son was excited to hear about my adventure and eagerly anticipated joining me for the next Fleet Week. All I could offer at the moment were some pictures from the cargo bay of the LCS. Saying he wasn’t eager to join me for the next Fleet Week and endure a six-hour wait would be an understatement.

However, earlier that week I did get to see the destroyer! This was because the navy had held a charity event the previous night and invited, as you might have guessed, defense contractors. One of them slipped me a ticket. If you’re an American child, getting aboard a Navy ship is challenging. However, if your dad works for a major defense contractor, you’ll likely have plenty of opportunities to attend secretary lunches and destroyer tours, all funded by the company and, ultimately, taxpayers.

With a total absence of ships in the naval reserve, the lack of a naval national guard, the discontinuation of civilian partnership programs like MARS, exhausting security procedures during Fleet Week, Admirals who do not respond to letters, and a Sea Cadet program with a paucity of Department Of Defense support, how can the navy be surprised that recruits are not interested?

Other avenues to join are woefully underfunded too.

What about the US Merchant Marine? State maritime colleges have open campuses and are receiving new training ships that interested high school students can tour. However, the federal Merchant Marine Academy – whose graduates enter the US Navy Reserve and are a critical officer source for the Navy’s Military Sealift Command – does not have a ship. Much of its waterfront is perpetually under construction, and nearly all of its facilities are in utter disrepair. Considering that many graduates join the US Navy, why doesn’t the Navy station a small warship here for local patrols and to inspire visiting kids to join? Why don’t US Navy admirals attend Merchant Marine hearings and submit letters to Congress asking them to support the academy? No one seems to have an answer to these questions. The common response is, “Go ask the Department of Transportation who runs the school,” which is rather frustrating. The school doesn’t get any PAO help either considering their official X page has less than two thousand followers.

And what about the naval industrial base the Secretary of the Navy spent so much time highlighting at Sea Air Space before my mic got cut off? We keep hearing that the shipyard recruiting crisis is even more dire than naval recruitment. On my last visit to Newport, I called a few shipyards asking for a tour and was told I’d have to wait for a media day. “If I come back can I bring my son?” I asked one yard. “He might be interested in building ships.”

The response? “Kids are not allowed on media tours.”

The situation is so dire that one veteran journalist, Chris Cavas, self-funds a tour of the Norfolk shipyards and waterfront for visiting naval journalists each year. This tour is highly popular but we must ask, why do journalists like Chris have to do the leg work and foot the bill? With hundreds of billions a year in taxpayer money being spent by the Navy, why aren’t they paying for frequent tours of ships and shipyards – for both journalists and children – themselves? Why do most PAO inquiries provide such little information?

Imagine if every captain and admiral in the Navy spent one day each year visiting a large coastal high school. Imagine if each picked up a busload of sophomores for a personal tour of a Navy ship. What percentage of those students would consider NROTC and enlistment options in their junior year? Unfortunately, this seems unlikely, as admirals don’t even make their mailing addresses available to students.

The answer to many of these questions is of course confidentiality, safety, and security. This makes sense until you remember that Eisenhower entrusted war journalists with top-secret invasion plans, Halsey had taken time away from the sailors in his command – sailors under direct enemy fire – each day to correspond with reporters and citizens, and MacArthur issued sidearms and walked journalists into the front lines. In light of this, it seems silly that the Secretary of the Navy’s NCIS bodyguards would physically block a known journalist from asking routine questions.

My readers desire firsthand information, period. My son aspires to meet naval leaders and explore the bridge of a warship firsthand, period.

Problems with recruiting today seem normal and there are dozens of legitimate reasons for them but there are also 200 million more people in the United States, journalists eager to share more positive stories and thousands of teenagers who would love to visit a shipyard and the combat information center of a warship.?

Conclusion

To our military and government leaders, the solution to our recruiting and engagement challenges is clear: we must revive and modernize the direct engagements of the past. Leaders like Admiral Halsey and General MacArthur exemplified the power of personal connection and transparency, enhancing public trust and morale – by directly responding to citizens via handwritten letters – with the media and the public, even in times of war. Today, it’s difficult to even find an Admiral’s mailing address. Today we face a landscape where such interactions are rare exceptions, not norms. This shift not only undermines our military’s rapport with the public but also directly impacts our ability to inspire and recruit the next generation of service members. And we must get teens like my son Jack onto warships where they can soak up the impressive capabilities and talk directly to our nation’s heroes: navy sailors of all ranks.

Embrace the legacy of openness and direct engagement. Encourage today’s leaders to step forward, to communicate directly not just through press releases and staged events but in genuine, unscripted interactions that build trust and understanding. New communications tools like Salesforce make doing this easier than ever. Journalists should have more access to military leaders than defense industry executives, not less. In doing so, we not only honor the example of our greatest military leaders but also forge a stronger, more connected military for the future. It should be the job of the military to do the work and write the checks to facilitate these engagements, you can not expect citizens, journalists, and potential recruits to spend time and money visiting you. This is not merely a call for action—it is an absolute necessity for our national security and the sustained success of our armed forces.

With over 200 million more citizens than during World War Two and facing an adversary with more ships than you, a potential enemy armed with technologies far surpassing anything Admiral Halsey encountered, addressing our recruitment and outreach challenges is not just important—it’s imperative. There is no good reason why recruiting and engaging with the public should be as difficult as admirals make it today.

We ask all flag officers to please pick up a pen and start responding directly.

Dear Admiral,

Our nation’s teenagers, journalists, and citizens want to hear from YOU. Why do you not respond? Halsey did.

-John

Unlock Exclusive Insights Today!

Join the gCaptain Club for curated content, insider opinions, and vibrant community discussions.

Sign Up
Back to Main
polygon icon polygon icon

Why Join the gCaptain Club?

Access exclusive insights, engage in vibrant discussions, and gain perspectives from our CEO.

Sign Up
close

JOIN OUR CREW

Maritime and offshore news trusted by our 106,849 members delivered daily straight to your inbox.

Join Our Crew

Join the 106,849 members that receive our newsletter.