Born on November 23, 1878, Fleet Admiral Ernest J. King’s service career began at the US Naval Academy. He is considered by some to be one of the top US Navy Admirals of WWII. While in his senior year, King achieved the rank of Midshipman Lieutenant which at that time was the highest ranking for a midshipman. He graduated in 1901 fourth in his class.
At the time of the Spanish American War, King was attending the academy, serving for a time on the USS San Francisco. After he graduated, King served on a survey ship, a cruiser and a number of battleships as junior officer. In 1912, he returned to Annapolis for shore duty. Two years later, in 1914, King was given his first command – the USS Terry (destroyer).
King served on the staff of the Commander in Chief of the Atlantic Fleet - Vice Admiral Henry Mayo – during which time, he received the Navy Cross. As assistant chief of staff of the Atlantic Fleet, King would frequently visit the Royal Navy and sometimes witnessed action as a bystander on board some of the British ships. It was during this time frame, his dislike for the English began to emerge, though the reasons for it are not clear.
As a captain (after the war), King was placed in charge of the Naval Postgraduate School. Together with Captains Knox and Pye, King put together a report regarding naval training. In the report, he suggested a number of changes to the training and career paths. A majority of the recommendations became policy.
Prior to WWI, King served in the submarine surface fleet.
- 1921 – King secures sea command of the USS Bridge (a store ship) as junior captain.
- 1923 – Given command of the Submarine Base New London – Receives the first of his three Distinguished Service Medals for his contribution in directing the salvaging of the USS S-51.
- 1923-25 - held various other posts related to submarines.
Prior to receiving command of a submarine division, King attended the Naval Submarine Base New London where he took a brief training course. Though King did not earn his Submarine Warfare insignia, he was responsible for proposing and designing what is now known as the ‘dolphin insignia’.
Starting in 1926, King became involved in aviation.
- King accepts an invitation from Rear Admiral Moffett, Chief of the Bureau of Aeronautics, and given command of the USS Wright (aircraft tender).
- King is appointed the senior aide on the staff of Commander/Air Squadrons/Atlantic Fleet.
That same year, however, his position was one of many affected by a law passed by Congress requiring all commanders be qualified as naval aviators. As a result, he reported in January of 1927 to the NAS (Naval Air Station) Pensacola for aviation training.
- May of 1927, King – the sole captain in a class of 20 – earned his wings. Upon graduation, he continued his command of the USS Wright - excluding a few brief interludes where he oversaw the recovery of the USS S-4.
- 1929 – King is appointed Assistant Chief of the Bureau of Aeronautics under Rear Admiral Moffett. However, the two men had a falling out regarding some of the Bureau’s policies. As a result, he was relocated and placed in command of the Naval Station Norfolk.
- June of 1930 – King becomes captain of one of the largest aircraft carriers in the world, the USS Lexington. He would hold this post for the following two years.
After his command of the USS Lexington, King attended the Naval War College where he wrote his thesis outlining some of the weaknesses that contributed to being ‘inadequately prepared’. In April of 1933, after Moffett was killed an airship crash, King became the Chief of the Bureau of Aeronautics, receiving a well-deserved promotion to rear admiral. At this time, King worked to begin increasing the number of naval aviators.
In 1936, when his term as bureau chief ended, King was assigned as Commander, Aircraft Base Force at Naval Air Station North Island. Within two years (January, 1938), he would be promoted to Vice Admiral becoming Commander, Aircraft, Battle Force. King had a number of outstanding accomplishments in this role including a simulated naval air raid he devised which outlined Pearl Harbor’s vulnerability to an air attack. His scenario was not taken seriously, however, until the December 7th attack by the Japanese.
In June of 1939, King was assigned to the General Board. This position, which was generally assigned to senior officers prior to retirement, dashed all of Kings’ hopes of being appointed to either CNO or Cominch. However, future events would drastically alter his course.
King’s Role in WWII
Prior to the war, King’s career would begin taking a number of turns beginning when his friend, CNO Stark, recognized Kings’ talents were not being fully utilized by the Navy and proceeded to appoint him Commander-in-Chief of the Atlantic Fleet. In February of 1941, King received another promotion, this time to admiral. By the end of the year, he would become Commander-in-Chief of the United States Fleet.
While commanding the Navy during WWII, a number of his decisions were questioned. Most of those being scrutinized involved British proposals and ideas from the Royal Navy. It wasn’t until March of 1942, that he would even accept the assistance of the British when they offered to loan their convoy escorts. At the time, the US had very few vessels suited for this task. King had no problem, however, in commanding the captains of his destroyers to launch attacks on German U-Boats when they threatened the convoy.
In lieu of convoys, however, King favored anti-sub patrols. He ordered the US Navy and Coast Guard to routinely perform regularly scheduled patrols. However, the U-boat commanders eventually figured out the pattern to the patrols and launched their attacks accordingly. The merchant ships were also easily outlined in the night sky since the local coastal towns did not utilize blackouts at this time. The results were disastrous for the United States, which lost more than two million tons of shipping in just two months. King still felt the convoys were not the answer, siting the lack of sufficient escort vessels. He felt without the necessary support, the convoys would take longer going from port to port and provide the enemy with a concentrated target.
In May of 1942, just three months after being relieving Stark as Chief of Naval Operations, King finally began using small cutters and private vessels to provide a round-the-clock interconnecting convoy system which ran from Newport, RI all the way down to Key West, FL. By August, the threat of submarine attacks in the shipping coastal waters of the US was under control. Eventually, their protection was extended all the way to the Caribbean, which ultimately resulted in the defeat of the U-boats.
Throughout the balance of the war, despite mitigating circumstances, a number of King’s decisions were questioned. He was initially against using the long-range Liberator as part of the maritime patrols to provide a safer area for the U-boats in the middle of the Atlantic. He also did not want to provide enough landing craft to the Allies for the invasion of Europe. On these and other occasions, his decisions were both re-evaluated and overturned.
Later in the war – after the Battle of Midway, King was in favor of invading Guadalcanal. Though others opposed, King would eventually win the argument and proceed with the invasion with the support of the Joint Chiefs. The attack would result in an Allied victory and was the first time Japan suffered any ground loss.
Despite reaching mandatory retirement age of 64 in November of 1944, King was given a promotion in December of 1944 to Fleet Admiral, a position which had only recently been created. A year later, on December 15, 1945, King resigned from active duty. Despite his debilitating stroke suffered in 1947, he was recalled and assigned as advisor to the Secretary of the Navy in 1950.
On June 26, 1956, Fleet Admiral Ernest J. King, USN, died after suffering a massive heart attack.