So which flag officers made Knox’s list? The knowledgeable historian and the interested buff alike will immediately think of the great admirals proven in war, such as Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, Commander-in-Chief of the Pacific Fleet, or Admiral Raymond A. Spruance, victor at the pivotal Battle of Midway. But these names do not appear on the list! Then again, historians and buffs alike can conjure up some names of those generally deemed to have failed the test of wartime command—such as Vice Admiral Robert L. Ghormley and Rear Admirals Charles A. Pownall and Robert Theobald—and then marvel (or mumble) that those names are on the elite list.
With the invaluable illumination of hindsight, let’s go down the list in the descending order of votes and see who were the admirals anointed in March 1942 as the Navy’s stars, and then assess how they actually performed.
Five officers secured nine votes. None became well-known, but all were highly competent. Vice Admiral Jonas Ingram, a remarkable, charismatic figure who would command the Navy’s forces in the South Atlantic and later the Atlantic Fleet from November 1944, stood out for sheer color. A famous U.S. Naval Academy athlete full of animal spirit, he started most days working out as a baseball pitcher and displayed impressive natural ability as a diplomat. 3
Health issues that eventually precluded sea service did not keep Richard Edwards from turning in stellar but obscure work on King’s staff. Rear Admiral John H. Hoover was a latecomer to naval aviation, but he helped build the Navy’s air arm and then commanded land-based aircraft for Nimitz. Rear Admiral William R. Purnell was the chief of staff, Asiatic Fleet during the opening phases of the war with Japan (the only major American command in the Far East not to suffer a debacle on 7–8 December 1941). Later he served on the Military Policy Committee that advised FDR on atomic-weapon matters. Finally, Vice Admiral Arthur L. Bristol was another aviator from mid-career who had been battling U-boats in the Atlantic. Just a month after making the list, Bristol died of a heart attack.
The selection board did its worst work with the six officers who gained eight votes. By far the most famous of this group would be Vice Admiral William F. Halsey Jr. His solid service in 1942 made him a national hero, and he remained the Bluejackets’ favorite admiral. Historical judgments have not been so kind. There is little doubt that but for his popularity he would have been relieved of command for his unforgivable sins of faulty seamanship in steering his fleet into typhoons in December 1944 and June 1945. We do not even need to get into his performance at the Battle of Leyte Gulf. 4
Unlike the famous Halsey, the clear standout in this group was the little-remembered Captain Charles M. “Savvy” Cooke, who became a brilliant strategist for King. Vice Admiral William A. Glassford secured no success as a task force commander in the Asiatic Fleet early in the war. He went on to a series of little-noted command and diplomatic roles in European waters and Africa.
Then we come to three failures. The greatest would be Vice Admiral Robert L. Ghormley. He was on the verge of a mental breakdown as the South Pacific commander during the Guadalcanal campaign in October 1942 and was relieved for defeatism and exhaustion. 5 Four months later, Rear Admiral Robert C. Giffen screwed up monumentally at the Battle of Rennel Island off Guadalcanal, losing the heavy cruiser Chicago (CA-29), to Nimitz’s outrage. 6 Aviator Captain Charles A. Pownall obtained a tryout as commander of the great carrier task forces assembled in the Pacific in the fall of 1943. His poor performance cost him his billet by January 1944. 7
The selection board did its best work in its choice of the seven officers who obtained seven votes. Vice Admiral Royal E. Ingersoll was a classmate of Nimitz’s at Annapolis. He was a formidably talented leader who never secured any great public notice despite commanding the Atlantic Fleet from December 1941 to November 1944. In a postwar interview, King rated Ingersoll as second only to Spruance among serving naval officers. 8
Despite graduating near the bottom of his Annapolis class, aviator Rear Admiral Aubrey W. Fitch contributed outstanding service in various sea- and shore-based aviation commands. Postwar, he was the first aviator to become superintendent of the Naval Academy—where his own tribulations at “the Yard” gave hope to all midshipmen. Fitch, however, was an academic star compared to Captain Marc A. Mitscher, who needed six years to graduate from Annapolis. By rights, Mitscher should have spent the rest of the war in obscurity after the abysmal performance of his ship, the carrier Hornet (CV-8), at Midway. He made the most of a second chance and gained fame with his skillful direction of fast-carrier task forces in the Pacific from January 1944. 9 Rear Admiral Patrick N. L. Bellinger was a pioneer naval aviator with distinguished contributions early in the war in command and staff assignments (he predicted the likely scheme of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor). Health issues, however, kept him from a post that would have given full range to his talents.
The naval aviation community rebelled at having non-aviators command carrier task forces, Rear Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher’s fate for the initial months of the war. He fought in the first three carrier battles in history against a formidable opponent and was never bested (2-0-1). But his reputation was systematically trashed by aviators, and since they came to dominate the Navy, their view was echoed by most initial postwar historians. His reputation is now much greater with the next generation of historians, particularly due to the work of John Lundstrom. 10
Rear Admiral Richmond Kelly Turner became the irascible, brilliant, domineering, indispensable leader of the amphibious forces in the Pacific. But his record is marred by his major contribution to the errors leading to the Pearl Harbor debacle, his severe alcoholism, and a corrosive ambition that prompted him to blame others, notably Fletcher, for his failures. 11
Had battleships dominated the naval war, Rear Admiral Olaf M. Hustvedt might have shined as a major successful leader. When the battleship entered an eclipse, so did Hustvedt’s promising career.
Nine officers gathered six votes. Vice Admiral Herbert Fairfax Leary and Rear Admiral Arthur S. Carpender would share the dismal fate of assignment to command naval forces under General Douglas MacArthur. They earn bonus points for their dislike of their boss.
A clever, practical battleship seaman, Rear Admiral Russell Willson tendered solid contributions on King’s staff. He was too much the gentleman to prosper there and his health failed. From 1943, Willson was technically retired, but served on the influential Joint Strategic Survey Committee—the “think tank” for the Joint Chiefs. 12
Nimitz declined the services of Rear Admiral Roland M. Brainard as a task force commander in early 1942. 13 After he held various lesser Atlantic commands and served on the Joint Production Survey Committee, Brainard’s health failed and he was retired in November 1943.
Rear Admiral John S. McCain, another belated aviator, did well commanding land-based air units early on at Guadalcanal. He was not deemed effective as chief of the Bureau of Aeronautics. 14 He returned as Halsey’s fast-carrier commander in late 1944 to mixed reviews. Rear Admiral William S. Farber got no reviews at all. He was so obscure that his name does not even appear in the general index for Samuel Eliot Morison’s massive 15-volume History of U.S. Naval Operations in World War II . Farber fought the war behind a desk in Washington with myriad titles all connected to Fleet maintenance and logistics.
Rear Admiral William W. Smith saw a lot of action commanding escort cruisers through most of the great 1942 Pacific carrier battles. He shared with Turner brains and alcoholism. 15 He eventually commanded the Service Force, Pacific Fleet that provided logistics for the fast carriers and other forces at sea. Rear Admiral Jesse B. Oldendorf, a surface-ship commander like Smith, gained credit for winning the Battle of Surigao Strait (though it’s difficult to see how any commander could have lost it). Rear Admiral Robert M. Griffin (not to be confused with Rear Admiral Robert C. Giffen) turned in competent but undistinguished service as a surface-ship task-force commander in the Aleutians and Gilberts.
A very mixed assortment of 11 officers secured five votes. A surface-ship commander, Rear Admiral John W. Wilcox Jr. was the oldest officer on the list (59). The ink was hardly dry on Knox’s memorandum to FDR when high seas swept Wilcox overboard from his flagship into the North Atlantic on 27 March 1942 as he was taking a stroll. Unkind souls suggested suicide, but there is no evidence of that. 16
Four in this group performed mainly as staff officers. Rear Admiral Randall Jacobs headed the powerful Bureau of Personnel during World War II after Nimitz took command of the Pacific Fleet. Under Jacobs’ leadership, the Navy expanded tenfold yet became more professionally skilled in the process. Captain Bernhard H. Bieri was a brilliant but now obscure staff officer who did stints with King and on General Dwight D. Eisenhower’s staff for the North African and Normandy invasions. Rear Admiral Milo F. Draemel served as Commander, Destroyers, Pacific Fleet at the time of Pearl Harbor. Thereafter he served briefly as Nimitz’s chief of staff, but the Pacific Fleet commander quietly replaced Draemel, who had objected to Nimitz’s aggressive use of carriers at Coral Sea and Midway. 17 Another officer like Farber who did not even make it into the general index for Morison’s History of U.S. Naval Operations in World War II was Rear Admiral William R. Munroe. Adding insult to injury, his name was misspelled even on this historic memorandum as “Monroe.” He commanded at sea and ashore in the Atlantic theaters.
Five officers in this group commanded surface ships. Rear Admiral Willis A. Lee Jr.—the star of this band—was the premier American battleship commander during the Pacific war and clearly one of the very finest officers of that generation. Lee won the second phase of the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, the turning point in the Pacific. Thereafter he commanded Pacific Fleet fast battleships. He died in August 1945 while working on fleet antiaircraft defense from kamikazes. The youngest officer on the list (51), Captain Oscar C. Badger II, like Hustvedt, was a battleship commander with a good reputation but no real opportunity to stand out. Captain Walden L. Ainsworth worked hard and effectively overall to ready the Navy’s cruiser-destroyer task forces to confront the Japanese at night in the Solomons. He fought two surface actions in the Solomons during July 1943 but secured no clear-cut victory while sustaining heavy losses.
The other two surface-ship warriors provided naval leadership more color than substance. Nimitz would send Rear Admiral Robert A. Theobald to command a task force defending the Aleutians during the Midway campaign in May–June 1942. Nimitz outfitted Theobald with accurate intelligence on forthcoming Japanese operations based on ULTRA—decryptions of encoded Japanese radio communications; Theobald thought he knew better. He also proved chronically ill-tempered and unable to cooperate with his Army counterpart. King relieved him for purposes of preserving interservice relations. Postwar, Theobald wrote one of the earliest revisionist accounts of the Pearl Harbor attack. 18
Captain Daniel J. Callaghan did poorly as Ghormley’s chief of staff in the South Pacific in 1942. While commanding a task force in the first phase of the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal in November 1942, he was killed in action. The outgunned U.S. task force at heavy cost achieved its mission of protecting American aircraft on Guadalcanal from a devastating bombardment, and Callaghan’s death was viewed as heroic. Postwar histories generally have been critical of much of Callaghan’s leadership. 19
Finally, we come to versatile Rear Admiral Alan G. Kirk. He successfully commanded amphibious forces in Mediterranean and European waters, including off Normandy. He got on well with General George S. Patton and in all was deemed highly effective. Postwar, President Harry S. Truman sent Kirk to Belgium as U.S. ambassador and then to the Soviet Union.
These 38 men provide an interesting picture of personal and professional backgrounds. They were born in 21 states and the District of Columbia. Pennsylvania could claim the most selectees—five officers versus six for all the Southern states combined. The District of Columbia provided four, all sons of Navy officers. All 38 graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy, but just five were sons of naval officers. By Annapolis class the breakdown was:
Six stood high in their classes, while Mitscher and Fitch fell at the other end of the spectrum.
Thirty-six of the officers attended the Naval War College. Callaghan’s unusual three-year tour as presidential aide consumed the period he probably would have attended. The other exception was Smith, who was very smart, as evidenced by his tour as head of the Department of Mathematics at the Naval Academy.
Interestingly for this early stage of the war, no fewer than ten officers had some claim to background in aviation. Bellinger and Mitscher were true pioneers. Griffin qualified as an observer, and seven qualified as pilots very late in their careers (Bristol, Fitch, Halsey, Hoover, McCain, Pownall, and Turner). Five had served in submarines (Carpender, Edwards, Munroe, Bellinger, and Hoover).
On a more personalized basis, five were exceptionally skilled rifle marksmen (Badger, Giffin, Lee, Smith, and Wilcox). Lee was the U.S. national individual champion in 1907 and went on to win six Olympic medals. Badger and Fletcher earned the Medal of Honor for actions at Vera Cruz in 1914, but that was before the complete pyramid of honor awards was in place, and by later standards they probably would have received Silver Star medals or Navy Crosses. Ingram was a gifted athlete, but while others participated in athletics, that factor does not appear as a strong predictor of later promotion. On the other hand, Jacobs was a professional-level bridge player.
How did the selection board do overall? The following is my assessment. Halsey gets a split vote.
With this exercise in hindsight, we see that the March 1942 secret flag selection board proved less than clairvoyant about effective wartime leaders. Only about 38 percent of the selectees really proved outstanding—or had the opportunity to demonstrate such achievement. About 14 percent were subpar.
The most striking feature of this list is that two of the passed-over officers, Nimitz and Spruance, now tower above any name on it.
Author’s note: I am most grateful for the generosity of Dr. Barlow in providing a copy of this amazing document and for his assistance in providing background on several officers. I also express my thanks to him and to John Lundstrom for sharing their comments on a draft of this article. Responsibility for any errors and the judgments contained herein is entirely mine.
2. Secretary of the Navy, Memorandum for the President, 9 March 1942, President’s Secretary’s File, Safe File, Navy Department: Mar.–Sep. 1942, Box 4, Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library, copy supplied the author by courtesy of Dr. Jeffrey Barlow.
3. Unless otherwise indicated, all biographical detail on Ingram and the other officers on the list stems from the official biographical files at the Naval History and Heritage Command, Washington Navy Yard, Washington, D.C. All these files are organized in alphabetical order.
4. It is now, alas, almost invidious to choose among historians who have found fault with Halsey’s leadership. Any such listing, however, should begin with Thomas B. Buell, Master of Sea Power: A Biography of Fleet Admiral Ernest J. King (Boston: Little Brown and Company [Naval Institute Press Edition], 1980, pp. 474–9, 491–3; and E. B. Potter, Nimitz (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1976), pp. 344–5, 349–50, 376–7.
5. Like Halsey, there is no lack of fault-finding with Ghormley. Here the obvious references are Richard B. Frank, Guadalcanal (New York: Random House, 1990), pp. 333–4 (hereafter Frank, Guadalcanal ) and James Hornfischer, Neptune’s Inferno (New York: Random House, 2011), pp. 204–5, 213–4, 423–4. Hornfischer’s work contains the revelation that Nimitz deemed Ghormley on the verge of a nervous breakdown at the time of his relief.
6. Nimitz was extremely upset over Giffen’s tactical incompetence at the Battle of Rennel Island. Frank, Guadalcanal , pp. 578–81.
7. For Pownall’s failures see Clark G. Reynolds, Admiral John Towers: The Struggle for Naval Air Supremacy (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1991), pp. 451–2, 481 (hereafter Reynolds, Admiral John Towers ). This follows up on Reynolds’ original revelations in The Fast Carriers: Forging of an Air Navy (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1968).
8. King’s high evaluation of Ingersoll: On this point, as well as others noted below, I am indebted to John Lundstrom for sharing the results of his tremendous command of the source material.
9. For Mitscher’s dismal performance at Midway see John Lundstrom, The First Team: Pacific Air Combat from Pearl Harbor to Midway (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1990), pp. 324–5, 332–3, 367; and his Black Shoe Carrier Admiral: Frank Jack Fletcher at Coral Sea, Midway and Guadalcanal (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2006), pp. 244–48, 258 (hereafter Lundstrom, Black Shoe Carrier Admiral ). For a more genteel treatment of Mitscher and the resurrection of his career see Reynolds, Admiral John Towers , pp. 408, 451.
10. The definitive treatment of Fletcher is Lundstrom, Black Shoe Carrier Admiral . Without whitewashing Fletcher, Lundstrom demonstrates the tremendous injustices done to him by other officers and historians.
11. For Turner’s major contributions to the Pearl Harbor disaster see Gordon W. Prange, At Dawn We Slept: The Untold Story of Pearl Harbor (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1981) especially pp. 251–3, 692, 735. There is no doubt Turner had a serious drinking problem, but during preparations for and execution of operations there is no good evidence it affected his performance. After an operation was over, however, he would binge. Vice Admiral George C. Dyer, USN (Ret.), The Amphibians Came to Conquer: The Story of Admiral Richmond Kelly Turner (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, n.d.), pp. 853–4, 1160–1. Lundstrom lays out the case for Turner’s skill at blame-shifting with regard to Fletcher in Black Shoe Carrier Admiral , especially pp. 387–8. Prange’s assessment describing Turner’s skill at avoiding blame for Pearl Harbor reinforces the evidence on Turner’s talent in this regard.
12. Lundstrom was kind enough to provide information from his research on Willson’s gentlemanly behavior and his ill fit to King’s staff.
13. Information from Lundstrom.
14. Reynolds, Admiral John Towers , p. 464, reports King’s view that McCain was not effective leading the Bureau of Aeronautics.
15. Lundstrom provided the information on Smith’s alcohol consumption levels.
16. For the story on Wilcox rumors see Ivan Musicant, Battleship At War: The Epic Story of the U.S.S. Washington (New York: Harcourt Brace, Jovanovich, 1986), pp. 34–7; Winston Jordan, “Man Overboard!” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings , vol. 111, no. 12 (December 1987), pp. 92–95.
17. For the reasons for Draemel’s relief by Nimitz, see Lundstrom, Black Shoe Carrier Admiral , pp. 124, 302–3.
18. On the performance of Theobald at Midway, his chronic ill temper and inability to work with Army officers see Buell, Master of Sea Power , p. 320. Theobald’s book was The Final Secret of Pearl Harbor (New York: Devin-Adair, Co., 1954).
19. For a sample of Callahan criticism see Frank, Guadalcanal , pp. 334, 436, 459–60; Hornfischer, Neptune’s Inferno , pp. 254, 261, 266–70.
The Two Big Omissions
By Richard B. Frank
It is vital in assessing the omission of Admiral Chester W. Nimitz and Rear Admiral Raymond A. Spruance from the “most competent” list not to “read back” from the battles of the Coral Sea and Midway or even later events to their stature in the eyes of the members of the selection board in early March 1942.
Given the extremely small stint of active hostilities to that point, the members of the board relied primarily on peacetime reputations. In that context, Nimitz appeared primarily as a paper-pushing personnel specialist who enjoyed the particular favor of President Roosevelt. This latter credential did not necessarily work to his advantage with other flag officers. Apart from a few small-scale carrier raids, Nimitz’s tenure as Pacific Fleet commander had featured no other visible accomplishments. Admiral King, who would not have picked Nimitz for that billet, had been intruding into Nimitz’s prerogatives, although whether the other members of the board were aware of that is unknown.
In a late-March 1942 letter to his wife, Catherine, Nimitz confided: “Ever so many people were enthusiastic for me at the start but when things do not move fast enough they sour on me. I will be lucky to last six months. The public may demand action and results faster than I can produce.” This missive raises the tantalizing possibility that Nimitz had somehow learned of the secret flag selection board results.
Spruance was a very junior cruiser division commander who had enjoyed no opportunity for significant independent command. He carried the reputation in the small world of the Navy’s flag ranks as a quiet-spoken theorist from his tours at the Naval War College. A few weeks later, before Midway, King would press Spruance on Nimitz as a chief of staff with that reputation in mind. Those credentials scarcely warranted anointment as one of the elite flag officers in the Navy.