The Admirals

Nimitz, Halsey, Leahy, and King--The Five-Star Admirals Who Won the War at Sea


By Walter R. Borneman

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How history’s only five-star admirals triumphed in World War II and made the United States the world’s dominant sea power.

Only four men in American history have been promoted to the five-star rank of Admiral of the Fleet: William Leahy, Ernest King, Chester Nimitz, and William Halsey. These four men were the best and the brightest the navy produced, and together they led the U.S. navy to victory in World War II, establishing the United States as the world’s greatest fleet.

In The Admirals, award-winning historian Walter R. Borneman tells their story in full detail for the first time. Drawing upon journals, ship logs, and other primary sources, he brings an incredible historical moment to life, showing us how the four admirals revolutionized naval warfare forever with submarines and aircraft carriers, and how these men — who were both friends and rivals — worked together to ensure that the Axis fleets lay destroyed on the ocean floor at the end of World War II.


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In time of war, would we be content like the turtle to withdraw into our own shell and see an enemy supersede us in every outlying part, usurp our commerce, and destroy our influence as a nation throughout the world?

FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT, Assistant Secretary of the Navy, 1913

Proud of the navy "N" on his sweater—even if he missed a button putting it on—William F. Halsey, Jr., commanded the destroyer Shaw (DD-68) off Ireland in the summer of 1918. (F. E. Sellman photo, courtesy of Gary Fabian).



"The Judge"

—Annapolis, Class of 1897

The glistening white bow of the American battleship Oregon drove through wave after towering wave as the big ship clawed its way south through heavy seas. Its jack staff at the bow routinely disappeared as fully fifteen feet of blue water broke on the forward turret and threw white spray nearly the length of the ship. It was April 1898, and as the Oregon thundered toward the fabled Strait of Magellan, the air hung thick with rumors of war with Spain. In fact, in this era before radio communications, there was no way for the captain to know if war had already begun.

By the standards of any contemporary navy, the Oregon was a major strategic weapon. The Union Iron Works of San Francisco had laid down its keel late in 1891 as the third in a line of Indiana-class battleships. At 348 feet in length, with a beam of 69 feet and a displacement of 10,288 tons, the ship was a beefy platform for a dazzling array of firepower, including two 13-inch guns each in the main fore and after turrets.

Oregon and its older sisters, Indiana and Massachusetts, owed their existence to a belated post–Civil War awakening that the United States, having largely completed its expansion from sea to sea, should now be prepared not only to defend its interests but also to seek other territory well beyond its borders. Not everyone, however, supported this creeping American imperialism. Many avowed isolationists in Congress wanted only coastal defenses and opposed offensive, long-range battleships. The futurists in the U.S. Navy managed to paper over such disputes by calling this new generation of vessels "seagoing coastline battleships."

In addition to its armaments, the Oregon relied on a belt of eighteen-inch-thick armor plating around its sides and thinner armor for its gun turrets and decking. The ship also had two other distinct advantages: it was fast for the time—twin screws delivered better than fifteen knots—and its spacious coal bunkers provided a range of more than six thousand miles. Heavily armed, well protected, speedy, and long-range, Oregon and its class were clearly the advent of a new generation of naval warfare. They could boast of being the first modern-era battleships of the U.S. Navy.

Among Oregon's complement of 32 officers and 441 enlisted men were 6 green naval cadets. They were 1897 graduates of the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, but not yet full-fledged ensigns because the navy required two years of sea duty before awarding commissions. Service aboard a first-class ship such as the Oregon was a plum assignment, even if some of the old hands tended to view the flocking cadets more as nuisance gnats than budding officers.

The pulses of old salts and young greenhorns alike had quickened on March 19, 1898, as the battleship departed San Francisco and passed through the Golden Gate, its destination known only to its captain. After 4,700 miles and the traditional "crossing the equator" ceremony, Oregon steamed into Callao, Peru. But ship and crew paused there only long enough to fill the coal bunkers to the brim and secure an extra two hundred tons of coal in sacks on the decks.

Rumors were rife that they might be headed for Honolulu or even the Philippines, but as Oregon cleared the harbor, it turned south toward the stormy seas around Cape Horn at the tip of South America. By the time another three thousand miles had fallen astern, the Strait of Magellan beckoned, and an icy southerly gale whipped the battering waves ever higher. "Under the onslaught of these gigantic seas," recalled naval cadet William D. Leahy, "the ship dove, trembled, shook them off, and dove again." According to Leahy, "We said she smelled the Spanish Fleet."1

Cadet Leahy's Irish grandparents, Daniel and Mary Egan Leahy, immigrated to the United States in 1836 and settled in Massachusetts. A son, Michael Arthur, was born two years later, shortly before the family moved to New Hampshire. There a second son, John Egan, joined the family. But it was in a tiny village in Dodge County, Wisconsin, just west of Milwaukee, that the Leahys put down roots.

Like so many of their generation, brothers Michael and John Leahy saw military service during the Civil War—not necessarily by choice, but out of a sense of duty. When the Thirty-fifth Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry Regiment was mustered at Milwaukee early in 1864, twenty-five-year-old Michael Leahy became captain of Company D and brother John a first lieutenant in Company C.

Wisconsin certainly had no shortage of famous units. Perhaps best known were those Wisconsin regiments that made up part of the Army of the Potomac's stalwart Iron Brigade. No less storied was the Twenty-fourth Wisconsin. On a raw November day in 1863, the Twenty-fourth Wisconsin formed beneath Missionary Ridge outside Chattanooga, Tennessee. Union troops were trying to lift the siege of the town, but Confederate defenders were proving stubborn. Quite suddenly, without orders, Union regiments in the center of the line began to move forward up the ridge. When their wild advance was over, among the battle flags atop the crest was the standard of the Twenty-fourth Wisconsin, carried there by its eighteen-year-old "boy colonel," Arthur MacArthur, whose son, Douglas, would spend most of his own military career trying to emulate his father's charge.

The Thirty-fifth Wisconsin was not destined for such glory. Its service was mostly garrison duty around New Orleans and Mobile, Alabama, far from the major campaigns of the war. But such duty was not without risk. The regiment suffered only two casualties from battle, but lost 3 officers and 271 enlisted men to disease. The Leahy brothers returned from the war proud of their service, and for the rest of his life, Michael regularly attended meetings of veterans' groups and marched in Fourth of July parades.

After his discharge, Michael studied law at the University of Michigan and earned his degree in 1868. Briefly forsaking Wisconsin, he began to practice law in the small town of Hampton, Iowa, where a Wisconsin girl thirteen years his junior, Rose Mary Hamilton, caught his eye. They married and were still living in Hampton when William Daniel Leahy, the first of their eight children, was born on May 6, 1875.

Michael and Rose were eager to return to Wisconsin, and they soon joined Michael's brother, John, upstate in Wausau. By the time young William—he was "Bill" to just about everyone—was ready for high school, the family moved even farther north to Ashland, on the southern shore of Lake Superior.

As Bill approached his high school graduation in 1892, Michael Leahy encouraged his son to pursue a law degree at the University of Wisconsin and join him in his legal practice. Bill certainly appeared to have an aptitude for law, including an almost stoic, deliberative thought process and attention to detail, but there was something about his father's military service—brief and unsung though it was—that intrigued him. Bill decided instead to seek an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

Congressman Thomas Lynch was impressed with the young man, but Lynch had no West Point appointments that year. He did, however, have an opening the following year at the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis. Was Leahy interested in the navy? Despite living near the wind-tossed waters of Lake Superior, Leahy, like most of the country at the time, had not given the navy much thought. During his years growing up, he and the country had focused on the U.S. Army's exploits in the West, such as chasing the Apache leader Geronimo. But at least the Naval Academy was the military and, after all, a free education. Leahy accepted and spent the next year preparing for the entrance exams, particularly a newly added algebra requirement.2

Geographically, there is nothing particularly remarkable about Maryland's Severn River to set it apart from dozens of similar rivers, creeks, and runs that pour their waters via broad estuaries into Chesapeake Bay. Exiles from Virginia founded a settlement on the northern banks of the Severn in 1649 but soon moved to a better-protected harbor on the south shore. For a time, this was called Anne Arundel's Towne, after the wife of Lord Baltimore, but in 1694 it became the capital of the colony of Maryland and was renamed Annapolis—not to honor Anne Arundel, but rather Princess Anne, soon to be queen of England.

Annapolis prospered as a trading center until overtaken by growing Baltimore, and then it became quite content as a political and cultural center. Its recently completed statehouse served as the temporary capitol of the fledgling United States during 1783–1784, and it was there that General George Washington tendered his resignation as commander in chief of the Continental Army.

In 1808, Fort Severn—complete with a circular rampart for about a dozen cannons to protect the town—was built on Windmill Point. War with Great Britain was on the horizon, and in September 1814 the British indeed came into the upper Chesapeake Bay in force but bypassed Annapolis in favor of the grander prize of Baltimore—only to be repulsed by the defenders of Fort McHenry.

Despite its successes during the War of 1812, the U.S. Navy languished in the postwar period. The education of a naval officer came by doing on board ship and was frequently a rather hit-or-miss affair. The senior ranks were filled with officers owing their positions more to seniority than command abilities. This changed with the presidential election of 1844. James K. Polk appointed one of the architects of his victory, fellow Democrat George Bancroft of Massachusetts, as his secretary of the navy.

Always a dapper dresser, Bancroft would become best known as a historian, but he energetically set about establishing a formal education for aspiring naval officers—something the army had begun at West Point in 1802. But where to do this was problematic. Bancroft faced general criticism—"You could no more educate sailors in a shore college than you could teach ducks to swim in a garret"—and specific assertions that attempting to convert the existing Philadelphia Naval Asylum School would be defeated by "the temptations and distractions that necessarily connect with a large and populous city."3

So Bancroft chose Fort Severn at relatively staid and quiet Annapolis. On October 19, 1845, he arranged for a transfer of the post from the army to the navy and skirted the issue of a congressional appropriation by finding funds within his budget to make the facility operational. It was hardly very grand, but fifty naval cadets and seven professors arrived on the banks of the Severn and planted the seeds of a long and noble tradition. By 1850, the school's official name was the United States Naval Academy, but it would often be called simply "Annapolis."4

When William D. Leahy arrived on the banks of the Severn River in late May 1893, Annapolis was definitely the weaker of the two service academies, a weakness mirrored by the country's low regard for its navy. A total of 243 naval cadets—they would not be called midshipmen until several years later—were enrolled in the fouryear program. The 1893 enrollment of West Point was 318.

But the navy was determined to lose no time in separating closet landlubbers from true sailors. By the first week of June, Leahy and a third of his incoming class of seventy-seven were aboard the venerable War of 1812–era frigate Constellation, sailing eastward across the Atlantic. Leahy was assigned to the fore-topgallant yard, working the uppermost sails atop the foremast. If he had any lingering thoughts of the green fields of West Point, he put them aside and took to this new lifestyle—allowing of course for some major adjustments. When the class of 1897 reflected on its first few weeks at sea in the academy's first yearbook, the adjustments were clear: "Pell mell, slipping, sliding on the slanting deck, our faces distorted with the keenest anguish, we hurried to it, to give our tribute to old Ocean, and then to lie down and feel that death and dry land were the two finest things in the world."5

Constellation was scheduled to take the green-gilled cadets all the way to Europe, but stormy seas in the mid-Atlantic diverted the ship first to the Azores and then to the Madeira Islands for repairs. By the time the work was done, Constellation stood westward to return to Annapolis for the start of the academic year. Among the officers aboard supervising this new class of cadets was Lieutenant William F. Halsey, whose not-quite-teenage son, William Jr., was determined to enter Annapolis himself one day.

Once ashore, the cadets began classroom work that was grueling and heavily focused on the sciences. Courses ranged from physics, chemistry, and a full range of mathematics to navigation, seamanship, and steam engineering. Daily recitations were the usual order. There were also classes in history, international law, and each cadet's choice of language. Leahy and most of his classmates wisely chose French, then the international language of diplomacy and commerce. The only major drawback in the curriculum, Leahy later observed, was a lack of instruction in writing and speaking proper English. His preparation in that regard was limited to some spelling and the memorization of a few poems he quickly forgot.6

His physical looks became rugged but hardly dashing as he grew to five feet ten inches in height. His gray eyes, under brownish hair that quickly began to recede above his brow, were more evaluating than sparkling. Those who didn't know him well would later claim, "There was something sinister about his owlish profile and his always solemn manner. He usually looked in his photographs as if he were forever smelling bad fish."7

As a student and an athlete at Annapolis, Leahy was solid but never stellar. He was content to play tackle on the B squad in football, and he sometimes seemed to float his way through classes. One classmate and lifelong friend, future admiral Thomas C. Hart, even recalled Leahy being "not good, a little lazy" as a student. But Hart readily acknowledged that when the chips were down or a sticky problem presented itself, someone would inevitably say, "Let's go and ask Bill Leahy. He's got better sense than all the rest of us put together."8 That common sense seemed to radiate from Leahy's otherwise reserved and even dour personality throughout his life, and among his classmates it earned him the nickname "the Judge."

On June 4, 1897, William D. Leahy graduated a respectable fourteenth among the remaining forty-seven members of the class of 1897. While this relatively small number of new naval officers reflected the size of the U.S. Navy, no one should underestimate the academy's influence on the navy's future. Twelve of these graduates would reach flag rank and be accorded admiral's stars. But for now, they all faced two years of sea duty and a final round of examinations before being commissioned as ensigns.9

When Leahy and five of his classmates were ordered to report to the battleship Oregon, they joined the ship in Victoria, British Columbia, where it had steamed to attend festivities celebrating Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee. For the sixty years of her reign, "Rule, Britannia" had been the undisputed order of the seas. But now the aging queen and her empire were facing ever-increasing competition. Germany, in particular, was busy launching a new line of steel battleships. Russia, France, and Japan were also adding warships to their fleets, and even Spain seemed determined to use its navy to hang on to the vestiges of what before the rise of Great Britain had been its global empire. Oregon itself was proof that the United States had also entered the race.

At the head of the charge for increased American naval power was the thirty-eight-year-old assistant secretary of the navy, who had cut his big teeth on sea power by writing a history of the U.S. Navy's glories during the War of 1812. With excruciating detail of broadside weight and occasional hyperbole, Theodore Roosevelt's bestselling The Naval War of 1812—first published in 1882—had nonetheless become so important to a reinvigoration of the American navy that at least one copy was required to be aboard every navy vessel. Roosevelt's subsequent writing had included a well-received chronicle of American expansion across the continent, and now he seemed determined to win the United States an expanded role around the globe.

Beyond the nautical knowledge he had acquired as a historian, there was not a great deal in Roosevelt's background to recommend him to the post of assistant secretary of the navy. But the position was a political appointment, and Roosevelt was one of many Republicans who had canvassed the country in William McKinley's stead during the 1896 election.

After McKinley won, Roosevelt supporters shamelessly lobbied in his behalf, but McKinley was skeptical. "I hope [Roosevelt] has no preconceived plans which he would wish to drive through the moment he got in," the president-elect fretted to Roosevelt's good friend Henry Cabot Lodge. Of course not, replied Lodge with a straight face. To another Roosevelt supporter, the peaceful McKinley admitted that he knew Roosevelt only slightly but was afraid that the New Yorker might prove "too pugnacious."

McKinley was right to be leery on both counts, but he surrendered to the onslaught of Roosevelt lobbyists, and Roosevelt became assistant secretary of the navy in 1897. Just one week after being sworn in, he presented McKinley with a requested memorandum on fleet preparedness. For all its straightforward detail and balanced analysis, it also contained four separate warnings of possible "trouble with Cuba."10

Trouble with Cuba really meant trouble with Spain, which had ruled the island, despite frequent uprisings and occasional interruptions, since the days of Christopher Columbus. The United States had expressed interest in the island for at least half a century, and now there was once again a popular uprising under way that in some minds argued for American intervention.

Later that summer, as Leahy was graduating from Annapolis, Roosevelt told a gathering at the Naval War College, "To be prepared for war is the most effectual means to promote peace." About the same time, Roosevelt struck up a friendship with a navy commodore named George Dewey.

As a young lieutenant under Admiral David Farragut during the Civil War, Dewey had watched in awe as Farragut's wooden ships ran past Confederate forts to capture New Orleans. Later, he missed Farragut's famous utterance, "Damn the torpedoes; full speed ahead!" as the admiral steamed into Mobile Bay, but Dewey always hoped that a similar situation might present itself in his own career, and Roosevelt wanted to make it possible.11

To Theodore Roosevelt, the best part of his job was when the secretary of the navy, the mild and grandfatherly John D. Long, took one of his leisurely vacations. Then Roosevelt became acting secretary. The day before Long's return to Washington in late September 1897, Acting Secretary Roosevelt discovered to his horror that another commodore had been recommended to command the Asiatic Squadron instead of Dewey. Roosevelt swung into action, arranging for a senator to speak to McKinley on Dewey's behalf, and had a presidential memorandum requesting Dewey's appointment on Long's desk by the time he arrived back in his office the next morning. Long read it and fumed, as he personally favored the other commodore, but he could hardly argue with the president. Commodore George Dewey soon departed for Hong Kong to become Theodore Roosevelt's man in the Far East.12

With the Philippines in Dewey's crosshairs, Roosevelt turned his attention to Cuba. Ironically, it was Secretary Long who suggested that the battleship Maine be dispatched from Key West to Havana as a friendly act of diplomatic courtesy. The Spanish in Cuba could hardly refuse, but tensions were such that the Maine's captain refused to permit his crew shore leave upon the ship's arrival.

On the evening of February 15, 1898, as the Maine rode at anchor in Havana harbor, a gigantic explosion rocked the ship, almost obliterating the forward third of the vessel. Maine sank quickly, taking 266 men with it. Whether this explosion came from a mine or other device external to the ship or from an undetected fire in one of its own coal bunkers adjacent to a powder magazine continues to be hotly debated. At the time, especially to those anxious for war with Spain, the only acceptable explanation was sabotage.13

On the afternoon of February 25, with Secretary Long conveniently out of the office, Roosevelt cabled Commodore Dewey in Hong Kong to keep his squadron full of coal and, in the event of a declaration of war with Spain, take offensive operations against the Spanish fleet in the Philippines. When Long returned the next morning, he reported that "Roosevelt, in his precipitate way, has come very near causing more of an explosion than happened to the Maine." Significantly, however, Long did not countermand Roosevelt's orders, and as the momentum toward war swept beyond his control a few weeks later, he ordered the Oregon to hurry from the West Coast to join the main Atlantic fleet.14

The rush to war also overtook the president. On Monday, April 11, 1898, bolstered by public opinion, William McKinley sent a war message to Capitol Hill. Enough isolationists remained there that it took a week's debate before Congress declared war on Spain on April 19—exactly one year to the day since Theodore Roosevelt had joined the Navy Department.

William D. Leahy and his crewmates on the Oregon heard the news from the harbormaster in Rio de Janeiro on April 30. Having weathered the Pacific gales and safely transited the Strait of Magellan, Oregon was making its way north along the Atlantic coast of South America. Rumors were rife that four Spanish cruisers and three torpedo-boat destroyers were lurking ahead. Oregon's white paint was hastily covered with dull gray and its decks cleared for action. By the time the ship called at Bahia (now Salvador), Brazil, shore gossip was that the Spanish fleet had eluded the U.S. North Atlantic Squadron and captured Philadelphia and Boston.15

The truth was even more astounding, and it came from the other side of the world. The nation that had rushed so gaily to war was stunned by the speed and totality of its first victory. Commodore Dewey's Asiatic Squadron of two heavy cruisers—Olympia and Baltimore, each carrying four 8-inch guns—three light cruisers, and a gunboat had boldly sailed into Manila Bay. Five times, the squadron paraded past the anchored Spanish fleet with guns blazing. "At 7:35 a.m.," reported Dewey, "I ceased firing and withdrew the squadron for breakfast." By the time he returned to the attack, "the Spanish flagship and almost all the Spanish fleet were in flames." Remarkably, no one on the American side was killed, and only seven were wounded.16

George Dewey was immediately promoted to rear admiral, and his name quickly became a household word throughout the United States. Dewey had found his long-sought glory, but he also knew full well that Theodore Roosevelt had given him the opportunity. Another in Roosevelt's inner circle, naval strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan, called the Battle of Manila Bay "a grand victory" and predicted that it "would go down into history as the greatest naval battle on record."

It was hardly that. But Mahan was becoming quite a cult figure when it came to projecting naval power. Many a junior officer would eagerly devour his assessment that "the result of this engagement plainly indicates that a cool-headed commander who gets into the fight first and proceeds to business has the best of the battle from the start."17

Things would not be quite so easy when the Oregon encountered the Spanish fleet off Cuba. Four cruisers and three torpedo-boat destroyers had indeed sailed from Spain and were now anchored in the harbor at Santiago, on the island's southeastern shore. Oregon joined the battleships of the North Atlantic Squadron at Key West on May 26, having steamed more than fourteen thousand miles in sixty-nine days since leaving San Francisco.

To some, transferring a battleship from one coast to the other in that short of a time was a remarkable achievement. To others, the Oregon's circuitous race around South America was taken as strong evidence for the need to build the Panama Canal. To no one's surprise, Theodore Roosevelt was among those standing in the forefront arguing for the canal's construction and its firm military control by the United States. Determined to get into the fray personally, he had just resigned as assistant secretary of the navy in order to recruit a regiment of volunteers and join the war.18

After taking on coal at Key West, the Oregon


On Sale
May 1, 2012
Page Count
576 pages

Walter R. Borneman

About the Author

Walter R. Borneman is the author of nine works of nonfiction, including MacArthur At War, The Admirals, Polk, and The French and Indian War. He holds both a master's degree in history and a law degree. He lives in Colorado.

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