The Pacific War Online Encyclopedia
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Naval Historical Center # 80-G-416885
theErnest J. King was born in Ohio, the son of a former seaman turned railroad shop foreman. He graduated fourth in his class from Annapolis in 1901, having seen service in the Spanish-American War as a midshipman. He was an observer with Japan during the Russo-Japanese War and commanded a destroyer in the occupation of Vera Cruz in 1914. He became a specialist in submarines after World War I, but in 1928 he became one of several senior officers to qualify as an aviator in order to be eligible for carrier command (Halsey was another). In particular, he was the only candidate for chief of the Burea of Aviation in 1933 who was flight qualified, which got him an early promotion to rear admiral. He also graduated from the Navy War College in 1933. He was promoted to vice admiral in 1938 and command of Aircraft, Battle Force.
In 1939, Stark
was chosen over King as Chief of Naval Operations and King was
relegated to the Naval Board, the traditional final tour of retiring
admirals. However, King headed a study that revealed the antiaircraft deficiencies of the
Fleet and their remedies. This so impressed Charles Edison, the
Secretary of the Navy, that he recommended King to Roosevelt as the officer
best suited to shake the Navy out of its peacetime complacency.
Roosevelt eventually promoted King to full admiral and commander of the
Atlantic Fleet, where King
played a major role in the undeclared war against the German U-boats.
Following the disaster at Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt shook up the top Navy command. King was chosen on 20 December 1941 to relieve Kimmel as commander in chief, U.S. Fleet. President Roosevelt then pushed through legislation to allow King to serve as Chief of Naval Operations as well, replacing Stark, in whom the President had lost confidence, on 26 March 1942. King served in both posts for the duration of the war.
King made himself commander of 10 Fleet, a
organization responsible for coordinating antisubmarine efforts in the
after taking sharp criticism for failing to institute
convoys. Like many
other officers on both sides of the Atlantic, King failed to understand
first what advantage there could be to convoying in the absence of
escort, in spite of British
that even unescorted convoys were better than no convoys at all.
Most historians have assumed that King’s real interest lay
in the Pacific, the focus of the Navy’s
two decades. However, Larrabee (1987) argues that King was an incisive
global strategist who fully understood and supported the "Germany First" policy. But King also understood that there is
no such thing as a defensive war at sea, and he pushed for the
allocation of resources to the Pacific sufficient to support an
aggressive strategy of spoiling attacks and limited offensives. These
would keep the Japanese off-balance until the Navy was strong enough
for a full-blooded counteroffensive.King also believed, as apparently did Lord Beaverbrook as early as ARCADIA,
that there would be enough munitions for offensive action in both the
Pacific and Europe once American industry was brought up to full war
Although the new Pacific Fleet commander, Chester Nimitz, was one of the finest admirals the United States Navy ever produced, King kept him on a somewhat short leash. It was King who dictated the early Pacific strategy of carrier raids against the Japanese perimeter: King had shrewdly evaluated early Japanese operations, concluding that they were carefully planned but rigidly executed and susceptible to being unhinged by the unexpected. This strategy bore scant fruit at first, for the perverse reason that Japanese planning was so rigid that the Japanese were almost incapable of reacting to diversionary attacks. However, the Doolittle Raid ultimately vindicated King's strategic vision, by removing the remaining opposition in Japan to the ill-considered and ultimately disastrous Midway operation. King then found the wisdom and forebearance to let Nimitz fight the Midway battle his own way. It was King who instigated the decisive Guadalcanal campaign and who saw to it that the rapidly expanding fleet began to put Plan Orange into effect in late 1943. However, King lost the political struggle with MacArthur over whether Luzon or Formosa should be the objective of the converging Pacific offensives.
King had a
a sundowner, Navy slang for a brutal disciplinarian. "Once Ernie
King got down on someone, he never changed his mind. Only first
impressions counted" (Lundstrom 2006). One
this was his pledge that no officer who lost his ship would ever be
another ship to command, regardless of circumstances — a promise he
came very close
to keeping. King's ruthlessness reached a climax in in July 1944, when he toured Hawaii and Saipan and thoroughly shook up the leadership of Pacific Fleet. Although King was unwilling to go as far as John Towers,
who loudly argued that all top commands should go to aviators (which,
not incidentally, would have Towers relieving Nimitz as commander of
Pacific Fleet), King did decree that all commanders who were not
aviators should have chiefs of staff who were, and vice versa.
King was also vulgar, arrogant, and a heavy drinker,
terrible reputation for chasing skirts
(he is alleged to have made a
the wife of a subordinate during a formal dinner.) However, after the sinking of Reuben James, he pledged to abstain from alcohol
for the duration,
is thought that he fell off the wagon only two or three times during
war. He was also, in common with many other brilliant men, a poor
delegator. In spite of his faults, he was an exceedingly capable
administrator and made a great contribution towards winning the
war. He had a knack for technology, a remarkable memory, and the
versatility to qualify in both submarines, destroyers, and aircraft.
Larrabee (1987) concluded that "The strongest mind within the American
Joint Chiefs of Staff was the mind of Ernest J. King."
In many respects King was the polar opposite to Yamamoto, who did not drink
but was a fatalist who loved gambling. By contrast, King was a
"calculating unsentimental opponent ... once described by an admirer as
the 'perfect human machine'" (Marston 2005) who left nothing to chance
or to fate.
King opposed the planned invasion of Japan but also disliked the development of nuclear bombs: "... didn't like the atomic bomb or any part of it" (Larrabee 1987). An admirer of Stilwell, he lost much of his enthusiasm for a landing on the China coast in support of the blockade of Japan after Stilwell was recalled. He also came around to the view that Russian intervention against Japan was no longer desirable. He was among the first to recognize the leadership qualities of Truman when he succeeded to the presidency on the death of Roosevelt.
Promoted to fleet admiral on 17 December 1944,
King retired in December 1945 to serve in important advisory capacities
and write his memoirs.
||Born at Lorain, Ohio
||Graduates from Naval Academy,
standing 4th in a class of 67
||Instructor, Naval Academy
||Staff, Battleship Division 2
||BB New Hampshire
||Staff, Atlantic Fleet
Experimental Station, Annapolis
||Commander, DD Cassin
||Staff, Atlantic Fleet
||Qualifies as submariner
||Commander, Submarine Division 11
||Commander, New London Submarine
||Flight training, Pensacola,
||Assistant chief, Bureau of
||Commander, Hampton Roads Naval
||Naval War College
||Chief, Burea of Aeronautics|
||Commander, Aircraft, Base Force
||Commander, Aircraft, Battle Force
||Commander, Aircraft, Scouting
||Commander, Atlantic Fleet
of Naval Operations /
Commander, U.S. Fleet
||Dies at Portsmouth Naval
Hospital, New Hampshire
Center (accessed 2008-1-11)
Dupuy et al. (1992)
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