King, Ernest Joseph (1878-1956)

Naval Historical Center # 80-G-416885

Ernest J. King was born in Ohio, the son of a former seaman turned railroad shop foreman. He graduated fourth in his class from Annapolis in 1901, having seen service in the Spanish-American War as a midshipman.  He was an observer with Japan during the Russo-Japanese War and commanded a destroyer in the occupation of Vera Cruz in 1914.  He became a specialist in submarines after World War I, but in 1928 he became one of several senior officers to qualify as an aviator in order to be eligible for carrier command (Halsey was another).  In particular, he was the only candidate for chief of the Bureau of Aviation in 1933 who was flight qualified, which got him an early promotion to rear admiral. He also graduated from the Navy War College in 1933. He was promoted to vice admiral in 1938 and command of Aircraft, Battle Force.

In 1939, Stark was chosen over King as Chief of Naval Operations and King was relegated to the Naval Board, the traditional final tour of retiring admirals. However, King headed a study that revealed the antiaircraft deficiencies of the Fleet and their remedies. This so impressed Charles Edison, the Secretary of the Navy, that he recommended King to Roosevelt as the officer best suited to shake the Navy out of its peacetime complacency. Roosevelt eventually promoted King to full admiral and commander of the Atlantic Fleet, where King played a major role in the undeclared war against the German U-boats.

Following the disaster at Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt shook up the top Navy command. King was chosen on 20 December 1941 to relieve Kimmel as commander in chief, U.S. Fleet.  President Roosevelt then pushed through legislation to allow King to serve as Chief of Naval Operations as well, replacing Stark, in whom the President had lost confidence, on 26 March 1942.  King served in both posts for the duration of the war. 

King made himself commander of 10 Fleet, a paper organization responsible for coordinating antisubmarine efforts in the Atlantic, after taking sharp criticism for failing to institute convoys.  Like many other officers on both sides of the Atlantic, King failed to understand at first what advantage there could be to convoying in the absence of adequate escort, in spite of British experience showing that even unescorted convoys were better than no convoys at all.

Most historians have assumed that King’s real interest lay in the Pacific, the focus of the Navy’s planning for two decades. However, Larrabee (1987) argues that King was an incisive global strategist who fully understood and supported the "Germany First" policy. But King also understood that there is no such thing as a defensive war at sea, and he pushed for the allocation of resources to the Pacific sufficient to support an aggressive strategy of spoiling attacks and limited offensives. These would keep the Japanese off-balance until the Navy was strong enough for a full-blooded counteroffensive. King also believed, as apparently did Lord Beaverbrook as early as ARCADIA, that there would be enough munitions for offensive action in both the Pacific and Europe once American industry was brought up to full war production.

Although the new Pacific Fleet commander, Chester Nimitz, was one of the finest admirals the United States Navy ever produced, King kept him on a somewhat short leash. It was King who dictated the early Pacific strategy of carrier raids against the Japanese perimeter: King had shrewdly evaluated early Japanese operations, concluding that they were carefully planned but rigidly executed and susceptible to being unhinged by the unexpected. This strategy bore scant fruit at first, for the perverse reason that Japanese planning was so rigid that the Japanese were almost incapable of reacting to diversionary attacks. However, the Doolittle Raid ultimately vindicated King's strategic vision, by removing the remaining opposition in Japan to the ill-considered and ultimately disastrous Midway operation. King then found the wisdom and forbearance to let Nimitz fight the Midway battle his own way. It was King who instigated the decisive Guadalcanal campaign and who saw to it that the rapidly expanding fleet began to put Plan Orange into effect in late 1943. However, King lost the political struggle with MacArthur over whether Luzon or Formosa should be the objective of the converging Pacific offensives.

King had a reputation as a sundowner, Navy slang for a brutal disciplinarian.  "Once Ernie King got down on someone, he never changed his mind. Only first impressions counted" (Lundstrom 2006). One manifestation of this was his pledge that no officer who lost his ship would ever be given another ship to command, regardless of circumstances — a promise he came very close to keeping.  King's ruthlessness reached a climax in in July 1944, when he toured Hawaii and Saipan and thoroughly shook up the leadership of Pacific Fleet. Although King was unwilling to go as far as John Towers, who loudly argued that all top commands should go to aviators (which, not incidentally, would have Towers relieving Nimitz as commander of Pacific Fleet), King did decree that all commanders who were not aviators should have chiefs of staff who were, and vice versa.

King was also vulgar, arrogant, and a heavy drinker, with a terrible reputation for chasing skirts (he is alleged to have made a pass at the wife of a subordinate during a formal dinner.)  However, after the sinking of Reuben James, he pledged to abstain from alcohol for the duration, and it is thought that he fell off the wagon only two or three times during the war.  He was also, in common with many other brilliant men, a poor delegator. In spite of his faults, he was an exceedingly capable organizer and administrator and made a great contribution towards winning the war. He had a knack for technology, a remarkable memory, and the versatility to qualify in both submarines, destroyers, and aircraft. Larrabee (1987) concluded that "The strongest mind within the American Joint Chiefs of Staff was the mind of Ernest J. King."

In many respects King was the polar opposite to Yamamoto, who did not drink but was a fatalist who loved gambling. By contrast, King was a "calculating unsentimental opponent ... once described by an admirer as the 'perfect human machine'" (Marston 2005) who left nothing to chance or to fate.

King opposed the planned invasion of Japan but also disliked the development of nuclear bombs: "... didn't like the atomic bomb or any part of it" (Larrabee 1987). An admirer of Stilwell, he lost much of his enthusiasm for a landing on the China coast in support of the blockade of Japan after Stilwell was recalled. He also came around to the view that Russian intervention against Japan was no longer desirable. He was among the first to recognize the leadership qualities of Truman when he succeeded to the presidency on the death of Roosevelt.

Promoted to fleet admiral on 17 December 1944, King retired in December 1945 to serve in important advisory capacities and write his memoirs.

Service record


Born at Lorain, Ohio
Graduates from Naval Academy, standing 4th in a class of 67

Instructor, Naval Academy

Staff, Battleship Division 2

BB New Hampshire

Staff, Atlantic Fleet

Commander, Engineering Experimental Station, Annapolis
Lieutenant commander     


Commander, DD Terry

Commander, DD Cassin

Staff, Atlantic Fleet



Superintendent, Naval Postgraduate School

Commander, Bridge

Qualifies as submariner

Commander, Submarine Division 11

Commander, New London Submarine Base

Commander, Wright

Flight training, Pensacola, Florida

Completes flight training

Commander, Wright

Assistant chief, Bureau of Aeronautics

Commander, Hampton Roads Naval Air Station

Commander, Lexington

Naval War College
Rear admiral
Chief, Burea of Aeronautics

Commander, Aircraft, Base Force

Commander, Aircraft, Scouting Force
Vice admiral
Commander, Aircraft, Battle Force

General Board

Commander, Patrol Force, U.S. Fleet
Commander, Atlantic Fleet

Commander, U.S. Fleet

Chief of Naval Operations / Commander, U.S. Fleet
Fleet Admiral



Dies at Portsmouth Naval Hospital, New Hampshire


Boatner (1996)

Buell (1980)

Frank (1990)

Larrabee (1987)

Lundstrom (2006)

Marston (2005)

Naval Historical Center (accessed 2008-1-11)

Dupuy et al. (1992)

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