The art of leadership – the USN and World War II

Admiral Nimitz cover
Brayton Harris, Admiral Nimitz, The Commander of the Pacific Ocean Theatre.
Palgrave MacMillan, New York, 2011, pp. 230, price not stated.

Walter Borneman, The Admirals: The Five-Star Admirals who won the war at sea.
Little Brown and Company, 2012, price not stated.

Reviewed by Mike Fogarty

THE UNITED States Navy promoted four of its admirals to five-star rank during WWII and after. Effectively, they were all styled and titled in the rank of Fleet Admiral. This was a subtle tilt at the Royal Navy, some of whose own top-ranking (and equivalent) naval officers were appointed as Admiral of the Fleet.

Some USN officers were theatre combat commanders whereas the others were Washington-based throughout the war. For the sweep and nature of the global conflict, these so-called desk warriors at home were hardly idle as they accompanied their president, F D Roosevelt, on top-level diplomatic missions abroad or to the extreme fringes of the sea battlefields themselves. To survive on the political front, whether at home or abroad, was not without inherent dangers, whether personal or career-wise. The war was total. Even flying or sailing to obscure conferences in foreign lands posed as much a risk as a heavily contested sea war. Two recent books are reviewed under.

To be blunt, Admiral Nimitz, The Commander of the Pacific Ocean Theatre is an unashamed hagiography. Yet it is still a worthy study as there is much to like about Chester Nimitz. Of German stock, he was clearly ambitious, yet in a modest way. He had sufficient reserves of personal character, mental toughness and moral courage, as expected in any sailor, of whatever rank and in any navy. Surely he was avuncular and connected with those men and women under his command. He could be forgiving and was prepared to back his navy people if they had done their best, despite often failing in their assigned task. For that quality, he was conscious of morale effects and public relations generally. This officer sought to encourage the best out of those he led. At once, he earned fierce loyalty from those who respected the responsibilities invested in him. Clearly, he was not vain-glorious or ego-centric like a rival, General Douglas MacArthur. “Chesty” was measured in his command role preferring to delegate responsibility to trusted subordinates. Equally, he was prepared to share any blame, which might also reflect on his own judgement.

The book is replete with countless examples of his adroit touch of command. Far removed from the events, seventy years on, any naval type can only regard with awe the weight of command responsibilities placed upon him. We may never see the like of these people again in such a life and death experience when the very vestiges of Western civilisation were being threatened. Nimitz stood by fellow combat commander “Bull” Halsey. This feisty junior was everything Nimitz was not. To his credit, Nimitz backed Halsey when less-confident seniors might have abandoned him as personally and professionally dispensable. For all his setbacks, Halsey was as much an architect of victory as any senior officer during those perilous wartime days.

Nimitz was punctual and expected no less in others. Socially, he was also considerate and solicitous of his personal retinue in celebrating birthdays and making teams function. Moreover, he knew how to relax and achieve the work-life balance in his career, even amidst the crushing demands of wartime command. Nimitz enjoyed a sound working relationship with his president in FDR. Nimitz could mediate and cope with all the inter and intra-service rivalries. He may have been occasionally exasperated but he played the ball and not the man. He looked for the best in people and invariably he was rewarded by them. Obviously, he proved to be both resilient and flexible in his myriad of relationships. Chesty got his fifth star and also the coveted appointment as Chief of Naval Operations. He will be remembered as a great leader. The Chiefs of Staff during wartime America always backed his command role.

The question must be both asked and answered. How relevant is and was Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz, USN to the RAN, or in fact, any navy? The Nimitz career service provides its own answer. He was personally ambitious as his guild expected of him. In time, he became a consummate professional, worthy of the increasingly higher level appointments he was assigned to discharge. He outfitted them to optimal advantage which rewarded the confidence of his political leaders. His highest personal quality was the respect and loyalty he garnered from his navy folk. In good and bad times, he led and set a shining example so others could instinctively follow. In short, he treated his people well by encouraging them to do their best in the grim face of telling adversity. He led and created the conditions where his sailors would willingly follow. Nimitz had a capacity for leadership which would make any navy go forward to achieve its stated remit. For this, history will regard him as a fine sea warrior.

The Admirals: The Five-Star Admirals who won the war at sea is a wider survey as it also includes the three other five-star admirals who were promoted alongside Nimitz during the war. In order of seniority, they were: William D. Leahy (15 December, 1944), Ernest J. King (17 December, 1944), Chester W. Nimitz (19 December, 1944 and William F. Halsey (11 December, 1945). For that, this review obviates the need to return to Nimitz who is more adequately covered in the book by Harris. Borneman is thus a better book, in many ways, as it allows us to compare and contrast all the four admirals. Nimitz and Halsey spent their war at sea. In contrast, Leahy and King saw the war from Washington. Both proved as indispensable as their two distant peers, tied down by the War in the Pacific, and doing their best to advance a victorious war to Japan where they would lead the US Fleet, and other allied navies, into a silenced Tokyo Bay. Leahy and King helped FDR win the war. They, too, were resolute leaders.

Leahy was the President’s Chief Military Adviser. Not as flamboyant as Halsey, he proved to be a skilled diplomat. He had a role to play which he performed admirably. King was the Chief of Naval Operations and also a Chief of Staff. King had a formidable presence and he proved his worth by backing Nimitz and Halsey. King was never given to self-doubt and his contribution was just as effective as General George Marshall. Both men were leaders, but to survive, they also had to display an array of political and diplomatic skills. In WWII, Nimitz as CINCPAC, commanded two million men (and women) and the 1, 000 ships which won the war in the Pacific. He suffered reverses but he could only share in the USN victory. The complexity of those management tasks could only be imagined. History has shown that FDR picked wisely and he was well-served by all his four five-stars. Despite that, a navy is only as good as the sum of its parts. All proved vital in winning the war.

The last word should go to Vice Admiral Sir Tim Laurence, RN. In reviewing Borneman, he makes a compelling observation (Naval Review, February, 2013, page 91). “There is no single successful model of leadership. You have to forge your own individual style, hone it to perfection, drive yourself hard and hope that events give you the opportunity to show what you’re made of. These four were all tested to the limit they passed, in the main, with flying colours.” In the promotion stakes, and for naval valour itself, there are more stars than there are stars to give. They were not just in the right spot at the right time. They were leaders.

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