Ernest J. King: Wwii's Saltiest Sea Dog?

By Coppock, Mike | Sea Classics, September 2007 | Go to article overview

Ernest J. King: Wwii's Saltiest Sea Dog?

Coppock, Mike, Sea Classics

Often labeled a feisty, combative, womanizing drunk, Ernie King proved himself the right man at the right time to become commander of the world's most powerful Navy BY MIKE COPPOCK

Wiser men would fight on land. A battle at sea is an unforgiving nightmare.

Ships become scorching hot before plunging downward, pulling below frantic sailors until lungs starved for air. Blood, body parts, and half-whole men litter decks. Above, warplanes burst into balls of burning flesh slamming into concrete hard swells.

Bold sailors who know how the world functions square their jaw, detach their nerves, and blind their fears as they go ship on ship, plane on plane, and wits against wits with their country's enemies.

Of all America's wars, WWII was a two-ocean Naval war. Control of the seas won it. Three men of different backgrounds - Ernest King, William Halsey, Chester Nimitz - made sure the United States was the one winning. Lucky for us they were the right men in the right place at the right time. Though each had very distinctive personalities and their own individualistic ways of accomplishing a very difficult job, they all shared one common attribute - a passionate love of country and the Navy in which they served.

With Adm. Ernest J. King, the country benefitted from his fiery temper and willingness to go to any end to fight for a cause he felt well justified. In carrying out his role as Chief of Naval Operations during WWII King rose to command the world's most powerful Navy, a force of over 8000 ships, 24,000 aircraft and nearly four million men and women. Even more important, King's dogmatic worldwide influence shaped many of the key events in both the Atlantic and Pacific Wars.

All three leaders emerged from relatively humble origins in the classic American tradition. Ernest J. King was born in Lorain, Ohio, on 23 November 1878, just as the full impact of the Industrial Age was being felt in America's hinterlands. The son of well-educated ScottishEnglish parents, even as a boy King demonstrated keen traits of leadership in athletics and scholarly competition. Outspoken, hot-tempered and decisive, "Ernie" King well deserved his reputation for "telling it like it was." However, he managed to temper his often combative stance on whatever matter was under discussion with good old-fashioned logic and common sense, virtues that helped the lanky athlete garner an eagerly sought appointment to the US Naval Academy. Lured by the scent of high adventure, ambition and the tang of salt air, 19-year-old Ernest J. King arrived at the dilapidated 52-year-old Annapolis campus on 15 August 1897.

An outstanding midshipman, King repeatedly demonstrated his unique flair for leadership at the Naval Academy. Relishing difficult assignments, the fiery midshipman became known as "can-do King" because of his knack for getting the job done in a Naval environment that was just then emerging from the post Civil War Naval miasma that saw the Navy itself sadly neglected for more than 30-years.

The intervention of the Spanish-American War in 1898 saw all of the midshipmen including freshmen plebes like King sent to sea, the upper-classmen given premature graduations and commissions. Assigned to the cruiser San Francisco, King soon found himself under enemy fire off the Cuban coast when his ship engaged enemy shore batteries. Graduating near the head of his class in 1901, the newly minted Ensign had early shown a preference for a variety of assignments which ran the gamut from destroyer to battleship duty. In rapid succession he served as the navigation officer aboard the survey ship Eagle, engineering officer aboard the battleships Illinois and New Hampshire. He next selected what were at the time cutting edge assignments in America's fast developing Fleet - destroyers and submarines.

Luckily for Ernest J. King, who early in his career demonstrated a marked talent for being able to consume large quantities of liquor and women, Teddy Roosevelt's inspired and rejuvenated Great White Fleet of the early 1900s had a decided tolerance for alcoholism, a condition that threatened to side track his promising career with several early unfavorable fitness reports regarding his notorious drinking bouts, temper tantrums and borderline disobedience. …

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