Sunday, August 12, 2012

The Admirals... Who Won the War at Sea


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.

Adm. King
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.”

Adm. Leahy
The book is a sweep of history from early 1900s to the Dec. 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, Battles of Coral Sea and Midway, Guadalcanal and Leyte Gulf and post-war into the admirals’ retirements.

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.

Adm. Halsey
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.  

Adm. Nimitz
About Nimitz, Borneman writes: “His manner was not to bark orders and intimidate with ultimatums, as Ernie King might have done, but rather to convey his expectations quietly yet firmly from top to bottom.”

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.

1 comment:

Michael C/CWO3-USN_RET/7441 said...

A great book that helps to add a dynamic to all the Admirals that helped to win the war. It is a great addition to many other books that gives another perspective to the events, leaders, and obstacles encountered in the war. Other must reads include NIMITZ, Pacific Crucible, At Dawn We Slept, Neptune's Inferno just to start. There is no question that Admiral Nimitz was the right person and personality to be at the front in the Pacific. Halsey was the rock star. King is an unsung hero who's vision and determination cannot be lightly overlooked for being essential to the victory in the Pacific. Leahy is a bigger figure than I imagined, and is probably why it took so long for Marshall to push his complete influence on politics. At Dawn We Slept really outlines the processes and considerations Kimmel faced, and really puts a new light on his actions in my mind. It is also a little known fact that Nimitz was offered the Fleet Command before Kimmel and turned it down. I sometimes wonder if he did not see the timing would make whomever took that job a name associated with disgrace. Add Joe Rochefort's War and you have a good balance for personalities and forces guiding the Pacific campaign.