About Ernest Joseph King
Fleet Admiral Ernest Joseph King (23 November 1878 – 25 June 1956) was Commander in Chief, United States Fleet and Chief of Naval Operations (COMINCH-CNO) during World War II. As COMINCH, he directed the United States Navy's operations, planning, and administration and was a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He was the U.S. Navy's second most senior officer after Fleet Admiral William D. Leahy, and the second admiral to be promoted to five star rank. As COMINCH, he served under Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox and later under James Forrestal.
King was born in Lorain, Ohio, on 23 November 1878, the son of James Clydesdale King and Elizabath Keam King. He attended the United States Naval Academy from 1897 until 1901, graduating fourth in his class. During his senior year at the Academy, he attained the rank of Cadet Lieutenant Commander, the highest possible cadet ranking at that time.
While still at the Academy, he served on the USS San Francisco during the Spanish American War. After graduation, he served as a junior officer on the survey ship USS Eagle, the battleships USS Illinois, USS Alabama and USS New Hampshire, and the cruiser USS Cincinnati.
While still at the Naval Academy, he met Martha Rankin ("Mattie") Egerton, a Baltimore socialite, whom he married in a ceremony at the Naval Academy Chapel on 10 October 1905. They had six daughters, Claire, Elizabeth, Florence, Martha, Eleanor and Mildred; and then a son, Ernest Joseph King, Jr. (Commander, USN ret.).
King returned to shore duty at Annapolis in 1912. He received his first command, the destroyer USS Terry in 1914, participating in the United States occupation of Veracruz. He then moved on to a more modern ship, USS Cassin.
During World War I he served on the staff of Vice Admiral Henry T. Mayo, the Commander in Chief, Atlantic Fleet. As such, he was a frequent visitor to the Royal Navy and occasionally saw action as an observer on board British ships. It appears that his Anglophobia developed during this period, although the reasons are unclear. He was awarded the Navy Cross "for distinguished service in the line of his profession as assistant chief of staff of the Atlantic Fleet".
After the war, King, now a captain, became head of the Naval Postgraduate School. Along with Captains Dudley Wright Knox and William S. Pye, King prepared a report on naval training that recommended changes to naval training and career paths. Most of the report's recommendations were accepted and became policy.
Before World War I he served in the surface fleet. From 1923 to 1925, he held several posts associated with submarines. As a junior captain, the best sea command he was able to secure in 1921 was the store ship USS Bridge. The relatively new submarine force offered the prospect of advancement.
King attended a short training course at the Naval Submarine Base New London before taking command of a submarine division, flying his commodore's pennant from USS S-20. He never earned his Submarine Warfare insignia, although he did propose and design the now-familiar dolphin insignia. In 1923, he took over command of Submarine Base itself. During this period, he directed the salvage of the submarine USS S-51, earning the first of his three Distinguished Service Medals.
In 1926, Rear Admiral William A. Moffett, Chief of the Bureau of Aeronautics, asked King if he would consider a transfer to naval aviation. King accepted the offer and took command of the aircraft tender USS Wright with additional duties as Senior Aide on the Staff of Commander Air Squadrons, Atlantic Fleet.
That year, the United States Congress passed a law (10 USC Sec. 5942) requiring commanders of all aircraft carriers, seaplane tenders, and aviation shore establishments be qualified naval aviators. King therefore reported to Naval Air Station Pensacola for aviator training in January 1927. He was the only captain in his class of twenty, which also included Commander Richmond K. Turner. King received his wings as Naval Aviator No. 3368 on 26 May 1927 and resumed command of Wright. For a time, he frequently flew solo, flying down to Annapolis for weekend visits to his family, but his solo flying was cut short by a naval regulation prohibiting solo flights for aviators aged 50 or over. However, the History Chair at the Naval Academy from 1971-1976 disputes this assertion, stating that after King soloed, he never flew alone again. His biographer described his flying ability as "erratic" and quoted the commander of the squadron with which he flew as asking him if he "knew enough to be scared?" Between 1926 and 1936 he flew an average of 150 hours annually.
King commanded Wright until 1929, except for a brief interlude overseeing the salvage of USS S-4. He then became Assistant Chief of the Bureau of Aeronautics under Moffett. The two fell out over certain elements of Bureau policy, and he was replaced by Commander John Henry Towers and transferred to command of Naval Station Norfolk.
On 20 June 1930, King became captain of the carrier USS Lexington – then one of the largest aircraft carriers in the world – which he commanded for the next two years. During his tenure aboard the Lexington, Captain King was the commanding officer of notable science fiction author Robert A. Heinlein, then Ensign Heinlein, prior to his medical retirement from the US Navy. During that time, Ensign Heinlein dated one of King's daughters.
In 1932 he attended the Naval War College. In a war college thesis entitled "The Influence of National Policy on Strategy", King expounded on the theory that America's weakness was Representative democracy:
“ Historically... it is traditional and habitual for us to be inadequately prepared. Thus is the combined result of a number factors, the character of which is only indicated: democracy, which tends to make everyone believe that he knows it all; the preponderance (inherent in democracy) of people whose real interest is in their own welfare as individuals; the glorification of our own victories in war and the corresponding ignorance of our defeats (and disgraces) and of their basic causes; the inability of the average individual (the man in the street) to understand the cause and effect not only in foreign but domestic affairs, as well as his lack of interest in such matters. Added to these elements is the manner in which our representative (republican) form of government has developed as to put a premium on mediocrity and to emphasise the defects of the electorate already mentioned. ”
Following the death of Admiral Moffet in the crash of the airship USS Akron on 4 April 1933, King became Chief of the Bureau of Aeronautics, and was promoted to Rear Admiral on 26 April 1933. As Bureau chief, King worked closely with the chief of the Bureau of Navigation, Rear Admiral William D. Leahy, to increase the number of naval aviators.
At the conclusion of his term as Bureau Chief in 1936, King became Commander, Aircraft, Base Force, at Naval Air Station North Island. He was promoted to Vice Admiral on 29 January 1938 on becoming Commander, Aircraft, Battle Force – at the time one of only three vice admiral billets in the US Navy.
King hoped to be appointed as either CNO or Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Fleet, but on 15 June 1939, he was posted to the General Board, an elephant's graveyard where senior officers sat out the time remaining before retirement. A series of extraordinary events would alter this outcome.
Second World War
His career was resurrected by one of his few friends in the Navy, CNO Admiral Harold "Betty" Stark, who realized that King's talent for command was being wasted on the General Board. Stark appointed King as Commander-in-Chief, Atlantic Fleet in the fall of 1940, and he was promoted to Admiral in February 1941. On 30 December 1941 he became Commander-in-Chief, United States Fleet. On 18 March 1942, he was appointed Chief of Naval Operations, relieving Admiral Stark. He is the only person to hold this combined command. After turning 64 on 23 November 1944, he wrote a message to President Roosevelt to say he had reached mandatory retirement age. Roosevelt replied with a note reading "So what, old top?". On 17 December 1944 he was promoted to the newly created rank of Fleet Admiral. He left active duty on 15 December 1945 but was recalled as an advisor to the Secretary of the Navy in 1950.
After retiring, King lived in Washington, D.C.. He was active in his early post-retirement, but suffered a debilitating stroke in 1947, and subsequent ill-health ultimately forced him to stay in Naval Hospitals at Bethesda, Maryland, and at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, Maine. He died of a heart-attack in Kittery on 26 June 1956 and was buried in the United States Naval Academy Cemetery at Annapolis, Maryland.
 AnalysisKing was highly intelligent and extremely capable, but controversial. Some consider him to have been one of the greatest admirals of the 20th century; others, however, point out that he never commanded ships or fleets at sea in war time, and that his Anglophobia led him to make decisions which cost many Allied lives. Others see as indicative of strong leadership his willingness and ability to counter both British and U.S. Army influence on American World War II strategy, and praise his sometimes outspoken recognition of the strategic importance of the Pacific War. His instrumental role in the decisive Guadalcanal Campaign has earned him admirers in the United States and Australia, and some also consider him an organizational genius. He was considered rude and abrasive; as a result, King was loathed by many officers with whom he served.
He was... perhaps the most disliked Allied leader of World War II. Only British Field Marshal Montgomery may have had more enemies... King also loved parties and often drank to excess. Apparently, he reserved his charm for the wives of fellow naval officers. On the job, he "seemed always to be angry or annoyed."
There was a tongue-in-cheek remark about King, made by one of his daughters, carried about by Naval personnel at the time that "he is the most even-tempered person in the United States Navy. He is always in a rage." Roosevelt once described King as a man who "shaves every morning with a blow torch".
It is commonly reported that when King was called to be CominCh, he remarked,"When they get in trouble they send for the sons-of-bitches”. However, when he was later asked if he had said this King replied that he had not but would have if he had thought of it.
Response to Operation Drumbeat
At the start of US involvement in World War II, blackouts on the U.S. eastern seaboard were not in effect, and commercial ships were not travelling under convoy. King's critics attribute the delay to implement these measures to his Anglophobia, as the convoys and seaboard blackouts were British proposals, and King was supposedly loath to have his much-beloved U.S. Navy adopt any ideas from the Royal Navy. He also refused, until March 1942, the loan of British convoy escorts when the USN had only a handful of suitable vessels. He was, however, aggressive in driving his destroyer captains to attack U-boats in defense of convoys and in planning counter-measures against German surface raiders, even before the formal declaration of war by Germany.
Instead of convoys, King had the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard perform regular anti-submarine patrols, but these patrols followed a regular schedule. U-boat commanders learned the schedule, and coordinated their attacks to these schedules. Leaving the lights on in coastal towns back-lit merchant ships to the U-Boats. As a result, there were disastrous shipping losses — two million tons lost in January and February 1942 alone, and urgent pressure applied from both sides of the Atlantic. However, King resisted the use of convoys because he was convinced that the Navy lacked sufficient escort vessels to make them effective. The formation of convoys with inadequate escort would also result in increased port-to-port time, giving the enemy concentrated groups of targets rather than single ships proceeding independently. Furthermore, blackouts were a politically-sensitive issue – coastal cities resisted, citing the loss of tourism revenue.
It was not until May 1942 that King marshalled resources — small cutters and private vessels that he had previously scorned — to establish a day-and-night interlocking convoy system running from Newport, Rhode Island, to Key West, Florida.
By August 1942, the submarine threat to shipping in U.S. coastal waters had been contained. The U-boats' "second happy time" ended, with the loss of seven U-boats and a dramatic reduction in shipping losses. The same effect occurred when convoys were extended to the Caribbean. Despite the ultimate defeat of the U-boat, some of King's initial decisions in this theatre could be viewed as flawed.
In King's defense, noted naval historian Professor Robert W. Love has stated that "Operation Drumbeat (or Paukenschlag) off the Atlantic Coast in early 1942 succeeded largely because the U.S. Navy was already committed to other tasks: transatlantic escort-of-convoy operations, defending troop transports, and maintaining powerful, forward-deployed Atlantic Fleet striking forces to prevent a breakout of heavy German surface forces. Navy leaders, especially Admiral King, were unwilling to risk troop shipping to provide escorts for coastal merchant shipping. Unscheduled, emergency deployments of Army units also created disruptions to navy plans, as did other occasional unexpected tasks. Contrary to the traditional historiography, neither Admiral King’s unproven yet widely alleged Anglophobia, an equally undocumented navy reluctance to accept British advice, nor a preference for another strategy caused the delay in the inauguration of costal escort-of-convoy operations. The delay was due to a shortage of escorts, and that resulted from understandably conflicting priorities, a state of affairs that dictated all Allied strategy until 1944."
Other decisions perceived as questionable were his resistance to employ long-range Liberators on Atlantic maritime patrols (thus allowing the U-boats a safe area in the middle of the Atlantic — the "Atlantic Gap"), the denial of adequate numbers of landing craft to the Allied invasion of Europe, and the reluctance to permit the Royal Navy's Pacific Fleet any role in the Pacific. In all of these instances, circumstances forced a re-evaluation or he was over-ruled. It has also been pointed out that King did not, in his post-war report to the Secretary of the Navy, accurately describe the slowness of the American response to the off-shore U-boat threat in early 1942.
It should be noted, however, employment of long-range maritime patrol aircraft in the Atlantic was complicated by inter-service squabbling over command and control (the aircraft belonged to the Army; the mission was the Navy's; Stimson and Arnold initially refused to release the aircraft.) Although King had certainly used the allocation of ships to the European Theatre as leverage to get the necessary resources for his Pacific objectives, he provided (at General Marshall's request) an additional month's production of landing craft to support Operation Overlord. Moreover, the priority for landing craft construction was changed, a factor outside King's remit. The level of sea lift for Overlord turned out to be more than adequate.
The employment of British and Empire forces in the Pacific was a political matter. The measure was forced on Churchill by the British Chiefs of Staff, not only to re-establish British presence in the region, but to mitigate any perception in the U.S. that the British were doing nothing to help defeat Japan. King was adamant that naval operations against Japan remain 100% American, and angrily resisted the idea of a British naval presence in the Pacific at the Quadrant Conference in late 1944, citing (among other things) the difficulty of supplying additional naval forces in the theatre (for much the same reason, Hap Arnold resisted the offer of RAF units in the Pacific). In addition, King (along with Marshall) had continually resisted operations that would assist the British agenda in reclaiming or maintaining any part of her pre-war colonial holdings in the Pacific or the Eastern Mediterranean. Roosevelt, however, overruled him and, despite King's reservations, the British Pacific Fleet accounted itself well against Japan in the last months of the war.
General Hastings Ismay, chief of staff to Winston Churchill, described King as:
tough as nails and carried himself as stiffly as a poker. He was blunt and stand-offish, almost to the point of rudeness. At the start, he was intolerant and suspicious of all things British, especially the Royal Navy; but he was almost equally intolerant and suspicious of the American Army. War against Japan was the problem to which he had devoted the study of a lifetime, and he resented the idea of American resources being used for any other purpose than to destroy the Japanese. He mistrusted Churchill's powers of advocacy, and was apprehensive that he would wheedle President Roosevelt into neglecting the war in the Pacific.
Despite British perceptions, King was a strong believer in the Germany first strategy. However, his natural aggression did not permit him to leave resources idle in the Atlantic that could be utilized in the Pacific, especially when "it was doubtful when — if ever — the British would consent to a cross-Channel operation". King once complained that the Pacific deserved 30% of Allied resources but was getting only 15%. When, at the Casablanca Conference, he was accused by Field-Marshal Sir Alan Brooke of favoring the Pacific war, the argument became heated. The combative General Joseph Stilwell wrote: "Brooke got nasty, and King got good and sore. King almost climbed over the table at Brooke. God, he was mad. I wished he had socked him."
Following Japan's defeat at the Battle of Midway, King advocated (with Roosevelt's tacit consent) the invasion of Guadalcanal. When General Marshall resisted this line of action (as well as who would command the operation), King stated that the Navy (and the Marines) would then carry out the operation by themselves, and instructed Admiral Nimitz to proceed with the preliminary planning. King eventually won the argument, and the invasion went ahead with the backing of the Joint Chiefs. It was ultimately successful, and was the first time the Japanese lost ground during the war. For his attention to the Pacific Theatre he is highly regarded by some Australian war historians.
In spite of (or perhaps partly because of) the fact that the two men did not get along, the combined influence of King and General Douglas MacArthur increased the allocation of resources to the Pacific War.
Other controversies involving King include:
The United States Coast Guard Auxiliary aka "Corsair Fleet".
Captain Charles B. McVay III court-martial.
The guided missile destroyer USS King was named in his honor. A major high school in his hometown of Lorain, Ohio, also bore his name (Admiral King High School) until it was merged with the city's other high school in 2010. Also named after him is the Department of Defense high school on Sasebo Naval Base, in Japan. The dining hall at the U.S. Naval Academy, King Hall, is named after him. The auditorium at the Naval Postgraduate School, King Hall, is also named after him. In 1956, schools located on the U.S. Naval Bases and Air Stations were given names of U.S. heroes of the past. The Sasebo Dependents School was named after the famed World War II Hero, Fleet Admiral Ernest J. King. Thus, the official name of Ernest J. King School, Navy 3912, FPO San Francisco, California, became effective School Year 1956/57. Recognizing King's great personal and professional interest in maritime history, the Secretary of the Navy named in his honor an academic chair at the Naval War College to be held with the title of the Ernest J. King Professor of Maritime History.
In popular culture
Tyler McVey portrayed Admiral King as the Chief of Naval Operation in the 1960 film The Gallant Hours and John Dehner portrayed King as the Commander-in-Chief U.S. Atlantic Fleet in the 1988 TV miniseries War and Remembrance. In the 1964 film The Incredible Mr. Limpet, Charles Meredith portrayed an un-named Fleet Admiral who wore a U.S. naval aviator insignia, suggesting the character was based on Admiral King.