Five Stars: William Daniel Leahy and Ernest Joseph King

Admiral William Daniel Leahy

William Daniel Leahy was born in Hampton, Iowa, on May 6, 1875. Upon completing high school in Ashland, Wisconsin, he won an appointment to the Naval Academy. He graduated in 1897, 35th in a class of 47.

Naval Cadet William D. Leahy, U.S. Naval Academy

Midshipman Leahy saw action right away with his assignment to the battleship USS Oregon (BB-3). He was with Oregon when it made its famous dash around Cape Horn in the spring of 1898 to participate in the battle of Santiago on July 3.

Leahy’s first assignment after graduating from the Naval Academy was USS Oregon (BB-3)

Following commissioning as an ensign on July 1, 1899, he was sent to the Asiatic Station, where, during the Philippine Insurrection and the Boxer uprising in China, he served on USS Castine (PG-6), USS Glacier (AF-4) and commanded the gunboat USS Mariveles.

Beginning in 1907, Leahy took a number of shore assignments. He served as an instructor at the Naval Academy in the Department of Physics and Chemistry from 1907 to 1909. Late in 1912, he was appointed Assistant Director of Gunnery Exercises and Engineering Competitions. In 1913, he transferred to the Bureau of Navigation as a detail officer where he served until 1915.

Heading back out to sea, Leahy next took command of the dispatch gunboat USS Dolphin (PG-24) and established a very close friendship with then-Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt who cruised with him on the ship. He served for almost a year as the executive officer of USS Nevada (BB-36) before taking command of USS Princess Matotika (ID-2290) in April 1918 to transport troops to France.

Leahy next came ashore and served for three years as Director of Gunnery Exercises and Engineering Competition in the Navy Department, and as senior member of the Fire Control Board. From 1923 to 1926, he served as Director of Officer Personnel in the Bureau of Navigation, and then had one year in command of the battleship USS New Mexico (BB-40).

Rear Admiral William D. Leahy, 1929

On October 14, 1927, Leahy received a promotion to rear admiral. His career alternated between shore and sea assignments for more than a decade, beginning with a tour as Chief of the Bureau of Ordnance. He went to sea in 1931 as Commander Destroyers Scouting Force, then returned to Washington as Chief of the Bureau of Navigation for two years. In 1936, he hoisted his four-star flag on USS California (BB-44) as Commander-in-Chief, Battle Force. Though Leahy never attended the Naval War College, he delivered the graduation address in 1934, 1935, and 1937.

Leahy was named the seventh Chief of Naval Operations on January 2, 1937, and served in that capacity until he retired in August 1939. On that occasion, President Franklin D. Roosevelt told him, “Bill, if we have a war, you’re going to be right back here helping me run it.”

Saluting on the reviewing stand during the Navy Day parade in Washington, D.C., October 27, 1944

True to his word, Roosevelt recalled Leahy to active duty in May 1942 to serve as the president’s chief of staff. On December 15, 1944, he became the first U.S. naval officer to be promoted to the newly-created rank of fleet admiral.

Admiral Ernest Joseph King

Ernest Joseph King was born in Lorain, Ohio, on November 23,1878. As a young boy, he read an article in Youth’s Companion about the Naval Academy which spurred his interest in a naval career. He graduated from the Academy fourth in his class in 1901.

Naval Cadet Ernest J. King, ca. 1901

His first few assignments included surveying work in Cuba, a cruise with the Asiatic Fleet, and duty on battleships with the European Squadron and Atlantic Fleet. In 1906, King returned to the Naval Academy to become an instructor in Ordnance and Gunnery. After two years of teaching, he served an additional year on the Executive Staff. King took command of USS Cassin (DD-43) in 1914. In 1916, he joined the staff of Admiral Henry T. Mayo who served as Commander in Chief, Atlantic Fleet during World War I.

Admiral Henry T. Mayo and staff (Captain Ernest J. King is front row on left), ca. 1916

Following the end of the war, Captain King became head of the Postgraduate School at the Naval Academy. In July 1922, he was introduced to submarine operations when he was assigned to the staff of Commander, Submarine Flotillas, Atlantic Fleet. Later that year he assumed command of Submarine Division Eleven. In 1923, he took command of the submarine base at New London and oversaw the salvage of USS S-51 which sank off Block Island.

Having performed duty in destroyers, submarines and battleships, King next turned to naval aviation. In 1926, he took command of the aircraft tender USS Wright (AV-1) with additional duties as senior aide on the staff of Commander, Air Squadrons, Atlantic Fleet. In January 1927, he reported to Pensacola for flight training and was designated naval aviator 3368. He rejoined Wright on completion of this training.

Following a short cruise as Commander, Aircraft Squadrons, Scouting Fleet, King went ashore in 1928 as Assistant Chief of the Bureau of Aeronautics. In 1929, he assumed command of Naval Air Station Norfolk in Virginia. The following year he returned to sea for two years as the commanding officer of USS Lexington (CV-2).

Captain Ernest J. King (center) reviewing U.S. Marine Corps honor guard with Secretary of the Navy Curtis

Wilbur at the submarine base in New London, Connecticut,1928

King was now an accomplished officer with experience in the surface, subsurface, and aviation communities of the Navy. He reported to Newport in 1932 as a student in the senior officer’s course at the Naval War College. While participating in war games that formed part of the official curriculum, King learned to appreciate the value of Wake and Midway Islands as aircraft bases in the Pacific. He also correctly foresaw the value of a thrust through the central Pacific in the event of war with Japan.

Fleet Admiral Ernest J. King, 1945

King received his promotion to rear admiral in 1933 and became Chief of the Bureau of Aeronautics. He served almost exclusively in aviation-related assignments for the next seven years. In February 1941, he was promoted to admiral as Commander-in-Chief, Atlantic Fleet. By the end of the year, he was named Commander-in-Chief, U. S. Fleet. In March 1942, President Roosevelt combined that office with the Chief of Naval Operations, and Admiral King assumed both duties when he relieved Admiral Harold R. Stark as Chief of Naval Operations. King was the first and only officer to hold such an assignment. On December 17, 1944, he received his promotion to the rank of fleet admiral. The Naval War College recognized his accomplishments in 1953 when it named its chair of maritime history in his honor. 

Rob Doane


Naval War College Museum 

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