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Turner, Richmond Kelly (1885-1961)


Photograph of Admiral Richmond Turner

National Archives #80-G-216636

Kelly Turner was born in Oregon, the son of a schoolteacher, and graduated from the Naval Academy in 1908. After serving on cruisers and destroyers, he attended the Naval Ordnance School in 1915-1916 and became a gunnery expert. He served on battleships in the First World War and took flight training in 1927. The latter was a good career move, allowing Turner to serve with the General Board as air adviser to the Geneva Conference of 1932. Turner graduated from the Naval War College in 1935 and was retained as head of the Strategic Section. As an instructor at the Navy War College, he emphasized aviation and amphibious assault as the predominant form of naval warfare in the future. He chose to return to the line rather than pursue a career in aviation, fearing that a career in aviation would not be "well rounded" (Lundstrom 2006), and by 1940 he was Director of War Plans.

As Director of War Plans, Turner clashed with the Director of Naval Intelligence, Alan Kirk, over distribution of intelligence reports, including Magic decrypts. Stark concluded that Turner was too valuable to alienate and took his side. Turner's department controlled the evaluation and distribution of intelligence thereafter, reducing the Office of Naval Intelligence to a collection agency. This bureaucratic triumph nearly backfired on Turner following the attack on Pearl Harbor, when he was tangentially implicated in the debacle. His career may have been saved by a letter to War Secretary Stimson he prepared for Navy Secretary Knox's signature on 5 February 1941. One section seems remarkably prescient (Prange 1988):

The security of the U.S. Pacific Fleet while in Pearl Harbor, and of the Pearl Harbor Naval Base itself, has been under renewed study by the Navy Department and forces afloat for the past several weeks. This reexamination has been, in part, prompted by the increased gravity of the situation with respect to Japan, and by reports from abroad of successful bombing and torpedo plane attacks on ships while in bases. If war eventuates with Japan, it is believed easily possible that hostilities would be initiated by a surprise attack upon the Fleet or the Naval Base at Pearl Harbor.

In my opinion, the inherent possibilities of a major disaster to the fleet or naval base warrant taking every step, as rapidly as can be done, that will increase the joint readiness of the Army and Navy to withstand  a raid of the character mentioned above.

On the other hand, Turner believed the Japanese would follow up the Pearl Harbor strike with an invasion, a fear that proved unwarranted.

Turner developed the plans for the first  American amphibious assault of the war, at Guadalcanal. However, Marshall persuaded Roosevelt that Turner was too difficult to work with to remain part of the joint Army-Navy planning staff. At King's urging Nimitz accepted Turner as commander of the assault force, where he worked closely with Alexander Vandegrift. Nimitz dryly said of the assignment that Turner was "brilliant, caustic, arrogant, and tactless — just the man for the job" (Tuohy 2007). Fletcher recalls a conversation with Turner during the preinvasion conference (ibid.):

"Kelly, you are making plans to take that island away from the Japs, and the Japs may turn on you and wallop the hell out of you. What are you going to do then?" Turner said, "I am just going to stay there and take my licking." Kelly was tough, a brain and a son of a bitch, and that's just what he did.

Turner turned out to be so superb an amphibious commander that King began jokingly addressing Turner as "the Army's greatest single contribution to the war in the Pacific" and Turner would reply, "Greatest favor that anyone ever did me" (Larrabee 19872). Turner made the gutsy decision to continue unloading the transports at Guadalcanal for several hours after his carrier support had been withdrawn and his surface escorts largely destroyed in the Battle of Savo Island. Though officially exonerated of responsibility for that debacle, he has been criticized by historians for failing to establish clear command responsibilities in the Allied cruiser force. Turner continued running his transports to Guadalcanal with reinforcements and supplies throughout the campaign. He directed amphibious operations during the remainder of the war, first serving as Spruance's amphibious commander and then becoming commander, Amphibious Forces, Pacific Fleet in April 1945. Had the war continued into September, he would have commanded the assault phase of the invasion of Japan. He attended the surrender ceremony and represented the United States to the United Nations Military Committee until his retirement in 1961.

Turner was so short-tempered that he became known as “Terrible Turner,” and he got into some horrendous shouting matches with Marine amphibious expert “Howling Mad” Smith, who shared his temperament. A brilliant perfectionist who did not suffer fools gladly, he sometimes seemed to think he knew everything about everything; a reporter commented that Turner couldn't take a launch to shore without lecturing the coxswain on the handling of his boat. He would brush off subordinates who brought him recommendations, only to include them in his next draft plan. Like many leaders who had difficulty delegating, he was an indefatigable worker. Others have described him as possessed of "corrosive ambition," which was manifest in a tendency to grab for power outside his proper sphere. As the war progressed, he became an alcoholic, drinking heavily after work hours, though he was usually sober by morning (Tuohy 2007):

When I came back home from the Marshalls, I was dead tired. I stayed dead tired for the rest of the war.

Spruance's take on Turner's nightly alcohol binges was tactful: "... the man had tremendous resilience" (Larrabee 1987).

Turner's tendency to micromanage was also manifest in the West Loch fire of 21 May 1944, when an LST at Pearl Harbor exploded while unloading mortar shells. Turner took personal charge of the fire fighting, an act of considerable courage (163 men were killed and 396 injured in the incident) that was completely unnecessary.

Nathan Twining described Turner as (Lundstrom 2006):

A loud, strident, arrogant person who enjoyed settling all matters by simply raising his voice and roaring like a bull captain in the old navy.... [His] peers understood this and valued him for what he was, a good and determined leader with a fine mind — when he chose to use it.

Turner was bitter at Kimmel over the Pearl Harbor disaster and became literally drunk with joy when a 1945 review board upheld the determination that Kimmel was at fault. But he also he was also a forceful and brilliant commander who contributed much to the Allied victory.

Service record

1885-5-22     

Born at Portland, Oregon
1908-6
Ensign     
Graduates from Naval Academy, standing 5th in a class of 201
1913
Lieutenant junior grade     
Commander, Stewart
1915

Naval Ordnance School
1916

Pennsylvania
1917

BB Michigan
1918

Mississippi
1919

Ordnance officer, Naval Gun Factory
1922

California
1925
Commander
Bureau of Ordnance
1927

Flight training
1928

Commander, Aircraft Squadrons, Asiatic Fleet
1932

Adviser, General Board
1933

Executive officer, Saratoga
1935
Captain
Naval War College
1935

Staff, Naval War College
1938

Commander, Astoria
1940-10

Director of War Plans
1941
Rear admiral

1941-12

Assistant chief of staff, U.S. Fleet
1942-7

Commander, Amphibious Forces, South Pacific
1943-8-24

Commander, 5 Amphibious Forces
1944-3
Vice admiral

1945-4

Commander, Amphibious Forces, Pacific Fleet
1945-6
Admiral

1945-12

USN representative to UN Military Staff Committee
1947-6-30

Retires
1961-2-12     

Dies at Monterey, California


References

Boatner (1996)

Lundstrom (2006)

Naval Historical Center (accessed 2007-12-8)

Dupuy et al. (1992)

Frank (1990)

Larrabee (1987)
Pettibone (2006)

Prange (1981)
Spector (1985)

Tuohy (2007)

Venzon (2003)


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