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USNA Notable Graduate: Ernest J. King

Mar 21, 2023 10:00:00 AM

King Hall is a well-oiled machine, delivering meals to over 4,500 midshipmen each day, three times a day. With a dedicated, loyal staff and industrial sized equipment that can cook up 2,500 pounds of chicken or make 10,000 donuts, it is one of the hubs of Naval Academy activity and a continual point of pride for the Yard. Its moniker especially conveys its importance. Named for Fleet Admiral Ernest Joseph King, USNA Class of 1901, this communal space honors our latest USNA Notable Graduate article. 

Yearning for the Sea

Ernest J. King entered the world on November 23, 1878 in Lorain, Ohio. He was born to Elizabeth “Bessie” Keam and Irish immigrant James Clydesdale King; they were a strict Calvinist family. On his mother’s side, his grandfather had been a sawyer in the British Royal Navy dockyard at Plymouth, England, so the midwesterner King had the sea in his blood. 

The story goes that he selected his future career when he read an article in the boys’ magazine Youth’s Companion—this turn of fate launched him toward seafaring life. King followed this dream, coming to the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis in 1897. He left in 1898 to defend our country in the Spanish-American War for a time aboard the USS San Francisco, and was able to return soon after. He then graduated in 1901, number four in a class of 67 others. 

Commissioned as a junior officer, King started a varied and fruitful career. Like many of his contemporaries, he was assigned to both smaller and larger vessels. He then came back to Annapolis as an instructor at USNA. Subsequently, King worked as an engineer and served on flag staff twice. He gained greater recognition by penning a well-received essay “Organization on Board Ship.” His next commands were also successful, and his name became more well known. In 1915 he joined the staff of Admiral Henry Mayo, where he remained through World War I. After this assignment, King was back at the Naval Academy, which helped launch him to the next level.

Yearning for the Skies

In 1923, King left to command a submarine flotilla and the New London, Connecticut, submarine base for three years. He began to take on greater leadership roles and expand his capabilities. Then in 1926, his career took an important turn: at the age of 48 he completed a shortened flight course at Pensacola, and from that point on, considered aviation to be a decisive element in naval warfare. This conviction deepened when he served as assistant bureau chief under Rear Admiral William Moffett, who is widely considered the father of American naval aviation. 

Yearning to Lead

King continued his rapid rise. After flight training and more time on the seas, he was named Assistant Chief of the Bureau of Aeronautics In August, 1928. The following year, he took command of the Naval Air Station in Hampton Roads, Virginia. By 1930, he was captaining the large aircraft carrier USS Lexington (CV-2). By all accounts he was a successful leader, despite his reputation for having a difficult demeanor. In fact, King’s biographer Robert W. Love, wrote that King  "seemed almost to pride himself on the fact that he had earned his rank solely on his merits as a professional naval officer, rather than as a result of the friendship of others." 

The advancements kept coming. By 1933, King was promoted to Rear Admiral and became Chief of the Bureau of Aeronautics. Later that decade, he was in command of the Battle Fleet's aircraft carriers, but was disheartened when in 1939 President Roosevelt chose Admiral Harold Stark over him for the esteemed position of Chief of Naval Operations; it seemed his challenging personality and lack of political acumen had prevented this promotion. He was 60 years old.

Yearning to Win

King didn’t stay down long. Early in 1941, after he had been on the General Board in Washington, DC, and served as commander of the Atlantic Patrol Force, he was picked to head the newly-recreated Atlantic Fleet. It was a critical time as they dealt with rising tensions with Germany—challenges that ultimately erupted into undeclared war later that same year. Even with these positions, King still felt overlooked. He had long wanted to serve as Chief of Naval Operations (CNO). When war came to the U.S. shores, he finally got that chance.

Pearl Harbor, with its sudden and disastrous onslaught, called for a tested leader. Stark was now frustrated with the Atlantic Squadron commander, and knew King would be right for the job. King took the reins in December, 1941 and effectively held the German U-boats at bay. He also stayed on top of news in the Pacific. Then he got the call from Stark to come to Washington. "Lord how I need him," wrote Navy Secretary Frank Knox on December 23, 1941, when he called upon King to oversee the Navy on one of its darkest days.

Becoming Chief of Naval Operations

King was instated as Commander in Chief, U.S. Fleet in December, 1941, mere days after the attack. Roosevelt also made the historic move to name him CNO a few months later in March, 1942; he was the first naval leader to hold both positions simultaneously, and for good reason. Our country needed his incredible strategic thinking and cool head in the face of extreme danger. King argued to go on the offensive in the Pacific during the 1942-43 campaign. While this was an unpopular strategy for most, he backed up his thinking,  "No fighter ever won his fight by covering up -- merely fending off the other fellow's blows," he wrote. "The winner hits and keeps on hitting even though he has to be able to take some stiff blows in order to keep on hitting." It worked.

King proved to be an excellent wartime leader, overseeing successful campaigns for the Navy’s plans and global operations. He led in both capacities through the entirety of World War II. As a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he secured essential resources to start and maintain critical offensive tactics against Japan, even when the U.S. strategy dictated concentrating on the European and Atlantic theaters.

For his tremendous work, King was promoted to Fleet Admiral in December, 1944. As the war finished everywhere the following year, he was able to end his roles there except as an advisor. After several years of poor health, King passed away on June 25, 1956.

Honoring Our Notable Graduates

Not only does King Hall keep his name alive, but the USS King (DLG-10, later DDG-41) was also named for this bright and hardworking man. We are grateful to our notable graduates both past and present for the legacies they have left for the Naval Academy and for our country. They have served in times of unfathomable danger and strife. They have lived out the tenets of the U.S. Naval Academy and made us proud. 

We encourage you to visit the place that helped shape these phenomenal leaders. Come tour the Yard and give back to the current midshipmen with your visit. All tours, shopping trips and meals at the Academy give back to the Brigade. We will always remember—and always support—our midshipmen.

Tour the Yard!

Bill the Goat
Written by Bill the Goat

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