The Admirals: Nimitz, Halsey, Leahy, and King—The Five-Star Admirals Who Won the War at Sea
Walter R. Borneman, New York: Little, Brown, 2012. 559 pp. Illus. Maps. Notes. Bibliog. $29.99.
Reviewed by Alan Rems
Although aimed primarily at a popular audience, The Admirals is worth the attention of more specialized readers as well. The latter may disagree with some of the author’s forthright opinions, but Borneman is a skilled writer who provides good food for thought.
Nearly half the book is devoted to the pre–Pearl Harbor lives of the four admirals in question. Splendid biographies of three of them already exist, but juxtaposing their stories shows in what ways their early lives intersected and diverged. Readers will also learn much about the Navy during that period.
Writing about World War II, the author highlights the admirals’ contributions without attempting to provide a full history of the American Navy in the war. That’s fine, except there are material omissions that relate directly to the admirals’ performance records and affect Borneman’s judgments. Thus, with respect to the Battle of the Atlantic, he leaves out Admiral Ernest King’s creation and direct control of the 10th Fleet that was instrumental in defeating the U-boats.
More consequential are the gaps involving William F. “Bull” Halsey Jr., whose wartime career fell into three phases. After the first months of war, when he conducted bold attacks including the great Doolittle Raid on Tokyo, Halsey served as South Pacific Area commander for 20 months, arguably his greatest service to the nation. He displayed, according to biographer E. B. Potter, “the Nelson touch” and made decisions that, in the estimate of historian Eric M. Bergerud, ensure him a place among the great admirals of history. Responding to what he called his “most desperate emergency,” Halsey ordered one of the most audacious carrier operations of the war, ending in a rousing victory that Borneman entirely ignores.
He is quite correct in detailing Halsey’s important errors when he returned to sea during the final year of the war, but his sweeping conclusion that this admiral’s enduring reputation rests on little more than the public’s need for heroes is not entirely fair. A more nuanced view giving due regard to Halsey’s full career would have been better, particularly considering that Borneman’s less-knowledgeable readers will likely automatically accept his view.
Of particular interest is the focus on William D. Leahy, wartime ambassador, presidential counselor, and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Believing Leahy to be of major importance, Borneman is at odds with general historical opinion as it is summed up in Mark M. Boatner’s Biographical Dictionary of World War II: Leahy “did not have a decisive role on issues of military strategy. Rather, he was FDR’s primary source of information.”
Yet Borneman, maintaining that it is to “Leahy’s credit that his role remained publicly undefined and unacknowledged,” concludes that in his unique role as confidant, adviser, and enforcer, Leahy was necessarily highly influential. Proving that case is difficult; even military analyst Walter Millis, quoted in the book, acknowledged that after reading Leahy’s memoirs he remained uncertain about his contribution. It may well be time for a fresh study of Leahy to settle this question.
Engagingly written, The Admirals contains few factual errors, none of real consequence. Regarding Vichy France in early 1942, Borneman mentions the “few Frenchmen still loyal to [Marshal Henri-Philippe Pétain]” at a time when Pétain still enjoyed wide adulation. Additionally, resistance at Tulagi and nearby islets, where Marines encountered fierce opposition, was hardly “moderate”; and MacArthur did not willingly give up ambitions of capturing Rabaul, but insisted it was necessary until overruled by the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The last chapter is especially interesting. This includes the ruminations of retired Vice Admiral Roland N. Smoot, who concluded that the unifying characteristic of the four admirals was leadership. He regarded them as men who could instill admiration, with “a commanding presence that engendered commitment and resolve toward a common purpose.” Certainly Nimitz fit that description. Halsey qualified too through most of the war, but then his reckless style led to trouble. In the last year many were hardly ready to “go to hell with him,” as Smoot described Halsey’s impact, after following him there during Leyte Gulf and two typhoons.
More problematic, by Smoot’s definition, is King, whom General Dwight Eisenhower considered “the antithesis of cooperation.” King’s divisiveness while working with British allies prompted Eisenhower to muse: “One thing that might help win this war is to get someone to shoot King.” As for Leahy, whom Smoot praises for “never letting his own personal feelings . . . interfere with the long-range objectives and best interests of his country,” fellow diplomat and adviser Robert Murphy, seemingly with reference to Leahy’s arch-conservative politics, viewed him as “more affected by personal likes and dislikes.”
A heartening aspect of Borneman’s book is the reception it has received among general readers, reflected in their many positive comments at the Amazon website. Hopefully, some have become hooked by the subject and will go on to explore naval history in greater depth.
Zumwalt: The Life and Times of Admiral Elmo Russell “Bud” Zumwalt, Jr.
Larry Berman. New York: HarperCollins, 2012. 513 pp. $29.99.
Reviewed by John A. Nagl
Larry Berman, author of four previous works on Vietnam, has produced a gem on one of the most important Navy leaders of the 20th century. After graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy in June 1942 with higher grades in academics (7th) than conduct (275th!) and choosing surface warfare, Lieutenant Elmo Russell Zumwalt earned the Bronze Star for actions on board the destroyer Robinson (DD-562) in the Battle of Surigao Strait; his skipper had recommended him for the Navy Cross. Zumwalt would earn more commendations for his service as navigator on board the battleship Wisconsin (BB-64) during the Korean War.
His shore tours included two with the Bureau of Naval Personnel, where he played a key role in changing the ratio of sea and shore duty for some of the most-deployed sailors in the Navy, dramatically improving retention of key ratings. Zumwalt commanded the destroyer Isbell (DD-869), taking a ship that had stood eighth in a squadron of eight and turning her into the top destroyer in the squadron in one year. After another tour in BuPers, he commanded the first guided-missile frigate, the Dewey (DLG-14) and then attended the National War College, where he impressed Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs Paul Nitze.
Zumwalt played an important role as Nitze’s aide during the Cuban Missile Crisis and again when Nitze served as secretary of the Navy. He was deep-selected for promotion to flag rank at age 43, making him the youngest admiral in the history of the Navy. He commanded Cruiser Division Seven and led the newly created Systems Analysis Division of the Office of the chief of Naval Operations. There he helped kill the FB-111 as a Navy airplane before assuming command of U.S. naval forces in Vietnam in 1968 after the Tet Offensive. He focused on innovative brown-water riverine operations that resulted in the Navy, like the Army under General Creighton Abrams, conducting clear-hold-build operations and preparing the Vietnamese to take over responsibility for their own war. One of his practices was the use of Agent Orange to clear foliage from riverbanks—but the resulting health problems cost many lives, including that of Zumwalt’s son Elmo, who had commanded a swift boat.
Zumwalt was deep-selected in 1970 to become the first surface-warfare officer since Arleigh Burke to serve as CNO. He dramatically changed the direction of the Navy as it moved to an all-volunteer force, reducing the number of ships from 769 to 512 but improving readiness and retention through initiatives that increased opportunities for women and minorities in a service that had been perceived as hostile to both. Applauded by many as a visionary, and called by critics a lax disciplinarian who promoted “beer, beards, and broads,” Zumwalt faced with equanimity fortune’s slings and arrows, including race riots on board several ships and the secrecy and double-dealing of the Nixon administration in its final days. No CNO did more to bring the Navy into the 20th century.
At the end of his four-year term, Zumwalt turned down an unprecedented offer of another two years in the office and an invitation to head the Veterans Administration. Instead he ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate in Virginia and, with more success, led efforts to win compensation and support for Agent Orange victims and Vietnamese refugees to the United States, particularly those who had served in the Vietnamese navy. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and the first DDG-1000 destroyer was named for him. It was a life well lived that earned him the title “Father of the Modern Navy.”
If I were CNO, rather than just a scribbler in the Naval Academy, I would have every officer in my service read this book. Then I would order every commanding officer to have open discussions with subordinates on the issues about which Zumwalt cared so deeply and that he devoted his career to improving: racial equality, opportunity for women, and taking care of sailors and their families. (I would also have a conversation with the leadership of the Naval History and Heritage Command, with which author Larry Berman had a difficult time over access to documents, all detailed in his “author’s research note.”)
The Navy leads the armed services in the rapidity with which it relieves unsatisfactory performers. A focused and sustained discussion about the career of Bud Zumwalt would go a long way toward reducing the incidence of relief and furthering his legacy of continually improving the world’s best Navy.
The CIA’s Greatest Covert Operation: Inside the Daring Mission to Recover a Nuclear-Armed Soviet Sub
David H. Sharp. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2012. 344 pp. Illus. Notes. Bibliog. Index. $34.95.
Reviewed by Lieutenant Colonel Brian Hanley, U.S. Air Force (Retired)
This memoir about an unprecedentedly ambitious espionage mission is a substantial contribution to Cold War history and a must-read for students of intelligence planning and operations. The author, who spent most of his decades-long career working in the CIA’s Science and Technology Directorate, was involved in some of the agency’s most prominent operations—including technological support for the Bay of Pigs invasion and participation in Project Azorian, the subject of this book. An accomplished engineer, Sharp worked on at least two projects—the U-2 and A-12 (predecessor to the SR-71) programs—that stand as milestones in the development of strategic intelligence collection. It’s safe to say he understands intelligence from the operator’s and engineer’s points of view, from the close quarters of Azorian’s clandestine collection to the globe-girdling perspective of reconnaissance aircraft flying at the lower edge of outer space. He is demonstrably schooled in the strategic impacts of the operator’s and the engineer’s work.
On 4 March 1968, some 1,500 miles northwest of Oahu, Hawaii, the Soviet submarine K-129 sank without warning, killing all 98 on board and taking with her a full complement of ballistic missiles. Soviet recovery activity alerted the U.S. Navy to the event. That August the USS Halibut (SSGN-587) was able to fix the location of the wreck, which had settled five kilometers beneath the surface of the Pacific Ocean. Sharp discusses in detail the CIA’s salvage operation from its inception in 1969 to at least partial success in 1974. The Navy, though conscious of the intelligence bonanza a salvage operation might yield, at the time “had no workable plan to exploit” the K-129. The CIA, with no experience in sea-salvage operations, accepted the mission.
Sharp tells what amounts to three stories. The first is the technically marvelous development and employment of the equipment: an oceangoing vessel with a large claw in her bay capable of retrieving from the bottom of the ocean a boat that displaced 3,000 tons. The claw was attached to three miles of pipes and was aided by a positioning system that kept the mother ship in place. Surely this feat of engineering—while not a close rival to the moon landing, which had taken place five years earlier—has to be one of the great technological achievements of the century in terms of the ambitiousness of its objective and in its sheer cost: just shy of $4 billion in 2012 currency. In today’s budgetary climate, would we choose this type of operation over, say, buying a pair of Arleigh Burke–class destroyers?
The second story involves the political impact of Azorian. The enormous cost of the operation weighed against its partial success and, mixed with the broad political currents of the times, contributed to what Sharp identifies as the politicizing of intelligence via the establishment of congressional oversight committees.
The final story is the operation’s illumination of the ways, means, and ends of intelligence. From a purely technical perspective, Azorian was a mixed bag: only a 38-foot section of a 300-foot-long boat was recovered. The nuclear weaponry remains to this day where it settled nearly a half-century ago. Apparently only a small amount of sensitive material was retrieved, by comparison with what might have been found had the entire boat been salvaged. Even so, what marks an intelligence operation as successful is not so much what you recover but what your adversary thinks you got.
On this point Azorian paid off handsomely: for all the Soviets knew, their entire nuclear-powered submarine fleet’s technology, cryptography, and operational plans had been compromised. How could they afford to assume otherwise?
Sharp has written a standard if not the definitive history of Azorian. He declares that the CIA will not allow him to publish what he knows “relating to the cause of the [K-129’s] loss,” on grounds political embarrassment would result; others have advanced theories such as collision with a U.S. Navy submarine, or some kind of internal explosion. Ultimately, these sorts of issues are to be decided by posterity, which no doubt will take full account of competing views embodied in esteemed works such as Norman Polmar and Michael White’s Project Azorian: The CIA and the Raising of the K-129 (Naval Institute Press, 2010).
USS Monitor: A Historic Ship Completes Its Final Voyage
John D. Broadwater. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2012. 338 pp. Illus. Notes. Bibliog. Index. $39.95.
Reviewed by Captain Don Walsh, U.S. Navy (Retired)
The story of the Monitor’s great sea battle begins with the Confederate Navy ironclad the CSS Virginia. Formerly the U.S. Navy’s steam-powered frigate the Merrimack, she had been burned at the Gosport Navy Yard in Norfolk, Virginia. The Confederates salvaged and rebuilt her, waterline up, as a formidably armed warship. On 8 March 1862, the Virginia attacked a Union blockading squadron anchored at Hampton Roads. The concentrated firepower of the U.S. Navy ships had minimal effect against the ironclad attacker. By the day’s end, two sailing frigates had been destroyed and a third was severely damaged. More than 280 Union sailors died that day.
But the next day, things changed dramatically: The Union ironclad Monitor had arrived to challenge the Virginia. An untried warship, she fought a four-hour bow-to-bow battle against the mighty Confederate ironclad. When both withdrew, neither had prevailed tactically. It was a strategic win for the Monitor, because after the Virginia left, she never again seriously challenged the Union blockade. Two months after that battle, the Confederates scuttled the Virginia when they abandoned the Norfolk area. The Monitor lasted only seven months more, sinking off Cape Hatteras in December 1862.
An iconic naval vessel, the Monitor represented many firsts in naval architecture and marine engineering. After the Civil War, small heavily armed warships were generically known as monitors, and many navies used them through World War II.
The author of this book, prominent marine archeologist and diver John D. Broadwater, has spent most of his professional life investigating shipwrecks. For nearly three decades his work focused on the Monitor. The primary theme of his book is the location, investigation, and recovery of artifacts, activities that constitute the subject of seven of the nine chapters.
As a prequel to the main story of search and recovery, the author provides a description of the ship’s sinking off Cape Hatteras, and in another chapter covers the evolution of the ironclad warship. Here readers will find the story of the Monitor’s creation and brief wartime operations, including the famous 1862 battle with the Virginia.
With respect to more recent history, Broadwater gives an especially detailed account of the diving and artifact-recovery operations. He describes how teams from the Navy, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and 16 other agencies combined efforts to undertake seven major expeditions to the wreck.
In January 1975, the location of her wreckage was designated as the nation’s first National Marine Sanctuary. Broadwater was later appointed as its manager, holding the post for 14 years. At the time of his retirement in 2010, he was chief archeologist at NOAA’s Office of Marine Sanctuaries. Thanks to his efforts and those of his many colleagues, we can now see much of this iconic ship at the Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Virginia, not far from where the Monitor became enshrined in naval history.
This handsome tabletop volume is loaded with well-executed images and maps. Numerous sidebars amplify the reader’s understanding of this historical ship. A large bibliography is helpful for those who want more information. Scholars will find Broadwater’s book to be among the standard works on the life and times of the world’s first built-for-the-purpose ironclad ship. For enthusiasts of marine archeology, naval history, and the Civil War, the book is a must-have, and it will also be of significant interest for general readers interested in historical action stories.