HE WAS SO TOUGH that he shaved with a blow torch. When I went to sea as an ensign in 1942, that was the reputation of the commander in chief of the United States Fleet. Admiral Ernest J. King, who Thomas Buell calls "the most powerful naval officer in the history of the world."
In Master of Sea Power Buell has added the dimensions of personality and humanity that have heretofore been missing from that reputation. Too many remember Ernie King only as the infinitely demanding egocentric, eccentric, intellectual iconoclast who ruled the passageways of naval headquarters -- "Main Navy" -- during World War II. He was all of that, but as Buell makes clear in his fascinating and rapidly flowing biography, Ernie King was much more.
King did not achieve the postwar fame of his Army contemporary, General George C. Marshall. He was not even as well-known in war as some of his subordinate commanders, Admirals Nimitz, Halsey and Spruance. He was a complex man who focused his energies on the single purpose of winning the war. Take a Farragut, a Mahan and a Patton, and you might produce something close to an Ernie King.
King's career was so diverse and encompassed so many world-shaking events that any biographer is faced with a tremendous problem of "scoping" his work so that it is both readable and accurate as a representation of the man. Consider just King's pre-World War II experience as a naval officer. He was in combat as a midshipman in the Spanish-American War and on the staff of Admiral Henry T. Mayo, who commanded the Atlantic Forces in World War I. He served aboard battleships, destroyers, submarines, auxiliaries and aircraft carriers. He commanded patrol planes, and achieved fame as the commander of salvage operations for two sunken submarines. He served on numerous staffs in engineering and operational planning capacities, taught at the Naval Academy and headed the Navy's post-graduate education program. He commanded large store stations. He was a pioneer in naval aviation, commanding one of our first carriers, the USS Lexington, and headed the Bureau of Aeronautics. In short, King's career covered every facet of naval experience, a feat most improbable in his day and almost impossible today. Any chapter of Ernie King's life could fill several books. Yet, Buell has succeeded well in bringing King's life and career in focus. As as naval officer himself, Buell has brought a depth of insight to the biography that might not have been possible in an author without that experience.
Master of Sea Power is an adventure book in Section I, which deals with King's early career, his driving ambition, his pursuit of power, his drinking and partying days, his tussles with authority, and his adventure around the world in the prewar Navy. Tom Buell takes him through the emotions and experiences of a junior officer, working to earn the reputation of being "strict but fair" with enlisted men. Early in his career, Ernie King decided that, in order to be successful, he had to "suppress his normally compassionate feelings" and seal himself in a shell of toughness from which he could demand and get high standards of performance. This is an inner turmoil that every young officer goes through. In later years, King's tough shell would thicken with increasing responsibility, and there would be times when he was too strict, or not fair -- but not often.
Even early in his career King showed himself to be an innovator. As a lieutenant, he observed that ships were often run by whim, and set out to standardize shipboard organization. He bucked his conservative seniors, got a new organization going and even won an award for an essay he wrote on the subject. Later, as commander officer of the USS Lexington, he made practical changes in the naval uniforms aboard his ship.
Buell correctly portrays King's ambition as the central theme of his life. He would frankly tell people, from midshipman days on, that he planned to be the chief of naval operations (CNO). He was, as Buell says, a "careful, calculating careerist," a man who carefully chose the admirals under whom he worked so as to promote his career. At the same time, he was a daredevil fighter, who would terrorize people, with the chances he took and the standards he set.
In 1939, King was passed over for CNO, given a "twilight tour" and returned to his permanent rank of rear admiral. The sun seemed to have set on Ernie King's world, partly because he was known as a carouser, but mostly because his tough, aggressive ways had not made him many friends. He was a fighter, and until the United States needed a fighter, he was on his way to retirement as a 60-year-old rear admiral.
Section II of Buell's book covers World War II and King's resurrection as a naval leader. It is a comeback story of the finest kind. Admiral King received his fourth star in early 1941 as commander in chief, Atlantic, having been recalled to fight the escalating undeclared war with Germany. At that time he remarked to an officer, "Now, we can get started," as if his whole life had been nothing but prepartion for high command. That is the way he saw it. Immediately after Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt chose King to be commander in chief, U.S. Fleet, and later to be CNO.
Master of Sea Power is a significant contribution to the history of World War II. Buell leads the reader through King's role in defeating the Japanese and Germans and in advancing Roosevelt at the major political conferences of the war. The debates between Admiral King and General Marshall on Navy and Army prerogatives are classic. The debates between U.S. and British joint chiefs of staff on grand strategy and priorities between the Pacific and Atlantic theaters are stimulating and interesting.
One word of warning: For the reader not generally familiar with the military and political history of World War II, Section II could tax your interst. From a military historian's point of view, the accounts are fascinating. I would encourage the lay reader to stick with it, because Buell is wise enough to interject incidents showing King's personal conflicts and challenge along with the political-military history.
Buell correctly notes that King did not approve of the United States political system. He felt that it went to excessess in democracy which put a "premium on mediocrity." One quote of King's is worthwhile because of the relavance to the situation of the U.S. in 1980:
"We believe in our own capacity to do well at anything we undertake, together with a child-like trust and faith in our destiny, we appear unable to appreciate preparedness [for war] even when, as individuals, we carry fire insurance on our houses and collision insurance on our cars."
When World War II ended, the chief of naval operations remarked to his aide, "Well, it's all over, I wonder what I'm going to do tomorrow." The consummate professional naval worrier had met his goals: He had become CNO, and fought and won the greatest naval war of all time.
Tom Buell portrays Fleet Admiral King's final years with great dignity, and closes with a quote from Walter Muir Whitehill's description of the 1956 funeral at the Naval Academy:
"So rapidly do great men cease to be people and become instead names, portraits or statues, curiously familiar, yet personally unknown. The speed of this process had led me to offer this perhaps discursive tribute of affection and respect to a figure of naval history that I had the good fortune, in his last years, to know as a man, rather than as a name."
Buell, in his biography, has allowed us, too, to know King as more than a name.