Fleet Admiral Ernest King was one of the greatest military minds of his generation, rising to command the entire Navy fleet after the attacks on Pearl Harbor and ensuring that every theater of the war had its needed material, manpower, and great thinkers throughout World War II.
But he also slept with the wives of subordinates, enforced prohibition on others while being staggeringly drunk, and punished the intelligence genius behind the Battle of Midway for outguessing his own team. Ya know, like a Blue Falcon.
Fleet Admiral Ernest J. King, U. S. Navy, arrives at his quarters and salutes a soldier during the Potsdam Conference in 1945.
(U.S. National Archives and Records Administration)
Let’s start with his buddyf*ckery that actually affected the war. As mentioned above, King had an issue with the intelligence genius behind the Navy’s Midway success.
The problem came during the buildup to the battle. King’s staff briefed him that the most likely Japanese course of action was an attack on the U.S. West Coast and the Aleutian Islands of Alaska. Admiral Chester Nimitz’s staff intercepted and decoded Japanese radio transmissions that indicated an attack near Midway Island.
Both intelligence sections were actually correct. The Japanese did attack the Aleutian Islands in June, 1942, and occupy a few of them, but it was a relatively small and inconsequential action next to the massive attack at Midway that same week.
Captain Joseph J. Rochefort led the team that cracked Japan’s naval code, then prioritized which messages to translate first, and then took the collected information to paint a clear picture of the coming attack at Midway in 1942. He was rewarded by being shipped off to pasture.
Nimitz pressured King into giving him the needed ships for a defense at Midway, staged one of the most decisive engagements of the war, crippled the Japanese Navy, and then put in the top intelligence officer for a Distinguished Service Medal.
Seems well-earned, right? Captain Joseph J. Rochefort had led the team that cracked the Japanese code, then used intelligence garnered from that break to prepare the fleet for a decisive engagement that led to a massive American victory.
King didn’t think so. He summarily denied the award and then transferred Rochefort out of Nimitz’s staff and into a lesser position even though Nimitz begged him not to.
The Japanese ship Mikuma slowly sinks during the Battle of Midway in 1942.
But King didn’t limit his Blue Falcon practices to the official realm. He also slept with the wives of his subordinates, and often sexually harassed them. Women knew not to sit next to him at official functions because he had a tendency to let his hands wander under the table.
One officer, Captain Paul Pihl, was friends with King. He and his wife, Charlotte Pihl, would regularly attend parties with him. King reportedly held his own parties with Charlotte, going to the Pihls’ farmhouse when Paul was away at sea. This happened so frequently that King’s wife, Mattie, knew to call the Pihl house if she couldn’t find her husband at the office.
But most subordinate officers were more familiar and resentful of King’s notoriety for enforcing the rules against his own subordinates while violating them himself. While there are plenty of examples of this from ship life and day-to-day operations, it’s perhaps most notable in King’s drinking.
The USS Lexington in 1941. King had predicted the rise of naval aviation and commanded the Lexington during a mock attack on Pearl Harbor in 1932 that almost perfectly predicted the 1941 attack.
King was in the service during Prohibition, and he encouraged officers around and beneath him to strictly follow the rules, except when he wanted to get drunk. He was known to carry a flask with him and doled out drinks with it when he wanted to party, even if he was pouring for people whom he would otherwise punish for drinking.
He even encouraged the commandant of his flight school to enforce prohibition against enlisted men and young officers while simultaneously joining an officers club known for its rancorous and alcohol-fueled parties.
All-in-all, not the best example or steadiest hand at the wheel.
Admiral Ernest King onboard the USS Augusta (CA-31) with Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox during a visit to Bermuda in September 1941.
(Naval History and Heritage Command)
But the Navy put up with him and promoted him all the way to fleet admiral, making him one of only a handful of American service members who have ever worn five stars. Only five admirals ever received the honor, four of them during World War II.
That’s because, for his many flaws, he was also a brilliant tactician, strategist, and organizer. He predicted the rise of submarine warfare and naval aviation, attending and graduating both Navy schools, while the rest of his contemporaries were focused on battleships.
And he was known for doing what needed to be done, even if he was a jerk while doing so. When he was promoted to Chief of Naval operations over eight more senior admirals after Pearl Harbor. Legend has it that a reporter asked why he thought President Franklin D. Roosevelt had picked him, and King responded, “when the shooting starts, they have to send for the sons of bitches.”
As Roosevelt might have put it, “He’s a SOB, but he’s our SOB.”