He was one of the top officers in World War II, an expert in submarine and aviation combat, and a veteran of three wars. And Ernest J. King got his start by lobbying for a ship assignment during the Spanish-American War while the rest of his freshmen class at the Naval Academy went on leave. When he returned for his sophomore year, he was wearing two new medals celebrating his work in combat.
Naval cadet Ernest J. King, a future fleet admiral.
(U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph)
It started in 1897. The Ohio-native entered the Naval Academy at Annapolis that year, fulfilling a long-time dream. But in February 1898, the U.S. Navy battleship USS Maine blew up in Havana Harbor. The naval cadets (now known as midshipmen) continued their studies until that April when the U.S. declared war.
Then, the Navy came calling for the seniors (more properly known as cadets first-class.) Those men were sent to the fleet as midshipmen, not yet commissioned officers but considered ready for service on board. The cadets second-class, basically college juniors, took exams and then, if they passed, were sent to the fleet as midshipmen.
But the underclassmen were sent home on leave. As a cadet fourth-class, the equivalent of a freshman, King was supposed to go home and wait for his classes to resume. But he heard a rumor about a cadet allowed to serve on board a ship. King wanted that chance.
The USS San Francisco, a cruiser of the U.S. Navy.
(NavSource, Library of Congress)
So he went to Washington with four other classmates and asked for assignment in the fleet. He was granted a spot on the USS San Francisco, an aging cruiser commissioned in 1890 that was assigned to patrolling the coast of Florida and into Cuban waters.
For most of the short war, the San Francisco just guarded port cities and patrolled its designated waters. But, then it was sent to blockade the ports of the north side of the island. At one point, it was sent to the mouth of Havana Harbor to prevent a possible breakout attempt by Spanish ships.
The Spanish shore batteries tried to drive the San Francisco off, and the ship traded blows with the men onshore before withdrawing. It was a short and relatively consequence-free bit of fighting, but it still made King a combat veteran of a war.
The young academy student was awarded two medals, the Spanish Campaign Medal and the Sampson Medal. The first was for all who fought in the Spanish-American War, and the second was for those personnel who fought under Rear Adm. William T. Sampson in the West Indies and Cuba.
It was likely a big surprise for his classmates when he returned to school later that year. Only a handful of the new cadets third-class were able to get into the short war. He graduated from the academy in 1901 and would be commissioned as an ensign two years later with experience on cruisers and battleships.
He served in World War I and then spent time on submarines and earned his aviator wings and commanded the carrier USS Lexington in the interwar years. By the time America was pulled into World War II, he was one of the best and most experienced sailors in American history, and he was one of only four men ever promoted to fleet admiral.