With V-J Day fresh in our memories, perhaps this is a good time to return to the Fifty Book Challenge.  Book Review No. 18 is Walter R. Borneman's The Admirals: Nimitz, Halsey, Leahy, and King -- The Five-Star Admirals Who Won the War At Sea.  The post's title borrows from a chapter title -- apparently interservice rivalries do not go away, even if total war against powers that pose an existential threat is in progress.  And fighting total war, as a reader will see, is not without moral challenges, even among a command authority committed to victory.

The Admirals focuses on the lives of the fleet admirals and their interactions with civilian authority and their colleagues in the Navy and the other services.  If you're interested in the specifics of, for example Midway, read this or this or this; or the complexities of Leyte Gulf,  see this or this or read this or this.

Who, then, are these admirals, each of whom now has a building bearing his name at Annapolis?

William D. Leahy (Annapolis, 1897) expected to end his service in August, 1939.  But he had worked closely with Franklin D. Roosevelt over the years, and as president, he told Leahy, "Bill, if we ever have a war, you're going to be right back here, helping me run it."  Which he did, from the White House staff, perhaps serving as interim president when Mr Roosevelt started to falter.  But for all his championing of the battleship, he only served on Oregon in anger, during the Spanish-American war, and it was his karma to see the battleships supplanted by submarines and aircraft carriers.

Ernest J. King (Annapolis, 1901) also expected to be placed on the retired list, but he, too, was kept on duty and served as Commander in Chief, U.S. Fleet (give him credit for rejecting CINCUS as the acronym in favor of COMINCH.)  He's the most intriguing of the four admirals, having a reputation for not suffering fools gladly and having a remark attributed to him, "they have to keep the real S.O.B.s around when the going gets tough," that may be apocryphal.  But he was receptive enough to the emergence of the submarines and naval aircraft to get his pilot's wings, and concur with new fleet deployments that placed the carrier at the center and the fast battleships in the screen.  Plus a vignette on how social mores have changed (p. 70): "When the infatuation phase passed and [new wife] Mattie [Egerton] failed to measure up intellectually, King quickly got bored.  This didn't stop him from fathering six daughters and one son with her, but his physical and intellectual lust quickly began to scan other harbors."  Which was well known in the fleet, including during the Big War.  Decide for yourself, dear reader, whether greater freedom not to marry or to divorce is an understandable evolution of convention.

William F. Halsey (Annapolis, 1904) is perhaps the best known of the four fleet admirals, and certainly the admiral who gave the best copy.  There's that special quality to "The Japs are hanging onto Guadalcanal by their fingernails -- and their tails!" that is necessary to fighting a total war, and a little of that sort of constructive othering might be useful in winning the fight against the jihadis.  During the Big War, he and Raymond A. Spruance (Annapolis, 1907) alternated as commander of the Big Blue Fleet, which changed its designation from Third Fleet flying Halsey's flag to Fifth Fleet with Spruance commanding (in part to mess with Japanese intelligence).  The book deals with the merits of a fifth star for Spruance, but perhaps being the youngest -- at fifty-seven, with a war on -- man ever to screen for four stars was honor enough.

Chester W. Nimitz (Annapolis, 1905) might be as well known as Admiral Halsey, and certainly, as the only one of the four Fleet Admirals to have an aircraft carrier bearing his name, probably has the most name recognition among people who don't follow naval affairs closely.  He served on submarines and aircraft carriers early, perhaps developing an appreciation for these ships that served him in good stead in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, when the submarines and carriers were the only tools remaining.  Of the four admirals, Adm. Nimitz had the most experience with messing up as helmsman and skipper, and accordingly was the least disposed to purge promising officers who might have bent a prop or run aground.

The attitudes of these admirals toward asymmetric warfare and technological warfare are interesting.  All had reservations about submarines, in part because of their limited range and punch, in part because of their potential for waging asymmetric warfare.  Germany's Admiral Dönitz supposedly had a seascape hanging in his office.  He described it as "the fleet passing in review in 1955."  And yes, the German Navy worked on all manner of things, short of nuclear propulsion, to give their U-boats legs and additional punch.

Naval aviation was another matter.  Although the attitude among the senior admirals was that an airplane could not damage a battleship, and it might be possible to set up a strong enough screen, a number of exercises before the war, including a practice raid on Pearl Harbor itself, changed minds.  Not enough minds, though, to preclude the sneak raid on Pearl Harbor and the unopposed raid on MacArthur's air force on Luzon the next day.

All four admirals, similarly, had doubts about the atomic bomb.  Admiral Leahy had doubts about the experiment working, or about the surrender-inducing effects of its use; Admiral King had little use for the Bomb, or for revealing its existence; Admiral Halsey suggested that the war was won anyway; while Admiral Nimitz saw nuclear weapons as "somehow indecent."

The supporting cast, and their interactions with the five-stars, make for interesting reading.  In addition to Gen. MacArthur and Adm. Spruance, we meet such characters as Admiral Arleigh "Thirty-One Knot" (that's actually a dig, read the book) Burke and Admirals John Sidney McCain the elder and the younger (grandfather and father of the eponymous senator from Arizona.)

What have we learned?  I'll give Admiral Leahy (page 452) the last word, and the deep word.
Acknowledging the transformation in the nation's armed forces, Leahy declared, "Today we have the biggest and most powerful navy in the world, more powerful than any other two navies in existence.... But," he cautioned, "we must not depend on this strength and this power alone."  America's true strength and the secret weapon that really won the war, he concluded, "came from our basic virtues as a freedom-loving nation."
We ignore that truth at our peril.

(Cross-posted to Fifty Book Challenge.)


Dr. Tufte said...

Two thoughts:

1) I read once, and was never able to document again, that Nimitz was promoted over something like 28 other officers when he was put in charge. Any details on that in this book?

2) My late father-in-law served in the 3rd/5th and Task Force 38/58. Within a few seconds of meeting him, you would classify him as someone who would favor Halsey. I asked him straight up one time which he preferred, and he surprised me by saying Spruance.

Stephen Karlson said...

Book doesn't say who skipped over whom once the shooting started (Spruance's promotion also involved some seniority skipped) but at page 213 there's "Roosevelt and Knox ... needed a man who was well versed in both ships and men and who was also untainted by the recent disaster. 'Tell Nimitz,' commanded Roosevelt, 'to get the hell out to Pearl and stay there until the war is won.'"

Among the people skipped over is Halsey, who Roosevelt and Knox recognized as the kind of street-fighter who would be useful in command. And Halsey picked Spruance as his stand-in before Midway.

If your father-in-law had been sailing with Spruance at the time of the Turkey Shoot and with Halsey during the hurricanes and Leyte Gulf, perhaps he might have developed a few reservations about Halsey.