The Admirals: Nimitz, Halsey, Leahy, and King--The Five-Star Admirals Who Won the War at Seaby Walter R. Borneman
How history's only five-star admirals triumphed in World War II and made the United States the world's dominant sea power.
Only four men in American history have been promoted to the five-star rank of Admiral of the Fleet: William Leahy, Ernest King, Chester Nimitz, and William Halsey. These four men were the best and the brightest the navy/strong>… See more details below
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How history's only five-star admirals triumphed in World War II and made the United States the world's dominant sea power.
Only four men in American history have been promoted to the five-star rank of Admiral of the Fleet: William Leahy, Ernest King, Chester Nimitz, and William Halsey. These four men were the best and the brightest the navy produced, and together they led the U.S. navy to victory in World War II, establishing the United States as the world's greatest fleet.
In THE ADMIRALS, award-winning historian Walter R. Borneman tells their story in full detail for the first time. Drawing upon journals, ship logs, and other primary sources, he brings an incredible historical moment to life, showing us how the four admirals revolutionized naval warfare forever with submarines and aircraft carriers, and how these men-who were both friends and rivals-worked together to ensure that the Axis fleets lay destroyed on the ocean floor at the end of World War II.
"In his superbly reported new book, historian Walter R. Borneman tackles the essential question of military leadership: What makes some men, but not others, able to motivate a fighting force into battle?"Tony Perry, Los Angeles Times
"Engagingly written and deeply researched... Mr. Borneman makes it easy to understand the complex series of maneuvers and counter-maneuvers at Leyte Gulf...which is not always the case with accounts of the battle."Andrew Roberts, Wall Street Journal
"Borneman demonstrates comprehensive command of published and unpublished sources, fingertip understanding of the period, and a polished writing style in this unique collective biography of the four men who 'with a combination of nimble counsel, exasperating ego, studied patience, and street-fighter tactics' shaped the modern U.S. Navy to win WWII at sea."Publishers Weekly
"Borneman deftly manipulates multiple narrative strands and a wealth of detail. He vividly fleshes out the numerous vain, ambitious men vying for power at the top and examines their important decisions and lasting ramifications. An accomplished, readable history lesson."Kirkus Reviews
"Walter Borneman's The Admirals is an epic group portrait of Nimitz, Halsey, Leahey, and King. Not since the heyday of Samuel Eliot Morison has a historian painted such a fine portrait of the five-star admirals who helped America beat Japan during the Second World War. Highly recommended!"Douglas Brinkley, Professor of History at Rice University and author of The Wilderness Warrior
"They were completely different in temperament and personality, but the U.S. Navy's four five-star admirals in World War II shared a sense of vision, devotion, and courage. Walter Borneman has written a rousing tale of victory at sea."Evan Thomas, author of The War Lovers
"This is Walter Borneman at his best. The portrait of the forgotten admiral, Leahy, is worth the whole book. But there's scarcely a page where a reader won't learn something unexpected, and occasionally shocking."Thomas Fleming, author of Time and Tide
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The AdmiralsNimitz, Halsey, Leahy, and King--The Five-Star Admirals Who Won the War at Sea
By Borneman, Walter R.
Little, Brown and CompanyCopyright © 2012 Borneman, Walter R.
All right reserved.
The Banks of the Severn
It is graduation day at Annapolis—the United States Naval Academy. The year is not important. The date might be in the past, today, or one of many to come. The speaker’s words reverberate across the field, but something more resonates here.
Nearby, the broad estuary of the Severn River meets the waters of Chesapeake Bay. The warm breeze carries with it the scent of tidewater and the squawks of gulls, but there is more here, too, than salty smells and aerial cacophony.
The academy’s motto is simple and direct: Ex Scientia Tridens—“From Knowledge, Sea Power.” From this place has come that and much more.
The tree-lined pathways, the grassy parade grounds, and even the small boats tugging gently at their moorings are heavy with it. The names of the buildings that rise above the banks of the Severn shout it: history and tradition, duty and honor, vision and courage, abound here.
The granite walls of Leahy Hall are the first stop for aspiring midshipmen. King Hall serves thousands of meals daily with a proficiency its no-nonsense namesake would demand. Nimitz Library overlooks College Creek, beyond which the academy cemetery holds the bones of many whose history fills its books. Halsey Field House is a testing ground, the focal point of hard-fought athletic competition.
An office building, a mess hall, a library, and a field house—as varied as the men whose names they bear. Consummate diplomat, opinionated strategist, calculating master of detail, pugnacious fighter—all began their naval careers here within a period of eight years near the opening of the twentieth century.
They are the only four men in American history to hold the five-star rank of fleet admiral. None of them envisioned as they walked these grounds the extent to which their diverse personalities and methods would transform Theodore Roosevelt’s Great White Fleet of their youth into his cousin Franklin’s ultimate weapon of global supremacy.
With a combination of nimble counsel, exasperating ego, studied patience, and street-fighter tactics, William D. Leahy, Ernest J. King, Chester W. Nimitz, and William F. Halsey, Jr., built the modern United States Navy and won World War II on the seas. Each is forever a part of the United States Naval Academy; Annapolis was forever a part of them.
On the graduation field this day, the brigade stands at attention. Another class is about to follow these men, to march into history.
Saturday, December 6, 1941
Europe has been at war for more than two years. Amid the mineral spas of Vichy, the American embassy occupies what was previously a doctor’s office. While its accoutrements are sufficient, the tone and fabric of the entire town mirror the sad conditions that have befallen France. Quick to oppose Hitler’s invasion of Poland, France was forced by the German blitzkrieg to accept a humiliating surrender.
The surrender terms—the armistice, the Vichy French prefer to call them—left a provisional government to administer the unoccupied southern third of the country, as well as France’s colonies around the world. The wild card remains what will become of the French fleet, arguably still among the most powerful in the world.
The U.S. ambassador, retired admiral William D. Leahy, appreciates this more than most. He is first and foremost a sailor, but over a forty-year naval career, he has also witnessed the diplomatic side of international power. Admiral Leahy wouldn’t be here if President Franklin D. Roosevelt did not trust his ability to wring every last drop of pro-American support from Vichy’s shadow government.
But Leahy is discouraged. He is used to serving his chief with fidelity, but the last few months have been frustrating. Vichy France is a nation subservient to the Third Reich in all but name. Leahy goes to bed hoping for a recall to Washington—either to impress the French with the seriousness of Roosevelt’s displeasure or simply to allow for his own retirement. Because of the time difference, dawn the next morning will fall upon Vichy twelve hours before it reaches the Central Pacific.
The heavy cruiser USS Augusta is already a storied ship. Four months before, the flagship of the Atlantic Fleet carried President Roosevelt to a secret rendezvous with British prime minister Winston Churchill off the southeast toe of Newfoundland. After a conference that included a Sunday church service featuring the hymn “Onward, Christian Soldiers,” America was not yet at war, but Roosevelt and Churchill were newfound friends.
This particular morning, Augusta steams into the sheltered waters of Narragansett Bay and moors at its buoy off Newport, Rhode Island, the fleet headquarters. From its mast flies the four-star flag of Admiral Ernest J. King, commander in chief of the Atlantic Fleet. There is neither war nor peace. American ships are being lost in the North Atlantic, but King’s response is limited by political considerations.
As Augusta rides gently at its buoy, King spends the morning writing a batch of letters. Some are official navy business. Others go to friends in his hometown and Annapolis classmates. His family is another story.
That afternoon, the admiral’s barge ferries him into Newport, where he walks up Church Street past the spire of Trinity Church. As is his custom when in port, he drops by the Newport Reading Room, the town’s most venerable private club, for a glass of sherry. He is still in a pensive mood when he returns to the Augusta and hears its bugler signal the lowering of the colors at sunset. King has always appreciated a sense of history, and in his cabin aboard the darkened ship, he selects a title from his collection of biographies and histories and reads himself to sleep.
The barren limbs on numerous maple, elm, and oak trees along the avenues bespeak the obvious: it is late fall in the nation’s capital. The cherry trees—a 1912 gift from the people of Japan—surrounding the Tidal Basin and the nearly completed Jefferson Memorial are also stark and black in the low-angled December sun. Washington itself is in a state of denial as to its increasing role at the center of a rapidly expanding federal government.
As is usual on a Saturday, Rear Admiral Chester W. Nimitz is in his office at the Navy Department Building, a massive structure that sprawls almost four blocks along the north side of the Mall. It is the admiral’s turn for a tour of shore duty, and since 1939 he has been chief of the Bureau of Navigation.
Evening brings a respite that Nimitz always embraces—dinner at home with his family. He lives with his wife, Catherine; youngest daughter, Mary; daughter-in-law, Joan; and an eighteen-month-old granddaughter. They occupy an apartment at 2222 Q Street, a block from Rock Creek Park in one direction and the embassies of Massachusetts Avenue in the other. Part of the admiral’s daily ritual is to take Freckles, the family’s cocker spaniel, for his evening walk along a route that takes them past the Japanese embassy.
The two older Nimitz girls, Kate and Nancy, live across the hall. The only member of the family not present is the admiral’s son. A 1936 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, young Chet is halfway around the world, assigned to the submarine Sturgeon operating out of the Philippines.
At Sea, Two Hundred Miles West of Pearl Harbor
The weather is not cooperating. Task Force 8, comprising the aircraft carrier Enterprise, three heavy cruisers, and nine destroyers, pounds eastward into heavy seas. On the bridge of the carrier, Vice Admiral William F. Halsey, Jr., is surprised that the weather is the only thing he is fighting. Halsey has issued orders that Enterprise and its escorts operate under war conditions.
Nine days earlier, his ships left Pearl Harbor for a destination known only to the admiral and his closest aides. Once at sea, Enterprise welcomed its own air squadrons but also took aboard twelve Grumman F4F Wildcat fighters belonging to Marine Fighting Squadron 211. Its commander told his pilots to expect two days of maneuvers, and no one threw more than a shaving kit and a change of Skivvies into his cockpit.
The marine pilots took off from Enterprise for their secret destination in the early dawn of December 4 without incident. Delivery accomplished, Task Force 8 headed back toward Pearl Harbor, not knowing that hundreds of miles to the north a huge Japanese carrier force was roughly paralleling its eastward course.
Halsey planned to dock in Pearl Harbor today, but buffeting winds and waves crack a seam in one of his destroyers and slow refueling operations. The admiral takes it in stride, but his crews are less understanding. A Saturday arrival in Hawaii would salvage a portion of their weekend ashore. Now those off-duty on Enterprise will have to be content to gather on the hangar deck and watch Gary Cooper in Sergeant York. Task Force 8 is rescheduled to enter Pearl Harbor about noon on Sunday, December 7.
In time of war, would we be content like the turtle to withdraw into our own shell and see an enemy supersede us in every outlying part, usurp our commerce, and destroy our influence as a nation throughout the world?
—FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT, Assistant Secretary of the Navy, 1913
—Annapolis, Class of 1897
The glistening white bow of the American battleship Oregon drove through wave after towering wave as the big ship clawed its way south through heavy seas. Its jack staff at the bow routinely disappeared as fully fifteen feet of blue water broke on the forward turret and threw white spray nearly the length of the ship. It was April 1898, and as the Oregon thundered toward the fabled Strait of Magellan, the air hung thick with rumors of war with Spain. In fact, in this era before radio communications, there was no way for the captain to know if war had already begun.
By the standards of any contemporary navy, the Oregon was a major strategic weapon. The Union Iron Works of San Francisco had laid down its keel late in 1891 as the third in a line of Indiana-class battleships. At 348 feet in length, with a beam of 69 feet and a displacement of 10,288 tons, the ship was a beefy platform for a dazzling array of firepower, including two 13-inch guns each in the main fore and after turrets.
Oregon and its older sisters, Indiana and Massachusetts, owed their existence to a belated post–Civil War awakening that the United States, having largely completed its expansion from sea to sea, should now be prepared not only to defend its interests but also to seek other territory well beyond its borders. Not everyone, however, supported this creeping American imperialism. Many avowed isolationists in Congress wanted only coastal defenses and opposed offensive, long-range battleships. The futurists in the U.S. Navy managed to paper over such disputes by calling this new generation of vessels “seagoing coastline battleships.”
In addition to its armaments, the Oregon relied on a belt of eighteen-inch-thick armor plating around its sides and thinner armor for its gun turrets and decking. The ship also had two other distinct advantages: it was fast for the time—twin screws delivered better than fifteen knots—and its spacious coal bunkers provided a range of more than six thousand miles. Heavily armed, well protected, speedy, and long-range, Oregon and its class were clearly the advent of a new generation of naval warfare. They could boast of being the first modern-era battleships of the U.S. Navy.
Among Oregon’s complement of 32 officers and 441 enlisted men were 6 green naval cadets. They were 1897 graduates of the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, but not yet full-fledged ensigns because the navy required two years of sea duty before awarding commissions. Service aboard a first-class ship such as the Oregon was a plum assignment, even if some of the old hands tended to view the flocking cadets more as nuisance gnats than budding officers.
The pulses of old salts and young greenhorns alike had quickened on March 19, 1898, as the battleship departed San Francisco and passed through the Golden Gate, its destination known only to its captain. After 4,700 miles and the traditional “crossing the equator” ceremony, Oregon steamed into Callao, Peru. But ship and crew paused there only long enough to fill the coal bunkers to the brim and secure an extra two hundred tons of coal in sacks on the decks.
Rumors were rife that they might be headed for Honolulu or even the Philippines, but as Oregon cleared the harbor, it turned south toward the stormy seas around Cape Horn at the tip of South America. By the time another three thousand miles had fallen astern, the Strait of Magellan beckoned, and an icy southerly gale whipped the battering waves ever higher. “Under the onslaught of these gigantic seas,” recalled naval cadet William D. Leahy, “the ship dove, trembled, shook them off, and dove again.” According to Leahy, “We said she smelled the Spanish Fleet.”
Cadet Leahy’s Irish grandparents, Daniel and Mary Egan Leahy, immigrated to the United States in 1836 and settled in Massachusetts. A son, Michael Arthur, was born two years later, shortly before the family moved to New Hampshire. There a second son, John Egan, joined the family. But it was in a tiny village in Dodge County, Wisconsin, just west of Milwaukee, that the Leahys put down roots.
Like so many of their generation, brothers Michael and John Leahy saw military service during the Civil War—not necessarily by choice, but out of a sense of duty. When the Thirty-fifth Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry Regiment was mustered at Milwaukee early in 1864, twenty-five-year-old Michael Leahy became captain of Company D and brother John a first lieutenant in Company C.
Wisconsin certainly had no shortage of famous units. Perhaps best known were those Wisconsin regiments that made up part of the Army of the Potomac’s stalwart Iron Brigade. No less storied was the Twenty-fourth Wisconsin. On a raw November day in 1863, the Twenty-fourth Wisconsin formed beneath Missionary Ridge outside Chattanooga, Tennessee. Union troops were trying to lift the siege of the town, but Confederate defenders were proving stubborn. Quite suddenly, without orders, Union regiments in the center of the line began to move forward up the ridge. When their wild advance was over, among the battle flags atop the crest was the standard of the Twenty-fourth Wisconsin, carried there by its eighteen-year-old “boy colonel,” Arthur MacArthur, whose son, Douglas, would spend most of his own military career trying to emulate his father’s charge.
The Thirty-fifth Wisconsin was not destined for such glory. Its service was mostly garrison duty around New Orleans and Mobile, Alabama, far from the major campaigns of the war. But such duty was not without risk. The regiment suffered only two casualties from battle, but lost 3 officers and 271 enlisted men to disease. The Leahy brothers returned from the war proud of their service, and for the rest of his life, Michael regularly attended meetings of veterans’ groups and marched in Fourth of July parades.
After his discharge, Michael studied law at the University of Michigan and earned his degree in 1868. Briefly forsaking Wisconsin, he began to practice law in the small town of Hampton, Iowa, where a Wisconsin girl thirteen years his junior, Rose Mary Hamilton, caught his eye. They married and were still living in Hampton when William Daniel Leahy, the first of their eight children, was born on May 6, 1875.
Michael and Rose were eager to return to Wisconsin, and they soon joined Michael’s brother, John, upstate in Wausau. By the time young William—he was “Bill” to just about everyone—was ready for high school, the family moved even farther north to Ashland, on the southern shore of Lake Superior.
As Bill approached his high school graduation in 1892, Michael Leahy encouraged his son to pursue a law degree at the University of Wisconsin and join him in his legal practice. Bill certainly appeared to have an aptitude for law, including an almost stoic, deliberative thought process and attention to detail, but there was something about his father’s military service—brief and unsung though it was—that intrigued him. Bill decided instead to seek an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
Congressman Thomas Lynch was impressed with the young man, but Lynch had no West Point appointments that year. He did, however, have an opening the following year at the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis. Was Leahy interested in the navy? Despite living near the wind-tossed waters of Lake Superior, Leahy, like most of the country at the time, had not given the navy much thought. During his years growing up, he and the country had focused on the U.S. Army’s exploits in the West, such as chasing the Apache leader Geronimo. But at least the Naval Academy was the military and, after all, a free education. Leahy accepted and spent the next year preparing for the entrance exams, particularly a newly added algebra requirement.
Geographically, there is nothing particularly remarkable about Maryland’s Severn River to set it apart from dozens of similar rivers, creeks, and runs that pour their waters via broad estuaries into Chesapeake Bay. Exiles from Virginia founded a settlement on the northern banks of the Severn in 1649 but soon moved to a better-protected harbor on the south shore. For a time, this was called Anne Arundel’s Towne, after the wife of Lord Baltimore, but in 1694 it became the capital of the colony of Maryland and was renamed Annapolis—not to honor Anne Arundel, but rather Princess Anne, soon to be queen of England.
Annapolis prospered as a trading center until overtaken by growing Baltimore, and then it became quite content as a political and cultural center. Its recently completed statehouse served as the temporary capitol of the fledgling United States during 1783–1784, and it was there that General George Washington tendered his resignation as commander in chief of the Continental Army.
In 1808, Fort Severn—complete with a circular rampart for about a dozen cannons to protect the town—was built on Windmill Point. War with Great Britain was on the horizon, and in September 1814 the British indeed came into the upper Chesapeake Bay in force but bypassed Annapolis in favor of the grander prize of Baltimore—only to be repulsed by the defenders of Fort McHenry.
Despite its successes during the War of 1812, the U.S. Navy languished in the postwar period. The education of a naval officer came by doing on board ship and was frequently a rather hit-or-miss affair. The senior ranks were filled with officers owing their positions more to seniority than command abilities. This changed with the presidential election of 1844. James K. Polk appointed one of the architects of his victory, fellow Democrat George Bancroft of Massachusetts, as his secretary of the navy.
Always a dapper dresser, Bancroft would become best known as a historian, but he energetically set about establishing a formal education for aspiring naval officers—something the army had begun at West Point in 1802. But where to do this was problematic. Bancroft faced general criticism—“You could no more educate sailors in a shore college than you could teach ducks to swim in a garret”—and specific assertions that attempting to convert the existing Philadelphia Naval Asylum School would be defeated by “the temptations and distractions that necessarily connect with a large and populous city.”
So Bancroft chose Fort Severn at relatively staid and quiet Annapolis. On October 19, 1845, he arranged for a transfer of the post from the army to the navy and skirted the issue of a congressional appropriation by finding funds within his budget to make the facility operational. It was hardly very grand, but fifty naval cadets and seven professors arrived on the banks of the Severn and planted the seeds of a long and noble tradition. By 1850, the school’s official name was the United States Naval Academy, but it would often be called simply “Annapolis.”
When William D. Leahy arrived on the banks of the Severn River in late May 1893, Annapolis was definitely the weaker of the two service academies, a weakness mirrored by the country’s low regard for its navy. A total of 243 naval cadets—they would not be called midshipmen until several years later—were enrolled in the fouryear program. The 1893 enrollment of West Point was 318.
But the navy was determined to lose no time in separating closet landlubbers from true sailors. By the first week of June, Leahy and a third of his incoming class of seventy-seven were aboard the venerable War of 1812–era frigate Constellation, sailing eastward across the Atlantic. Leahy was assigned to the fore-topgallant yard, working the uppermost sails atop the foremast. If he had any lingering thoughts of the green fields of West Point, he put them aside and took to this new lifestyle—allowing of course for some major adjustments. When the class of 1897 reflected on its first few weeks at sea in the academy’s first yearbook, the adjustments were clear: “Pell mell, slipping, sliding on the slanting deck, our faces distorted with the keenest anguish, we hurried to it, to give our tribute to old Ocean, and then to lie down and feel that death and dry land were the two finest things in the world.”
Constellation was scheduled to take the green-gilled cadets all the way to Europe, but stormy seas in the mid-Atlantic diverted the ship first to the Azores and then to the Madeira Islands for repairs. By the time the work was done, Constellation stood westward to return to Annapolis for the start of the academic year. Among the officers aboard supervising this new class of cadets was Lieutenant William F. Halsey, whose not-quite-teenage son, William Jr., was determined to enter Annapolis himself one day.
Once ashore, the cadets began classroom work that was grueling and heavily focused on the sciences. Courses ranged from physics, chemistry, and a full range of mathematics to navigation, seamanship, and steam engineering. Daily recitations were the usual order. There were also classes in history, international law, and each cadet’s choice of language. Leahy and most of his classmates wisely chose French, then the international language of diplomacy and commerce. The only major drawback in the curriculum, Leahy later observed, was a lack of instruction in writing and speaking proper English. His preparation in that regard was limited to some spelling and the memorization of a few poems he quickly forgot.
His physical looks became rugged but hardly dashing as he grew to five feet ten inches in height. His gray eyes, under brownish hair that quickly began to recede above his brow, were more evaluating than sparkling. Those who didn’t know him well would later claim, “There was something sinister about his owlish profile and his always solemn manner. He usually looked in his photographs as if he were forever smelling bad fish.”
As a student and an athlete at Annapolis, Leahy was solid but never stellar. He was content to play tackle on the B squad in football, and he sometimes seemed to float his way through classes. One classmate and lifelong friend, future admiral Thomas C. Hart, even recalled Leahy being “not good, a little lazy” as a student. But Hart readily acknowledged that when the chips were down or a sticky problem presented itself, someone would inevitably say, “Let’s go and ask Bill Leahy. He’s got better sense than all the rest of us put together.” That common sense seemed to radiate from Leahy’s otherwise reserved and even dour personality throughout his life, and among his classmates it earned him the nickname “the Judge.”
On June 4, 1897, William D. Leahy graduated a respectable fourteenth among the remaining forty-seven members of the class of 1897. While this relatively small number of new naval officers reflected the size of the U.S. Navy, no one should underestimate the academy’s influence on the navy’s future. Twelve of these graduates would reach flag rank and be accorded admiral’s stars. But for now, they all faced two years of sea duty and a final round of examinations before being commissioned as ensigns.
When Leahy and five of his classmates were ordered to report to the battleship Oregon, they joined the ship in Victoria, British Columbia, where it had steamed to attend festivities celebrating Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. For the sixty years of her reign, “Rule, Britannia” had been the undisputed order of the seas. But now the aging queen and her empire were facing ever-increasing competition. Germany, in particular, was busy launching a new line of steel battleships. Russia, France, and Japan were also adding warships to their fleets, and even Spain seemed determined to use its navy to hang on to the vestiges of what before the rise of Great Britain had been its global empire. Oregon itself was proof that the United States had also entered the race.
At the head of the charge for increased American naval power was the thirty-eight-year-old assistant secretary of the navy, who had cut his big teeth on sea power by writing a history of the U.S. Navy’s glories during the War of 1812. With excruciating detail of broadside weight and occasional hyperbole, Theodore Roosevelt’s bestselling The Naval War of 1812—first published in 1882—had nonetheless become so important to a reinvigoration of the American navy that at least one copy was required to be aboard every navy vessel. Roosevelt’s subsequent writing had included a well-received chronicle of American expansion across the continent, and now he seemed determined to win the United States an expanded role around the globe.
Beyond the nautical knowledge he had acquired as a historian, there was not a great deal in Roosevelt’s background to recommend him to the post of assistant secretary of the navy. But the position was a political appointment, and Roosevelt was one of many Republicans who had canvassed the country in William McKinley’s stead during the 1896 election.
After McKinley won, Roosevelt supporters shamelessly lobbied in his behalf, but McKinley was skeptical. “I hope [Roosevelt] has no preconceived plans which he would wish to drive through the moment he got in,” the president-elect fretted to Roosevelt’s good friend Henry Cabot Lodge. Of course not, replied Lodge with a straight face. To another Roosevelt supporter, the peaceful McKinley admitted that he knew Roosevelt only slightly but was afraid that the New Yorker might prove “too pugnacious.”
McKinley was right to be leery on both counts, but he surrendered to the onslaught of Roosevelt lobbyists, and Roosevelt became assistant secretary of the navy in 1897. Just one week after being sworn in, he presented McKinley with a requested memorandum on fleet preparedness. For all its straightforward detail and balanced analysis, it also contained four separate warnings of possible “trouble with Cuba.”
Trouble with Cuba really meant trouble with Spain, which had ruled the island, despite frequent uprisings and occasional interruptions, since the days of Christopher Columbus. The United States had expressed interest in the island for at least half a century, and now there was once again a popular uprising under way that in some minds argued for American intervention.
Later that summer, as Leahy was graduating from Annapolis, Roosevelt told a gathering at the Naval War College, “To be prepared for war is the most effectual means to promote peace.” About the same time, Roosevelt struck up a friendship with a navy commodore named George Dewey.
As a young lieutenant under Admiral David Farragut during the Civil War, Dewey had watched in awe as Farragut’s wooden ships ran past Confederate forts to capture New Orleans. Later, he missed Farragut’s famous utterance, “Damn the torpedoes; full speed ahead!” as the admiral steamed into Mobile Bay, but Dewey always hoped that a similar situation might present itself in his own career, and Roosevelt wanted to make it possible.
To Theodore Roosevelt, the best part of his job was when the secretary of the navy, the mild and grandfatherly John D. Long, took one of his leisurely vacations. Then Roosevelt became acting secretary. The day before Long’s return to Washington in late September 1897, Acting Secretary Roosevelt discovered to his horror that another commodore had been recommended to command the Asiatic Squadron instead of Dewey. Roosevelt swung into action, arranging for a senator to speak to McKinley on Dewey’s behalf, and had a presidential memorandum requesting Dewey’s appointment on Long’s desk by the time he arrived back in his office the next morning. Long read it and fumed, as he personally favored the other commodore, but he could hardly argue with the president. Commodore George Dewey soon departed for Hong Kong to become Theodore Roosevelt’s man in the Far East.
With the Philippines in Dewey’s crosshairs, Roosevelt turned his attention to Cuba. Ironically, it was Secretary Long who suggested that the battleship Maine be dispatched from Key West to Havana as a friendly act of diplomatic courtesy. The Spanish in Cuba could hardly refuse, but tensions were such that the Maine’s captain refused to permit his crew shore leave upon the ship’s arrival.
On the evening of February 15, 1898, as the Maine rode at anchor in Havana harbor, a gigantic explosion rocked the ship, almost obliterating the forward third of the vessel. Maine sank quickly, taking 266 men with it. Whether this explosion came from a mine or other device external to the ship or from an undetected fire in one of its own coal bunkers adjacent to a powder magazine continues to be hotly debated. At the time, especially to those anxious for war with Spain, the only acceptable explanation was sabotage.
On the afternoon of February 25, with Secretary Long conveniently out of the office, Roosevelt cabled Commodore Dewey in Hong Kong to keep his squadron full of coal and, in the event of a declaration of war with Spain, take offensive operations against the Spanish fleet in the Philippines. When Long returned the next morning, he reported that “Roosevelt, in his precipitate way, has come very near causing more of an explosion than happened to the Maine.” Significantly, however, Long did not countermand Roosevelt’s orders, and as the momentum toward war swept beyond his control a few weeks later, he ordered the Oregon to hurry from the West Coast to join the main Atlantic fleet.
The rush to war also overtook the president. On Monday, April 11, 1898, bolstered by public opinion, William McKinley sent a war message to Capitol Hill. Enough isolationists remained there that it took a week’s debate before Congress declared war on Spain on April 19—exactly one year to the day since Theodore Roosevelt had joined the Navy Department.
William D. Leahy and his crewmates on the Oregon heard the news from the harbormaster in Rio de Janeiro on April 30. Having weathered the Pacific gales and safely transited the Strait of Magellan, Oregon was making its way north along the Atlantic coast of South America. Rumors were rife that four Spanish cruisers and three torpedo-boat destroyers were lurking ahead. Oregon’s white paint was hastily covered with dull gray and its decks cleared for action. By the time the ship called at Bahia (now Salvador), Brazil, shore gossip was that the Spanish fleet had eluded the U.S. North Atlantic Squadron and captured Philadelphia and Boston.
The truth was even more astounding, and it came from the other side of the world. The nation that had rushed so gaily to war was stunned by the speed and totality of its first victory. Commodore Dewey’s Asiatic Squadron of two heavy cruisers—Olympia and Baltimore, each carrying four 8-inch guns—three light cruisers, and a gunboat had boldly sailed into Manila Bay. Five times, the squadron paraded past the anchored Spanish fleet with guns blazing. “At 7:35 a.m.,” reported Dewey, “I ceased firing and withdrew the squadron for breakfast.” By the time he returned to the attack, “the Spanish flagship and almost all the Spanish fleet were in flames.” Remarkably, no one on the American side was killed, and only seven were wounded.
George Dewey was immediately promoted to rear admiral, and his name quickly became a household word throughout the United States. Dewey had found his long-sought glory, but he also knew full well that Theodore Roosevelt had given him the opportunity. Another in Roosevelt’s inner circle, naval strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan, called the Battle of Manila Bay “a grand victory” and predicted that it “would go down into history as the greatest naval battle on record.”
It was hardly that. But Mahan was becoming quite a cult figure when it came to projecting naval power. Many a junior officer would eagerly devour his assessment that “the result of this engagement plainly indicates that a cool-headed commander who gets into the fight first and proceeds to business has the best of the battle from the start.”
Things would not be quite so easy when the Oregon encountered the Spanish fleet off Cuba. Four cruisers and three torpedo-boat destroyers had indeed sailed from Spain and were now anchored in the harbor at Santiago, on the island’s southeastern shore. Oregon joined the battleships of the North Atlantic Squadron at Key West on May 26, having steamed more than fourteen thousand miles in sixty-nine days since leaving San Francisco.
To some, transferring a battleship from one coast to the other in that short of a time was a remarkable achievement. To others, the Oregon’s circuitous race around South America was taken as strong evidence for the need to build the Panama Canal. To no one’s surprise, Theodore Roosevelt was among those standing in the forefront arguing for the canal’s construction and its firm military control by the United States. Determined to get into the fray personally, he had just resigned as assistant secretary of the navy in order to recruit a regiment of volunteers and join the war.
After taking on coal at Key West, the Oregon proceeded with the principal ships of the North Atlantic Squadron, as well as those of the roving Flying Squadron, and took up blockade positions off Santiago. Leahy’s post was in the fore 13-inch gun turret. Acting Rear Admiral William T. Sampson was in overall command, with Commodore Winfield Scott Schley in command of the Flying Squadron. Neither was destined to be much remembered, let alone accorded undisputed fame. On the navy side of the war, George Dewey seems to have had a monopoly on that. And this would not be Manila Bay. Admiral Don Pascual Cervera y Topete knew that he was badly outnumbered and outgunned, but when ordered to do so, he would fight. His four cruisers displaced about seven thousand tons each and had 11-and 10-inch guns. One-on-one, they were no match for the Oregon or its sister Indiana, but Cervera hoped that in the confusion of battle, at least a couple of his ships might escape.
On the morning of July 3, 1898, with the Caribbean weather looking bright and fair, Admiral Sampson was momentarily absent, having taken his flagship, the battleship New York, to confer with army forces that had been landing on the island. Aboard the remaining ships, a month’s boredom had set in. It was a quiet Sunday morning. Leahy and most of the junior officers on the Oregon were in their quarters getting their badly laundered white uniforms ready for inspection. Suddenly the battle gong rang, much to everyone’s surprise and displeasure “at the idea of a battle stations drill on Sunday.” One of Leahy’s fellow officers declared that “he would not move an inch until the idiot who set off the alarm had the recall sounded.” But then came the rattle of drums beating to quarters, and one of Leahy’s messmates ran down the quarterdeck shouting, “We have them now for sure, the fleet is coming out.”
Cervera’s flagship, the black-hulled Infanta Maria Teresa, led the way with his admiral’s pennant flying. Leahy later claimed that the Oregon fired the first shot at the flagship as it cleared the harbor and made a run to the west, followed by the rest of the Spanish fleet. The American ships steamed toward the coast to pin the Spaniards against the shore. Oregon was instrumental in forcing Maria Teresa to run aground as it began to burn. Texas and Iowa took hits from the remaining Spanish ships but successfully fought off the Spanish torpedo-boat destroyers. Meanwhile, the Cristóbal Colón, arguably the fastest ship on either side, spied an opening to escape west and surged past Oregon as Leahy’s ship finished off the Maria Teresa.
Oregon and Commodore Schley’s cruiser, Brooklyn, quickly gave chase, and with thick black smoke pouring from their stacks, the three ships churned westward. After several hours and some sixty miles, two shells from Leahy’s forward turret neatly straddled the Cristóbal Colón. Its captain turned toward shore, ran his ship aground, and struck his flag. By the time Admiral Sampson arrived off Santiago in the New York, the battle was over. The Spanish fleet had been destroyed with only two American casualties, one man killed and one wounded. At least six hundred Spanish sailors perished.
In his typical fashion, Leahy described the Battle of Santiago in his journal in crisp, factual language—almost as though he had been a detached observer. Others painted a far different picture of Leahy “standing by his turret, jumping up and down, slapping his leg with his cap, and yelling his head off.” Quiet, reserved Bill Leahy was human after all. What’s more, even though he would spend the next forty years championing the might of battleships, he had just fought his one and only naval battle.
—Annapolis, Class of 1901
Shortly before midnight on the evening of February 8, 1904, ten sleek Japanese destroyers slipped quietly into the Russian naval base at Port Arthur (now Lüshun), China. Relying on recently developed Whitehead torpedoes, they unleashed a devastating attack on seven battleships and seven cruisers of the Imperial Russian Fleet. It was a stunning Japanese victory. It was also the result of a surprise attack. Diplomatic relations between the two countries were strained and in the process of being terminated, but no state of war yet existed.
To Japan’s displeasure, Russia had begun flexing its muscles in this part of the world during the 1890s. As Japan jousted with China over Manchuria and the Korean peninsula, Russia used the disputes as a cover to seize Port Arthur. Its protected harbor sat at the tip of a small peninsula jutting out from the Chinese coast just west of Korea, strategically near the sea-lanes linking Korea, China, and Japan. When Russia demanded a formal lease from China that included the right to connect Port Arthur to the Trans-Siberian Railway, Japan’s displeasure deepened. Tsar Nicholas II already had his port on the Pacific at Vladivostok, some twelve hundred miles to the north, and Japan viewed Russia’s presence at Port Arthur as an unacceptable intrusion into its sphere of influence.
The destroyers that attacked Port Arthur showed Japan’s resolve to do something about it. All had been built in England between 1899 and 1902. Japan, as yet, had no major shipyards of its own capable of building steel warships, and Admiral Heihachiro Togo justified the surprise attack by citing the need to conserve limited naval resources. Head-to-head combat or a lengthy blockade would quickly sap his strength.
The Russians suffered a terrible setback—three of the tsar’s biggest ships were badly damaged. The battleship Retvizan had a gaping hole in its side. The cruiser Pallada glowed red from fires in its coal bunkers. And the battleship Tsarevitch, arguably the most powerful in the Russian fleet, sat ignominiously in the mud at the entrance to the inner harbor, its bulkheads shattered and steering compartment flooded. Perhaps most important, the tsar’s swagger in the Far East had been seriously humbled.
Fifteen hundred miles to the south at Cavite in the Philippines—now an American naval base thanks to Admiral Dewey—the U.S. cruiser Cincinnati was effectively a neutral, but hardly a disinterested, party to what had just happened. Cincinnati was only ten years old, but at 306 feet in length and with a displacement of 3,200 tons, it was already inferior to the newer cruisers coming down the ways. Nonetheless, the ship was immediately ordered to run north to Shanghai and then cross the Yellow Sea to the Korean port of Chemulpo (now Inchon) to assess the situation.
Entering the harbor at Chemulpo, the Cincinnati found ample evidence that the Japanese had also attacked Russian ships at anchor there. A Japanese torpedo boat menacingly watched the Cincinnati’s arrival, but the American cruiser anchored among the warships of other neutral nations without incident. Standing his watch on the Cincinnati’s bridge was a recently commissioned ensign named Ernest J. King. For a young officer determined to make his mark, this was a ringside seat to the start of the Russo-Japanese War.
Ernest Joseph King came from a line of builders. His father, James Clydesdale King, was born in Scotland in 1848. James’s father died when he was nine, and his mother, a destitute widow with five sons and a daughter, immigrated to the United States to join her brother in Cleveland. James grew up on the shores of Lake Erie. He worked the schooners that plied the Great Lakes, but such employment was seasonal due to the icebound winters and he soon switched to bridge building as a more stable occupation.
Joseph Keam was a master woodworker for the Royal Navy on the docks of Plymouth, England, before iron-hulled steamships cut into his livelihood. He, too, sought brighter prospects in America and took his wife and four eligible daughters to Cleveland in 1872. There he found refinery work with the Standard Oil Company. Their daughter Elizabeth, “Bessie” as she was known, married James King in Cleveland in 1876. The newlyweds traveled by rail to the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia for their honeymoon.
For several years James followed bridge construction wherever it was available, but such itinerant work made Bessie uneasy. After their first son died in infancy, Bessie urged James to find permanent work closer to home. He took a job in a railroad repair shop in Lorain, Ohio, about twenty miles west of Cleveland. There, in a small cottage near Lake Erie, Ernest Joseph King was born on November 23, 1878. The family moved about some, but Lorain would always be home.
There was never any doubt that young Ernest was his father’s son. The boy grew up surrounded by the greasy smells and clanging iron of his father’s workplace. Engineers would boost the lad into their cabs as they shuttled locomotives around the yards, and rough-cut workers gladly shared the intricacies of pistons, gears, and steam-driven machinery with him. Whatever inborn qualities of forthrightness and obstinacy Ernest may have inherited from his father and grandfather Keam, they were no doubt accentuated by exposure to this straightforward, no-nonsense group of workingmen.
Diplomacy, tact, and forbearance were not words to be associated with Ernest King, even at a young age. When his mother once scolded him for expressing his dislike of a neighbor’s pumpkin pie in front of the hostess, seven-year-old Ernest held his ground. “It’s true,” he insisted, “I don’t like it.” Absolute candor, no matter how rude or insulting, became his trademark. “If I didn’t agree,” King later reminisced, “I said so.”
His father could be just as stubborn. When Ernest grandly announced that he was quitting school after eighth grade to get a job, James King relented, but with the stipulation that the boy work at least a year without changing his mind. Ernest found work in a shop making typesetting equipment, but when fall came and his friends trudged back to school, he had second thoughts. His father held firm. They had an agreement and Ernest would complete his year of employment. By the following autumn, Ernest was all too glad to enroll in high school in Lorain.
During his sophomore year, Ernest almost died of typhoid fever. His mother was ill herself and had taken her younger children to live with a sister in Cleveland. An elderly German woman nursed Ernest back to health—calling him “Yonny”—and he would visit her in later years when he returned to Lorain. His mother died the following spring, but by then Ernest was content living alone with his father and he seems to have taken her passing with little pause.
Instead, he began to focus on a career beyond the machine shop. From a local Civil War veteran, King borrowed book after book about the men and battles of that relatively recent conflict. It was exciting reading and it added to his interest in the military, which had been piqued by a magazine article about the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis. At some point—never mind that he had once been horribly seasick on Lake Erie—Ernest confided to his father his ambition to attend.
James King talked with his congressman, Winfield Scott Kerr of Ohio’s 14th District, when Kerr came to Lorain to campaign for reelection in the summer of 1896. Each congressman handled his academy appointments differently, some handing them out to sons of favored supporters, others insisting on a strict competitive process. Since James King certainly had no political clout, father and son were pleased when Kerr invited Ernest to take competitive exams the following year.
Ernest spent his senior year preparing for the exams, and after delivering the valedictory address to his Lorain graduating class of thirteen, he embarked on the first journey of his life away from home—fifty miles to Congressman Kerr’s hometown of Mansfield, Ohio—to vie for the appointment to Annapolis. By now six feet one-half inches tall and a lean 135 pounds, King passed the physical evaluation with no trouble, and when the results of the academic tests were announced, he stood first among the thirty applicants. Ernest J. King was headed for Annapolis.
If young King had reservations, he could hardly let them show among the Lorain townspeople, to whom he had become somewhat of a hero simply by applying for such a far-off adventure. (There was also a girl, Leona Doane, and they parted with an understanding.) James King, however, was not so certain of the outcome. He bought his son a round-trip ticket to Annapolis—just in case.
Ernest J. King arrived at the Naval Academy on August 15, 1897—ten weeks after William D. Leahy had graduated and departed to serve on the Oregon. He took the usual entrance exams to validate his appointment and joined eighty-seven classmates in the class of 1901.
As he would always do, King established his personal goals for Annapolis early. When an overbearing upperclassman accused him of bragging that he would be first in his class, King denied it. Another member of King’s class, future admiral Adolphus Andrews, overheard this and promptly asserted that he intended to be first. The upperclassman then proceeded to berate Andrews for his presumptuousness and the incident gave King pause. If he graduated first in his class, King reasoned, he might become too visible for comfort during his career. Superiors’ expectations might be too high. But if he graduated third or fourth, he would still have the prestige without as much of the scrutiny. It was a typical King rationalization, and he would take similar positions in similar situations throughout his career.
There were no Christmas leaves that first year. King’s first two roommates “bilged” and dropped out. Then came the war with Spain. First classmen were graduated immediately with no more ceremony than the usual dinner formation and dispatched to ships throughout the fleet. The junior class was ordered to sea after completing annual exams. But the third and fourth classmen were judged to be still in the nuisance category and were ordered home on leave until fall.
King initially took this in stride, but while en route to Lorain, he stopped off with a classmate at his home in Bethesda, Maryland. Quite by accident, the two cadets learned that somehow one of their other classmates had wrangled orders to go to sea. Sea duty in wartime for a fourth-class cadet? If that was true, King certainly was not going to be left out. He and his friend put on their dress uniforms and presented themselves in downtown Washington at the Navy Department, then occupying a building adjacent to the White House.
War creates confusion, and out of it King and four classmates were assigned to the cruiser San Francisco, then serving as flagship of the Northern Patrol Squadron. (One might well thank Theodore Roosevelt for conferring this opportunity on young men determined to get into the war, but Roosevelt himself had already resigned as assistant secretary.) The San Francisco proved a heady learning experience for all concerned, especially when unknowing cadets were ordered to perform seemingly routine naval maneuvers. It didn’t help that cadets like King were quickly certain that they knew all there was to know about seamanship.
At anchor off Provincetown, Massachusetts, King was sent ashore in a small oar-driven boat to fetch foodstuffs. Returning, he was ordered to stop at the cruiser Dixie. In typical King fashion, he decided that he could save time if he came alongside the Dixie bow to stern rather than turning about and coming alongside bow to bow as was established procedure. The coxswain in the boat with him expressed his disapproval, but King was certain that he knew best. Naturally, when King climbed the ladder to board Dixie, the executive officer, Lieutenant Hugo Osterhaus, greeted him with a sharp rebuke: “Don’t you know how to come alongside a ship?” King replied that he didn’t want to turn around twice in getting to the San Francisco, but Osterhaus wasn’t persuaded. One way or the other, he would remember this brash cadet. To King’s credit, there were other occasions when he gratefully deferred to experienced seamen for advice.
Initially, the San Francisco and its squadron were assigned the task of guarding New England against attacks by a rumored Spanish fleet. When it became clear that this threat was illusory, San Francisco and its consorts sailed south for Key West. By the time they were ready for action off Cuba, the main Atlantic fleet had won its smashing victory at Santiago, and there was little to do but blockade the island’s northern coast, including Havana.
On August 12, King was the junior officer of the deck when the San Francisco was ordered close to the entrance of Havana harbor in anticipation of ships attempting to escape the blockade. The cruiser came under fire from Spanish shore batteries and replied in kind. Thoughts of another Santiago quickly evaporated as no ships appeared, but King had seen his first action. By nightfall, an armistice was in place and the short little war was over.
Back in Key West, the San Francisco’s naval cadets were suddenly deadweight. They were granted immediate leave before reporting back to Annapolis to start their second year. King hurried home to Lorain and found himself even more of a local hero. Lorain’s own Company A of the Fifth Ohio Regiment had made it only as far as Tampa before the war ended, but Ernest King had been in the “action off Havana.” He and his shipmates were given the same medal as the victors at Santiago. King returned to Annapolis that fall with two other mementos of the experience—an anchor tattooed on his left arm and a small dagger on his right.
After such an adventure, the ensuing academic year and the practice cruise of the following summer were rather mundane, even if the latter took him across the Atlantic to Plymouth, England, on the sailing ship Monongahela. While there, King visited cousins from his mother’s family and was still raving years later about high tea with strawberries and Devonshire cream.
Monongahela was becalmed en route back to Annapolis and arrived barely in time for the start of the academic year. It hardly mattered to King, as his encyclopedic mind was well suited to the heavily rote teaching methods. As for the engineering courses, he easily absorbed them after his apprentice-like experiences in the Ohio railroad shops.
Not much of an athlete, King nonetheless played B-squad football for four years (the team was called the “Hustlers”) and delighted in ice-skating on his own when the river froze. He gained thirty pounds, and by the end of his third year, he had set his sights on his final objective, to wear the four stripes of a cadet lieutenant commander and command the battalion. To accomplish it, King needed to win the respect and confidence of both his subordinates and his superiors. Such leadership is sometimes a fine line, but King demonstrated it and became the top cadet commander in his class.
But that is not to say that King was without vices. Chasing women and smoking cigarettes almost did him in. His “understanding” with Leona Doane from Lorain was terminated sometime during his third year when Leona wrote that she intended to marry another man. King replied with the utmost grace and good thoughts toward her and may have been secretly relieved. By that time, there was another young woman who had caught his eye.
Mattie Egerton was described as “the most beautiful, the most sought-after young woman at Annapolis,” and King determined to be first among the seekers. They both loved to dance and delighted in each other’s physical presence. They soon made plans to marry once King completed his two years of sea duty and won his commission.
His smoking violations were another matter. Smoking was strictly forbidden at the academy, although many sneaked habitual cigarettes—a practice that in time would fill the wardrooms of navy ships throughout the world with a blue haze. On report twice for smoking, King was in danger of being expelled—battalion commander though he might be—when an academy officer caught him smoking a third time in an Annapolis café. The officer settled for a sharp dressing-down, and King, who once again showed little regard for sound advice, would spend a lifetime being photographed with a cigarette in his hand.
In addition to his final-year responsibilities as battalion commander, King was one of the editors of the Lucky Bag yearbook. How much input King had into the quote chosen for his own biography is debatable, but it fit: “A man so various that he seems to be,/ Not one, but all mankind’s epitome.” Even more telling were the assertions “Hops,—well, yes!” and “Temper?—don’t fool with nitroglycerin.”
Then there were the nicknames. It was a well-established tradition at the Naval Academy that every midshipman had to have at least one and in some cases several. These nicknames frequently stuck with an officer throughout his career, although those privileged to use them were usually limited to his classmates. King was “Dolly” for his handsome good looks and cherubic red cheeks—a name he despised and that rarely surfaced post-Annapolis—and “Rey,” Spanish for “king,” which he found much more to his liking.
On Graduation Day 1901, sixty-seven cadets of the class of 1901 marched to receive their provisional diplomas. True to his plan, King was fourth in his class. He still had the unused return railroad ticket his father had bought him four years before. His father made the trip from Lorain to see the event and listen to Theodore Roosevelt, now vice president of the United States, give the commencement address.
Three short months in Cuba and a few hours on San Juan Hill had propelled Roosevelt to the governorship of New York. Two years later, William McKinley, who had initially balked at Roosevelt’s appointment as assistant secretary of the navy, agreed to take him on as vice president and get him out of New York politics. Within three months of King’s graduation, an assassin’s bullet would make Roosevelt president.
As King departed Annapolis for his first assignment, there was one other thing he may have noticed. Annapolis was changing. The dismal cadet quarters left over from the Civil War were being replaced by modern Bancroft Hall. Streets in town were being paved and trolleys beginning to appear. Each incoming class brought an increased number of cadets. Annapolis was changing because America was changing and had come to realize, on the waters of Manila Bay and off Santiago, that its presence in the world depended on a modern, well-led, and well-equipped navy.
From Annapolis, King began his required two years of sea duty before being commissioned with assignments aboard the training frigate Constellation and survey ship Eagle. In the spring of 1902, he was ordered to the newly commissioned battleship Illinois, which was bound for Europe as the U.S. flagship in European waters. Among the highlights King experienced was a grand review of naval might representing sixteen nations that assembled off Spithead, England, for the coronation of Edward VII. The Illinois moored alongside the German battleship Kaiser Friedrich III, and King had plenty of opportunities to inspect the competition.
By the time the Illinois made its way around Europe and to the Caribbean for the winter 1902–1903 fleet maneuvers, King faced the sort of political quandary that he seems to have routinely imposed on himself in an effort to advance his career. He was still six months away from taking final exams to be commissioned an ensign, and no less than the captain of Illinois advised him to remain aboard. Initially, King agreed, but then he became aware of a vacancy on the cruiser Cincinnati. He seized on it because the smaller complement would permit him to command a ship’s division and serve as a watch officer before he was commissioned an ensign. Illinois’s captain was not pleased, but King went on his way.
King’s forty-man division on Cincinnati gave him his first direct command and put to the test whether or not he could be stern yet just. By the time his ship reached its station with the Asiatic Squadron in the Far East, King had passed both his commissioning exams as an ensign and his unofficial leadership review by his men. When the enlisted sailors of his division gathered for a group portrait in Shanghai, they insisted that King join them—an unusual compliment that he savored. He had indeed managed to be strict but fair.
Yet King encountered one demon that almost ruined his career. Liquor was then legal aboard ship and unlimited on liberties ashore. Drinking was a fairly common ritual to relieve the boredom, but not everyone could handle it. Returning late from liberty in Shanghai, King staggered aboard the Cincinnati clearly drunk and disorderly. When the captain recorded the offense in King’s record, King took his usual approach of splitting hairs and debated whether he had been “a few” or “several” hours late.
Two months later, he was late again for a special duty, but by this time the Cincinnati had a new captain. This was Commander Hugo Osterhaus, who well remembered Mr. King from the coming-alongside-in-the-opposing-direction incident off Provincetown some years before. This time he would show no mercy. “Ensign King is a young and promising officer,” Osterhaus wrote in King’s next fitness report, “and it would be unjust to him to overlook an offense of this nature.” Thereafter, King was never late for an assignment, no matter how much carousing he had done the night before.
While on station in the Far East, Cincinnati made the rounds of port calls from Hong Kong to Shanghai to Yokohama, as well as Chefoo (now Yantai, China), some seventy-five miles south of the Russian base at Port Arthur. Western powers routinely called at Chinese and Japanese ports in those days, and at 37° north latitude Chefoo was a favorite summer rendezvous and training ground where the Asiatic Squadron could escape the heat of the tropics.
Early in December 1903, three battleships and four cruisers of the squadron, including the Cincinnati, were suddenly ordered to steam for Hawaii at top speed. Seasonal gales in the Central Pacific lashed the ships, but they made the run in record time. Even their commander did not learn the reason for the sprint until some years later. President Theodore Roosevelt wished to see just how quickly the squadron might come east should trouble develop with Latin American countries over his interest in controlling the route of the proposed Panama Canal. Six weeks later, King and the Cincinnati were back in the Philippines when Japanese destroyers struck the Russian fleet at Port Arthur.
Following Japan’s surprise attack at Port Arthur, the Russo-Japanese war did not go well for Russia. Its surviving capital ships fought minimal sea engagements in the neighboring waters with only limited success. Japan invaded Korea and laid siege to Port Arthur. As Russia struggled to stay in the conflict, a major problem was supplying its ships and armies by rail across the expanse of Siberia. By January 1905, Port Arthur, along with the remaining ships of Russia’s First Pacific Squadron, fell to the Japanese. A horrific land battle followed at Mukden (now Shenyang), China, with upwards of 35,000 killed and 100,000 wounded on both sides. Another 20,000 Russian troops were captured as the Russian army abandoned the field and made a disorganized retreat northward.
Meanwhile, in October 1904, Tsar Nicholas II dispatched his prized Baltic Fleet—now renamed the Second Pacific Squadron—halfway around the world to reenforce Port Arthur. Rear Admiral Zinovi Rozhdestvenski was in port on Madagascar when word reached him that the outpost had fallen to the Japanese. Rozhdestvenski faced a crucial decision. Should he turn around, with his only loss being pride, and return to the Baltic, or should he continue on to Vladivostok?
Rozhdestvenski chose to continue and in doing so elected to take the most direct route. This led through the South China and East China Seas and the narrow Tsushima Strait between Korea and Japan. These were hardly friendly waters. Before dawn on May 27, 1905, a heavy fog parted long enough for the Japanese to detect the Russian fleet nearing the southern entrance to the strait. Crude wireless flashed the news to Admiral Togo aboard his flagship Mikasa. His fleet was waiting at a secret anchorage at Masan Bay, Korea, just to the west.
Next came the tactics that every American naval officer would subsequently study at either Annapolis or the Naval War College. Choosing to fight one grand battle that he hoped would settle the conflict and establish complete naval superiority, Togo assembled a major force. In line astern of the Mikasa, his twelve capital ships steamed south to meet the approaching Russian fleet.
Rozhdestvenski had his ships deployed in two parallel lines, with eight lesser battleships and cruisers in the port column and his four principal battleships, including his flagship, Kniaz Suvarov, to their starboard. Togo might well have chosen simply to pass the Russian fleet on its weaker port side while going in the opposite direction and duke it out with broadsides right down the line. This may have caused some damage—quite probably to both sides—but it would have left the Japanese headed south and the Russians escaping north to Vladivostok.
Instead, Togo chose to cross the T, not once but twice. In this maneuver, the Japanese line first turned to starboard and passed across the bows of the advancing Russian columns mostly beyond gun range—the first crossing. Then Togo executed a hard U-turn to port back to the east—not in unison, which would have put his flagship in the rear instead of the van, but one ship at a time. For just a moment, the Russians thought that Fortune was smiling on them. As the Mikasa led the turn, it appeared momentarily stationary, and the Suvarov opened fire. Each of the following Japanese ships would also be sitting ducks as they made the turn.
But coming out of the turn, Togo increased speed and led his fleet back across the head of the Russian columns to cross the T again, this time at much closer range and with a withering effect on the oncoming Russian ships. In so doing, the Japanese ships could bring all of their guns to bear to starboard on the Russian lines, while the Russian ships, coming on at a right angle, could bring only their forward batteries to bear. Rozhdestvenski attempted to get his four main battleships into a line ahead of his weaker ships to protect them, but by then the damage had been done.
Of the twelve capital ships in the Russian battle line, eight were sunk and four captured. While several Japanese ships sustained major damage, Togo’s only losses were three torpedo boats and 110 sailors killed. The Russians lost nearly 12,000 men, 4,830 killed and almost 7,000 taken prisoner. The end result of the Battle of Tsushima Strait was that Tsar Nicholas II had little choice but to accept Theodore Roosevelt’s offer to broker a peace. The Japanese rejoiced in their newfound naval might, and Admiral Togo became a godlike hero.
King was impressed with Japan’s naval performance, but he also noted the empire’s proficiency in putting out a steady stream of propaganda claiming victory at every turn. Despite the bitter end for the Russians, the Japanese had also suffered some setbacks over the course of the eighteen-month conflict, including the loss of two battleships to mines. It was a lesson in tactics and politics that King would remember.
Once more back in the Philippines, King had been away from the United States for three years, two and a half aboard Cincinnati. He was anxious to return stateside, particularly when he found officers a year his junior being rotated home. His request was granted, and in June 1905 he headed home. He had certainly crisscrossed that part of the globe, but despite his later involvement with events there, Ernest J. King would never again have permanent duty in the Far East.
—Annapolis, Class of 1904
Hampton Roads, Virginia, had rarely seen such a display of naval power. After fourteen months at sea, sixteen U.S. Navy battleships were returning from a round-the-world cruise meant to demonstrate America’s military might and global reach. The architect of this endeavor, President Theodore Roosevelt, was as giddy as a schoolboy as he stood on the deck of the presidential yacht, Mayflower, and watched his Great White Fleet pass in review to the booming of twenty-one-gun salutes.
It was February 22, 1909, and the date was no coincidence—Washington’s Birthday. But more important, in less than two weeks Roosevelt would be leaving office, and he was not about to miss this exclamation point on his foreign policy. The goals for the navy that he had laid out as assistant secretary even before the dash of the Oregon were now triumphant before him.
Connecticut led the line, just as the battleship had when departing Hampton Roads in December 1907. There followed the other ships of the first division, Kansas, Minnesota, and Vermont. And then, like a grand roll call of states, the rest of the battle fleet: Georgia, Nebraska, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Louisiana, Virginia, Missouri, Ohio, Wisconsin, Illinois, Kentucky, and the lone nonstate name, Kearsarge. All were post–Spanish-American War battleships that displaced at least twice the tonnage of the sunken Maine—proof positive of Roosevelt’s rush to naval power.
The only slight frustration about this thundering parade was that the weather was not cooperating with the moment. A wintry gray sky shed incessant drizzle as Roosevelt in top hat and dark overcoat clambered aboard the Connecticut to extend personal congratulations to the flagship’s officers and crew. They assembled on the foredeck below the forward 12-inch gun turret, but as the president started to climb onto the base of the turret to address them, he slipped on the rain-slick surface. Sailors caught him and boosted him up to the makeshift platform as cowboys might push a dude up on a horse. Unfazed as usual, Roosevelt launched into a rousing round of congratulations and assured the assembled sailors, “Those who perform the feat again can but follow in your footsteps.”
Out of hearing range on the nearby Kansas, Ensign William F. Halsey, Jr., stood at attention. He was delighted to be home. The world cruise had been an eye-opener, but Bill, as his friends called him, had a girl waiting. He had “bombarded her with souvenirs and ardent letters from every port,” but since there was plenty of stateside competition for her hand, he was anxious to affirm where he stood.
Still, Halsey had not spent the cruise pining away. He and his shipmates had been the toast of every port of call from Rio de Janeiro to Yokohama, and they had taken full advantage of it. Always one to embrace the social scene, Halsey later confessed, “We needed the stretches at sea to rest from the hospitality ashore.”
Standing at attention on neighboring battleships were some of Halsey’s Annapolis contemporaries. Lieutenant Harold R. Stark, class of 1903, and Passed Midshipman Raymond A. Spruance, class of 1907, stood on the Minnesota. Ensign Husband E. Kimmel, Halsey’s close friend and a classmate from 1904, watched from the Georgia. By the time another such gathering of naval power occurred, Halsey would command the fleet, and two of those officers would be disgraced. The third would be his rival.
Bill Halsey came from a line sprinkled with sailors and at least one pirate. He described these forebears as “big, violent men, impatient of the law, and prone to strong drink and strong language.” One of them, John Halsey, was granted a privateer’s commission by the colonial governor of Massachusetts during Queen Anne’s War (1702–1713). Among his escapades was a ferocious attack on four ships at once, capturing two in the process. Captain John indiscriminately continued such activity long after his privateer’s commission expired, thus becoming a pirate.
A century later, another Halsey, Eliphalet, captained the first Long Island whaler to round Cape Horn and make for the South Pacific whaling grounds. Other Halseys followed Eliphalet to sea, but Charles Henry Halsey chose to remain securely on land as first a lawyer and then an Episcopal clergyman. He married well—Eliza Gracie King was the granddaughter of the Federalist politician Rufus King—but Charles died young when he fell out of a window while inspecting the construction of a rectory. Eliza was left with a brood of six or seven children (the record is not clear), including two-year-old William Frederick Halsey.
Eliza settled in Elizabeth, New Jersey, to raise her fatherless children, but it was a tough lot. Friends repeatedly tried to help, and when Charles’s former law partner, George M. Robeson, was appointed secretary of the navy in 1869, William, by now about fifteen, announced that he would like to go to the U.S. Naval Academy. Robeson made the necessary arrangements, giving William a vacant slot from Louisiana, and he proceeded to graduate from Annapolis in the class of 1873.
After William Halsey advanced to lieutenant in 1880, he married Anne Masters Brewster, a childhood friend who traced her roots back to the Brewsters of Plymouth Colony. Shortly after the wedding, the bridegroom reported for a lengthy sea tour, but not before Anne was pregnant. On October 30, 1882, in her father’s house in Elizabeth, Anne gave birth to William Frederick Halsey, Jr. By the time the child’s father returned from sea, the boy was two and his head was ringed with long golden curls. Much to Anne’s chagrin, Lieutenant Halsey promptly marched his namesake to the barbershop.
The usual naval assignments, with resulting moves about the country, followed, but the Halseys’ happiest times may have been when William Sr. was stationed at the Naval Academy as an instructor in physics and chemistry. Certainly, it was during those years of living in close proximity to Annapolis and savoring its daily rituals that young William—still called “Willie”—expressed his desire to attend on his own. Characteristically, he took matters into his own hands when he was fourteen and wrote a rather rambling letter directly to president-elect William McKinley requesting a presidential appointment. Addressing McKinley by his Civil War rank of “Major,” young Halsey confessed, “I… have always wanted to enter the Navy.”
Both a strict disciplinarian and a keen academic, William Frederick Halsey, Sr., set a high standard for his son. He had enrolled Willie in a boarding school, Swarthmore Grammar outside Philadelphia, in hopes of readying him for the academy. When the letter to McKinley showed no promise, William Sr. nonetheless ratcheted up the preparation and sent his son to a special prep school in the Annapolis area. Grandly known as Buck Wilmer University, it was run by a retired naval officer—Buck Wilmer himself—for the express purpose of preparing prospective appointees for the rigorous entrance exams.
But there were two problems. First, there was no word from President McKinley despite more letters, and the Annapolis slot from the Halseys’ Elizabeth, New Jersey, congressional district was filled. Willie even wrote to the congressman who represented the district in Louisiana from which his father had been appointed, but those had been special circumstances. Second, despite all his studies, it was becoming quite clear that young Halsey wasn’t one to excel academically.
By the fall of 1899, with no hope of Annapolis in sight, the Halseys chose another tack for their son. They enrolled Willie in the University of Virginia’s medical school at Charlottesville on the theory that he might still enter the navy as a medical officer. The academic result was predictable. Anatomy classes, formaldehyde odors, and cadavers just weren’t his thing. Instead, Willie took on the more mature name of “Bill” and plunged headlong into the university’s social life, including the Delta Psi fraternity. Then, too, there was his growing interest in football. “I didn’t learn much,” Bill Halsey later confessed of his year at Virginia, “but I… had a wonderful time.”
His father was horrified by Bill’s first-semester grades, and his mother redoubled her efforts to win him an appointment to Annapolis. Congressional authorization for five additional presidential appointments in the wake of the navy’s Spanish-American War buildup helped. While Halsey later recalled that his mother “camped in McKinley’s office until he promised her one for me,” the political influence of former New Jersey governor and current U.S. attorney general John W. Griggs may have greased the ways.
When his appointment finally came through, Halsey gave a backward glance at Charlottesville and hurried to Annapolis to take the entrance exams. He crammed with all his energy to make up for past deficiencies and on July 7, 1900, was sworn into the class of 1904, the last incoming academy class of fewer than one hundred cadets.
William F. Halsey, Jr., wasn’t destined for academic stardom at the Naval Academy, but he applied himself just enough to make respectable marks without adversely affecting his preferred social and athletic pursuits. Once, when Halsey came dangerously close to failing theoretical mechanics, his father strongly advised him to drop football. That, of course, was out of the question.
Instead, Bill recruited the scholars in the class to tutor him and a few others similarly challenged. When the exam was over, Bill went to his father’s quarters for lunch and was immediately asked if the results had been posted. “Yes, sir,” Bill answered, and then reported that he had made 3.98 out of 4.0. His father stared at him for a full minute and then finally asked incredulously, “Sir, have you been drinking?”
Football was one of Halsey’s passions. Although he played the game aggressively, he never claimed to be any good at it. In fact, Halsey later boasted that he was the worst fullback ever to play for Annapolis. He appeared consigned to the junior varsity, but when an injury sidelined the varsity fullback, Halsey started at that position his third and fourth years, surviving a 40–5 drubbing by Army in 1903.
Aside from football and partying, Halsey took great delight in the summer training cruises, claiming, among other things, never to have been seasick. His father was now head of the Department of Seamanship at the academy, and from sail work on the square-rigger Chesapeake to steam indoctrination on the old battleship Indiana, the son was determined to show the father that he was becoming an all-around sailor. Young Bill learned a lot, but he was brought back to reality by the academy’s chief master-at-arms, who told him, “I wish you all the luck in the world, Mr. Halsey, but you’ll never be as good a naval officer as your father!”
Halsey’s summer cruise aboard the Indiana during his third-class year left him with a souvenir tattoo. His father, who sported no less than four, advised him with the voice of experience against such permanent foolishness. “But as usual,” recalled Halsey, “I was too headstrong to listen.” The finished work showed a blue anchor with its chain forming “04” and a red “USNA” on its crown.
When Halsey marched to an early graduation in February 1904, the Lucky Bag, for which he was an associate editor, called him “a real old salt” and “everybody’s friend.” And while he might strive to live up to his father’s seamanship standards, young Bill—short and stocky though he was—had nonetheless taken on the rugged good looks of a solidly built sailor. He looked, the Lucky Bag proclaimed, “like a figurehead of Neptune.”
His nicknames were “Willie” and “Pudge” and he seems to have set some sort of informal record for “the number of offices he has held”—even serving on the Christmas Card Committee his plebe year and the Class German Committee as a senior. But his heart belonged to athletics. Halsey’s performance on the football field—however lacking by intercollegiate standards—won him a navy “N,” one of only four accorded seniors on the team. But the honor he held dearest was the Thompson Trophy. First handed out in 1901 by Cadet Battalion Commander Ernest J. King, it was awarded annually to the first classman who had done the most during the year to promote athletics.
Considering Halsey’s shunning of advice over the years, the Dickens quote the Lucky Bag chose for him was most appropriate: “It’s my opinion there’s nothing ’e don’t know.” But what counted most in Halsey’s mind was that while he stood only forty-third out of the sixty-two survivors of his incoming class of ninety-three, he was now Passed Midshipman Halsey and headed out to sea.
In fact, sea duty came almost too quickly. To secure choice service on the battleship Missouri, Bill and five classmates forfeited their graduation leave and rushed to Hampton Roads to join the ship before it sailed for Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and winter training exercises. The irony of this first assignment for Halsey would not become clear for more than forty years.
The Missouri was affectionately called the “Mizzy.” At 388 feet long, and with four 12-inch main guns and a displacement of 12,500 tons, it cruised at a maximum speed of 18 knots. By the time Halsey stood on the deck of the next battleship to be christened Missouri, the “Mighty Mo” was of a generation of battleships that boasted nine 16-inch guns, displaced 45,000 tons, stretched 887 feet, and cut through the seas at 32.5 knots. Halsey’s progression from one Missouri to the other is a graphic example of the evolution of American naval might.
But Halsey served aboard the “Mizzy” first, and his cruise was not to be without incident. On Wednesday, April 13, 1904, he was a junior officer on the bridge as the battleship took its turn at the fleet’s annual target practice off Pensacola, Florida. Suddenly a heavy blast aft rocked the ship, and a column of flame shot several hundred feet into the air from the top hatch of the 12-inch after turret. A second, sharper blast followed. Powder bags in the turret had caught fire and spread to a dozen more. Thirty-one officers and men perished, and the carnage made a profound and lasting impression on Halsey. Almost fifty years later, he still found the disaster looming “monstrous in my memory” and making him dread the thirteenth of every month, particularly if it fell on the double hex of a Friday.
This accident cast a pall over Halsey’s two years on the Missouri and the start of his career, but he got a break by being assigned to temporary duty at the Naval Academy during the 1904 and 1905 football seasons. The likable Halsey was detailed as assistant backfield coach despite his less-than-stellar gridiron record. Clearly, it was his bulldog determination that the academy wanted, and in 1905 Navy fought Army to a tie.
After the 1905 football season, Halsey, now two years out of Annapolis, received his commission as an ensign. He was detached from Missouri to Don Juan de Austria, a former Spanish gunboat that had been salvaged out of Manila Bay. The Don Juan bored Halsey terribly as it chugged around the Caribbean on customs duty and at one point anchored for six months in the Bay of Samaná, on the north coast of the Dominican Republic. The only excitement was the weekly mail steamer from the United States.
But a reprieve was in sight. In March 1907, Halsey reported for duty aboard the Kansas, the navy’s newest battleship, so new that it would not sail for its shakedown cruise until the following August. By then, it was clear that something major was afoot, and when Kansas got things squared away, it joined fifteen other battleships—all painted a peaceful white—in the roadstead at Hampton Roads, Virginia. On December 16, 1907, the battleships weighed anchor and steamed in review past the presidential yacht, Mayflower, and its nervous occupant.
In the wake of the Russo-Japanese War, the peace that Theodore Roosevelt had brokered was not sitting well in Japan. Admiral Togo may have destroyed the Russian fleet at Tsushima, but the final treaty did not accord Japan any financial indemnity for its losses. The truth of the matter was that both Russia and Japan were broke.
In Japan, this triggered a rush of emigration to the United States, particularly California. When the ensuing backlash against this influx included an attempt to segregate schools in San Francisco for Asian immigrants, Japan strongly protested. It cited the failure of an indemnity and this unequal treatment as evidence that the United States considered Japan a second-rate power and the Japanese a second-class people. Some politicians in both countries engaged in saber rattling.
Roosevelt considered the crisis grave and in response determined that this was one of those cases of speaking softly but carrying a big stick. While assuring Japan of America’s friendship, he would use the Great White Fleet as a symbol of American power. Should Great Britain and Germany take a lesson from it as well, so much the better.
Roosevelt wanted it understood “that the Pacific was as much our home waters as the Atlantic, and that our fleet could and would at will pass from one to the other of the two great oceans.” At the time, the British and German navies—arguably the first and second most powerful in the world—were skeptical of such a movement. If TR and his navy left a string of disabled battleships at ports around the world, he would be an international laughingstock—thus his nervousness as the fleet departed Hampton Roads.
The sixteen battleships cleared Cape Henry at the entrance to Chesapeake Bay and steered south toward the Caribbean. Christmas 1907 found the fleet in Port of Spain, Trinidad. Then it was on to Rio de Janeiro; Punta Arenas, Chile; and through the Strait of Magellan to Callao, Peru. The fleet was almost retracing the dash of the Oregon in reverse, which may well have been what Roosevelt was thinking when he conceived the idea. Later, Roosevelt would call the voyage of the Great White Fleet and the construction of the Panama Canal “the two American achievements that really impressed foreign peoples during the first dozen years” of the twentieth century.
As the fleet cruised onward, Ensign Halsey had time to savor the various cultures, but as a junior officer, he also put in his share of time supervising the shore patrol. Getting a load of older and frequently inebriated enlisted men back on board ship was trying for a young officer, but Halsey proved himself up to the task, particularly during a lengthy port call at San Francisco. The gruff ensign made something of a name for himself among the madams of the city by posting shore patrolmen outside their houses of ill-repute and forbidding enlisted men to enter.
Publicly, San Francisco was to have been the fleet’s farthest westward advance, but Roosevelt almost certainly had much more in mind from the beginning. To move the American battle fleet from the Atlantic to the Pacific was one thing, but to have it then circumnavigate the globe was a show of real power. Leaving San Francisco in July 1908, the Great White Fleet steamed first to Honolulu, then Auckland, Sydney, Melbourne, and Manila, anchoring in Manila Bay near the site of Admiral Dewey’s triumph a decade earlier.
To the chagrin of sailors and Manila businesspeople alike, shore leave was canceled because of a cholera outbreak. There was also the pressing matter of a special invitation. Not to be outdone, the Japanese emperor had extended an invitation to Roosevelt for the fleet to visit Japan. Both the president and Rear Admiral Charles Sperry, commander of the fleet, were cautious. To decline the invitation would be the ultimate insult, but to anchor in Yokohama harbor was risky.
Sperry and his senior officers well remembered what had happened to the Maine in Havana harbor—coal bunker explosion or not—and to the Russian fleet at Port Arthur. The Japanese had also made a similar sneak attack on Chinese naval forces in 1894. While Halsey was far too junior to be involved in these councils, he was firmly of the opinion that the invitation was a deceitful Japanese charade.
But the first enemy lurking on the voyage to Yokohama was a typhoon. It struck the fleet in the East China Sea and scattered the ships, causing some minor damage and sweeping two men overboard. It proved the only major disruption of the fourteen-month cruise. It was also Halsey’s first encounter with a typhoon; it would not be his last. Meanwhile, the Japanese fleet of ten battleships and twenty-nine armored cruisers was said to be at sea “on maneuvers.” Tensely, the American fleet regrouped and steamed into Tokyo Bay two days late on October 18, 1908.
The Japanese proved to be a model of courtesy and decorum. They had not given up their interest in Manchuria, but they were not ready for a war with the United States. Halsey was in the party that was hosted aboard Admiral Togo’s flagship, Mikasa. Unlike another junior officer named Chester Nimitz, who had visited Japan and met Togo three years before in the aftermath of the Battle of Tsushima, Halsey was impressed by neither the admiral nor his massive ship.
What the Japanese managed to do, however, was force an apparent U.S. snub of China. The emperor’s invitation had been on the grounds that the entire American fleet call at Yokohama but not China. Thus, when Admiral Sperry dispatched only half of his battleships—not to Shanghai but to the smaller port of Amoy (now Xiamen)—and then returned to Manila with the remainder, China accused the United States of the only diplomatic snub of the voyage.
Once the two groups of battleships reassembled, they steamed into the Indian Ocean and through the Suez Canal to the Mediterranean Sea. The fleet divided up to make port calls, and Halsey got a choice assignment when Kansas anchored in a sparkling cove on the French Riviera and was treated to French hospitality for almost two weeks. He and the other younger officers definitely appreciated the sleeveless, stockingless, and low-cut French bathing fashions that had yet to reach the United States.
Finally, it was time for the combined fleet to rendezvous at Gibraltar early in February 1909 and make the crossing of the Atlantic. Winter storms churned its waters so much that even Halsey confessed to a rare bout of seasickness. On February 21, the sixteen battleships dropped anchor off Cape Henry and spruced themselves up for one final review. The next day, after Theodore Roosevelt finished speaking on the foredeck of the Connecticut, Ensign Halsey hurried ashore to meet his girl.
—Annapolis, Class of 1905
The 250-foot destroyer Decatur was being tossed about like a matchstick. With a narrow beam of not quite twenty-four feet, the slender ship was locked in the vise grip of a Pacific typhoon. Lashed by ferocious winds, it continually rolled 50 degrees to either side. On the bridge, twenty-three-year-old Ensign Chester W. Nimitz fought for his sea legs and was certain that his ship would break in two atop the monster waves. Yet young Nimitz could look to no one else for reassurance. Unusual as it was for someone of his age and rank, he was the captain of the Decatur, responsible for its safety and that of its seventy-two-man crew.
It was the spring of 1908, and the Decatur was in the South China Sea en route from French-controlled Saigon—then known as “the Paris of the East”—to Manila. For three very uncomfortable days, the typhoon held the Decatur in its grip. Nimitz later told his grandfather that it was his first “real live typhoon” and he hoped it would be his last. Remarkably, the Decatur made port in Manila only a few hours behind schedule. Several months later, the young captain and his ship would not be so lucky.
On the evening of July 7, the Decatur was entering Batangas harbor, south of Manila Bay. Ensign Nimitz was on the bridge as usual. Charts for the area were suspect, and standard procedure was to take position bearings from the surrounding landmarks. Nimitz chose to estimate his position instead of taking bearings, and he may also have failed to consider whether the tide was running in or out. Nonetheless, the Decatur proceeded into the harbor without incident until the leadsman charged with taking soundings in the bow suddenly sang out, “We’re not moving, sir!” Ensign Nimitz had just committed an unpardonable navy sin and run his ship aground.
The Nimitzes traced their heritage back to a long line of Germanic warriors. Some fought for the “Swedish Meteor,” King Gustavus Adolphus, as he blazed his way across northern Europe in the early 1600s. Their fortunes rose and fell with the times. By the early 1800s, they had branched out as dealers in cloth, and the family mantle passed to Karl Heinrich Nimitz, who promptly squandered their wealth. His youngest son, Karl Heinrich, Jr., went to sea in the merchant marine at the age of fourteen to earn his way.
In 1844, after only a few years aboard ships, young Karl joined his parents and some siblings who had immigrated to Charleston, South Carolina. Two years later, the Nimitz clan and other recent German arrivals banded together to purchase a block of land in the new state of Texas. In the sand hills along the Pedernales River west of still tiny Austin, the company founded Fredericksburg, so named in honor of Prince Friedrich of Prussia. Many of the younger settlers promptly anglicized their given names. Thus, Karl Heinrich, Jr., became Charles Henry.
These German Texans were a close-knit group, and German customs and language continued to prevail in the Hill Country for decades. One of the stories that later circulated concerned a young man who left town to go to college. He wrote home saying he was required to take a foreign language, and he asked his parents what he should study. Supposedly they talked it over and then replied, “Take English, son.”
In April 1848, Charles Henry Nimitz married Sophia Dorothea Mueller, the daughter of a fellow settler. Together, they would have twelve children. Charles served briefly in the Texas Rangers, but in 1852 he started the Nimitz Hotel on the east end of Fredericksburg’s Main Street. Sophia, despite an almost continual state of pregnancy, did most of the cooking.
As West Texas grew, the hotel prospered. As it expanded, Charles adopted a nautical theme, shaping the marquee like the bow of a ship and adding a balconied upper story that was topped by rooms resembling a pilothouse. Some travelers even called it “the Steamboat Hotel.” Given Charles’s penchant for storytelling, it was easy for him to embellish his few years at sea and take on the persona of a successful seafarer.
One of Charles and Sophia’s many offspring was Chester Bernard Nimitz, a weak lad with a frail constitution. Doctors advised him never to marry, but when he was twenty-nine, he fell in love with the butcher’s daughter, Anna Henke. She, too, came from a family of twelve children. Chester and Anna were married in March 1884, but within a year Anna went from bride to wife to widow and mother. Chester Bernard died five months after the wedding, and Chester William Nimitz was born on February 24, 1885. Grandfather Charles thought the birth coincided with Washington’s Birthday—February 22—but his mother, Anna, would always associate it with Valentine’s Day.
Young Chester revered his grandfather. With an eager audience at his knee, “Captain Charles” became even more of a teller of tall tales. With a flowing beard that went from blond to white as he aged, and twinkling blue eyes, “Opa” Charles indeed looked the role he had assumed. Later, Anna Nimitz remarried his youngest son, William, making William both young Chester’s uncle and stepfather. But it was Opa Charles and Anna who would always be the dominant forces in his early life.
Another dominant force was the Texas hill country itself. Chester grew up hunting and fishing on countless camping trips with his grandfather. He mixed it up with the other boys in town, sometimes resorting to fists—probably at his grandfather’s urging—to defend himself. And he spent time on his maternal grandfather’s cattle ranch, where Henry Henke raised beef for his butcher shops. Whether killing rattlesnakes and scaring girls with the rattles or running across the wide-open prairie, Chester was a part of Texas, and Texas was a part of him.
After William and Anna married, they moved with Chester to nearby Kerrville to manage the St. Charles Hotel. William was not exactly a model of hard work, and Anna ended up doing the lion’s share of running the hotel, besides having two more children. But Chester was clearly her favorite, and she was determined that he grow up without the frailties that had killed his father. Chester in return helped all he could, whether at the hotel before or after school or as a delivery boy for the Henke meat market. Unlike his fragile father or increasingly portly stepfather, Chester grew up strong and lean and seemed utterly determined to remain physically fit.
At the age of fifteen, Chester entered Tivy High School, so named for nearby Tivy Mountain. That summer of 1900, two shavetail lieutenants fresh from West Point stopped at the St. Charles Hotel. Given all the military posts in West Texas, army officers were nothing new to Chester. Many had been frequent guests there and at his grandfather’s hotel. But Chester was suddenly struck by how close these two soldiers were to his own age. When he compared his world of hotel work and butcher shops to their spit-and-polish ways and worldly sophistication, he found the prospects for his future decidedly lacking. Then and there, he resolved to take the entrance exams for West Point.
Congressman James L. Slayden was willing to consider Chester, but he offered no encouragement about his prospects. All the congressman’s West Point slots were filled, and given the large number of army posts in his district, the waiting list of career officers wanting their sons to go there was long. Chester’s dread of a lifetime in the hotel or meat market business again loomed large. Then Congressman Slayden offered another option. Given the increase in enrollment following the Spanish-American War, he had an opening at the U.S. Naval Academy in 1901. Would young Nimitz be interested?
That was only a year away, and Chester would not even be able to finish high school. But taking the plunge, he said yes and embarked on a frenzied year of tutoring, particularly in mathematics. He never graduated from high school, but this preparation allowed him to place first in Slayden’s examinations the following spring. That August, Chester W. Nimitz passed the Naval Academy’s entrance exams, and on September 7, 1901, he was sworn in as a naval cadet. With wavy blond hair, steely blue eyes, and a ruggedly square jaw, he looked every bit the Germanic warrior of his heritage.
At Annapolis, Chester Nimitz found the changes that Ernest King had seen occurring as he’d graduated the previous June. Massive Bancroft Hall was under construction as a dormitory, and new granite-and-gray-brick academic buildings were replacing crumbling Civil War–era structures. There were 131 cadets in Nimitz’s incoming class of 1905, and while that was still small by later standards, it was almost double the number in Bill Leahy’s class just eight years before. The naval resurgence inspired by Theodore Roosevelt’s foresight and the Spanish-American War was indeed in full swing.
Nimitz was determined that his lack of a high school diploma would not hamper his advancement, so he continued his West Texas habit of rising early—before reveille—to get in extra study time. His first roommate, Albert Thomas Church of Idaho, was a similarly serious student. Together, they engaged in a friendly competition, but more important, they supported each other’s studying. Nimitz and Church became such an academic duo that classmates insisted they split up after their first year in an effort to tutor lesser achievers. Their subsequent roommates may have regretted the change when Nimitz and Church got them up for their usual pre-reveille studying.
By all accounts, Nimitz was a hardworking and even-tempered cadet who got along easily with subordinates, peers, and superiors alike. The Lucky Bag struck at the core of his personality by observing that he “possesses that calm and steady going Dutch way that gets at the bottom of things.” His identifying quote his senior year was from Wordsworth: “A man he seems of cheerful yesterdays and confident tomorrows.”
Part of his appeal was that Nimitz had inherited his grandfather’s storytelling ability. He passed on some of Grandfather Charles’s tall tales and began to spread a few of his own. Nimitz was on the small side for football, but he played a solid set of tennis and made the varsity rowing crew his third year. He was the eighth man, the stroke. This was the rower closest to the coxswain in the stern and the one charged with setting the crew’s rate and rhythm. Nimitz was well suited to the position, and it earned him a coveted navy “N.” The role of managing tempo was one that he would play many times throughout his career.
Nimitz diligently continued his personal regimen of exercise—running and swimming—when he was not playing team sports. And despite not playing football himself, he enjoyed the game and struck up a friendship with the academy’s star promoter of athletics, a cadet one class his senior named Bill Halsey.
Aside from several bouts of pneumonia, Nimitz, his mother’s wavy-haired golden boy, took good care of himself. His only serious injury occurred on a summer cruise aboard a destroyer. He developed an abscess in one ear. With no doctor on the ship, the captain ordered an oil syringe from the engine room and squirted boric acid into the affected ear. The light antiseptic seemed to work, even if the cleanliness of the delivery vehicle was suspect. Nimitz experienced a slight deafness for the rest of his life, perhaps the result of the abscess, but more likely an effect of the make-do syringe. In any event, Nimitz adopted his usual positive attitude and learned to compensate by becoming an inconspicuous lip-reader.
There were two other incidents during his Annapolis years that seem to have left a lasting impression on Chester Nimitz’s professional development. One commanded national attention; the other was a minor episode that nonetheless underscored a valuable element of Nimitz’s leadership style.
Nationally, there was a continuing public debate over the roles Rear Admiral William T. Sampson and Commodore Winfield Scott Schley had played in the Battle of Santiago. Schley had been aboard the cruiser Brooklyn on the scene and Sampson momentarily away on his flagship, New York, visiting the army. Who, the public debated, deserved to be credited with the victory? (This was one reason why Dewey became the unanimously adored hero of Manila Bay—he had acted alone and without controversy.)
Hot oil was poured on this issue during Nimitz’s plebe year at the academy when the third volume of Edgar S. Maclay’s History of the United States Navy was published and adopted as an academy textbook. Maclay was scathing in his criticism of Schley for “deliberately turning tail and running away” before the Brooklyn subsequently turned and engaged the Spanish fleet. The Brooklyn had indeed made what other observers considered a deft circular maneuver to check the emerging Spanish fleet; certainly there was no question that the ship joined the Oregon in the chase of the Cristóbal Colón.
As the partisans of each officer took sides, Schley demanded that the Naval Academy cease using Maclay’s book as a text, which it did. But the damage had been done to what otherwise was largely a growing and glowing postwar reputation of the navy. Instead of merely celebrating three heroes—Dewey, Sampson, and Schley—the navy was put on public display when Schley demanded a court of inquiry to clear his name. Admiral Dewey had the unwelcome task of presiding over forty days and two thousand pages of testimony. The even greater embarrassment came when the court split in its findings and the entire charade seemed destined to continue. Angered that “his” navy was being made a public spectacle, President Theodore Roosevelt finally slammed his fist and ordered all sides to stand down.
For Nimitz and his classmates, the case provided plenty of fodder for discussion, and there were supporters of both Sampson and Schley. But the lesson Chester Nimitz seems to have taken from this event was that “washing of the Navy’s dirty linen in public” was deplorable and should be avoided at all costs. When another war presented other choices of heroes and other courts of inquiry, Nimitz may well have remembered this early lesson.
The other lesson in leadership he learned came from a much more lighthearted event. Nimitz was well known as a “mixer of famous punches”—usually nonalcoholic—and he had no qualms about joining an occasional beer party—quite forbidden, of course. After his class occupied the newly completed first wing of Bancroft Hall at the start of his senior year, Nimitz and his classmates quickly discovered that its expansive roof offered the perfect, well-concealed beer garden. Procuring such refreshments bordered on child’s play, because seniors were granted a “free gate” to make unsupervised treks into downtown Annapolis to visit tailors preparing their postgraduation uniforms.
Lots were routinely drawn for the task of going into Annapolis proper with an empty suitcase and returning with a dozen bottles of cold beer. One Saturday afternoon, despite the fact that he was a “three-striper” company commander with the gold stars of academic excellence on his collar, Nimitz drew the assignment.
He made the trip in uniform—otherwise he would not have been permitted out the gate—and visited his tailor, who was friendly to the cadets’ plight and also provided a clandestine beverage service. On this particular occasion, there was another customer, an older, dark-haired gentleman in civilian clothes, in the store. Nimitz paid him no heed, placed his order, and soon returned to his room in Bancroft Hall, “having re-entered the Gate with no more trouble than I had experienced in leaving.” The beer party that night was “a great success.”
Nimitz gave no further thought to his errand until the following Monday morning, when he marched into his new chemistry class and found his instructor to be the dark-haired stranger—now in uniform as a lieutenant commander newly assigned to the academy. Nimitz squirmed uneasily for a time and assumed he would be summoned before the officer. The summons never came. Even though Nimitz was certain that the officer recognized him, the officer showed no sign of it. “This escapade taught me a lesson,” Nimitz later recalled, “to look with lenient and tolerant eye on first offenders when in later years they appeared before me as a Commanding Officer holding Mast.”
The beer-garden parties atop Bancroft Hall came to an abrupt end when, due to the urgent need for young officers in Theodore Roosevelt’s growing navy, the Annapolis class of 1905 graduated at the end of January instead of in the traditional first week in June. The term “midshipman” had come to replace “cadet” during Nimitz’s tenure, but the navy still required two years of sea duty before awarding the commission of ensign. Thus, Nimitz’s class of 114 graduates—of which he stood seventh—went to their first shipboard assignments as “passed midshipmen.”
Unlike many of his classmates, Nimitz left behind the assortment of nicknames he had acquired in the course of four years: “Natchew,” “Nonnie,” “Nim-i-tiz,” and, by some accounts, “Natty.” What he didn’t leave behind was a lifelong camaraderie with his own classmates and those several years ahead or behind him. Sixteen midshipmen in Nimitz’s class of 1905 achieved the rank of rear admiral or higher. Other Nimitz contemporaries at Annapolis who would achieve prominence, as well as certain ridicule years later, included Frank Jack Fletcher, John S. McCain, and Raymond A. Spruance.
Because of his class standing, Chester Nimitz was accorded a choice assignment on board the new battleship Ohio. Commissioned in San Francisco only the prior October, the Ohio was an example of the United States’ post–Spanish-American War increase in battleship might. The ship displaced almost thirteen thousand tons and carried main armaments of four 12-inch guns, eight 6-inch guns, and two submerged torpedo tubes. With Nimitz aboard, the Ohio departed San Francisco on April 1, 1905, for its assignment as flagship of the Asiatic Squadron. The big battleship’s first cruise took it across the Pacific to Manila, where it was soon charged with a semisecret diplomatic assignment.
Late in May came the news that the Japanese had dealt the Russians a deathblow at the Battle of Tsushima. Theodore Roosevelt, who had previously held the Japanese in high regard, was suddenly wary of what the island empire’s next move would be. Any nation that could humiliate the Russian bear on both land and sea might well prove capable of challenging U.S. interests in the Philippines or even Hawaii.
The president dispatched the unlikely duo of his mercurial daughter Alice and Secretary of War William Howard Taft to Tokyo. They sailed first to Manila and then embarked on the Ohio for the journey north to Japan. While Alice provided the fireworks and held the attention of the press, Taft quietly met with Japanese prime minister Taro Katsura. They discreetly agreed to certain limits of Japan’s newfound power vis-à-vis the United States, even as Roosevelt was preparing to act as a neutral mediator between Japan and Russia. Japan, Taft and Katsura agreed, was to have a free hand in Korea—which had been at the heart of the Russo-Japanese War in the first place—but in return, Japan provided Taft with a gentleman’s agreement that it would not menace American interests in the Philippines and Hawaii.
Alice Roosevelt was twenty-one at the time, a year older than Nimitz, but it is doubtful that she exchanged so much as a glance with him. She was completely enamored with Congressman Nicholas Longworth, fifteen years her senior and a member of the American delegation. Instead, Nimitz’s brush with fame came in Tokyo when officers of the Ohio attended a garden party at the imperial palace complete with Russian champagne captured at Port Arthur.
When a table of junior officers saw the victor of Tsushima, Admiral Togo, coming near, it was Nimitz who was pushed forward to invite the admiral to join them. Perhaps with a wry smile, Togo, who spoke fluent English after seven years in England, accepted the invitation and shook hands all around. Nimitz was as impressed by this act of modesty as he was by the admiral’s tactical brilliance at Tsushima. He would remember both.
After a year in the Western Pacific, Ohio returned to the United States without Nimitz. He stayed in Manila and was briefly assigned to the cruiser Baltimore, an aging relic of Admiral Dewey’s squadron, while he passed the examinations to receive his commission as an ensign. In January 1907, with commission in hand, Ensign Nimitz was given command of the ninety-two-foot, ex-Spanish gunboat Panay and dispatched to cruise the Sulu Archipelago off Mindanao, mostly to show the American flag. His second-in-command, from the Annapolis class just behind him, was John Sidney “Slew” McCain.
In the aftermath of the Spanish-American War, the Philippines officially had become U.S. territory, but among its lesser islands, any semblance of American control was fleeting. Still, Nimitz was proud to command the Panay and the tiny naval station of Polloc (now Cotabato) on Mindanao, complete with twenty-two U.S. marines. In fact, Nimitz delighted in honing his seamanship aboard the tiny gunboat. “I can practice piloting and navigation and so forth as well as on a small ship,” he wrote his grandfather, “and besides it should teach me a certain amount of self-reliance and confidence.”
That self-reliance and confidence were summoned to the forefront on a sultry day in the summer of 1907 when the Panay docked at the main U.S. naval base in Cavite, outside Manila. Ensign Nimitz dressed in his whites, buckled on his sword, and reported to the base commander, Rear Admiral Uriah Harris. There were wild rumors of war with Japan, and Harris, a rather stiff, by-the-book individual who never cracked a smile on duty, was taking no chances. He ordered Nimitz to take immediate command of the destroyer Decatur and run it to a dry dock in Olongapo, some sixty miles away around the Bataan Peninsula. When Nimitz started to return to the Panay for his gear, Harris stopped him mid-stride and sent him directly to the Decatur with a gruff, “Your clothes will catch up to you.”
So, in sparkling whites, Ensign Nimitz arrived on the run-down destroyer. Nothing was in order and even the engine telegraphs were hooked in reverse so that the first time Nimitz signaled quarter speed astern and tried to back away from the buoy, the ship lunged forward instead. But Nimitz got the job done and made a mark for himself as a doer. Two weeks later, the Decatur was out of dry dock and ready for sea. Stuffy Admiral Harris must have been pleased, because he kept Nimitz in command.
Six months later, after weathering the typhoon, the Decatur was hard aground on a mudflat at the entrance to Batangas harbor. Nimitz peered over the side into the dark water and ordered full astern. The destroyer shuddered but gave no sign of moving. Turning the helm slowly to port and then to starboard brought no movement either. Finally, Nimitz ordered all stop and pondered his fate. This was definitely a situation that could easily sink a young officer’s career.
Then Nimitz, being Nimitz, posted the usual watches and did the only thing that made sense to him. “On that black night somewhere in the Philippines,” he later recalled, “the advice of my grandfather returned to me: ‘Don’t worry about things over which you have no control.’ So I set up a cot on deck and went to sleep.”
Shortly after dawn the next morning, a passing steamer threw the Decatur a line and pulled the ship off the mudflat. That might have been the end of the matter, but regulations dictated that Nimitz report the grounding, which he dutifully did. This set in motion an investigation that relieved him of command of the Decatur and required him to face a court-martial for “culpable inefficiency in the performance of duty.”
Fortunately for the young ensign, his prior record and performance reviews spoke strongly in his defense. Given those and the inadequacies of the charts for the Batangas area, the charge was reduced to “neglect of duty.” Nimitz was found guilty and sentenced to a public reprimand. But even then, the commander of U.S. naval forces in the Philippines concluded that the mere record of the proceedings was enough evidence of a public reprimand and took no further action.
About the only scar on Nimitz’s career was the embarrassment of being relieved of command and having to go through the court-martial process. In fact, after three years of continuous service in the Far East, Nimitz was delighted that the end result was that he was ordered home to take a new assignment.
Excerpted from The Admirals by Borneman, Walter R. Copyright © 2012 by Borneman, Walter R.. Excerpted by permission.
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