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J. ARNOLD, S. SINTON, illustrated by DARKO PAVLOVIC
US COMMANDERS OF WORLD WAR II. NAVY AND USMC

Ernest Joseph King

Born in 1878 in Lorain, Ohio, Ernest King graduated from the US Naval Academy in 1901. Before graduation, he managed to outflank normal protocol and secure a position aboard a cruiser that saw action in the Spanish American War. During the years leading to World War One, King served in a variety' of technical and administrative positions and commanded destroyers. He accompanied the Atlantic Fleet to Europe when the United States entered the war. He attended planning sessions and acquired a profound understanding of the complexities of multinational strategic planning. He also developed a mistrust of both the British and all bureaucracies. After the war, his abrasive personality impeded promotion.

Admiral Husband Kimmel was the senior naval officer present at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. In his capacity as commander of the United States Pacific Fleet, he received much blame, some justified, some not. Following the successful British torpedo attack on the Italian fleet at Taranto, the Secretary of the Navy suggested to Kimmel that an anti-torpedo net barrier be placed around Battleship Row. Kimmel rejected the idea because it "would restrict boat traffic by narrowing the channel." Such lack of foresight cost Kimmel his job ten days after Pearl Harbor. (National Archives)

Sensing the growing importance of air warfare, King qualified as a naval aviator in 1928. He graduated from the Naval War College and became Chief of the Bureau of Aeronautics. This position taught him a great deal about government spending as he successfully lobbied for funding of aviation programs. When President Roosevelt sought a qualified flag officer who was also a pilot, the only choice was King. Consequently, he promoted King to rear admiral in 1933. By 1938, King was a vice admiral in command of the Pacific Fleet's carriers and land-based aircraft. He urged the development of fast carrier and battleship squadrons, but the navy's orthodox thinkers ignored him.

Facing apparent retirement. King's great chance came in 1940 when he served with the Secretary of the Navy on a fact-finding mission. He impressed the secretary who, in turn, urged President Roosevelt to appoint him to command the Atlantic Fleet as a four-star admiral. This gave King a direct link to Roosevelt and led to his appointment to the Combined Allied Staff. As part of the major shake-up in the navy's senior command, following Pearl Harbor, King became Commander-in-Chief of the US Fleet. This post overlapped with the Chief of Naval Operations, so in March 1942 Roosevelt gave King enormous powers by appointing him to both positions. He became the first officer to hold the navy's two most senior positions simultaneously. In this capacity, King also represented the navy on the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

King believed that the Pacific Theater should get first call on military resources. This belief led him into frequent disputes with advocates of the "Germany first" strategy. His blunt, candid, and domineering personality caused frequent clashes with numerous American and Allied leaders. His daughter explained that King was "even tempered, he's just mad all the time." With King in attendance, strategic debates often became heated and led to personal antagonisms. In particular. King and General "Hap" Arnold, the air force representative on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, did not get along very well. However, King knew that the Joint Chiefs of Staff had to cooperate to prosecute the war effectively, and that was always his overriding goal.

After Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Admiral Ernest King wrote, "The way to victory is long. The going will be hard. We will do the best we can with what we've got. We must have more planes and ships - at once. Then it will be our turn to strike. We will win through - in time." King's determination helped the navy through the difficult, early war days. His insistence on procuring the best ships and planes that money could buy, at prices within the nation's budget was a key factor in overcoming obstacles to the navy's expansion. His fixation on the Pacific Theater interfered with overall Allied strategy. His difficult personality led Roosevelt to joke that he "shaved with a blow torch." (National Archives)

This picture shows three architects of victory in the Pacific: Admiral King (center) with his two key subordinates, Admiral Nimitz (left) and Admiral Halsey (right). (National Archives)

Still, the fierce competition for resources led to repeated bureaucratic battles. During the planning for an attack in the Solomon Islands, the army-navy feud became so heated that King warned General George Marshall that he would order the operation to proceed "even if no support of army forces in the southwest Pacific [MacArthur] is made available." At the January 1943 Casablanca Conference, King wanted a larger share of the rapidly expanding store of Allied resources committed to the Pacific. He and Marshall proposed that 30 percent of Allied resources go to the Pacific, China, Burma, and India. The real issue was not the total, but rather the amount, of scarce, critical resources: landing craft, heavy bombers, ocean escort ships, and cargo shipping. The British were more interested in Europe than the Pacific and skillfully avoided categorical responses to King's plan. During a heated argument, King suggested that after the United States aided Britain in Europe the British would fail to help the Americans in the Pacific. Prime Minister Winston Churchill interceded to promise that this would not happen. Because of King's arguments, the Combined Chiefs agreed that there should be no let-up in the pressure against Japan. King informed Nimitz that the US Chiefs of Staff had convinced the British "of the fact that there is a war going on in the Pacific and that it had to be adequately implemented even though the major operation continues in Europe."

King's efforts at Casablanca did not address the problems of the divided command in the Pacific. According to boundaries on the map and prior plans, after the capture of Guadalcanal, the next offensive would occur within MacArthur's jurisdiction. However, after great effort, the navy had assembled a powerful fleet in the Solomons and it did not like the idea of handing over operational responsibility to a general. This type of inter-service rivalry plagued operations in the Pacific until the war's end, and Ring did little to resolve it. He also continued to dispute with British strategists over the proper conduct of the war. This caused him to prod Nimitz to rush preparations for operations in the Central Pacific. He informed his staff that they must hurry "so that the British could not back down on their agreements and commitments. We must he so committed in the Central Pacific that the British cannot hedge on the recall of ships from the Atlantic." The marines paid with their blood at Tarawa for this demand for haste.

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