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The Admirals — a brief review

[by J. Scott Shipman]

The Admirals, by Walter R. Borneman

If you have any interest in the lives of the only five-star admirals to serve in the US Navy, this is the book to begin your reading. Mr. Borneman does a masterful job of describing the admirals (LeahyKingNimitz, and Halsey), their lives and contributions to the US victory in WWII. Borneman uses a thematic approach, beginning with short chapters describing the lives of the four subjects and how the admirals came to attend the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis, MD (which they all attended).

Borneman follows with modest chapters on the admirals’ areas of expertise, to include: battleships, submarines, and aircraft carriers. These chapters offer a glimpse into both the strengths and weaknesses of these ships following WWI and how the ships’ roles changed in the years leading up to WWII. Intermixed with the descriptions of the ships, Borneman weaves the admirals into the story illustrating their tastes in ships and their leadership methods.

Borneman follows with a fast-paced story of how these men worked together (and with other big name colleagues like Roosevelt, MacArther, Marshall, and Spruance, to name a few) to achieve victory. From the intricacies of a cogent strategy for the early days of the Pacific, to the conferences between Allied leaders (Roosevelt and Churchill, primarily), to the battles and tactics that shaped the war’s outcome, Borneman’s fine writing presents the admirals, warts and all. As mentioned previously, they were all different, but they were all talented and driven. Borneman quotes retired Vice Admiral Roland N. Smoot, who was in the thick of the Pacific war, speaking after the four had died:

“I’ve tried to analyze the four five-star Admirals that we’ve had in this Navy…You have a man like King—terrifically ‘hew to the line’ hard martinet, stony steely gentleman; the grandfather and really lovable old man Nimitz—the most beloved man I’ve ever know; the complete and utter clown Halsey—a clown but if he said ‘Let’s go to hell together,’ you’d go to hell with him; and then the diplomat Leahy—the open-handed, effluent diplomat Leahy. Four more different men never lived and tehy all got to be five-star admirals, and why?”

Borneman says, “Smoot answered his own question with one word: “leadership.” Smoot continues that each had “the ability to make men admire them one way or the other.” Borneman suggests King got there by “bluster and verve; Nimitz by putting his hand on your shoulder and saying, Let’s get this thing done; Halsey—still the fullback—by rushing through the line in such a way that everyone on the team wanted to go through with him; and Leahy by never letting his own personal feelings, or those of others, interfere with the long-range objectives and best interests of his country.”

If these men sound interesting, it is because they are; the lessons and examples they left behind could use some attention from many of today’s military leaders. The four were smart, tough, and unafraid.

The Admirals is a about 475 pages long, with lots of reference material in the multiple appendixes. Borneman’s writing is so fluid and eloquent, I was able to read in two sittings, and his fine book comes with my strongest recommendation.

Crossposted at tobeortodo.com.

UPDATE: My apologies for a post with so many typos; I was in a hurry, but wanted to get this recommendation out. That said, I’ll try to edit more carefully going forward.

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