When the shooting starts, they have to send for the “sons of bitches.” Thus, legend has it, Admiral Ernest King responded to a reporter’s question why he, at age 63, was chosen by President Franklin Roosevelt to lead the Navy after Pearl Harbor. King, always blunt, was indeed an SOB: a vain, hot-tempered, argumentative, hard-drinking womanizer. FDR knew all this and picked him over eight more senior admirals because King was a doer and a fighter.
There have been only four admirals in U.S. history to reach five-star fleet admiral — King, Nimitz, Halsey and Leahy — and all have had numerous books written about them. Borneman’s is the first to deal with the four together, focusing on their intertwined lives, friendships and rivalries. All were from middle-class backgrounds, and all knew each other well. Annapolis classes had about 100 men in that era, and virtually all naval officers were graduates. Instead of treating each admiral in a separate storyline, Borneman narrates their lives in sometimes intersecting parallel until World War II, when their lives and the story become a tight fabric. It is a very well-crafted book.
(Little, Brown & Co.) - ’The Admirals: Nimitz, Halsey, Leahy, and King--The Five-Star Admirals Who Won the War at Sea’ by Walter R. Borneman
From a solid Ohio Scots family, King set his sights high when he arrived at Annapolis and never tried to hide his ambition. A junior-varsity football player, he finished near the top of his class but was frequently in trouble for smoking, drinking and chasing women, habits he indulged in throughout his life. As his career progressed, King could see before most of his contemporaries that submarines and aircraft would be the dominant weapons of the future, and he was able both to graduate from the sub school at New London, Conn., and to get this wings at Pensacola, Fla., (at age 51) while his contemporaries remained fixated on battleships.
One of these was William Leahy, from a large Wisconsin Irish family. “As a student and athlete at Annapolis, Leahy was solid but never stellar,” Borneman writes. He kept his nose clean and graduated 14th out of 47. His first assignment was as a gunnery officer aboard the battleship Oregon in the victory at Santiago during the Spanish-Amerian War; for the next 40 years, he served as a battleship sailor.
William Halsey came from a New England family “sprinkled with sailors and at least one pirate.” Never a strong student, he spent a year at the University of Virginia before admission to Annapolis. Like King, Halsey was a party animal and a very keen athlete, playing fullback on the football team. He graduated 43rd out of 62, and his first assignment was aboard the battleship Kansas for a round-the-world cruise of the Great White Fleet. Halsey, too, became enthralled by the promise of aviation and after decades as a battleship sailor was able to get assigned to Pensacola to earn his wings.
Chester Nimitz was born to a German immigrant family in the hill country of Texas. Raised by his grandfather, he was a disciplined worker who was able to enter Annapolis without a highschool diploma. Nimitz was a good student, well liked and a fine athlete, stroking the varsity crew team. He graduated seventh of 114, despite a reputation for smuggling in beer and making punch for illicit parties in the attic of Bancroft Hall.