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Vice Admiral William R. Smedberg III, USN (Ret.) (1902-1994)

Volume I

William R. Smedberg III

Based on four interviews conducted by John T. Mason Jr. from May 1975 through September 1977, the volume contains 475 pages of interview transcript plus an index. The transcript is copyright 1979 by the U.S. Naval Institute; the interviewee placed no restrictions on its use.

A man of considerable enthusiasm and energy, Smedberg was in the class of 1926 at the Naval Academy and reported afterward for a year of duty in the USS New Mexico (BB-40). He then spent three years in the destroyer Mullany (DD-325) before reporting to the commissioning crew of the heavy cruiser Northampton (CA-26). After postgraduate education in communications, he served on the staff of Commander Cruiser Division Three and Commander Cruisers Battle Force, Rear Admiral Harold Stark. Stark took Smedberg as aide when he became CNO in 1939, so this memoir contains a close-up view of Stark in the period just before World War II. During the war, Smedberg was commissioning CO of the destroyers USS Landsdowne (DD-486) and Hudson (DD-475), both of which operated in the Solomons. He then served as chief of staff to Rear Admiral A. S. "Tip" Merrill in the Solomons campaign before reporting as intelligence officer to Admiral Ernest J. King's Commander in Chief, U.S. Navy staff. After the war Smedberg was aide to Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal, a destroyer division commander, and a Naval Academy department head. He put the battleship USS Iowa (BB-61) back into commission as skipper during the Korean War and then was chief of staff to Commander Destroyer Force Atlantic Fleet. 

 

An index to this volume can be viewed here (.pdf).

 


Vice Admiral Smedberg: By a series of amazing coincidences, and due to my priority One orders, I was in Washington in about two days, hitchhiking, riding on top of all kinds of freight, and planes, and so forth. When I got back to Washington I reported to George Russell, who was the flag secretary to Admiral King, with this dispatch, and George said:

"What are you doing here? I thought you were out in the Pacific."

I said: "I was out there two days ago, or two and a half days ago, but here's this dispatch you sent."

He looked at it and said: "I've never seen this before." He was King's flag secretary. He knew everything that was going on, he thought. He said, "The old man must have written it himself."

He took me in to see Admiral King. King looked at me and said:

"Where have you been? What took you so long to get here?"

I'd known Admiral King casually through the years because I was aide to Admiral Stark and he relieved Admiral Stark, you know. I was in tremendous awe of him, scared of him, to be honest with you, like most of us younger officers were. Anyway, I said:

"Sir, two and a half days ago I was in Ulithi Atoll. I think I've made remarkable progress in getting here."

He said: "Do you know why you're here?"

"No, Sir."

"You're here because I want you to go down and relieve Captain Henri Smith-Hutton."Henri Smith-Hutton

He said: "He's the head of the combat intelligence division on my staff."

I said, "Admiral, I've never had any intelligence duty in my life." I was absolutely flabbergasted. King said:

"That's exactly why I sent for you. You've had command of two destroyers out there in the Pacific in the war, you've been chief of staff of a task force. You know what kind of intelligence you need out there. I want you to go down and see that that intelligence gets out to the fleet. These professional intelligence officers are so afraid of jeopardiz­ing their sources that half the intelligence they get they don't put out where it should go. I want you to see that the in­telligence that's needed is gotten to the people who need it and nobody else is to see it."

John T. Mason Jr.:  He did have a point, did he not?

Vice Admiral Smedberg: So he said to Admiral Russell, then Captain Russell:

"Take Smeddy down and have him relieve Smith-Hutton right away."

Captain Smith-Hutton was four classes senior to me, I think. I was a commander, he was in the class of '22 and I was in the class of '26. I was in a daze. In the first place, I hadn't had much sleep for about two days and nights. We went down the main Navy corridor where I was introduced to Smith-Hutton. He very pleasantly said:

"What are you doing back in Washington?" and I said:

"Sir, I just received orders to come back here,” and George Russell said: "He's just been told by Admiral King to relieve you."

Smith-Hutton was astounded. He said: "Why, Smedberg, I don't seem to remember you in intelligence. What kind of intelligence experience have you had?"

I said, "Absolutely none." He said, "My God."

I think I did get several days in which to relieve him because I was like a babe in the woods. I had no idea what he did, and, of course, his assignment was the most top- secret - ULTRA One - that we had in the Navy.

John T. Mason, Jr:   Yes, I remember it.

Vice Admiral Smedberg: We knew everything there was to know about everything.

John T. Mason Jr.:  He, in turn, had been rushed back from the Gripsholm!

Vice Admiral Smedberg: Probably. Of course, he was a Japanese-language student.

John T. Mason Jr.:  Yes, and he was coming back on the Gripsholm and had to be yanked off in Rio and sent by plane up to King.

Vice Admiral Smedberg: Well, this whole thing was very hard for me to understand. I felt that Admiral King had gone off half-cocked because I didn't know, really, anything about intelligence. I knew the necessity of getting the intelligence to the operating forces, and I had a wonderful bunch of people under me. The people who headed the several sections under me were all senior to me, with one exception. Bill Sebald was a Naval Reserve commander, head of my Japanese section, later ambassador to Japan.

John T. Mason Jr.:  An able man.

Vice Admiral Smedberg: Extremely able, of the class of '22. And Rear Admiral Ray Thurber, who had been chief of staff to Admiral Ghormley out in the South Pacific when I had my first des­troyer, was one of the section heads who came under me. Stanley Jupp, a commodore, headed another one, and Jack Phillipps, of the class of '18, headed another. Commander Kenny Knowles was the only one I was normally senior to. Mind you, I was a commander. I made captain soon after getting there, but it was very, very difficult. I remember Ray Thurber saying to me:

"If you think you're going to write my fitness report, you're not."

I said: “I can assure you, Sir, I have no desire to write anybody's fitness report."

John T. Mason Jr.:  What a difficult spot to be plunged into!

Vice Admiral Smedberg: It was a terrible spot.

John T. Mason Jr.: Was there any further communication with King?

Vice Admiral Smedberg: He would send for me and tell me what he wanted. I hadn't been there, well, it seems to me now, more than just a few weeks, at the time of the Battle of Leyte Gulf, when I was summoned by Admiral Edwards, who was King's number two, and he said:

"Smedberg, Admiral King has just sent word that you are to brief the "combined chiefs of staff" on what's happening out there in the Battle for Leyte Gulf, in one hour."

John T. Mason Jr.:  Of course, you knew the picture?

Vice Admiral Smedberg: Well, yes. We had been living with the picture. In fact, I'd been sleeping in my office there for the past two or three nights. I hadn't been home. I went back to my office, got Bill Sebald and all the heads of my other groups and we went over everything that we knew that had gone on in the battle, including what we had been reading from the Japanese, which, of course, I'm under oath never to speak about.

I went over to the meeting, across Constitution Avenue in that little gem of a building where the "combined chiefs" met, and I made this presentation with charts. I was telling about the Japanese force that was coming down from the north that Admiral Halsey had gone up after. About that time, I'm not sure that we really knew where Admiral Halsey was.

John T. Mason Jr.:  Other people didn't know, either.

Vice Admiral Smedberg: No, I know it, and I was told to find out. I can't remember whether I'd found out or not, but I think I did know that Admiral Halsey had gone north after what we later called the decoy force coming down from the north. I said to this group - the combined chiefs of staff - I was brief­ing that, in this Jap force were included two old battleships, the Ise and the Hyuga. Admiral King interrupted me and said:

"Gentlemen, Captain Smedberg (I think I'd just been promoted) has only been here a short time and he's made a mistake. Ise and Hyuga are two of the newest Japanese bat­tleships."

I'd been out in the Pacific a long time and I knew every ship in the Japanese fleet because we had been kept informed. I knew the Japanese fleet almost as well as I knew our own. I knew that the Ise and Hyuga were not new battleships, but I debated for a few seconds about whether to let that infor­mation pass or to correct Admiral King. I finally decided that since I was briefing the top military and naval leaders of the U.S. and Great Britain, the combined chiefs, I ought to correct it. So I said:

"I beg your pardon, Admiral King, but Ise and Hyuga are old battleships, about the New Mexico, Idaho class. They have been converted so they have flight decks in the after part of the ship. They're not carriers. They can fly planes off but they can't get them back."

King fixed me with a steely gaze and said: "Proceed, Captain Smedberg."

I went through the rest of my briefing and went back to my office. About two hours later I was sent for by Admiral Edwards, who took me in to Admiral King. King said:

"Smedberg, if you ever correct me again in the presence of my peers, I'll crucify you, but you'd better be damned sure you're right. I found out you were correct in this instance. That's all. You be damned sure you're correct the next time you ever do a thing like that.”

Of course, I left shaking like an aspen leaf, but King never held it against me. The fitness reports he gave me were among the best I've had in my career.

 


Volume II

 

Based on three interviews conducted by John T. Mason Jr. in December 1978, the volume contains 304 pages of interview transcript plus an index.  The transcript is copyright 1979 by the U.S. Naval Institute; the interviewee placed no restrictions on its use.

This volume begins with a discussion of Smedberg's service in the Politico-Military Division of the OpNav staff. While there, he was selected for rear admiral and moved up to become division director. From 1956 to 1958, he was Superintendent of the Naval Academy, involved in raising funds for a new football stadium and in upgrading both the faculty and methods of instruction. He then spent a few months as Commander Cruiser-Destroyer Force Pacific Fleet and one year as Commander Second Fleet. During the course of the latter command, the fleet was involved in war games against the U.S. Air Force and a NATO exercise. Admiral Smedberg's final tour, as Chief of the Bureau of Naval Personnel, was from 1960 to 1964. His discussion concerns such facets as the introduction of computers to the order-writing process, detailing of flag officers to various billets, interaction between the Navy and political figures, the budgetary process as it concerns naval personnel, and Smedberg's dealings with Admiral Hyman Rickover. Admiral Smedberg's memoir is a particularly interesting one because of his degree of candor.


 
 

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