Despite its length this is an extremely readable book especially recommended for anyone who has never read previous biographies of these four important individuals — or, perhaps, needs an update on their lives and contributions to victory in World War II. One big advantage to reading “The Admirals” is that it goes deeper into the long-term relationships, and sometimes friendships, of these famous commanders than do most other biographies. They had known each other for years with three of the four having met as midshipmen at the Naval Academy and were occasional shipmates during their earlier careers.
The only exception to that is William D. Leahy, who was older than the others and whose career dated back to the Spanish-American War. Of the four it’s probably Leahy who is not as well known as the others, even by students of naval history. Yet, he is very important to the history of World War II. Walter Borneman does a superb job of describing Leahy’s relationship with Franklin Roosevelt and the sometimes difficult senior commanders from both American services and allies alike. He was much more a statesman and presidential confidant than the other three and, as such, participated in numerous important and high-level decisions.
While not news to most readers interested in naval history, Ernest J. King, the wartime chief of Naval Operations, was the least likeable of the four. Demanding to a fault, irascible, often profane and with little tolerance for what he deemed less than outstanding work, he oversaw the unprecedented World War II Navy buildup, established close cooperation with Gen. George C. Marshall and played a key role in the plans that underlaid victory in both Europe and the Pacific. Mr. Borneman should have covered in more detail King’s role in victory over the U-boat in the Atlantic, however.
If there is any one hero that stands out above all the others it’s Adm. Chester Nimitz. His accomplishments have been so well-covered in biography and articles it’s hardly necessary to recount them here. Of the four he is the one most worthy of emulation by aspiring commanders of any service or, in fact, by leaders in any walk of life. Patient, incisive, courteous and a family man besides, he was able to work with demanding personalities such as Douglas MacArthur and Ernie King and mercurial leaders such as Bill Halsey. It’s no wonder so many schools, highways, memorials of all sorts and even the first of a class of nuclear aircraft carriers, the USS Nimitz, are named for him. Mr. Borneman, in clear and concise writing, merely adds to the legend that is Chester Nimitz.
Halsey was the last of the four naval officers to be promoted to five stars, probably because of his somewhat questionable reputation. He was outspoken to a fault, and his words about the Japanese today echo with the worst of insensitivity, but the press of the time relished them. He was their darling, and MacArthur considered him, “his admiral,” no small feat in itself. Despite missing more than two years of action due to illness that absented him from the battles of Midway and the Philippine Sea, being sucked out of the action by a toothless Japanese carrier force at Leyte Gulf and taking his fleet through two punishing typhoons, his reputation as the man who would ride Hirohito’s white horse through Tokyo carried the public imagination. So, when the Army sat with four five-star appointments while the Navy had three, it was only fair that the Navy get another one: thus Fleet Adm. Halsey.
Mr. Borneman’s writing style is fluid and engaging. It’s not easy to set his book aside once the reading starts. The research is considerable: 11 pages of bibliography and 37 pages of notes is, if not unprecedented, amazing. This is at least his fifth book on disparate historical topics, and he still practices law.
That each of his subjects, the four fleet admirals, have been covered before, most recently in “Admiral Nimitz: The Commander of the Pacific Ocean Theater” by Brayton Harris, does not take away an iota from Mr. Borneman’s scholarship or ability to write in an engrossing manner. “The Admirals” is a valuable addition to any library of World War II or naval history.
Vice Adm. Robert F. Dunn is the past president of the Naval Historical Foundation and the Association of Naval Aviation.