King, Ernest J.

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King, Ernest J. (1878–1956), American admiral; chief of U.S. naval forces in World War II.Born in Lorain, Ohio, King graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1901. King's first command was with destroyers. But during World War I, he served as assistant chief of staff to Adm. Henry Mayo, commander of the Atlantic Fleet, joining him at conferences in England. After the war, Captain King studied and took leadership roles in two of the navy's new branches, submarines and aviation, in 1930 being given command of the aircraft carrier, Lexington. In 1933, when Chief of the Bureau of Aeronautics, Rear Adm. William A. Moffett, died in a crash, King, his former assistant and now a rear admiral, succeeded him as the navy's aviation chief. In 1938, he commanded the navy's aircraft carrier force in the Pacific. King had hoped to become chief of naval operations (CNO), the navy's service chief, but in 1939 that position went to Adm. Harold Stark.

It was King not Stark, however, who would command the navy during World War II. In January 1941, as vice admiral and soon a full admiral, King with a reputation as knowledgeable, tough and dedicated officer, was appointed commander of the Atlantic Fleet with the mission of protecting vital supplies being sent to the Allies. In December 1941, after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the U.S. declaration of war, President Franklin D. Roosevelt created a new position and appointed King, commander in chief, U.S. Fleet, as head of all naval operating forces. Conflict between King and Stark led Roosevelt in March 1942 to appoint King also as chief of naval operations and send Stark to London as commander of U.S. naval forces in Europe. Holding these two positions as well as a seat on the Joint Chiefs of Staff for the rest of the war, King had unprecedented authority over all aspects of the navy and its operations as well as joint planning. As his personal adviser, however, Roosevelt appointed Adm. William Leahy, a trusted friend and former CNO, as chief of staff to the president.

During World War II, King accepted the decision that Germany should be defeated first, but with the U.S. Navy's major combat role against the Japanese navy, he insisted that as many resources as possible be sent to the Pacific. His continued insistence led to disagreements with Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, the U.S. military commander in Europe. King also clashed with Gen. Douglas MacArthur, senior army commander in the Pacific over priorities in the region, leading Roosevelt to divide the area between MacArthur and Adm. Chester Nimitz. In the summer of 1943, as MacArthur drove through the Southwest Pacific, King and Gen. H. H. ( “Hap”) Arnold, chief of the Army Air Forces, pressed for a major drive by Nimitz through the Central Pacific. Roosevelt controversially accepted both campaigns, but in 1944, the president sided with MacArthur in favor of liberating the Philippines rather than bypassing them and taking Taiwan as the navy recommended.

In December 1944, King was given the five‐star rank of fleet admiral. When Japan surrendered in September 1945, King recommended abolition of the position of commander in chief, U.S. fleet. He remained CNO until his retirement from the navy in December 1945.
[See also: Navy, U.S., 1899–1945.]


Ernest J. King and and W.M. Whitehill , Fleet Admiral King: A Naval Record, 1952;
Thomas B. Buell , Master of Seapower: A Biography of Fleet Admiral Ernest J. King, 1980;
Robert William Lowe, Jr., ed., The Chiefs of Naval Operation, 1980;
Eric Larrabee , Commander in Chief: Franklin Delano Roosevelt, His Lieutenants and Their War, 1987.

John Whiteclay Chambers II

Ernest Joseph King

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Ernest Joseph King

Ernest Joseph King (1878-1956), American naval officer, was a brilliant strategist and organizer. He served as both commander in chief of the U.S. Fleet and chief of Naval Operations during World War II.

Ernest King was born on Nov. 23, 1878, in Lorain, Ohio. He developed an early interest in a naval career and entered the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis in 1897. He graduated in 1901, standing fourth in a class of 67.

During the next several years King was assigned to a variety of posts, including an instructorship at the Naval Academy. By 1911 his excellent record led to appointment as flag secretary to the commander in chief of the Atlantic Fleet. In 1914 he received his first command.

During World War I King served as chief of staff to the commander in chief, Atlantic Fleet, and was promoted to captain. Following the war he saw some service with submarines but concentrated on the growing area of naval aviation, graduating from flight training at the age of 48. After a tour as captain of the aircraft carrier Lexington, he was promoted to rear admiral and appointed chief of the Bureau of Aeronautics. In 1938 he became vice admiral and was assigned as commander, Aircraft, Battle Force, a position that put him in charge of all American aircraft carriers.

In June 1939 King was assigned to the General Board of the Navy, a traditional final post for senior flag officers. However, with the outbreak of World War II, he was reassigned. In January 1941 he was promoted to admiral and appointed commander in chief of the Atlantic Fleet. In this post he made major contributions to the Allied effort in the development of antisubmarine tactics in the Atlantic and also did top-level staff work with representatives of the U.S. Army and the British military services.

Following Pearl Harbor, King assumed the positions of commander in chief of the U.S. Fleet and chief of Naval Operations. Realizing that global war required major changes in the Navy's command structure, he devoted much of his energy to organizational matters. He solved some of the problems raised by the transition from battleship to carrier operations by elevating the status of aviation officers and, in 1943, by creating the post of deputy chief of Naval Operations (Air). He also stressed the acquisition of escort vessels for Atlantic convoys.

As a member of both the Joint and Combined Chiefs of Staff, King played a major role in developing Allied strategy. Although accepting the decision to defeat Germany first, he pressed for allocation of more resources to the Pacific theater. His determination to gain the maximum possible control over Pacific operations for the Navy produced numerous conflicts with Army leaders. He overcame the Army's opposition to Adm. Chester Nimitz's plan for a dual approach to Japan but was unsuccessful in substituting an attack on Formosa for Gen. Douglas MacArthur's campaign to retake the Philippines. King also championed the Navy's view that a naval blockade and air attacks could force Japan to surrender without an invasion of the home islands.

The importance of King's overall contribution should not be underestimated. Starting with the devastated fleet and shattered morale following Pearl Harbor, he directed the expansion of the U.S. Navy into the mightiest fleet in world history. He twice testified before the Senate Military Affairs Committee against unification of the Armed Forces. He retired in December 1945, having been promoted to the five-star rank of fleet admiral. He died on June 25, 1956, in Portsmouth, N.H.

Further Reading

Adm. King's wartime reports to the secretary of the Navy were published by the Navy under the title U.S. Navy at War, 1941-1945 (1946). The only full-length study of King's career is Ernest J. King and Walter Muir Whitehill, Fleet Admiral King (1952). The best concise history of American naval operations in World War II is probably Samuel Eliot Morison, The Twoocean War: A Short History of the United States Navy in the Second World War (1963). The debates surrounding many of the major strategic decisions of World War II are set forth in Kent Roberts Greenfield, ed., Command Decisions (1960).

Additional Sources

Buell, Thomas B., Master of sea power: a biography of Fleet Admiral Ernest J. King, Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1995. □

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