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Admiral Harold Page Smith, USN (Ret.) (1904-1993)

The main ingredients in this oral history are Admiral Smith's recollections of service in two battleships, the USS Arizona (BB-39) in 1928-29 and the USS Missouri (BB-63) in 1949-50. As a captain he commanded the Missouri until shortly before her grounding in January 1950 and then again shortly afterward to restore the confidence of the officers and crew. The admiral frequently went off on tangents during the battleship-specific interviews in his oral history and discussed other tours of duty as well. He strayed to discuss his service in the fleet auxiliary ship USS Procyon (AG-11) in the mid-1920s, destroyer duty in the brand-new USS Farragut (DD-348) in the mid-1930s, command of the four-piper USS Stewart (DD-224) in action against the Japanese early in World War II, and command of Destroyer Squadron Four near the end of the war. In duty following the war, he served as chief of staff to Commander Destroyer Force Atlantic Fleet and various Pentagon billets. He recalled being Chief of Naval Personnel when Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz made a touching visit to Smith's office following the 1959 funeral of Fleet Admiral William F. "Bull" Halsey Jr.

Based on two interviews conducted by Paul Stillwell in July 1988 and October 1990, the volume contains 126 pages of interview transcript plus a comprehensive index. The transcript is copyright 2014 by the U.S. Naval Institute; the interviewee placed no restrictions on its use.

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

In this selection from his first interview at his home in Virginia Beach, Florida on 12 July 1988, Admiral Smith recounts a request from Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz and why Admiral Raymond A. Spruance was never promoted to the rank of Fleet Admiral.

Admiral Smith: I buried Admiral Leahy. I was in charge of his funeral. I was in charge of Halsey’s funeral, too, as Chief of Personnel.[1]

Paul Stillwell: They both died in 1959.[2]

Admiral Smith: Yes. When we buried Halsey, it was the prettiest thing you’ve ever seen in the Episcopal cathedral there.[3] All the great old men of our time were gathered—Admiral Hart, and so on.[4] President Eisenhower had to be away from the city on something, so he asked Admiral Nimitz to represent him.[5] With the cathedral all in place, the honorary pallbearers—all old men—in place, in came Nimitz in white uniform and walked to the bier and bowed over it for about a minute, and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house, it was so pretty. I was sitting by Mrs. Halsey; she’d asked me to.

Then when it was over, I got back to my office and trying to catch up with some work, and there was a great hullabaloo in the outer office—Admiral Nimitz. In he came, and I said, “Admiral Nimitz, can I get you anything?”

“No, you can’t get me anything; I’ve just got a little time with my daughter, and I’ve got to go back west.” “But,” he said, “there’s something you can do for me. Two things. First, I know that General Marshall is going to die soon; he’s dying. I know the Army’s going to ask me to come back, and I just must not. I can’t do another one. The next funeral of a five-star officer I attend is going is going to be in San Francisco.”[6] He meant himself. I made all the proper exclamations.

He said, “No, no. Now, number two, I want you to go to Chairman Vinson, Carl Vinson, and remind him that when we created the five-star officers, there was debate about whether the last one would go to Halsey or Spruance. Admiral Halsey, of course, got the five stars, well deserved. But Admiral Spruance, also, was a splendid officer. Now, they’re all dead except me [of the five-star officers]. Spruance is an old man; it won’t cost the country very much to promote him now to five stars. Ask the chairman if he won’t promote him now.”[7]

So immediately—as soon as Nimitz left, I called the chairman and said that, “Admiral Nimitz had sent his deepest respects and abject apologies, he can’t come and pay his respects to the chairman. But would he—” and then I went on with the story.

He said, “Come down at 7:00 o’clock in the morning.” That’s when he threw out anybody he didn’t want to see.

“Yes, sir, I’ll be there.” So I went to see him at 7:00.

And you know, he wore those half-glasses, put them on his nose and said, “Now, tell me, who are the five-star admirals?” So I told him. “And who were the five-star generals?” So I told him. He knew; he was just thinking what he was going to tell me. “And now, they were all created during World War II.”

I said, “No, sir,” I said, “General Bradley was created after 1947.”

“Oh, yeah,” he said, “That’s Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. We did that. That was a mistake; we shouldn’t have done that. We should leave that exalted rank for a major war.” So he said, “You tell Admiral Nimitz with my deepest respect and my best hopes, and so on, that we’re going to leave it just like it is.”

Paul Stillwell: And so it remained.

Admiral Smith: Yes.

[1] As a vice Admiral Smith served as Chief of Naval Personnel from 31 January 1958 to 12 February 1960.

[2] Leahy died on 20 July 1959 and Halsey died 16 August 1959.

[3] Fleet Admiral William F. Halsey Jr., USN (Ret.).

[4] Admiral Thomas C. Hart, USN (Ret.).

[5] Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, USN.

[6] General of the Army George C. Marshall, USA, died 16 October 1959.

[7] Representative Carl Vinson (Democrat-Georgia) was Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. Admiral Raymond A. Spruance, USN (Ret.), lived until 1969. He was not promoted to five-star rank. See Thomas B. Buell, The Quiet Warrior: A Biography of Admiral Raymond A. Spruance (Boston: Little, Brown, 1974), pages 435-436.



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