Ernest J. King was sixty-two years old when Stark yanked him off the General Board, an old-folks home for senior admirals. When he assigned King command of the Patrol Force, a small fleet guarding America’s Atlantic coastline, the news rustled gossip grapevines at officers’ clubs from Newport to San Francisco. King, the rumor mill decreed, had been washed up. He was a good fighting admiral, but he had three strikes against him: he was combative with his fellow officers, he drank too much, and he was a carrier admiral.
A descendant of lowland Scots, King hailed from a middle-class family in Lorain, Ohio. He attended the Naval Academy in Annapolis, and when the Spanish-American War broke out during his first cadet year, he finagled a sea assignment. He returned from his first cruise with a tattooed dagger on his right arm, an anchor on his left, and a bellicosity worthy of a bosun’s mate. Gliding over deck and bridge in his tailored Brooks Brothers uniform, he argued with superiors, wielded naval regulations like a boarding cutlass, and accepted nothing short of perfection from his men.
A voracious reader, King studied the campaigns of Napoleon, Jackson, and Grant as intently as he studied Nelson, Mahan, and Fisher. He penned thoughtful articles on shipboard organization, commanded a high-profile submarine salvage operation, and worked his way up the Navy’s slippery ladder, through destroyers, cruisers, and submarines.
In the 1920s, when other officers looked at naval aviation as if the Wright brothers had suggested putting bicycles on ships, King embraced the air service. He commanded the carrier Lexington for two years and did a stint with the Bureau of Aeronautics at Main Navy, the naval headquarters on Constitution Avenue. In Washington, two blocks from an obscure Army colonel named George Marshall, King learned the inner mysteries of the Navy’s bureaucratic machinery, Congress, and the unpredictable mustang called Washington politics.
King once told a friend, “You ought to be suspicious of anyone who won’t take a drink or doesn’t like women.” Ernie King was guilty of neither sin, and he earned a reputation as a man who played as hard as he worked. “He was the damnedest party man in the place,” said one officer who saw him splice the main brace at club bars on many a weekend. “Ernie was the first guy there on Saturdays. . . . He joined the club because actually he was a great guy with the ladies and with liquor both.”
An agile dancer and conversationalist, he could be both solicitous and forward to the fairer sex. At dinner parties attractive women sat next to the “garter snatcher” at their own risk, for King’s hands might spend as much time under the table as above.* His marriage to Mattie Egerton, a once-comely Baltimore socialite, had worn thin after producing six daughters and a son, and King’s affairs in port and abroad were a matter of enthusiastic Navy scuttlebutt.
King cared nothing for what people thought of him, and early in his career he decided he was not tough enough to be a great admiral. Determined to excise this career flaw, he drove his men with a fervor that would have done credit to Captain Bligh. He bullied colleagues and harangued subordinates. Aboard the carrier Lexington, rumor had it that the admiral’s right hand was more sunburned than his left, the result of shaking his fist at pilots through the open bridge window. “There are two kinds of naval officers,” he once told a friend, “good guys and S.O.B.s, and the quicker you learn to be a S.O.B. the better off you will be!”
When war broke out in Europe in 1939, King’s career had been stranded in the horse latitudes. His last really interesting assignment was Fleet Problem XIX in 1938, a war game in which he launched a surprise carrier attack on Pearl Harbor, to what the umpires said was devastating effect.
Since then, he had been passed over for the Navy’s top job, chief of naval operations, in favor of his old friend Admiral Stark. Some of King’s friends blamed his stalled career on his drinking and petulance, while others saw the backroom hand of the “gun club,” as the battleship admirals were known. Whatever the reason, the General Board, King’s current assignment, was the Navy’s traditional last stop before the glue factory.
But his fortunes began looking up in the fall of 1940, when Admiral Stark called him into his office to discuss the Patrol Force. It was a small collection of ships, hardly worthy of the term “fleet.” Most of the capital ships—carriers, battlewagons, and cruisers—were assigned to the Pacific and Asiatic squadrons. And the Patrol Force job would not entitle King to a promotion. He had worn the three stars of a vice admiral two years earlier, on a temporary basis, when he commanded the Aircraft Battle Force. He was back to two stars now, and as commander of the Patrol Force, he would remain a two-star rear admiral.
It didn’t matter, for King was elated. The Patrol Force would get him out to sea, and out of the hell of being washed ashore. By the grace of God and Betty Stark, King was getting a chance to end his career aboard a warship’s bridge. He snapped up the job and shipped out for what he knew would be his last big assignment.
When his two-star pennant snapped over the ancient battleship Texas in December 1940, King lost no time showing his men who was boss. He told one subordinate, “I don’t care how good they are, unless they get a kick in the ass every six weeks, they’ll slack off.” He whipped his squadron into shape, ordered wartime blackouts and drilled, drilled, drilled them until general quarters was running at a pace that would have made Lord Nelson smile.
But looking over the hardworking Texans, he decided their appearance was not quite right. King harbored a fetish for naval uniforms, and in his mind he often tinkered with the Navy’s look. Now, as squadron commander, he was in a position to remake his men’s uniforms in his image. He issued a general order prescribing a new uniform for the Patrol Force: a thin white jacket atop heavy blue pants.
Of all the military services, the Navy is the most set in its ways. To the surprise of few besides King, the Texans loathed their new slops. “It’s too hot in the legs, where you want to be cool, and too cool above, where you want to be warm,” complained one intrepid watch officer.
“Well,” said the bemused admiral, “it shows who can prescribe the uniform.”
Though Ernie King generally didn’t give a damn what his men thought of him, after a few weeks of grumbling he reinstated the old look. But before long his sartorial obsession got the better of him. Concluding that Navy whites stood out against the ship’s gray structures, he decided to camouflage his men by dyeing their uniforms light brown. Every man, King decreed, would have one set of his whites soaked in coffee, which he ordered brewed up in enormous cauldrons under the tearful eyes of the ship’s galley cooks.
“At the first morning quarters after the completion of the task,” recalled one officer, “the Texas crew had uniforms ranging in color from ecru to chocolate brown.” Painfully aware that the Texans would be the laughingstock of the fleet once they reached the next port, King quietly dropped his experiment, and said not a word about it again.
A few months into King’s sea command, his code clerks received a signal from the Navy Department that caught the admiral’s eye: The varied and dispersed naval forces of the United States would be consolidated into three separate groups.
The Navy works in mysterious ways, but it was not difficult for King to sniff out what was going on behind closed hatches. The incumbent commander-in-chief, U.S. Fleet, Admiral James Richardson, had butted heads with Roosevelt over the president’s decision to move the bulk of the surface fleet from San Diego to Pearl Harbor. In no mood to hear the admiral’s carping, FDR fired Richardson and reorganized the fleet into three components, each designed to deal with a different problem: the Atlantic Fleet, for defense of the sea-lanes to Britain; the Pacific Fleet, to defend America’s western frontiers; and the Asiatic Fleet, to contain the Japanese in China.
While King mulled over who his Atlantic Fleet boss might be, he received a letter from Rear Admiral Chester Nimitz, the Navy’s personnel head. King, Nimitz said, was being promoted. What’s more, the president had decided to give him a fourth star as soon as another full admiral sailed into mandatory retirement, probably during the summer of 1941. Nimitz’s letter left no question who would run the Atlantic Fleet; its new commander would be Vice Admiral Ernest King.
King was thrilled. The job would put him on the front lines of an important war—a war still undeclared, but one where he could make a real difference.
A congratulatory letter from Secretary Knox followed Nimitz’s cable. It was Knox’s wish, he said, “to maintain the closest possible relationship. . . . I am still a great deal of a novice in this Navy business, and I am depending upon you men to help me along in my education.”
As King saw it, Knox’s letter summed up exactly where the two men fit into the Navy’s picture. And he would never let Knox forget it.