Review by Bill Doughty
Through the lives of the Navy’s four five-star admirals, author Walter R. Borneman explains not just the history of World War II in the Pacific but also the fascinating role of personality -- good traits and bad -- in leadership.
“The Admirals: Nimitz, Halsey, Leahy, and King: The Five-Star Admirals Who Won the War at Sea” shows how these leaders’ lives were interconnected: Chester W. Nimitz, William F. Halsey Jr., William D. Leahy and Ernest J. King. Born to a generation who served in the Civil War, as young men they witnessed the Spanish-American War, Russo-Japanese War and World War I.
“...their diverse personalities and methods would transform Theodore Roosevelt’s Great White Fleet of their youth into his cousin Franklin’s ultimate weapon of global supremacy,” writes Borneman.
Leahy the ambassador, King the strategist, Halsey the fighter, and Nimitz the consummate leader embraced the changes to warfare in varying degrees as the era of battleships waned and submarines and aviation became vital in naval armament.
Borneman explores the lives and careers of each leader.
“It is remarkable that out of the military names readily associated with World War II, two of the men who did the most to advance grand strategy are largely unknown to the general public -- King and William D. Leahy. Nimitz and Halsey would come to overshadow them in the public’s eye because they held more glamorous, media-rich battlefield commands. But Leahy and King participated in the major strategic decisions that ultimately directed Nimitz and Halsey’s tactical roles.”
Leahy’s father, like MacArthur’s father, fought for the Union from Wisconsin in the Civil War. Leahy championed battleships throughout his career, even after they were proved by the Army Air Corps and by naval air forces to be nearly obsolete. He served as a diplomat and ambassador, loyal to both Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman.
As a boy, King “borrowed book after book about the men and battles of that recent conflict (Civil War).” He had a strong tie to Congressman Carl Vinson and should be remembered for establishing Junior and Senior War Colleges, General Line School, Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps (NROTC) and accreditation for the Naval Academy’s Naval Postgraduate School.
When the Great White Fleet of 16 battleships returned from its around-the-world cruise to be greeted by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1909, Halsey was an ensign on the battleship Kansas. (Spruance was a midshipman aboard Minnesota, and Halsey’s close friend Kimmel was an ensign aboard Georgia.) Halsey was a consummate destroyerman. According to Borneman, “Like him, destroyers were small, tough, nimble yet hard-hitting.”
Described as an always-positive and patient leader with the style of a coach, willing to listen to and empower subordinates, Nimitz was the submariner who built the submarine base at Pearl Harbor twenty years before Imperial Japan attacked. He was an early leader of integrated strategies in fleet operations at sea. Nimitz understood projected power on a grand scale and human nature at the deckplates.
Borneman, whose other books include “1812: The War that Forged a Nation” and “Alaska: Saga of a Bold Land,” writes with a flowing, engaging and clear style. He pieces together the lives and legacies of Nimitz, Halsey, King and Leahy -- from birth to death -- like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, showing a panoramic picture of the past century of naval history and the difference a leader can make on that history.