He may be, in every sense, the nation's last great military hero. As a boy he curried horses for the U.S. Cavalry when men and horses still made the difference in war. At the height of his power, in an unprecedented three terms as chief of naval operations, he harried the tradition-bound U.S. Navy into the age of atoms, jets and missiles. In between he wrote and fought the book on destroyer tactics in World War II, helped spearhead the aircraft carrier task force that liberated the Pacific, and so awed the warriors of Japan in the process that they honor him still as one of their own. Saturday in Bath, Maine, the Navy will celebrate his 31-knot legend with the launching of the USS Arleigh Burke, a $1 billion high-tech tribute to the man who led that service longer than any other and remains, at a remarkably vigorous 87, the most dominating figure in its history. "That's going to be fun up there, I think," Burke said the other day, welcoming an old reporter-friend to his Fairfax County apartment, where a painting of the new destroyer hangs opposite one of the World War II version he made famous. "We're going to see people I haven't seen in 50 years. Probably won't recognize each other. Damn sure they won't recognize me." Chances are they will. Despite failing eyesight, white hair and a cane-assisted walk, Burke remains much the same burly combination of action, wit and intellect that sped Destroyer Squadron 23 through 22 battles in four months during World War II. In what historians have called "an almost perfect surface action," the Battle of Cape St. George off the Solomon Islands, his five destroyers met a Japanese force of equal strength at night, and, using tactics Burke devised from those of a Roman general named Scipio Africanus in the Punic Wars, sank three of the enemy's ships without a scratch. "Hope you're not shooting at us," one of his ships messaged him during the confusion of the battle. "Sorry, we were," he messaged back. "And you'll have to excuse the next four salvos -- they're already on the way." Burke was awarded the Navy Cross and cited for "extraordinary heroism." But in his official battle report he wrote: "This battle ... should clearly demonstrate that fortune of war is a fickle wench and that results hang by a narrow thread. ... Many things would have prevented this battle from being fought, and the squadron commander would much prefer to say these matters were foreseen. ... But they were not foreseen. ... We reached the enemy by the narrowest of margins. ... The squadron is proud of its accomplishments, but ... also humbly aware that {they} were made possible by a force beyond our control." Whether negotiating the truce of the Korean War (during which he survived a helicopter crash onto a carrier and, returning ashore, took the wheel of the landing craft to beach it safely through dangerous surf) or eschewing yes-men in the Pentagon as chief of naval operations (he gave rides to hitchhiking sailors to find out what was really going on) Burke has always loomed somewhat larger than life. As an elder statesman, he still does. Tom Clancy and Herman Wouk send him their books for comment. Japanese naval attache's drop in to pay their respects. There is an Arleigh A. Burke Hall at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I., and an Arleigh A. Burke chair in strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies at Georgetown University. The U.S. Naval Institute offers a $1,000 prize in the annual Arleigh A. Burke Competition for the best essay on leadership. Now there is the USS Arleigh Burke on the ways in Bath, awaiting the launching touch of his wife's champagne bottle. Only rarely in its history has the Navy named a ship after a living person. Burke has a whole class of ships named after him. "It's astonishing, after all the battles of his career in and out of Washington, how universally loved the man is," said Paul Stilwell, a historian at the Naval Institute in Annapolis. "I'm sure he must have some enemies somewhere, but I'm not sure where you'd find them." Though Burke retired in 1961, today's Navy is very much his legacy. The country was so mesmerized by air power and atomic bombs after World War II that it flirted with almost total reliance on Air Force bombers for defense, relegating the Navy to little more than an escort force for cargo ships. Assigned in 1949 to make the Navy's case against that strategy, Burke took charge of a behind-the-scenes Navy research effort known as Op (for Operation) 23, which challenged the wisdom of a single, massive deterrent force and correctly forecast the nation's need for the more flexible naval presence at brushfire conflicts around the globe. "The revolt of the admirals" was a flak-catching assignment and landed Burke in disfavor with Truman administration theorists who resented the Navy making the case for its own survival. His name was struck from the promotion list for rear admiral, despite his singularly outstanding war record, until a public outcry prompted Truman to reverse himself. Six years later, however, President Eisenhower picked Burke over 92 more senior officers for the Navy's top job. His mission: to seize the technology of jets, atoms and missiles that Navy traditionalists had been slow to embrace, and point the service toward the 21st century. The United States had just launched the world's first nuclear submarine, and Burke's challenge dwarfed even the evolution from the age of sail: to move the Navy from steam to nuclear power, from guns to guided missiles and from prop planes to jets, all at the same time. "Almost my first order," he told a friend a few years ago, "was to start work on a solid rocket propellant." Rockets then were fueled with liquids unstable and highly dangerous in the dynamic ocean environment, but Burke, who had been trained as a gunnery officer and a chemical engineer, was convinced "that we could come up with a solid fuel ballistic missile that would be safe and practical to launch at sea. "I got several defense contractors working on the idea simultaneously, competing with each other. You couldn't do that now, with all the restrictions, but it was ultimately cheaper that way because it was fast. We had firm cutoff dates in the contract -- if they didn't have results by such and such a date, no more funds. "My idea was to put the missiles on surface ships -- maybe even cargo ships -- and move them around so the Russians wouldn't ever know where they were. But after we'd worked on the missile awhile, one of my men came in the office and said, 'Admiral, this thing will fit in a nuclear submarine.' I said, 'You sure?' He said, 'Yes, sir.' I said 'Well, let's put it there.' " That was the start of the Polaris missile program (and its successor, the Trident), mainstays of the nation's strategic defense for more than a quarter century and for the foreseeable future. The first Polaris submarine was operational in five years. "The thing that comes through over and over in studying his life," says E.B. "Ned" Potter, who headed the Naval Academy's history department for 20 years and just finished a biography of Burke, "is his sincerity and enthusiasm. His love of the Navy has been absolute, both as an institution and as a way of life. He's fought and argued fiercely for what he believed was best for the Navy and the country, but there was never anything personal in the battles. His opponents usually ended up his best friends." He clashed repeatedly with President Kennedy during the Bay of Pigs operation, when the Joint Chiefs of Staff were presented with a CIA plan framed without the advice of the military and air cover for the Cuban invasion was withdrawn at the last minute without their knowledge. Yet Kennedy named Burke to the committee that sought out the lessons of the failed operation, presented Burke his third Distinguished Service Medal, tried to persuade him to accept a fourth term as chief of naval operations and, when that failed, tried to offer him the ambassadorship of Australia. "I have one real advantage with the president," Burke told friends at the time. "He knows I'll give it to him straight because he knows there's nothing I want from him." When Burke had first been named chief of naval operations, he found himself relieving Adm. Robert B. "Mick" Carney, another naval legend for whom Burke had great respect. Burke was advised to clean house promptly and put his own stamp on the new Navy, but he refused to do so at Carney's expense. He retained Carney's entire staff, replacing them with his own people only at the end of their tours of duty. He regularly sought the counsel of those over whom he'd been promoted and personally wrote them a monthly newsletter explaining what was happening in Washington and what he was trying to accomplish. They quickly united behind him. "That was very unusual," Carney, now 94, said the other day. "Arleigh Burke is and always will be very highly respected. He is a man of complete integrity. We have a very close friendship, not only personally but between our families, and I value it very much." If all this makes Burke sound like a gentle taskmaster, he was anything but. In workaholic Washington he is still remembered with awe for the whirlwind style of his seven-day work weeks, which normally stretched daily from 7 a.m. to 9 or 10 p.m. Secretaries worked shifts to keep up with him. He had to be reminded to go home for dinner. "He's the hardest-working man I ever heard of," says historian Potter. "The difference between a good officer and an excellent one is about 10 seconds," Burke says he learned in his destroyer days. "A fine rule is to get going sooner than anticipated, travel faster than expected and arrive before you're due." Arleigh Albert Burke was born Oct. 19, 1901, on his father's farm east of Boulder, Colo, the first of six children of a miner and cowboy who had settled down after marrying the schoolteacher. Hating cattle and farm work, and intrigued by the dashing appearance of military life, Burke took a job in his teens tending horses for the cavalry at an Army post nearby. Fearing that he'd never get a proper education as a pony soldier, his parents persuaded him to try for an appointment to West Point, and on learning those were all filled, for Annapolis, which Burke had never heard of. "I got in, but just barely," he remembers. "I hadn't finished high school and was far less prepared than the other boys. I had to work like hell and I just never got over the habit." Burke made remarkably little impression at the Naval Academy, except on Roberta Gorsuch, a slip of a girl (5 feet, 95 pounds) from Washington whom he met on a blind date. They married the day after graduation in June 1923 and have been together now for 66 years. Longtime friends have seen in "Bobbie" Burke's soft-voiced serenity and quiet but needle-like wit the perfect foil for Burke's flank speed impulsiveness and occasional bluster. One likens her gentling force on her 5-foot-11, 200-pound husband to that she exercised on a memorable Great Dane she once kept as a pet. "I think Arleigh had a little more intelligence than the Great Dane," she says, gently. Her husband was assigned first to the battleship Arizona, and for the next five years Bobbie Burke scurried from port to port on the West Coast. "As soon as I saw where the ship was docked," she says, "I'd start walking, and rent the first acceptable place we could afford. Arleigh always liked to live near the ship." By June 1939, Burke had his own command: a destroyer named the USS Mugford that kindled his talent for speed and daring that would blaze four years later in the South Pacific. The Navy was trying to protect the Marines on Guadalcanal when Burke took command of Destroyer Squadron 23 and christened it with the name of a pot-bellied comic strip Indian named Little Beaver. In their quest for Japanese ships sneaking reinforcements onto Guadalcanal, Burke and his Little Beavers loved nothing more than to race through Blackett Strait at flank speed, sending giant waves to topple Army and Marine latrines perched on stilts at the water's edge. For each such kill a palm-thatched privy was painted on the destroyer bridge. The destroyers' top speed was supposed to be 37 knots, but on constant patrol, deprived of maintenance time, the best they could do as a squadron was 30. Burke begged Adm. William F. "Bull" Halsey for time to tune them but was told they couldn't be spared. As a kind of protest he began all his combat messages with the reproving phrase "Proceeding at 30 knots ... " Finally, in late November 1943, the sailors on his slowest ship, the USS Spence, managed to jury-rig a bypass around a boiler tube unaccountably jammed by a toothbrush, and add an extra knot. When the call came to intercept "at 30 knots" a Japanese force heading for Buka Island, Burke messaged he was "proceeding at 31 knots." Back came a message from Halsey to "31-knot Burke," stamping the squadron commander with a nickname he's worn ever since. If the battle of Cape St. George created Burke's legend, it was when the war moved into the Central Pacific that the scope of his talents shone beyond doubt. Snatched from his beloved destroyers, he was ordered to become chief-of-staff of the First Carrier Task Force then leading the assault on Japan. It was an assignment he didn't want -- he knew little of carriers -- and his superior, Naval aviation pioneer Adm. Marc Mitscher, didn't want him. The two, however, soon became one of the war's most impressive fighting teams. Burke in large part planned such U.S. victories as the Marianas Turkey Shoot and the Battle of the Philippine Sea. At one point off Okinawa they had two ships sunk from under them by kamikazes in four days, with virtually their entire staff killed each time, but never lost control of the battle. "Genuine knowledge of combat at sea is very limited because it's hard to describe," Burke reflected recently. "The ability to handle the extraordinary or the unexpected is much more important than people realize. The only way you can train for it is to tell people it's going to happen, that there will be surprises and they better be ready. But nobody really believes it until it happens." The years as chief of naval operations were heady but draining ones for Burke. Bobbie Burke's watchful eye kept him going. Once, while Burke was waiting for a yeoman to place a call for him to a captain he planned to chew out, he reached in his pocket for his pipe. Out with it came a note from his wife saying, "You're in no mood to make a sound decision." He canceled the call. She also had a talent, still celebrated by Burke, for gently but firmly removing him from microphones just before he said something that would get him in trouble. "Her only problem," says Burke, "is she wasn't always fast enough." The Burkes had always lived simply ("Once an ensign's wife, always an ensign's wife," Bobbie says), but the CNO's office brought with it a staff of servants and the baronial trappings of "Admiral's House" -- since taken over for the vice president -- on the grounds of the Naval Observatory in Northwest Washington. When Burke stepped down as chief of naval operations after six years, he arrived at the change-of-command ceremony in Annapolis in the CNO's chauffeur-driven Chrysler Imperial. He left, however, in the Burkes' 7-year-old beat up Plymouth, which ran out of gas on the way home. The recent chief of the world's most powerful Navy had to walk to a filling station for help. When the Burkes got to their new house in Bethesda, the beds hadn't arrived, so they slept on the floor. Some say Bobbie Burke quietly arranged for all that to happen -- an assertion she mischievously declines to confirm or deny. "I think it was very useful," she observed at the time, "for Arleigh to realize as soon as possible that when it's over, it's over." In retirement, Burke threw himself with characteristic energy into a maelstrom of business and civic activities, serving on numerous corporate boards, working with the Boy Scouts and helping organize the Georgetown Center for Strategic and International Studies, for which he served as chairman, counselor and member of the executive committee for 15 years. One of his regular social events was the annual stag dinner of the Military Order of the Carabao. The original Carabaos were veterans of the Philippine insurrection, and their organization celebrates the fly-blown misery of those bandito-chasing days. Now, however, the herd includes servicemen who've served almost anywhere in Southeast Asia, and functions as a celebratory brotherhood of old soldiers, sailors and airmen and those who wish them well. One night in the early 1980s, Burke asked an old reporter-friend to accompany him to the dinner. At the Washington Sheraton, he plunged into the tuxedo-clad throng of 1,000, pumping the hands of well-wishers, from young commanders to the secretary of defense. Nevertheless, he said, this would be his last Carabao banquet. He'd given up his long-held post of seeing to the whiskey for the dinner. A Marine general held it now and that was good. But when it came time for the traditional report that "the herd was well wetted down," his successor announced that "no Carabao dinner would be complete without hearing from the greatest of them all: Adm. Arleigh Burke." The ballroom exploded into cheers, its occupants rising as one, and the applause went on and on and on. Burke rose finally in acknowledgment and waved from his table. But the cheers continued. Finally he made his way slowly among the tables, mounted the stairs to the stage and stood in the spotlight while the cheers washed over him like waves from the sea of time. There were tears in the eyes of the old warriors as they applauded, and the cheers died slowly. Burke just stood there, looking out over the crowd, blinking back the emotion. Then he spoke. "A sailor," he said in a voice husky with feeling, "always knows his job is done, when he can turn it over to a Marine." Then, as the cheers exploded again, 31-knot Burke took leave of the stage and the spotlight.