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.
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.
Borneman succeeds in eliciting the reader’s deep interest in these men. They had shared values and ethics, which they had honed at the Naval Academy, but starkly different personalities: Leahy the stolid, steady intellectual; King the dour, demanding egotist; Halsey the swashbuckling fullback; and Nimitz the calm strategist. King and Halsey were occasional hell-raisers ashore, known to keep an ample supply of “medicinal” alcohol aboard ship. Leahy and Nimitz liked their afternoon happy hours and were quite capable of having a good time ashore. But what they all had in full measure was the intangible quality of leadership, the ability to inspire and motivate subordinates, peers and even superiors.
When World War II came, they all competed for the top job. It was FDR’s genius as a commander in chief to assign each to a position that helped lead the greatest naval force in history to victory. Leahy, best known to Roosevelt from his days captaining FDR’s yacht when he served for eight years as assistant secretary of the Navy, became FDR’s military adviser, chief of staff and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Nimitz got the job of commander in chief Pacific; Halsey got command of the Pacific 3rd and 5th Fleets; and King got the top job, commander in chief of the U.S. fleet and chief of naval operations. In these roles, they each made some mistakes, but overall they worked together smoothly under FDR’s unquestioned authority. Together they dealt successfully with Japanese, Nazi and other Axis enemies, difficult allies including the Soviet Union and occasionally the British, and, of course, Gen. Douglas MacArthur.
The naval reader cannot help wondering if we are turning out such military leaders today. Annapolis, Naval ROTC and Officer Candidate School now produce a much larger, more diverse and better-educated pool of young officers, but Pentagon culture has evolved in some ways that make one doubt whether such unorthodox and adventurous risk-takers as those five-stars could survive to senior rank in the modern Navy. Each of the four made early mistakes that in today’s Navy — proud of its “zero-tolerance” policy — would have ended his career. Nimitz ran aground the first ship he commanded. King was often seen drinking and making advances to attractive women. Halsey had more infractions than can be easily counted. Only Leahy might have a chance today, if he could avoid a president like Roosevelt, who often required his participation in a daily afternoon happy hour.
Nimitz, Halsey, Leahy, and King — The Five-Star Admirals Who Won the War at Sea
By Walter R. Borneman
Little, Brown. 559 pp. $29.99