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The Admirals: Nimitz, Halsey, Leahy, and King:  The Five-Star Admirals Who Won the War at Sea

By Walter R. Borneman. 576 pp. Little, Brown and Company, 2012. $29.99.

This remarkable quartet of five-star American naval leaders deserves a first-rate collective biography, and The Admirals does them justice. Through wide-ranging research, engaging narrative style, and shrewd judgment calls, author Walter R. Borneman expertly weaves their four lives into a tapestry that captures how the interwar navy’s long strides in institutional and technological development rapidly evolved into wartime strategy and operations. In the process, Borneman joins a wave of historians in debunking the widely accepted notion that the navy languished before Pearl Harbor.

Borneman traverses each subject’s prewar career to identify his distinctive characteristics or achievements, turning a keen eye toward how these would shape the conduct of the war. Ernest J. King, for example, was an early advocate of decentralizing authority, a principle he struggled mightily to practice himself as commander in chief of the U.S. Fleet. Chester W. Nimitz shone with his prewar work on submarines, refueling at sea, and the circular dispositions of task forces— all key elements in American victories in the Pacific. William Halsey Jr.’s charisma, luck, and aggressiveness shaped his heroic successes and failures alike. William D. Leahy, senior in age and position, was the last to acknowledge the rise of carrier aviation and submarines, but displayed a superior grasp of military and political strategy at the very highest levels—as well as a sense of loyalty and discretion that Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman found indispensable. Borneman carefully plots the admirals’ intersecting paths, and charts their early relations with other officers who became prominent during the war—such as Halsey’s close professional and personal ties to Raymond Spruance, in many ways his polar opposite.

Not surprisingly, the Pacific Theater monopolizes this book’s attention. Borneman pilots each story line to highlight important moments such as the Battles of Midway and Leyte Gulf, avoiding the drag of unnecessary detail. He benefits from recent scholarship to offer a much more sophisticated portrait of the complicated relationship between King and Nimitz, and is quite fair in acknowledging Halsey’s triumphs of 1942–43 while skipping over two disastrous encounters with typhoons. He recognizes that in a perfect world the modest Spruance should have been a fleet admiral. And he provides a poignant account of Leahy’s relationship with the ailing president, and details the admiral’s huge (and oft-overlooked) contribution to the smooth functioning of the Joint Chiefs as well as effective relationships with the British Chiefs of Staff.

This excellent work has one notable quirk: its explanation of how Halsey secured his liquor supply in the South Pacific is nearly as long as the entire Battle of the Atlantic. There are also small factual errors: for example, Hawaii housed 81 patrol planes on December 7, 1941, not 36. Otherwise The Admirals succeeds admirably in revealing how and why this foursome was crucial to winning the war.


Originally published in the October 2012 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.