The naval officer who quietly “slipped his chain” in the early-morning hours of New Year’s Day 1996 was well-known to the world—as a World War II naval hero and as a three-term Chief of Naval Operations. And his name survives in the Arleigh Burke (DDG-51) class of guided-missile destroyers.
But who was Arleigh Albert Burke? At 94, he had enjoyed such a long and successful life, and achieved so much, that celebration of his accomplishments seems more fitting than does grief at his passing. Great as his achievements were, the man himself was even greater. He was not a granite icon—one who stood above the world around him, supremely confident of both his abilities and his place in the grand scheme. Rather, Arleigh Burke was a human being—one who came from humble beginnings and always marveled and delighted that he had risen to a position where he could make a contribution to the nation and to the Navy he loved so much and felt he owed so much.
The Admiral used to say that the only value the story of his life could serve was to “show other naval officers that I was not an extraordinary man. Instead, I was just a good naval officer who got to where I did as a result of a lot of hard work and a little bit of good luck. Show them that if they work hard and have luck, they can achieve these things, too.” His wife Bobbie used to interject, in her gentle way, “I think it was more than luck, Arleigh,” lifting her eyes skyward.
Those who knew him would agree with his gunnery officer in the destroyer Mugford (DD-389)—his first command— in 1939-1940. Rear Admiral Robert Speck remembered: “He may have been endowed with gifts beyond other men, but that is not important, for he developed the numerous ones he had to a superb degree by continuous persistent application with a firm determination to do anything he did very well.” His world commentary was always succinct and meaty, his sea stories amusing and inspiring. He had a hearty, throaty laugh and a sailor’s sense of humor. All who knew him will miss his generous spirit as we strive to measure ourselves against the example of his character.
Arleigh Burke’s death deprives those who never met him of the chance to get to know an individual with an immense sense of history. He left the world what is arguably the finest collection of personal papers ever maintained by a U.S. naval officer. While he kept no diary, his personal letters and papers from active duty alone fill more than a dozen five- drawer file cabinets; his official Chief of Naval Operations files and post-CNO papers would fill close to a dozen more.
Despite such a treasure trove, much about Admiral Burke is not generally known. Future naval officers would do well to ponder most of what he has written.
Arleigh Burke was of Swedish and Pennsylvania Dutch ancestry—not Irish. His grandfather, Anders Bjorkegren, came to the United States in 1855 and became the first baker in Denver, Colorado. He shortened his name to Burke, because people had trouble pronouncing the Swedish. Arleigh was born on the family farm at Baseline Road, three miles east of Boulder, on 19 October 1901. The eldest of six children, he grew up a farm boy, yet he always hated the smell of cattle.
Burke never graduated from high school, because the flu epidemic of 1918 closed the State Preparatory High School in Boulder in the early months of his junior year. He received his appointment to the Naval Academy as a result of a snowstorm during the winter of 1918-1919. He had ridden his horse into Boulder the night before his congressman’s competitive examination and bedded down in the stable, because his father thought it looked like snow, and young Burke wanted to be sure of getting to the exam on time. The snow became a blizzard, and many better-prepared boys were unable to get there at all. Burke passed the exam and won the appointment. Despite his meager education, Burke’s hard work at the Naval Academy enabled him to graduate 70th out of 412 in the class of 1923.
Arleigh Burke met Roberta Gorsuch on a blind date in October 1920. He was unable to ask her out again as soon as he would have liked because he was put “in hack” the next month for a disciplinary offense. Like many of his classmates, Burke and his roommate had protested new restrictions on hazing by tossing their washbasins and pitchers out the window. For the infraction, he received a Class A, citing “conduct to prejudice [of] good order: crockery missing.” It took Burke until Christmas leave to walk off his 40 demerits. He then asked his future wife to an academy “hop” in January. As far as can be determined, he never dated another woman for the next 75 years. Although marriages by ensigns were discouraged, Arleigh and Bobbie married the day he graduated, 7 June 1923.
Worried that sea duty would take him from Bobbie’s side for too long, First Class Midshipman Burke applied for a commission in the Marine Corps in December 1922, following a rousing speech by Major General Commandant John A. Lejeune. Bobbie’s lack of enthusiasm for this abrupt change of plans and Burke’s own growing naval ambitions led him to withdraw the request a month later. He pursued a series of impetuous career urges as a junior officer as well; in 1925 he applied for duty in lighter-than-air aviation so he could spend more time ashore with Bobbie, and the following year requested training as a specialist in aerology. Both times senior officers (and probably his wife as well) dissuaded him and kept him working toward specialization in gunnery.
Arleigh Burke is the Navy’s best-known destroyerman, but he spent more time in the battleship Arizona (BB-39)— five years from 1923 to 1928—than he ever did in destroyers. His destroyer service began in 1937, when he was appointed precommissioning executive officer of the new destroyer Craven (DD- 382). He spent two years in the Craven, then had one year in command of the Mugford, and returned to destroyer duty in the South Pacific in February 1943. He commanded destroyers in the Solomons for just more than 13 months through March 1944; during only the last five months did he perform his legendary service as Commander, Destroyer Squadron Twenty-Three (DesRon 23). The length of time was less significant than what Burke did with it. During his year in command of the Mugford, the ship won the Destroyer Gunnery Trophy for 1939, with an unprecedented perfect score of 36 shots, 36 hits in short-range battle practice, and received the “E” in Engineering and “C” in communications, as well.
Burke missed the first year of World War II because he could not be released from duty as an inspector of broadside and antiaircraft gun mounts at the Naval Gun Factory in the Washington Navy Yard. This bind stemmed from his decision to take postgraduate work in ordnance engineering and become a member of the so-called “Gun Club” of the old Bureau of Ordnance (BuOrd). He received a Master of Science degree in Chemical Engineering from the University of Michigan in 1931 and was designated a "Design and Production Specialist" in Ordnance Explosives. In 1941, the Navy had 46 ordnance design and production officers, only nine specializing in explosives. In a 38-year commissioned career, Burke spent eight years working in or for the Bureau of Ordnance. If he had not been assigned as Vice Admiral Marc Mitscher’s chief of staff in Task Force 58 in March 1944, BuOrd would have put him back on the production lines at home, where his expensive and extensive training could be put to good use.
His famous nickname—"Thirty-One-Knot Burke”—was not a reference to the top speed achieved by DesRon 23’s Fletcher (DD-445)-class destroyers. They could travel faster, but Burke considered 31 knots his optimum non-battle-for- mation speed and had complained in messages to Admiral William F. Halsey’s South Pacific headquarters that a troublesome boiler on the destroyer Spence (DD-512) was limiting formation speed to only 30 knots. On 24 November 1943, just prior to the Battle of Cape St. George, the Spence's boiler was repaired, and Burke signaled that he was proceeding at 31 knots. Halsey’s operations chief. Captain Ray Thurber, an old squadron mate of Burke’s, prepared an operations order that twitted Burke about his boiler problems with the opening "Thirty-One- Knot Burke.” The order itself sent DesRon 23 to intercept five Japanese destroyers evacuating aviation personnel from Buka Island to the Japanese base at Rabaul. It was based on ULTRA radio intelligence that indicated a "transportation operation to Buka by destroyers” on the night of 24-25 November. During the Battle of Cape St. George, where Burke’s five ships sank three of the enemy, DesRon 23’s ships made 33 knots.
Mitscher, the well-known naval aviator and commander of fast carrier Task Force 58, for whom Burke worked as chief of staff in 1944-1945, asked Burke to become his deputy when Mitscher was appointed Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Air in the summer of 1945. Burke declined, arguing that Mitscher needed a career aviator in the post, and that even if he took flight training, he would likely be resented by other naval aviators. Burke promised to be available to serve Mitscher as chief of staff if he ever went to sea again, which he did as Commander, Eighth Fleet and Commander in Chief, Atlantic Fleet in 1946-1947.
In August 1944, Mitscher recommended that Burke be promoted immediately to the temporary rank of rear admiral. Burke objected immediately: "Of course I would like to be a rear admiral, since that is what I have worked for all my life; but in fairness to a lot of other people and to the Navy, I feel I do not deserve this promotion now.” He received a temporary promotion to commodore that fall, contingent upon serving as Mitscher’s chief of staff, but did not become a rear admiral until 1950.
Secretary of the Navy Francis Matthews requested that Burke’s name be removed from the promotion list for rear admiral in November 1949, ostensibly because Burke had been selected "below the zone” and Matthews said that he wanted another, more senior officer promoted in his stead. The action took place in the aftermath of "The Revolt of the Admirals" hearings in the fall of 1949 when Burke had been accused of running an antiunification “secret publicity bureau.” The removal of Burke’s name leaked and caused a widespread uproar. It took the intercession of President Harry S. Truman, at the behest of Truman’s naval aide and Burke’s classmate. Rear Admiral Robert Dennison, and the new Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Forrest Sherman, to get it reinstated.
In summer 1954, while serving at sea as Commander, Cruiser Division Six in the Atlantic, Rear Admiral Burke gave serious thought to retiring from the Navy and taking a corporation job as vice president for research, offered to him by an old friend. He decided against it, but he was so concerned about where the Navy and national defense seemed to be heading, despite Navy leadership’s best efforts, that he wrote a former division commander a letter, noting “I think I may be able to make vice admiral, but that is just about it. I am not sure I would want to be CNO. even if it were made available to me.” Ten months later. Secretary of the Navy Charles Thomas offered Burke the job. He went from two stars to four, over the heads of 92 more senior active-duty admirals, more than 80 of whom were potential competitors. He never served as a vice admiral.
Burke was twice reappointed to the post by President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Each time he was reluctant to accept. To Admiral Felix Stump, he wrote: "The possibility of staying here for six years, I don’t think it would be good for the Navy. Anybody sitting in this spot too long begins to get some bad habits, such as fixed ideas. In time it becomes increasingly harder to bring a fresh approach to the problems. It is easy to get into a rut by the time four years are up, and this doesn’t help the Navy any.”
Burke’s achievements as CNO are well known. Only months after taking office, he put in motion a high-priority drive to develop the Polaris fleet ballistic missile, over the objections of many of his senior advisors, who felt the Navy should hold back until more technical problems had been solved. The George Washington (SSBN-598) deployed on deterrent patrol with Polaris A1 1,200-mile ballistic missiles in November 1960, well ahead of the 1957 schedule that called for a 1,500-mile missile capable of launching from a submerged submarine by 1965. Polaris permanently changed the face of nuclear strategy. Burke argued that the nation needed an alternative to the strategy of “massive retaliation” that spent vast resources on potentially vulnerable, land- based bombers and missiles designed for the single purpose of fighting a general nuclear war. Sea basing for a substantial portion of the nation’s nuclear forces would make possible a strategy of “finite deterrence, controlled retaliation” that would require comparatively few nuclear weapons and allow the military to shift resources into the problem of local and limited conflicts, which Burke saw as the most likely military problems facing the nation.
Because the Navy budget could not support the level of shipbuilding necessary to maintain the fleet, Burke proposed substantial overhauls for World War II surface combatants, which evolved into the Fleet Rehabilitation and Modernization (FRAM) program. Simultaneously, he accelerated programs for construction of nuclear-powered submarines and surface ships and, building on the work of preceding CNOs, brought guided missiles into widespread use throughout the fleet. He also promoted innovations in aircraft design, communication systems, and antisubmarine warfare. His efforts to prepare the Navy for limited conflicts came to the test during the Suez crisis in 1956, the 1958 crises in Lebanon and the Taiwan Straits, and subsequent tensions in Berlin and the Congo. The Navy that undertook the quarantine of Cuba in the 1962 missile crisis owed much of its success to Burke’s preparations.
Equally important were Burke’s efforts to build morale and raise training standards in the Navy, and to articulate to a national audience the traditions and values of the service to which he had devoted his life. Upon becoming CNO in 1955, he established “Flag Officers Dope,” a monthly classified newsletter to all flag officers in the Navy, to acquaint them with important events and proposals as well as the rationale behind his decisions and actions. In 1956, he instituted a multi-media “Spirit of the Navy” presentation to provide naval personnel with an understanding of the foundations of the service’s role in the nation’s history. In 1958, he created the Naval Leadership Program, which emphasized the importance of individual responsibility and individual contributions in meeting the many challenges the Navy was facing. In addition, he took steps to encourage increased postgraduate education for all naval officers, in the social sciences as well as natural and technical sciences. At the Naval Academy, Burke established a postgraduate scholarship that came to bear his name. The program allowed a few highly motivated midshipmen, after one year at sea, to pursue doctorate degrees at civilian graduate schools.
Burke was part of a generation of naval officers who had been taught that loyalty was the most important of the “essential qualities of a naval officer,” and “loyalty up and loyalty down” epitomized how naval officers should conduct themselves with both subordinates and seniors.
Burke was a master of the memo, able to tweak, cajole, and encourage his subordinates with pointed commentary and teasing good humor. In an era before computers and satellite communications, he kept his fleet commanders informed about what they needed to know. His top leadership (as well as future historians) benefited from his memoranda for the record of more than 150 meetings of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Armed Forces Policy Council, and National Security Council, which he circulated as information or for action as appropriate. His occasional rages were legendary, but infrequent. For the most part he motivated his staff by setting an example of hard work and devotion to the service, and generously passing out credit for any successes that came his way.
Throughout his post-World War II service, Burke worried about the impact increased unification of the armed services would have on military initiative and the U.S. Navy. During debate over the National Security Act Amendments of 1958—amendments that stripped the CNO of his operational control of the fleets—he explained the basis of his concerns in a letter:
We believe in command, not staff. We believe we have ‘real’ things to do. The Navy believes in putting a man in a position with a job to do, and let him do it—give him hell if he does not perform—but be a man in his own name. We decentralize and capitalize on the capabilities of our individual people rather than centralize and make automatons of them.
Burke understood ambition. He had always been driven by the desire to give his best to whatever task he took on, but he never lost his sense of perspective, or his sense of humor. The Navy always came first. It was quite natural, Burke noted, for an outstanding naval aviator to “believe that there is no other group in the whole world that does as much for the defense of the United States,” and for submariners committed to the Polaris program to “become a little too enthusiastic sometimes and believe that only they are really needed in a Navy.” Such pride, he observed, was “fine as long as the aim to make the specialty better is based on the larger desire to make the whole Navy stronger.” Nevertheless, he hoped that “there would come a time” when “it will be possible to have [most Navy commands] commanded by any line officer— aviator, submariner or ordinary surface officer.” He “personally believe[d] also that by the time a man makes flag officer he should lose his designation, no matter what it is, submarines, aviation, or anything else, and become a flag officer in the broadest sense of the term—one who can command forces.”
Arleigh Burke was a flag officer in the broadest sense. He understood that “we have to work hard to maintain the Navy as a viable instrument of power—power which is needed by the United States, which is understood, and which can grow and change.” He told a fellow admiral “We have to maintain in ourselves, and imbue our juniors with an ardor to keep our Navy in front. We must pass along a willingness to think hard—to seek new answers —to chance mistakes—and to ‘mix it up’ freely in the forums and activities around us to promote knowledge. From that knowledge we can inspire our country to have faith in us—not because the organization of the military forces is the only place to put our national faith, but because we have discharged our responsibilities in such a manner that we have justified confidence in the effective manner in which we operate.”
He earned the confidence of all of us, and he will be missed.
Dr. Rosenberg is Associate Professor of History at Temple University. A former professor at the Naval War College, he also serves as a lieutenant commander (special duty, intelligence) in the U.S. Naval Reserve. He was elected recently to chair the Secretary of the Navy's Advisory Committee on Naval History and is currently at work on a biography of Admiral Arleigh Burke.