The story

William Leahy

William Leahy

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General Weygand was vigorous, energetic and determined. I felt he was really on our side, although he insisted he would resist to the end any attempt to invade his territory. I was not surprised to be told later that Weygand had said that "if the British come with four divisions, I will fire on them. If they come with twenty, I will welcome them.

General Weygand, now in his seventies, probably was the best soldier in France. He was almost a religious fanatic. He went to church twice every day. He was devoted to his country and had no confidence whatever in either the promises or purposes of Nazi Germany - which was more than could be said for many of the men of Vichy. The British even hoped that Weygand might eventually come to a sufficient disagreement with the collaborationists to hold the African empire by force if necessary. He appeared to have the confidence of the native population there and had maintained friendly relations with the American officials in his area. His growing power had attracted the unfavourable attention of the Axis powers.

The removal of Weygand, when and if it should be accomplished, would force on our Government a decision as to whether or not to continue economic assistance to the North African colonies. If we stopped this assistance, there was no other power except Germany to which the French could turn for supplies. My advice to Washington was that until England and America were prepared to occupy this area with sufficient military force to enable the natives to resist successfully an Axis invasion, it was the better part of wisdom not to interrupt the delaying tactics. It was certain that the departure of Weygand would mean more rapid Axis penetration and that in the absence of a military effort by the Allies, the colonies eventually would come completely under the control of Germany.

It seems to me that he is surely, if slowly, being manoeuvred into a position where his only purpose will be to hold the loyalty of the French people and to make speeches to schoolchildren and veterans. It is certain that his popularity is decreasing because of recent approaches to full collaboration, the Syrian fiasco, the failure of Germany to repeat in Russia its performance of last year in France, and the turning over of Indo-China to Japan.

The French people are still friendly with America and practically all of them look to you as their one and only hope for release from Nazi rule. However it is impossible to guess what will happen in France tomorrow or the next day, and almost as difficult for me to point to any useful accomplishment that we have made here since my arrival six months ago. From this point of view to-day, it appears that only a very apparent Axis setback somewhere will sufficiently discredit the collaborationists to hold France even to its present neutral position.

With the removal of General Weygand from Africa in obedience to a German dictat, and the beginning of a British offensive in Cyrenaica, which two occurrences presumably are closely related. I pointed out to him [Petain] very clearly that the heretofore friendly and sympathetic attitude of the American Government was based on an assumption that he would not, in his relations with the Axis powers, go beyond the requirements of the Armistice Agreement, and that a removal of General Weygand under German pressure cannot be considered by anybody to be necessitated by the Armistice Agreement.

I told him that in my opinion such an unnecessary surrender to Axis demands would have a definitely adverse effect on the traditional amity between our two peoples that it would probably bring about immediate suspension of the economic assistance that is being given to the French colonies, and that it might very possibly cause America to make a complete readjustment of its attitude toward his government of France.

I requested that his decision be reconsidered. He replied that since last December (1940) Germany had constantly exerted increasing pressure to remove Weygand. That their demands included everything - among other things the bases and the fleet to which he refused to accede. Yesterday, however, the Germans sent him a 'brutal dictate" threatening in event of refusal to occupy all France, to feed the army

of occupation with French foodstuffs, and to permit the native population to die of hunger.

While the great inarticulate and leaderless mass of the French people remain hopeful of a British victory and continue to hope that America will rescue them from their present predicament without their doing anything for themselves, the Government of France today, headed by a feeble, frightened old man surrounded by a group which probably for its own safety, is devoted to the Axis philosophy.

At 6.30 p.m. (Vichy time) of December 8, the National Broadcasting Company short-wave station reported President Roosevelt's request that the Congress declare war on Japan. The voice and words of the President formed a dramatic picture of the most powerful nation of the world embarking on an all-out war to destroy the bandit nation of the Orient.

The war formally declared that day would in my certain opinion result in the destruction of Japan as a first-class sea power, regardless of how much time and treasure might be required to accomplish that end. I knew that the President was thoroughly familiar with the Navy's plans to defeat Japan.

Later in the evening of December 8, the radio reported that casualties at Pearl Harbor probably numbered 3,000. This created anxiety for our relatives and friends stationed there, but we later learned that most of them came out of it all right. Later, when the details were available, I found that there were four ships seriously damaged upon which I had served. They were the Nevada (executive officer, 1917), the ancient Oglala (flagship when I commanded Mine Squadron One, 1921), the cruiser Raleigh (flagship when I was Commander of Destroyers, U.S. Fleet, 1931), and the battleship California.

I think now, in retrospect, that we overestimated the power of the Japanese Navy and Air forces. We had pretty good information while I was Chief of Naval Operations (1937-39) that the Japanese were comparatively inefficient in gunnery However they had good ships, good guns and a lot of air. The whole world in those days was afraid of the air. There was a fear that if we sent our ships near enough to Japan to be attacked by land-based air, it would be very bad for us. It turned out that when we did go there, we took our excellent Naval Air Force with us, and that was bad for the Japs.

The wrecking of our fleet in this unanticipated attack gave the Japanese a terrific advantage they did not have before, but their campaign developed pretty much along expected lines. We thought they would strike down the coast of China and the Dutch East Indies to get oil and rubber, which they had to have to win the war. When we were able to stop that, Japan started to lose the war.

The figure of Pierre Laval hung like an evil shadow over Vichy as the year opened. The former Prime Minister was a shrewd and able politician who staked his own future and that of France on an Axis victory. He was favoured by the German occupation authorities. A test of strength between Germany and the United States in Vichy was in the making as 1942 opened. It was to result in April in a temporary

victory for Laval when the Germans forced the Marshal to take him back into the Government, which event necessitated my recall to Washington.

He was a small man, swarthy-complexioned, careless in his personal appearance, but with a pleasing manner of speech. In a very frank discussion of his policies, Laval gave the impression of being fanatically devoted to his country, with a conviction that the interests of France were bound irrevocably with those of Germany. One's impression necessarily was qualified by persistent reports that he had used his political

offices to advance his private personal fortune. It was true that, starting with nothing, he had advanced from a poor delivery boy in a provincial town grocery to become a very rich man and a power in his country.

He convinced me that his Government was fully committed and might be expected to go as far as it could to collaborate with Germany and assist in the defeat of what he termed Soviet-British Bolshevism. Pierre Laval definitely was not on our side in this war.

The third figure, also ambitious and a capable politician, was Admiral Francois Darlan, the "heir apparent" to the Marshal's dictatorship. Darlan was a complete opportunist. He endeavoured to walk a tight-rope between the warring powers Since the military situation during most of my service at the French capital was highly favourable to the Axis, Darlan usually was my diplomatic opponent, although we maintained cordial personal relations. Before the year was out, Darlan had decided that the power of the United States eventually would overcome Hitler, and he came over to our side at a critical moment. Any hope of political reward he may have entertained for that action was ended by an assassin's bullet.

British propaganda was advertising the prospect of fatally injuring Germany's morale by bombing attacks. This presupposed a lack of courage on the part of the Germans not justified by either past German history or their present performance, or by the reaction of Englishmen to the destructive Blitz of England the preceding year.

British bombers made a destructive raid on the Renault auto works in the northern suburbs of Paris on the night of March 3, killing 500 and injuring 1,200, mostly non-combatants. Violent anti-British feeling flared immediately in both the occupied and unoccupied zones of France.

I told you, a few months ago, that since June 25, 1940, the British had accumulated error upon error. They have just committed a greater one still which we shall never forgive them. To murder, for political motives, women, children and old people is a method of Soviet inspiration. Is England already bolshevized?

Edouard Herriot came to the Embassy on Thursday morning, April 23. Herriot was hopeful of going to the United States to discuss with President Roosevelt future relations between France and America, but since he and the President of the French Senate were the only two effective political leaders still anxious to preserve representative government in his country, he did not feel he should leave at that time.

He declared he would not undertake work of any kind for the Laval Government. Herriot and his followers did not believe that de Gaulle or his movement had committed any offence against France, but, on the contrary, were fighting for French survival and for French ideals.

This veteran leader of the Radical-Socialist Party impressed me as a very able and courageous French patriot-a type not often met in Vichy. He advised me that America must not have confidence in anything that Laval promised or said. Herriot spoke convincingly, but when speaking did not look at his hearer.

Regular meetings of the Joint Chiefs took place on Wednesdays, beginning with luncheon. Special sessions were held at any time, often on Sundays or even late at night. No one other than the Chiefs of Staff was present at the meetings, except that when an important theatre commander was in Washington he would usually be asked to discuss with us the situation and problems in his area. From time to time representatives of our allies - China, Australia, the Netherlands and the exiled Poles, for example-would ask to be allowed to present their case to the Joint Chiefs. On occasions, these requests were granted.

Throughout the war, the four of us - Marshall, King, Arnold, and myself - worked in the closest possible harmony. In the post-war period, General Marshall and I disagreed sharply on some aspects of our foreign political policy. However, as a soldier, he was in my opinion one of the best, and his drive, courage, and imagination transformed America's great citizen army into the most magnificent fighting force ever assembled.

In numbers of men and logistic requirements, his army operations were by far the largest. This meant that more time of the Joint Chiefs was spent on his problems than on any others - and he invariably presented them with skill and clarity.

Admiral King had an equally difficult task. His fleets had to hold Japan at bay while convoying millions of tons of supplies across the Atlantic to our allies in order to build up the stockpiles for the Second Front. He was an exceptionally able sea commander. He also was explosive, and at times it was just as well that the deliberations of the Joint Chiefs were a well-kept secret. The President had a high opinion of King's ability, but also felt he was a very undiplomatic person, especially when the Admiral's low boiling-point would be reached in some altercation with the British. King would have preferred to put more power into the Asiatic war earlier. He supported loyally the general strategy of beating Germany first, but this often required concessions of ships and war material which he did not like to make. He could not spare much as he was, until the last months of the war, working on a deficit in ships. America was fighting a two-ocean war for the first time in its history.

Roosevelt and Churchill had established that intimate relationship which was to remain unimpaired until death removed the former in 1945. There was no such useful working entente with our Russian ally. Foreign Minister Molotov had been m Washington in the late spring and had gone back to Moscow with the understanding, at least on his part that the United States and Britain would attempt to create

a second front in Europe in 1942.

The Russians could not have been more disappointed than our own Army people that plans for a 1942 cross - Channel invasion had to be abandoned. There was much grumbling about the British and considerable criticism of Churchill the Prime Minister was convinced that England was not ready to undertake such a major effort, and I did not think that we were either. I personally was interested in the safety or the United States. A cross-Channel operation could have failed and we still would have been safe, but England would have been lost.

I think that is what Churchill had in mind. He wanted to have much more assurance of success than General Marshall could give him. Marshall's country would have been safe, but England was sitting twenty miles across the Channel, right under the Nazi guns. England could not afford to be defeated in an invasion attempt. Churchill, in his responsibility for preserving the integrity of England, had to be satisfied in his own mind that the expedition could succeed. I cannot blame him for that.

As was so often the case, "Harry the Hop," as we called him around the White House, would remain silent for long intervals during any discussion, but he would usually be the first man to put a finger on the essential element of a problem.

Churchill's jesting title, "Lord Root of the Matter," was an accurate description. Hopkins had an excellent mind. His manner of approach was direct and nobody could fool him, not even Churchill. He was never influenced by a person's rank. Roosevelt trusted him implicitly and Hopkins never betrayed that trust. The range of his activities covered all manner of civilian affairs - politics, war production, diplomatic matters - and, on many occasions, military affairs. We saw a great deal of each other. The only previous impressions I had of Hopkins concerned his various relief activities in the first years of the Roosevelt administration, and I, perhaps, held some prejudices against him. I frequently joked with him about those days and sometimes called him "Pinko" or "Do-Gooder." He took it all in good spirit and we never had any major differences of opinion. By his brilliant mind, his loyalty, and his selfless devotion to Franklin Roosevelt in helping carry on the war, Harry Hopkins soon erased completely any previous misgivings

I might have held.

The Joint Chiefs heard an interesting angle on the war with Germany when General Ira Eaker, then commanding American bombers in England, told us that if we could get enough big bombers, his force and the R.A.F. would in the next year so wreck German war production as to make an invasion of Europe not difficult. Eaker did a masterful job in presenting his thesis, pointing out specific targets on the huge maps in the J.C.S. room. My reaction was that such an effort would be highly valuable if the promised results could be attained. So far the German war machine did not appear to have been slowed appreciably by Allied air attacks.

The Combined Chiefs, finally, after many compromises between the British and American points of view, brought the discussions at Quebec to a satisfactory conclusion. Discussion of the Burma problem had consumed more time than any other, but the most important work done at "Quadrant" was to prepare blue-prints for the invasion of Normandy.

The President and the Prime Minister ratified the plan to make a cross-Channel invasion from England in May, 1944. It was to be the principal British-United States ground and air effort against the Axis in Europe.

Called "Operation Overlord," the blueprint specified that our forces should first secure adequate landing ports in Normandy, followed by occupation of areas in France from which to launch attacks against the occupying Axis military forces in order to destroy them or drive them back into Germany. A balanced British and American ground force and air force, together with the landing equipment and a covering naval contingent, was to be built up in England as quickly as possible and was to be ready to launch the combined land, air, and naval attack at any favourable time, but not later than May, 1944.

At noon of February 11th, the Joint Chiefs met with the President to review plans for attacking Japan at the earliest practicable date, preferably with the support of heavy air assault from the Chinese mainland. Thousands of Chinese were engaged during the winter of 1943-4 in building huge landing fields for the great new B29 aeroplane, which by summer would be unloosing its destructive bomb load on the heart of industrial Japan. These super-bombers, half as large again as the familiar Flying Fortress (B17) were beginning to come off the US assembly lines in useful numbers. The Joint Chiefshoped this new fighting aircraft, with its exceptionally long range, would be able to surmount the problem of distance and give material support to the offensive against Japan.

The general strategy was to go west through the Japanese-held islands until we were in a position to strike Japan proper. Admiral Chester W. Nimitz was in command in the Central Pacific and was sending us his plans for taking some islands on the route and by-passing others. The JCS usually approved the plans, because we felt that in Washington we were too far away to judge the details of his operations.

The next day (February 12) Major-General Richard K. Sutherland, Chief of Staff to General Douglas MacArthur, conferred with me regarding future operations in the South-west Pacific area. It appeared that MacArthur's ideas might conflict with those of Nimitz, and the difference in the personalities of these two able commanders was going to require delicate handling.

MacArthur was convinced that an occupation of the Philippines was essential before any major attack in force should be made on Japanese-held territory north of Luzon. The retaking of the Philippines seemed to be a matter of great interest to him. He said that he had sufficient ground and air forces for the operation and that his only additional needs were landing-craft and naval support.

Nimitz developed the Navy's plan of by-passing the Philippines and attacking Formosa. He did not see that Luzon, including Manila Bay, had advantages that were not possessed by other areas in the Philippines that could be taken for a base at less cost in lives and material. As the discussions progressed, however, the Navy Commander in the Pacific admitted that developments might indicate a necessity for occupation of the Manila area. Nimitz said that he had sufficient forces to carry out either operation. It was highly pleasing and unusual to find two commanders who were not demanding reinforcements.

Roosevelt was at his best as he tactfully steered the discussion from one point to another and narrowed down the area of disagreement between MacArthur and Nimitz. The discussion remained on a friendly basis the entire time, and in the end only a relatively minor difference remained - that of an operation to retake the Philippine capital, Manila. This was solved later, when the idea of beginning our Philippine invasion at Leyte was suggested, studied and adopted.

Stalin then brought up the question of reparations in kind and in manpower, but said he was not ready to discuss the manpower question. The latter, of course, referred to forced labour. Since the Russians were using many thousands of prisoners in what was reported to be virtual slave camps, they had little to gain by discussing the matter. Stalin then had Deputy Foreign Commissar Maisky elaborate on the Russian view of the reparations question.

The proposal in brief was: Reparations in kind should include factories, plants, communication equipment, investments abroad, etc., and should be made over a period of ten years, at the end of which time all reparations would have been paid. The total value of the reparations in kind asked by the Soviet was 10 billion dollars, to be spread over the ten-year period.

The German heavy industries should be cut down and 80 per cent. removed in a period of two years after the surrender.

Allied control should be established over German industry, and all German industry that could be used in the production of war material should be under international control for a long period.

Churchill objected to the 10 billion-dollar figure, and he and Roosevelt agreed that a reparations committee should be appointed to study the issue. Roosevelt made it clear that the United States would not make the financial mistakes that followed World War I. He added that America would not want any manpower, any factories, or any machinery. It might want to seize German property in the United States, which at that time was estimated not to exceed 200 million dollars. Reparations presented a very complicated problem, and the appointment of a special commission seemed to be the only possible way to arrive at any kind of recommendation that could be accepted.

Franklin Roosevelt was a world figure of heroic proportions. He also was my friend, whom I had known and admired for thirty-six years, since we began to work together in World War I. A thousand memories crowded my mind as I sat in the compartment of the train returning to Washington.

I had seen him almost every morning since he appointed me his Military Chief of Staff late in July, 1942. The range of his mind was infinite. The official matters I had selected to bring to his attention usually were disposed of quickly, and he listened attentively as I talked. He was likely thereafter, at these daily sessions, to do most of the talking and to bring up anything he had on his mind. A flood of memories of Quebec, Cairo, Teheran, Honolulu, Alaska and the still-fresh impression of Yalta came to my mind.

I remembered partisan criticism that he had made this or that war move with an eye on the date of a national election. Franklin Roosevelt was the real Commander-in-Chief of our Navy, Army, and Air Force. He had fought this war in close co-operation with his military staff. To my knowledge, he never made a single military decision with any thought of his own personal political fortunes.

There were many of his domestic policies which I, being of a conservative mind, had little liking for, but I admired the skill he possessed in playing the complex and to me almost inexplicable "game of politics." That skill was frequently displayed at his famous weekly conferences with the Washington newsmen, many of which I attended. He gave them all the information he could, easily and cheerfully. He even scolded them at times, but they seemed to like it.

In November, 1942, at the request of Dr. Ross Mclntire, I discussed with President George Merck, of the well-known chemical firm bearing his name, the possible use of bacteriological warfare. Merck was then studying, with a considerable number of scientists and in high secrecy, both offensive employment of and preventive measures against germ warfare.

At intervals this subject came up in my conversations with President Roosevelt and later with President Truman. I recall particularly that, as we were sailing for Honolulu for the MacArthur-Nimitz conferences in July of 1944, there was a spirited discussion of bacteriological warfare in the President's cabin. By that time the scientists thought, for example, that they could destroy completely the rice crop of Japan.

Some of those present advocated the adoption of such measures. Personally, I recoiled from the idea, and said to Roosevelt: "Mr. President, this [using germs and poison] would violate every Christian ethic I have ever heard of and all of the known laws of war. It would be an attack on the non-combatant population of the enemy. The reaction can be foretold: if we use it, the enemy will use it." Roosevelt remained non-committal throughout this discussion, but the United States did not resort to bacteriological warfare.

Once it had been tested, President Truman faced the decision as to whether to use it. He did not like the idea, but was persuaded that it would shorten the war against Japan and save American lives. It is my opinion that the use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan. The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender because of the effective sea blockade and the successful bombing with conventional weapons.

It was my reaction that the scientists and others wanted to make this test because of the vast sums that had been spent on the project. Truman knew that, and so did the other people involved. However, the Chief Executive made a decision to use the bomb on two cities in Japan. We had only produced two bombs at that time. We did not know which cities would be the targets, but the President specified that the bombs should be used against military facilities.

The lethal possibilities of atomic warfare in the future are frightening. My own feeling was that, in being the first to use it, we had adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages. I was not taught to make war in that fashion, and wars cannot be won by destroying women and children. We were the first to have this weapon in our possession, and the first to use it. There is a practical certainty that potential enemies will develop it in the future and that atomic bombs will some time be used against us.

Fleet Admiral Leahy, Chief of Staff to the Commander in Chief Was Fiercely Opposed to Dropping the Atomic Bomb on Japan

Before the official establishment of the position of Joint Chiefs of Staff in the United States Military in 1947, there served a man who was in all senses the first de-facto Joint Chief throughout World War 2.

There were Generals and Admirals such as MacArthur, Halsey, Nimitz, and Eisenhower, who would serve with great fanfare in this great war, but there was one man who would have the President’s ear throughout. Admiral William D. Leahy was a personal friend of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and although Admiral Leahy retired in 1939, Roosevelt would call upon this trusted confidant to help him run the war.

Admiral Leahy would exert great influence over the war effort and assist the President in making some of the most difficult decisions of the war. But the Admiral would often lament the one historically monumental decision for which he couldn’t persuade the President to come to his point of view.

Roosevelt’s Right-Hand Man Was a Quiet Yet Powerful Force

Admiral William D. Leahy, traveling here with FDR in 1943, gained the president’s respect as an adviser and friend.

Courtesy of the photo archives, Naval History and Heritage Command

Craig L. Symonds
October 2019

A new biography illuminates Admiral William D. Leahy’s role as FDR’s chief of staff, adviser, and friend during World War II

The Second Most Powerful Man in the World: The Life of Admiral William D. Leahy, Roosevelt’s Chief of Staff

Phillips Payson O’Brien. 544 pp.

Dutton, 2019. $30

Just four U.S. Navy men have worn the five-star insignia of a full admiral. Among their ranks, William D. Leahy is the least well-known—and, as Phillips Payson O’Brien argues in a new biography, the most under-appreciated. Leahy did not command the U.S. Navy like Ernest J. King, direct naval operations in the Pacific like Chester Nimitz, or win battles at sea like William F. “Bull” Halsey. His behind-the-scenes contributions were evident mostly in the influence he had on American and Allied strategy as chief of staff to President Franklin D. Roosevelt and in presiding over the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In these roles, O’Brien argues, Leahy had an outsized influence on both American policy and Allied strategy. Indeed, he asserts that by 1944, when Roosevelt’s health declined precipitously, Leahy had assumed many of the burdens of the presidency itself—becoming, as the book’s title asserts, “the second most powerful man in the world.”

O’Brien’s is a full biography that covers Leahy’s youth, his active-duty naval career, and his challenging role as American ambassador to Vichy France in 1940-41. But it is in describing Leahy’s wartime role in the Roosevelt White House that O’Brien makes his strongest statement. His book challenges Henry H. Adams’s 1985 biography of Leahy, Witness to Power, which implies, at least, that Leahy’s significance was mainly that he happened to be present when important events unfolded. By contrast, O’Brien’s Leahy is a backstairs Machiavelli who “used the trust of the president…to guarantee that the United States followed his strategic ideas.”

O’Brien emphasizes how many days Leahy spent with the president, often alone, especially after 1943. He says that FDR found Leahy “efficient and thorough,” “calming and sensible,” “loyal and direct.” Indeed, Leahy’s loyalty may have been his most salient characteristic, one that allowed him, in O’Brien’s words, to assume “a special role in Roosevelt’s life” as both a trusted adviser and close personal friend. Readers can decide for themselves if O’Brien overreaches when, in consecutive chapter titles, he asserts that Leahy became the “Acting President” and that World War II became “Leahy’s War.”

In the process of elevating Leahy, O’Brien challenges the dominant view that FDR confidant Harry Hopkins was the preeminent member of the president’s official family. He notes that Hopkins began to fail physically at about the same time Roosevelt did, thus creating a void that Leahy filled. O’Brien also actively denigrates U.S. Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall, portraying him as a relatively minor figure who was driven by “a sense of his own grandeur,” and full of “insecure puffery.” O’Brien goes so far as to argue that without Leahy’s leadership, all of the Joint Chiefs were pretty much helpless. “Roosevelt, Marshall, King, Arnold, and Hopkins,” he writes, “left to their own devices, were a mess.”

Leahy’s tendency to remain in the shadows sometimes forces O’Brien to rely on circumstantial evidence. More than once, he notes that FDR announced one or another policy decision after being closeted with Leahy he concludes that the latter “probably,” “must have,” or “very likely” played a critical role in the president’s decision. He very may well have, but Leahy’s own diffidence and loyalty to his boss prevented him from emerging from the shadows to claim a place in history. With this book, O’Brien does it for him. ✯

—Craig L. Symonds is the author of the 2018 book World War II at Sea: A Global History.

The Hidden Power Behind D-Day

In early June 1944, as Allied troops in England made their final preparations before embarking on the greatest invasion of all time, the eyes of the American media turned not to the beaches of Normandy, but to Mt. Vernon, Iowa, a speck of a town more than 4,000 miles from Hitler’s Fortress Europe. There, at a small liberal arts college, Admiral William D. Leahy, the highest-ranking member of the American military, was set to give a commencement speech before an assemblage of reporters.

Leahy is little remembered. He can be seen in countless wartime photographs hovering a few feet from President Franklin Roosevelt with a sour grimace on his face, though today one could be forgiven for assuming that the man in the white peaked cap and the gold braids was some anonymous aide, rather than one of the most powerful men in the world.

A 1944 photo of Leahy in his uniform as five-star Navy fleet admiral. (© CORBIS / Corbis via Getty Images)

Admiral Leahy had been Franklin Roosevelt’s friend for years, going back to Roosevelt’s early job as the assistant secretary of the Navy. Two decades later, Roosevelt was in the White House, and Leahy had risen to the top position in the Navy. Upon the admiral’s retirement in 1939, the president confided to him that if war came, Leahy would be recalled to help run it. And call him Roosevelt did, making the admiral after Pearl Harbor the first and only individual in American history to bear the title “Chief of Staff to the Commander in Chief.” Thanks to the trust that had built over their long friendship, Leahy was tasked with helping FDR grapple with the enormous strategic decisions of World War II.

The Second Most Powerful Man in the World: The Life of Admiral William D. Leahy, Roosevelt's Chief of Staff

Standing before an audience of eager graduates and their families at Cornell College, as well as newspaper photographers, the four-star admiral—by the end of the year he would become the first officer of the war to receive his fifth star, making him forever outrank his more-famous counterparts such as Dwight Eisenhower, Douglas MacArthur and George Marshall—spoke of the heavy price of freedom.

“Everybody may have peace if they are willing to pay any price for it,” he said. “Part of this any price is slavery, dishonor of your women, destruction of your homes, denial of your God. I have seen all of these abominations in other parts of the world paid as the price of not resisting invasion, and I have no thought that the inhabitants of this state of my birth have any desire for peace at that price…”

Within 24 hours, some 2,500 Americans would be killed in France. Leahy was the only man in the auditorium who knew this cataclysm was coming. Indeed, it was the very reason he was in Iowa in the first place.

Seventy-five years later, Operation Overlord, better known as D-Day, is part of the American story, but at the time, the when and the where were hardly inevitable. In fact, the Allied high command had bickered over it for more than two years. Even within the American ranks, the premise of an invasion was hotly debated. From the onset of the wars with Japan and Germany, General George Marshall, the chief of staff of the U.S. Army, believed that Hitler, rather than Japanese Emperor Hirohito, was America’s great enemy, and that the war in Europe should receive the overwhelming weight of American attack. The best way to defeat the Germans, Marshall insisted, was to invade France as soon as possible. In late 1942, Marshall believed that an invasion should occur in 1943—he was partial towards a landing in Brittany—and that the United States should send almost all its available men and equipment to Great Britain to prepare for such an attack.

As a Navy man—and more importantly, as the first chairman of the newly-formed Joint Chiefs of Staff—Leahy had a different opinion. Leahy cared about the control of communications, dominating the seas, and wearing down the enemy with sea and air power. He wanted the United States to fight a balanced war between Europe and Asia, believing that the fate of China, also at war with Japan, was at least as important for the future of the world as anything happening in Europe. Leahy was thus strongly opposed to committing the vast majority of American forces on a very risky 1943 invasion of France. He wanted to wait until 1944, when he believed that the U.S. would have such an overwhelming advantage on the sea and in the air that any invasion could get ashore and stay ashore without too many casualties.

It was during this debate that the importance of Leahy’s relationship with Roosevelt was fully felt. Every morning in the White House, the admiral met privately with the president for a full briefing of the state of the war. Leahy was Roosevelt’s confidant and sounding board for decisions great and small, from the allocation of forces to the prioritizing of military production. Furthermore, the two men could relax together over a meal, a cocktail or a cigarette, a bond that FDR, under enormous stress and facing failing health, particularly valued. Marshall, on the other hand, was stiff and unfriendly with the president—he famously glared at Roosevelt when the president casually called him “George.” As a result, the two hardly ever met alone.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt celebrates his 61st birthday aboard the Clipper flying boat. Admiral Leahy is seated on his right. (© Museum of Flight / CORBIS / Corbis via Getty Images)

Leahy’s closeness with Roosevelt spiked any possibility of invading France before American troops were ready. Whenever Marshall pressed the idea of a 1943 invasion, Roosevelt and Leahy pushed for delays. They did not order Marshall to abandon the plan, they simply refused to authorize it. In January 1943, Marshall ran into further opposition from the British delegation led by Prime Minister Winston Churchill at the Casablanca Conference. Having failed to convince the president and his closest advisor to support his plan, Marshall was forced to accept that the attack would not occur until later.

Yet even a 1944 invasion was not a fait accompli. Churchill, haunted by memories of the horrific trench warfare of the First World War, did not want to risk large British casualties by invading France—maybe ever. Churchill preferred fighting the Germans up through Italy or in the Balkans, as he put it, in the “soft-underbelly” of Europe. Not only would this preserve British troop reserves, in his view, it would also open up the Mediterranean, restoring the quickest lifeline to India, the jewel of the crown in the British Empire and a colony that Churchill, for one, was desperate to hold onto.

With a 1943 invasion now out of the question, Leahy and Roosevelt strongly supported launching D-Day in 1944, when they believed America and Britain would be ready. A sideshow in southern Europe held no interest for them. Marshall aligned with their vision, and the American army joined with the Navy and the White House to develop one plan that had overall support. For the next four conferences—Trident, Quadrant, and Sextant/Eureka, ranging from May to December 1943—the Americans squared off against the British at the negotiating tables, backed by the raw force provided by the size of the American war economy.

At both Trident and Quadrant, Leahy and Roosevelt, working with Marshall, applied such brutal pressure that the British would reluctantly succumb to American demands, and Churchill was forced to sign up for a strategic plan based around the invasion of France in 1944. And yet almost immediately after each conference ended, Churchill would attempt to wriggle out of the commitment.

In this image from the Tehran Conference in 1943, Leahy stands behind Winston Churchill. (Archive Photos / Getty Images)

In late November 1943, the “Big Three” finally met together for the first time. Leahy accompanied Roosevelt to Tehran for a talk with Churchill and the Soviet Union’s leader, Joseph Stalin. The Soviet dictator had no time for indirect approaches through the Mediterranean. He wanted an invasion of France as soon as possible so as to engage as many units of the German Army as possible, thereby taking the pressure off his own beleaguered troops fighting at the edges of Eastern Europe. Speaking with a bluntness that impressed Leahy, Stalin disparaged any plan of Churchill’s that did not make D-Day the focus of Anglo-American operations in 1944. His directness was a God-send to Leahy and Roosevelt, who took advantage of it throughout the talks. Whenever the British acted like they might once again oppose the invasion, either the president or the admiral would say that they needed to launch D-Day because they had promised the Russians. At one point, after the British had objected once again to D-Day, arguing that any invasion needed to wait until the Germans were so weak that Allied casualties would be low, Leahy attacked, asking whether the British believed “that the conditions laid down for Overlord would ever arise unless the Germans had collapsed beforehand.”

Faced with such obstinacy, Churchill had to give in. At the end of the conferences there was no way out—it was a crushing defeat for Churchill, one that hit him so hard that he suffered a nervous breakdown shortly thereafter and went incommunicado from the British government for a few weeks in an attempt to recover.

When news of the landing broke the next morning, June 6, 1944, Leahy’s mission at hand was complete—America’s top military man was seen out on a photo op in an Iowa corn field, distracting attention away from the invasion. That evening, Leahy quietly slipped back to Washington to be reunited with his old friend and strategic confidante, President Roosevelt. Together in the White House, they could do little but watch and wait, hoping that Operation Overlord came to a successful conclusion.

About Phillips Payson O'Brien

Phillips Payson O'Brien is the author of The Second Most Powerful Man in the World: The Life of Admiral William D. Leahy, Roosevelt’s Chief of Staff, and professor of strategic studies at the University of St. Andrews in Fife, Scotland.

Dying FDR’s Right-Hand Man Ran the War

President Franklin D. Roosevelt beslows the Distinguished Service Medal on Admiral William Leahy on July 28, 1939. Leahy had just retired as chief of naval operations. In 1942, he would become Roosevelt’s chief of staff. (Library of Congress)

Admiral William Leahy was the acting commander in chief as the president’s health failed

“Bill, I’m going to promote you to a higher rank.”

A meeting of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, from left, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Ernest King, Army Chief of Staff General George Marshall, Admiral William Leahy, and Air Force Chief, General Henry “Hap” Arnold. (Everett Collection Inc./Alamy Stock Photo)

In early January 1944, an increasingly weak President Franklin Roosevelt turned to William Leahy in the White House and told his longtime friend that he wanted to make Leahy, since 1942 the president’s chief of staff, America’s only serving five-star military officer. FDR said nothing about promoting Army Chief of Staff George Marshall, Chief of Naval Operations Ernest King, or General of the Air Force Henry Arnold, but Leahy was adamant that the other Joint Chiefs of Staff be advanced as well, and the president relented. Leahy quickly moved on Roosevelt’s plan, meeting with Representative Carl Vinson (D-Georgia), chairman of the House Naval Affairs Committee and a longtime Leahy friend. The plan entered the congressional pipeline.

Roosevelt and Leahy went back more than 30 years. In 1912, Roosevelt, 30, was a rising Democratic politician and assistant secretary of the Navy. Leahy, 39, was a U.S. Navy captain. His specialty was gunnery, a skill he had brought to bear on a recent American incursion into Nicaragua. His performance there, and his reputation for political savvy, had led to Leahy’s appointment as the Navy’s assistant director of target practice, bringing him into Roosevelt’s orbit. Each enjoyed the other’s company, and the men became friends, fixtures in their respective Washington circles, and powerful figures. In 1937 President Roosevelt named Admiral Leahy U.S. chief of naval operations. The two collaborated to enlarge the Navy for what seemed destined to be a two-ocean war. Upon Leahy’s retirement from the Navy in 1939, Roosevelt named him governor of Puerto Rico, a civilian position with a strong martial component. In 1940, he made Leahy ambassador to Vichy France. In April 1942, an embolism claimed Louise Leahy. That June, accompanying her coffin, William Leahy sailed home. He buried his wife at Arlington National Cemetery. His president had a new job for him: he was to be the first chief of staff to the commander in chief, Army and Navy of the United States, presiding over the Joint Chiefs of Staff and serving as FDR’s most senior military adviser. William Leahy was to have, as the saying goes, a very good war.

Excerpted from The Second Most Powerful Many in the World: The Life of Admiral William D. Leahy, Roosevelt’s Chief of Staff by Phillips Payson O’Brien. Published by Dutton, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC, May 7, 2019. Copyright 2019 by Phillips Payson O’Brien. All rights reserved.

Leahy was at the height of his power when he got those five stars. He was FDR’s most important strategic advisor and more than comfortable as chairman of the Joint Chiefs. He had grafted his vision of how the war would be won in both Europe and the Pacific onto the American war effort. The Allies would invade France in the spring, with the Italian campaign resuming secondary status, and, for all the fine words about Germany-first, the war in the Pacific would receive a huge American effort. The war was progressing well, Leahy thought he hoped the Allies might beat Germany by the end of 1944 and, by the end of 1945, force the Japanese to capitulate. Leahy’s biggest worry was not the war—it was Roosevelt’s health. The president had returned from a December 1943 conference with Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin in Tehran, Iran, in a state of exhaustion. Roosevelt and Leahy continued their daily briefings when the president was well enough, but as Roosevelt slept more the start times were pushed later and later into the morning.

In his 1950 memoir, I Was There, Leahy trod a fine line in discussing Roosevelt’s decline. “The terrific burden of being in effect Commander-in-Chief of the greatest war yet recorded in global history began to tell on Franklin Roosevelt in 1944,” he wrote. “He required more rest and it took him longer to shake off the effect of a simple cold or of the bronchitis to which he was vulnerable.” In truth, Roosevelt was dying. His heart was deteriorating, and his arteries were narrowing his blood pressure could soar, putting him at constant risk of heart failure or stroke. His appearance could shock those who had not seen him for a while. He steadily lost weight, his cheeks hollowing and his skin taking on a grayish hue. His hands shook, and he often slumped back in his wheelchair, seeming exhausted or disinterested. He barely was able to work. In January he took two weeks completely off, and more than a week each in February and March, spending much of the time at his home in Hyde Park, New York. Americans, however, were being deceived. FDR’s personal physician, Admiral Ross McIntire, stated that Roosevelt, who was only 62, was in fine condition for his age. McIntire later destroyed some of Roosevelt’s medical files to keep the truth from emerging.

Leahy knew the truth, but never said anything. At the time and later, he was torn between writing about what he was seeing in his friend and his desire to protect first the man and then the legacy of Franklin Roosevelt.

Worried constantly about Roosevelt’s health, he was covering for the president, who was skipping whole workdays and -weeks. When these absences came up, Leahy usually described the president’s health issues through outward explanations such as bronchitis or influenza, never admitting the underlying concerns, such as hypertension or heart failure.

To make matters worse, Harry Hopkins’s health was even worse. On New Year’s Day, Hopkins, Roosevelt’s longtime political counselor, collapsed. His health had been precarious for years, and recently he had undergone cancer surgery to remove 75 percent of his stomach. Three days later he checked himself into the hospital for emergency care. His weight had dropped to 126 lbs., and the malnutrition brought on by his compromised digestive system had left him perilously weak. Hopkins began months of shuttling in and out of treatment, including more surgeries, often at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. His physical separation from Roosevelt accentuated an emotional distance growing between him and the president.

These developments meant that in the period between January 1944 and Roosevelt’s death in April 1945 Leahy was controlling much of American strategic and foreign policy. FDR, understanding the extent to which he had grown to rely on the admiral, began involving Leahy even more in his political and private life. Leahy became more forward with his own policy preferences—a noticeable shift, as if he was aware that his influence was growing.

Leahy, who always was protective of Roosevelt, started acting even more ruthlessly as a gatekeeper. A range of people, from the other Joint Chiefs to industrialists to representatives of Allied nations and even major American political figures, had to go through Leahy to get issues brought to the president’s attention. Leahy often became the voice of the president. He drafted many, maybe even most, of the telegrams transmitted that year to Winston Churchill and to Josef Stalin, one of the reasons that Roosevelt’s messages during this period were particularly dull.

A 1942 photo Admiral William Leahy in dress whites. (Photo by Myron Davis/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images)

In Roosevelt’s stead, Leahy also became the court of appeals on even the most sensitive policy questions. On January 22, when Roosevelt was in Hyde Park, Assistant Secretary of War John McCloy came to Leahy to get approval, following D-Day, for General Dwight Eisenhower to turn over to the Gaullist French Committee of National Liberation civil administration of areas of liberated France. Leahy replied that if it was all right with the State Department, it was all right with him. On February 4, determined to see the British live up to their end of agreements, he drafted and sent to Churchill a formal telegram urging the British to turn over some captured Italian naval assets to the Soviets. On February 23, with Roosevelt again resting at Hyde Park, Leahy worked with the new undersecretary of state, Edward Stettinius Jr., to clarify U.S. policy toward oil-producing regions of the Middle East. Leahy spent much of March on economic issues, such as efforts by Electric Boat Company, the largest American submarine manufacturer, to protect the draft deferments of 300 of its specialists in Groton, Connecticut. Also in March, with Roosevelt just back from yet another Hyde Park stay, Leahy lunched with Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau to discuss when the U.S. should offer its allies a new wartime loan—the beginning of regular lunchtime meetings between the men.

Roosevelt’s health did not improve. In late March, Leahy admitted that even after a week of total rest the president’s “bronchitis” was persisting. FDR needed a long break, somewhere warm and completely isolated.

On April 8, the president’s train again pulled out of Washington late at night, this time heading south for Hobcaw Barony, an estate in coastal South Carolina owned by financier Bernard Baruch. There is something touching, if melancholy, about Leahy and Roosevelt during this holiday. For a month, Leahy had to be both the president’s close friend and his sole link to serious war work. Hobcaw’s 20,000 acres of pine forest, streams, and swamps was a perfect place for a “recuperative vacation” during which Roosevelt planned to sleep 12 hours a day. Except for the incessant insects, which particularly seemed to irritate Leahy, the estate was an oasis of quiet and privacy. Baruch’s daughter Belle, who resided on a neighboring property, was a tall lesbian who lived openly with a number of lovers—or, as Leahy quaintly termed them, “women friends.” He found Belle educated and entertaining and marveled in his diary that on one afternoon hunt she had been the only one to shoot an alligator. A bond of friendship formed, and Belle would even visit the admiral when she passed through Washington.

At Hobcaw Leahy did everything possible to protect Roosevelt. To those in the know, he was practically running the war. White House naval aide William Rigdon, who tracked all the in- and outgoing information from the White House Map Room, noted how Leahy was in control:

“My Hobcaw log, and all other logs, show that Admiral Leahy was always close to the President. He was not only the President’s chief
planning officer, head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the highest-ranking American officer on military duty—he held ‘five-star’ commission number one—but he was also the President’s confidant and adviser on matters other than the military. FDR trusted him completely.”

The routine at Hobcaw showed how weak Roosevelt had become and how much he had grown to rely on Leahy. After an early breakfast, Leahy would review all top-secret dispatches sent to the president. He would answer some on his own, disregard others, and decide which needed to be discussed personally with Roosevelt. The president rose late and was unable to work until noon, at which point he and Leahy went through the messages Leahy had selected. For about an hour they would make decisions and plan responses before Roosevelt’s workday was done and lunch was served.

At Warm Springs Georgia, FDR and Bernard Baruch had a close social relationship. Roosevelt often visited Baruch’s South Carolina estate, Hobcaw Barony. (Time-Life Pictures/Getty Images)

The president rested again until about four o’clock when his party—including presidential appointments secretary Edwin “Pa” Watson and other intimates—usually went for an excursion. Car rides and alligator hunts were options, but mostly the choice was a fishing trip along a snakelike system of creeks and inlets that carved up marshland or led into the Atlantic. The fishing was terrible, mostly slow trolling as the president let his line dangle limply in the water. Leahy usually sat next to Roosevelt, at the president’s insistence. Back on land, they would enjoy an early dinner, sometimes with jokes at Pa Watson’s expense, followed by a movie or a game of cards. Roosevelt typically retired to bed not long after dinner.

Slowly Roosevelt’s health began to improve, albeit marginally. More than a week after they arrived, Leahy wrote to his aide in Washington that he still had no idea when the party would return to the capital. On April 28, Navy Secretary Frank Knox died suddenly of a heart attack. The president, keeping Leahy beside him, sent Watson to attend the funeral in his place.

Official visitors were kept to an absolute minimum Roosevelt wanted only trusted friends around. Perhaps Roosevelt’s favorite visitor was the woman who had once nearly ended his marriage. Lucy Mercer had been serving as Eleanor Roosevelt’s social secretary in 1916 when she embarked on an affair with her boss’s husband. When Eleanor discovered the relationship in 1918, Franklin almost left her, but was forcefully persuaded by his mother to stay married and avoid scandal. He continued to have contact with Lucy Mercer Rutherfurd for decades, and during World War II began to spend time with her when he and Eleanor were apart. During his stay at Hobcaw, Eleanor was allowed to visit only once.

At Hobcaw Barony, FDR’s favorite visitor was friend and sometimes paramour Lucy Mercer Rutherfurd, shown in 1930. (Bettmann/Getty Images)

When it came to Lucy Rutherfurd, Leahy was at his most discreet. During the Hobcaw stay, she lodged in a nearby house and visited Roosevelt frequently. Elliott Roosevelt, the president’s son, claimed she came by almost daily. Given Leahy’s near-constant presence with the president, he would have regularly dined and chatted with Rutherfurd, yet he never mentioned it in his diary or to interviewers.

Another favored visitor was Margaret Suckley, an old confidante and distant cousin of Roosevelt’s. She arrived in May and found him still “thin & drawn & not a bit well.” “Everyone conspires to keep the atmosphere light,” she wrote. Suckley found that Roosevelt, having sensed that his doctors were not being honest with him, was now better informed about the seriousness of his medical condition.” Roosevelt must have been aware at times that his health was failing. At other times, he undoubtedly tried to forget this reality and press on.

Leahy, long comfortable with Suckley, confided in her that, to protect the president’s health, he had been rigorously controlling the information shown to FDR and described his dilemma, inadvertently admitting to the immense power he was wielding. Every morning, he confessed, he had to sort through a pile of the president’s confidential correspondence, “analyze it, pass judgment,” and make a recommendation to the Pres. [sic] Half the time it is almost a question of ‘tossing a coin’ to decide one way or the other.”

On May 6 the president finally returned to the White House, his health only marginally better. Leahy wrote optimistically to an aide that “the Boss is in good shape at the end of his vacation.” Admiral McIntire reported to Leahy that the president had returned to his “normal condition” of health. Yet McIntire understood just how weak Roosevelt was “normal” was hardly a ringing endorsement.

On his first two days back in Washington, Leahy chaired a meeting of the Joint Chiefs, met with newspaper columnist Constantine Brown for the latest Washington gossip, and conferred or dined with a wide variety of influential men, including diplomats Stettinius and Averell Harriman, Navy Undersecretary James Forrestal, War Department Undersecretary Robert Patterson, and Admiral Ernest King. He also hosted the naval representatives of the Dutch and Free French governments.

Spring 1944 marked the start of one of the most intensely political periods in Leahy’s life. With a wartime election fast approaching, he had constant opportunities to dabble in the political and public side of Roosevelt’s existence. Within days of returning, the president confided, “Bill, I just hate to run again for election. Perhaps the war will by that time have progressed to a point that it will make it unnecessary for me to be a candidate.” Yet when Roosevelt announced a few weeks later that he was running, Leahy was not surprised.

The day after Roosevelt’s announcement, Harry Hopkins, just back to work after another long break at the Mayo Clinic, stopped by Leahy’s office to discuss politics—specifically, the vice presidency. Vice President Henry Wallace was at the far left of the Democratic Party, and no favorite of Leahy’s. Hopkins felt he could use Leahy to influence the president and push Jimmy Byrnes, a Roosevelt ally who had represented South Carolina in the U.S. Senate and served on the U.S. Supreme Court, a sinecure he had given up at FDR’s request to head the Office of War Mobilization, for the second spot. Leahy also thought Byrnes the best person to be vice president. Leahy had worked closely with Byrnes on war production and manpower policy, and subtly had been lobbying Roosevelt to put him on the ticket in 1944. But the more closely Roosevelt worked with Byrnes the more he soured on the South Carolinian, recognizing in him a streak of extreme self-importance.

That Harry Hopkins now needed Leahy’s support on issues like Roosevelt’s VP had,
perhaps strangely, led to Hopkins’s relationship with Leahy arriving at its most trusting point. When Hopkins was well enough to work, he and Leahy together drafted important telegrams, particularly on politically sensitive topics. At other times they collaborated to control the Joint Chiefs. One, when Hopkins felt Ernest King, a committed Anglophobe, had given a deliberately antagonistic order to the American naval
commander in the Mediterranean to forbid the use of American equipment to a British-led operation, he hurried to Leahy to get the order countermanded. Leahy agreed with Hopkins and advised the chief of naval operations that it would be sensible if he backed down—which King dutifully did.

Even vital questions such as aid to the Soviet Union, which were extremely important to Hopkins and which he had tried to dominate earlier in the war, now often were referred to Leahy in the hope that the admiral would obtain the preferred decision from the president.

Some of the most powerful people in the United States wanted to take advantage of Leahy’s influence with Roosevelt.

Not long after Roosevelt and Leahy left Hobcaw, their host, Bernard Baruch, hoping for a position in government, wrote to the admiral, “You are just tops. You are a good sailor, a fine statesman, and a splendid friend.”

Leahy kept a copy of the letter in his diary, but he was one of the least self-interested people among the powerful names of American history. He never used his post for financial gain and had little in the way of possessions or property. He was scrupulous about not using his influence to benefit himself or his family.

In early 1944, one of his brothers asked if Leahy could prevent the transfer of his son, a Navy man based in Chicago, Illinois, but recently ordered to Newport, Rhode Island—and presumably from there into action.

Leahy refused. In the only example that can be found of Leahy asking a favor for a relative, he wrote in late 1944 to David Sarnoff, boss of RCA and NBC, with a “personal request” that Sarnoff employ his niece in NBC’s new television division. Sarnoff immediately sent back a handwritten note saying he would be delighted to help in any way that he could.

Leahy, behind Roosevelt, in naval uniform with aide-de-camp’s braid, accompanied his boss to meet Winston Churchill, left, and Joseph Stalin at February 1945 at Yalta in the Crimea. Six weeks later, Roosevelt would be dead. (Photo by Time Life Pictures/US Army Signal Corps/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images)

Leahy’s increased authority after Hobcaw also shows in his direct dealing with cabinet members. One of the first things that Leahy asked Roosevelt to do after they returned from the South was to appoint James Forrestal secretary of the Navy. Leahy had excellent relations with Forrestal and believed that they could work closely together. Roosevelt quickly made the appointment.

Leahy began lunching with Morgenthau even more regularly he used the Treasury secretary to keep tabs on issues that mattered to him. One was lend-lease, announced by FDR in 1940 as a way to aid Britain after the fall of France and to provide both Britain and the Soviet Union with massive economic and military support. Leahy, by nature inclined to isolationism, wanted lend-lease to end when the war was over. Learning that Roosevelt was going to appoint Morgenthau chairman of a committee to oversee the future of lend-lease, Leahy scheduled a lunch with the Treasury secretary to get a full update on his plans.

Leahy’s already strong links with the State Department became more intimate, partly for institutional reasons and partly for personal reasons. In late 1943, after Undersecretary of State Sumner Welles’s forced resignation resulting from his scandalous behavior involving solicitation of men for sex, the State Department started addressing formal inquiries for the Joint Chiefs of Staff directly to Leahy, who scrutinized and signed the responses to those queries. In 1944, H. Freeman Matthews, who had worked for Leahy when he was ambassador to Vichy, became State’s deputy director for the Office of European Affairs, working with the admiral to improve the flow of crucial documents between the military and the diplomats. Matthews would call Leahy if he needed special information or to get the Joint Chiefs’ approval for State Department directives. Secretary of State Cordell Hull’s declining health made him an even more peripheral figure in Leahy’s life. In the summer of 1944 Hull was such an outsider that he often was left to communicate with Roosevelt through Leahy, and even then could not be sure of getting an answer. By November, Hull was in such poor condition that he had to resign and was replaced by Stettinius.

This story appeared in the February 2020 issue of American History.

William Leahy - History

President Truman: Using Atomic Bombs against Japan, 1945

Digital History TOPIC ID 63

Every American president makes decisions with enormous repercussions for the future. Some of these decisions prove successful others turn out to be blunders. In virtually every case, presidents must act with contradictory advice and limited information. At 8:15 a.m., August 6, 1945, an American B-29 released an atomic bomb over Hiroshima, Japan. Within minutes, Japan’s eighth largest city was destroyed. By the end of the year, 140,000 people had died from the bomb’s effects. After the bombing was completed, the United States announced that Japan faced a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which had never been seen on this earth." Background: In 1939, Albert Einstein, writing on behalf physicist Leo Szilard and other leading physicists, informed President Franklin D. Roosevelt that Nazi Germany was carrying on experiments in the use of atomic weapons. In October, 1939, the federal government began a modest research program which and later became the two-billion-dollar Manhattan Project. Its purpose was to produce an atomic bomb before the Germans. On December 2, 1942, scientists in Chicago succeeded in starting a nuclear chain reaction, demonstrating the possibility of unleashing atomic power.

It was not until April 25, 1945, 13 days after the death of Franklin Roosevelt, that the new president, Harry S. Truman, was briefed about the Manhattan Project. Secretary of War Henry Stimson informed him that "within four months we shall in all probability have completed the most terrible weapon ever known in human history."

Stimson proposed that a special committee be set up to consider whether the atomic bomb would be used, and if so, when and where it would be deployed. Members of this panel, known as the Interim Committee, which Stimson chaired, included George L. Harrison, President of the New York Life Insurance Company and special consultant in the Secretary's office James F. Byrnes, President Truman's personal representative Ralph A. Bard, Under Secretary of the Navy William L. Clayton, Assistant Secretary of State and scientific advisers Vannevar Bush, Karl T. Compton, and James B. Conant. General George Marshall and Manhattan Project Director Leslie Groves also participated in some of the committee’s meetings. On June 1, 1945, the Interim Committee recommended that that atomic bombs should be dropped on military targets in Japan as soon as possible and without warning. One committee member, Ralph Bard, convinced that Japan may be seeking a way to end the war, called for a two to three day warning before the bomb was dropped.

A group of scientists involved in the Manhattan project opposed the use of the atomic bomb as a military weapon. In a report signed by physicist James Franck, they called for a public demonstration of the weapon in a desert or on a barren island. On June 16, 1945, a scientific panel consisting of physicists Arthur H. Compton, Enrico Fermi, E. O. Lawrence, and J. Robert Oppenheimer reported that it did not believe that a technical demonstration would be sufficient to end the war.

  1. Ralph Bard, Under Secretary of the Navy: Ever since I have been in touch with this program I have had a feeling that before the bomb is actually used against Japan that Japan should have some preliminary warning for say two or three days in advance of use. The position of the United States as a great humanitarian nation and the fair play attitude of our people generally is responsible in the main for this feeling.
  2. James Byrnes: [Physicist Leo Szilard wrote:] "[Byrnes] was concerned about Russia's postwar behavior. Russian troops had moved into Hungary and Rumania, and Byrnes thought it would be very difficult to persuade Russia to withdraw her troops from these countries, that Russia might be more manageable if impressed by American military might, and that a demonstration of the bomb might impress Russia."
  3. General Dwight D. Eisenhower: "In 1945 . , Secretary of War Stimson visited my headquarters in Germany, [and] informed me that our government was preparing to drop an atomic bomb on Japan. I was one of those who felt that there were a number of cogent reasons to question the wisdom of such an act. During his recitation of the relevant facts, I had been conscious of a feeling of depression and so I voiced to him my grave misgivings, first on the basis of my belief that Japan was already defeated and that dropping the bomb was completely unnecessary, and second because I thought that our country should avoid shocking world opinion by the use of a weapon whose employment was, I thought, no longer mandatory as a measure to save American lives. It was my belief that Japan was, at that very moment, seeking some way to surrender with a minimum loss of 'face.'

What consequences did the use of atomic weapons have on the American public?

1. Was Japan on the verge of surrender in August 1945?

2. What factors did the decision makers take into account when they evaluated the use of the atomic bombs?

3. Why did the United States and its allies inform the Japanese that their country could retain the emperor before the atomic bombs were dropped?

4. To what extent was the timing of the use of the bombs related to Soviet intervention in the war against Japan?

5. Identify each of the following and compare and contrast their views about the decision to deploy the bomb:

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Wisconsin Historical Society Citation Wisconsin Historical Society, Creator, Title, Image ID. Viewed online at (copy and paste image page link). Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research Citation Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research, Creator, Title, Image ID. Viewed online at (copy and paste image page link).

Roots: A Look at the Laheys and the Leahys

Have you always thought the surnames Lahey and Leahy were variations of the same name? Think again! Lahey and Leahy originate from two different Gaelic surnames. Lahey, Lahy, Lahiff, Lahiffe, Laffey, and Lahive all originate from the Gaelic surname O Laithimh, which itself is a variant of O Flaithimh. O Flaithimh derives from the Irish word flaitheamh, which means lord or ruler. By the 16th century, the name was found in Galway, Clare, Tipperary, and Kilkenny.

Leahy, Leehy, O’Leghy, and O’Leahy stem from the Gaelic surname O Laochdha. In Irish, laochdha means heroic. O Laochdha is an old Munster surname, which, by the 1890s, was found throughout Ireland. It is still most common in the counties of Munster: Counties Cork, Kerry, Limerick and Tipperary.

Frank Lahey, M.D. (1880-1953) founded the world-renowned Lahey Clinic in 1923, a non-profit teaching hospital of Tufts University School of Medicine. A famous surgeon, he was also a teacher and medical administrator. Lahey founded the clinic with the goal of gathering many specialties in one place, believing the best results came from a collaborative effort. Highly regarded for his extensive skill in thyroid and esophageal surgery, Lahey graduated from Harvard Medical School in 1904 and eventually became a professor of Surgery at Tufts University Medical School from 1913-1917. During World War I, he served as a major in the Army Medical Corps and director of an evacuation hospital. Ever committed to his work, he died eleven days after suffering a heart attack, right after he finished performing surgery.

John L. Lahey (b. 1946), our Irish American of the Year, has served as the President of Quinnipiac University in Hamden, CT since 1987. Lahey is the Vice Chairman of the New York City St. Patrick’s Day Parade Committee and served as the parade’s Grand Marshal in 1997. He dedicates a great amount of his time to educating the public on the Irish famine and its historical implications.

Jim Lahey is the owner and founder of Sullivan St. Bakery and Co. in New York City. His original ambition was to become a sculptor. Lahey’s passion for art took him to Italy, where, instead, he discovered the art of bread making. He returned to New York with the goal of giving the bread of the Italian countryside a home in New York City. In 1994, he opened Sullivan St. Bakery in Soho, eventually moving to Hell’s Kitchen. The bakery has developed an impressive reputation, with over 340 of New York’s finest restaurants using Lahey’s bread. In 2009, Lahey opened his first restaurant, Co. (pronounced as “Company”) and published his first cookbook, My Bread.

Lyle Lahey is an American political cartoonist based in Wisconsin. Born in 1931, he served a tour of duty with the Army in Korea. In 1968, Lahey began to contribute political cartoons to The Brown County Chronicle. His cartoons covered local, regional and national politics, the Green Bay Packers, world events and environmental issues. From 1968 to 1976, his work appeared in the Chronicle, and from 1976 to 2005 in The Green Bay News-Chronicle, which published The Packer Chronicles in 1997, a collection of Lahey’s cartoons about the Green Bay Packers. Lahey now creates political cartoons on his website, posting three new cartoons each week.

Heroic service to one’s country has been exemplified by several Leahys. Fleet Admiral William D. Leahy, United States Navy (1875-1959) was the first member of the U.S. armed forces to hold a five-star rank. His father Michael Leahy fought in the Civil War as Captain of the Wisconsin Infantry Volunteers. William Leahy served on the USS Oregon during the Spanish-American War. During World War I, he served as captain of the dispatch boat used by then-Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt. He became the Chief of Naval Operations in 1937, serving until he was retired in 1939. He was then the Governor of Puerto Rico from 1939 to 1940, and the Ambassador to Vichy France until 1942, when he came out of retirement to serve as Chief of Staff to the Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy. In recognition of his service, Leahy became the first Fleet Admiral (a newly created position) on December 15, 1944. During his distinguished career, he was awarded the Navy Cross, World War I Victory Medal with “Overseas” Clasp and the World War II Victory Medal. Leahy was still on active service when he died in 1959. In 1969, the USS Leahy was named after him.

Officer James Leahy was killed on September 11, 2001, trying to rescue people trapped in the World Trade Center in New York. Officer Leahy was a nine-year veteran of the New York City Police Department and at the time of his death he was assigned to the 6th Precinct. He was posthumously awarded the NYPD’s Medal of Honor for his heroic actions on that day.

Laheys and Leahys can be found throughout the world of arts and entertainment. Musician Kevin Leahy is a drummer and percussionist who has performed with artists such as Jennifer Nettles and Shawn Mullins. Leahy, the Canadian folk music group, has toured all over the world, releasing three studio albums and one live album. James Leahy is a Canadian artist who is represented in galleries in Canada, Britain and the United States. His work can be found in public and private collections.

The Laheys and the Leahys have left their unique mark on the world, and are likely to keep doing so into the future.

63 Responses to “Roots: A Look at the Laheys and the Leahys”

The article is missing a 3rd Lahey / Leahy group. There is a bunch of Leahys in County Cavan, Ireland who were ‘Lahy’ or ‘Lahey’ from the late 1600s – then changed to ‘Leahy’ in the mid to late 1800s. They are predminantly protestant – unlike the rest of the Leahys in Tipperary, Kilkenny, Wexford etc who are almost 100% Roman Catholic. There is a family story (from a numbre of sources) that they were originally a Huguenot family called ‘De Lahay’ who fled persecution from France in he late 1500s – this would make sense given their predominantly protestant religion. I’m currently doing rersearch to gather evidence for the story. Many of the family emigrated to Australia and USA in the 1800s.

The Laheys in Newfoundland were Lahy, Lahey, Layhee, Leahey, Lahee, or Leahy depending on who was doing the recording. Most are of Irish decent and as in Ireland the name was often interchangeable. Although Newfoundland is a small island it was home to many Lahey immigrants mainly from Cork 7, Waterford 6, Kilkenny 3, Wexford 2, Tipperary 2, and Carlow 2. These early records from 1760 to 1840 are primarily found in the St John’s area, pre 1800 the Laheys were Protestant later mostly RC. They were living in Newfoundland well before the fatal famine in Ireland.
There were others like my ancestor Edward Lahey, who was married Catherine Lockier in Heart’s Content, Newfoundland, in 1816. There is no record of where he was born or indeed that he is Irish. There were other Laheys living in Newfoundland that show no country of origin other than an assumption they were of Irish decent.
There were at least six predominant Lahey families that flourished in NL. They resided in Cape Broyle, St John’s, Bell Island, Harbour Grace, Hearts Content (Hearts Desire) and Placentia Bay. Most if not all of these families are not related, that is there appears to be no family relationship on this side of the Atlantic. Now descendants of these families are found through-out Canada and the US.
As to the origin from the French Huguenot family called De Lahay I believe the correct way to go is through DNA testing. We thought in the beginning our family came from France because of the spelling Lahy. I’ve researched in Thurles, Cork, Waterford, and Wexford but so far to no avail.
I hope other Laheys worldwide will join (the Leahy Lahey Family Tree DNA project). This I feel is the only way to identify our origins.
Leonard Lahey

Biography of World War II's modest, unsung hero: Admiral Leahy

Witness to Power: The Life of Fleet Admiral William D. Leahy, by Henry H. Adams. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press. 391 pp. $22.95. To most Americans during World War II, the top war heroes were George Patton and ``Bull'' Halsey. ``Ike'' came in for a large share of glory before it was all over. Douglas MacArthur had a coterie of worshipers, balanced off by an equal number, mostly from the Navy, who were vehemently ``anti.'' And in the upper echelons of command and government there was deep respect for George Marshall, who, as Army chief of staff, planned the great invasion of Europe.

But who ever heard of William D. Leahy, then or later? In late 1944, with Allied armies driving deep into Germany and Japan reeling toward inevitable surrender, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was authorized by Congress to grant five-star rank to his top eight military leaders. The first name on his list, hence senior in rank to all the others, was William D. Leahy.

Marshall was second on the list. MacArthur was No. 4. Ike was No. 6, and Halsey brought up the rear at No. 8. Halsey's commission was dated nearly a year after the others. Omar Bradley was added to the list in late 1950.

Victory was in clear sight at the time of this appraisal of contributions to the war cause. It is time that a full biography be offered to the public of the man who, in the opinion of his peers, deserved to rank at the top of the list of America's military leaders in World War II.

The reason he was so honored is clear from this handsomely printed and scholarly work by Prof. Henry H. Adams. It lies in the remarkable impersonality of this naval officer. He was trusted by two presidents in turn, because they learned that they could count on him always to give an objective and impersonal opinion on any matter in his competence.

Most of the top contemporaries were flawed characters. Halsey was rightly known as ``Bull.'' He charged off like a bull after a nonexistent Japanese fleet, and nearly lost the battle of Leyte Gulf for doing so. Patton with his pearl-handled revolvers and MacArthur with his corncob pipe -- displayed in public, never in private -- were self-conscious actors as much as they were soldiers.

Eisenhower had sycophants and political ambitions. Marshall and Nimitz were freer of personality, but sometimes showed touches of pride. Leahy was respected by all for his unique freedom from personal ambition, service jealousy, and emotionalism. Of course, as a young naval officer, he was ambitious to get to the top of his career. He did. He became chief of naval operations, the highest a man can go in the United States Navy.

From the time he reached that pinnacle he sought nothing other than to do the job assigned to him to the utmost of his ability. His mature career after that began with assignment to Puerto Rico as governor, then to France as United States ambassador at the most difficult possible time, after the French surrender in 1940.

France had been defeated. The northern part was occupied by German troops. A makeshift government was set up by Marshal P'etain at Vichy. Admiral Leahy was sent there to keep what was left of France as neutral as possible. His efforts to this end make one of the more important chapters on the diplomatic sidelines of World War II. He was remarkably successful, considering the fact that at that phase of the war Hitler's armies were winning all the battles.

Having proved his wisdom, judgment, and persuasiveness in Puerto Rico and Vichy, besides his professional competence as chief of naval operations, Leahy was called back to Washington by Roosevelt, who made him his own principal military expert and adviser. This included the job of chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Roosevelt ran the war through Admiral Leahy. It was a unique position, unique to those times. One of the measures of his success is that he did it so quietly that few outside the higher r anks of command in Washington were aware either of the man or his vital role in the war.

That role during the war and the opinions he expressed at various times about projects and policies have largely been set forth in Leahy's own memoirs, published by McGraw-Hill in 1950 under the title ``I Was There.'' But today, as the decision to drop nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki is still being debated, it is particularly interesting to note that this key military figure believed consistently that Japan was on the verge of defeat and would soon have surrendered regardless of the bombs. He wr ote in his memoirs:

``A large part of the Japanese Navy was already on the bottom of the sea. The same was true of Japanese merchant shipping. There was every indication that our Navy would soon have the rest of Tokyo's warships sunk or out of action. The combined Navy surface and Air Force action even by this time had forced Japan into a position that made her early surrender inevitable.'' (``I Was There,'' p. 245.)

Admiral Leahy never changed his opinion. He deplored the use of the nuclear bomb.

Joseph C. Harsch is a senior columnist who writes on diplomatic relations for the Monitor.

Fleet Admirals, US Navy

By act of Congress approved 14 December 1944, the grade of Fleet Admiral, United States Navy, was established for certain officers on the active list of the Navy. Four officers were nominated by the president for that grade. With the advice and consent of the Congress, they were appointed by him and served in that grade until they died.

All of these officers were personally and actively interested in the Naval Historical Foundation and contributed much to its growth. Two of them, Fleet Admirals Leahy and King, were elected and served as active Presidents one, Fleet Admiral Nimitz, residing on the west coast, was elected and served as an Honorary Vice President and later as the Foundation’s only Honorary President. Fleet Admiral Halsey, active in business in New York, was elected and served as an Honorary Vice President.

It is interesting to note that each of these officers followed a differently patterned naval career. Only eight years of seniority separated them. They served as younger officers when the Navy was making its expansion in aviation and submarine development. One of these officers was essentially a destroyer officer and aviator with only one short tour ashore in Washington. One other was a submariner with European training in Diesel propulsion, a big ship sailor with shore cruises in Washington including Chief of Naval Personnel. One had almost all his sea duty in big ships and with the exception of one tour, all shore duty in Washington, including Chief of two Bureaus. Only one had a seagoing career in the surface, submarine and aviation branches of the service with shore tours including the Head of the Post Graduate School and the Chief of the Bureau of Aeronautics. Three served as Chiefs of Naval Operations.

In these short summaries, the careers of four Five Star Admirals, the Foundation attempts to point out the types of duties they performed. They are not intended to be personal biographies. All material presented is from the official files of the Navy Department.


William Daniel Leahy was born in Hampton, Iowa, on May 6, 1875. His father, Michael Leahy, a lawyer, had been Captain of Wisconsin Infantry Volunteers during the Civil War. Young Leahy originally hoped to attend West Point, but there were no appointments available. When he completed high school in Ashland, Wisc., in 1893, he was able to win an appointment to the Naval Academy. He graduated in 1897, 35th in a class of 47.

Midshipman Leahy was assigned to USS Oregon, then in the Pacific. He was in that battleship when she made her famous dash around the horn in the Spring of 1898 to participate in the battle of Santiago on July 3.

Having completed the two years’ sea duty — then required by law — he was commissioned Ensign on 01 July 1899. At that time, he was on the Asiatic Station, where, during the Philippine Insurrection and the Boxer uprising in China, he served in USS Castine, USS Glacier and commanded the gunboat USS Mariveles. He returned to the United States in 1902, and for the next five years did duty in USS Tacoma and USS Boston which was stationed in Panama during the early period of construction of the canal.

His first shore cruise was at the Naval Academy. Beginning in 1907, he served as instructor in the Department of Physics and Chemistry for two years. He went to sea in 1909 and served as navigator of the armed cruiser USS California in the Pacific Fleet. During the American Occupation of Nicaragua in 1912, he was Chief of Staff to the Commander Naval Forces there.

Late in 1912, he came ashore in Washington as Assistant Director of Gunnery Exercises and Engineering Competitions. In 1913, he was assigned to the Bureau of Navigation as a detail officer where he served until 1915. At that time, he took command of the dispatch gunboat USS Dolphin, and established a very close friendship with the then-Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt, who cruised with him on the ship. He was in that assignment in early 1917 in West Indian waters and had additional duty as Senior Aide on the Staff of Commander Squadron Three of the Patrol Force Atlantic Fleet.

He served for almost a year as the Executive Officer of USS Nevada and in April 1918 went to command USS Princess Matotika, formerly Princess Alice , transporting troops to France.

After a short cruise in that command, he came ashore in 1918 and served for three years as director of Gunnery Exercises and Engineering Competition in the Navy Department, and as senior member of the Fire Control Board. In 1921, he went to sea in command of USS St. Louis, flagship of the Naval Detachment in Turkish waters during the war between Turkey and Greece. At the end of that war, he was given command of Mine Squadron One, and in 1922 further additional duty as commander, Control Force.

When he returned to the U.S. and from 1923 to 1926, he served as Director of Officer Personnel in the Bureau of Navigation, and then had one year in command of the battleship USS New Mexico. In 1927, he reached flag rank and became Chief of the Bureau of Ordnance. After almost four years, he went to sea in 1931 as Commander Destroyers Scouting Force. In 1933, he came ashore in Washington as Chief of the Bureau of Navigation for two years, when he went to sea as a vice admiral, and Commander Battleships Battle Force. In 1936, he hoisted his four-star flag in USS California and Commander in Chief Battle Force. He was appointed Chief of Naval Operations, took the oath of office in January 1937 to serve until August 1939 when he was placed on the retired list. On that occasion, President Roosevelt said “Bill, if we have a war, you’re going to be right back here helping me run it.”

Immediately following his retirement, Admiral Leahy was assigned the duties of Governor of Puerto Rico in September 1939. He served in that capacity until November 1940 when he was appointed U.S. Ambassador to France where he served from January 1941 until recalled in May 1942.

In July of that year, he was called back to active duty as Chief of Staff to the Commander in Chief, U.S. Army and Navy, the President of the United States. As such, he presided over the Joint Chiefs of Staff and, when our country was host, over the combined Chiefs. In December 1944, he accepted the appointment and was confirmed as the newly created rank of Fleet Admiral.

Fleet Admiral Leahy viewing an exhibit at the Truxtun Decatur Naval Museum in June 1950.

On 25 March 1949, the President accepted his resignation from that assignment. He continued on duty in an advisory capacity in the office of the Secretary of the Navy, and served as President of the Naval Historical foundation. He died on 20 July 1959.

Graduated from the Naval Academy – Class of 1897
Ensign – 01 July 1899
Lieutenant (junior grade) – 01 July 1902
Lieutenant – 31 Dec. 1903
Lieutenant Commander – 15 Sept. 1909
Commander – 29 Aug. 1916
Captain – 01 July 1918
Rear Admiral – 14 Oct. 1927
Vice Admiral – 13 July 1935
Admiral – 02 Jan. 1937
Fleet Admiral – 15 Dec. 1944


Navy Cross
Distinguished Service Medal with two gold stars
Sampson Medal
Spanish Campaign Medal
Philippine Campaign Medal
Nicaraguan Campaign Medal (1912)
Mexican Service Medal
Dominican Campaign Medal
World War I Victory Medal with “Overseas” clasp
American Campaign Medal
World War II Victory Medal
National Defense Service Medal


Ernest Joseph King was born in Lorain, Ohio, on November 23,1878. As a young boy he read an article in the Youth’s Companion about the Naval Academy which stimulated his interest towards a Navy career. Upon graduating from Lorain High School in 1897, he was appointed to the Naval Academy by Representative Kerr of the Fourteenth District of Ohio. When he left home, his father, a railway mechanic, gave him a round-trip railway pass in case he might change his mind. He never used the return portion, although he kept it for many years.

In the Summer of 1898, during the Spanish American War, King served as a Naval Cadet in the USS San Francisco, flagship of the Northern Patrol Squadron, for which he received his first decoration, the Sampson Medal. He graduated with distinction in the Class of 1901, and served the two years at sea — then required by law — before being commissioned Ensign on June 7, 1903.

His assignments during his first sea cruise included service in USS Eagle surveying Cienfriegas, Cuba, in USS Cincinnati, a protected cruiser in the Asiatic Fleet during the Russo-Japanese War, in USS Illinois, flagship of the European Squadron, and USS Alabama, flagship of the second Division of the Atlantic Fleet.

His first shore duty came in 1906 when he went to the Naval Academy as an instructor in Ordnance and Gunnery for two years, followed by one year on the Executive Staff. Officers who were midshipmen at that time still remember him as a strict but fair duty officer.

There followed another sea cruise of three years beginning as Aide on the Staff of Commander Battleship Division Two, Atlantic Fleet in USS Minnesota, one year as Engineer Officer of USS New Hampshire and one year on the Staff of the Commander in Chief Atlantic Fleet in USS Connecticut.

His next shore cruise started in 1912 in command of the Engineering Experimental Station at Annapolis. After two years, in l914, he went to sea again, this time in destroyers in command of USS Cassin, then as aide to Commander Torpedo Flotilla Atlantic Fleet, Commander Sixth Division of the Flotilla. In 1916 he went to the staff of Admiral H. T. Mayo on which he served during WWI while the Admiral was Commander in Chief, Atlantic Fleet.

In 1919, Admiral King, then a Captain, became head of the Postgraduate School at the Naval Academy. Following that tour of duty, he commanded USS Bridge for a short period. In July 1922, he commenced a series of assignments which placed him in intimate contact with submarine operations when he was assigned to duty on the staff of Commander Submarine Flotillas, Atlantic Fleet, and as Commander Submarine Division Eleven. In 1923 he took command of the Submarine Base at New London with additional duty as Naval Inspector of Ordnance in Charge of the Mine Depot there. It was during this period in September 1925 that he was in charge of the salvage of USS S-51 which was sunk off Block Island.

Having had sea duty in destroyers, submarines and battleships, Captain King now began his career in Naval Aviation which was then taking its place in the Fleet. In 1926 he took command of the aircraft tender USS Wright with additional duties as Senior Aide on the Staff of Commander Air Squadrons, Atlantic Fleet, In January of 1927, he reported to the Naval Air Station, Pensacola for flight training and was designated naval aviator 3368 in May of that year. He rejoined Wright on completion of this training. When USS S-4 was sunk in December of that year off Provincetown, however, he was again assigned to command of her salvage operations.

Fleet Admiral King as an Ensign (Extreme Left) on the USS CINCINNATI at Chefoo, China in 1905.

Upon completion he returned to his command of the Wright, and had a short cruise as Commander Aircraft Squadrons, Scouting Fleet, until 1928, when he went ashore as Assistant Chief of the Bureau of Aeronautics. In 1929 he assumed command of the Naval Air Station, Norfolk, Virginia. In June of 1930 he went to sea in command of USS Lexington for a two year cruise in that ship. He then had a year in the senior officers’ course at the Naval War College. In 1933, with the rank of Rear Admiral, he became the Chief of the Bureau of Aeronautics until 1936. During the next five years, except for the year 1940 on the General Board he commanded Aircraft Base Force, Aircraft Scouting Force, and as a Vice Admiral in 1938, Aircraft Battle Force. In February 1941, he was given the rank of Admiral as Commander in Chief, Atlantic Fleet and on 30 December of that year he became Commander-in-Chief, U. S. Fleet. In March 1942, the President by Executive Order, combined the office of Commander in Chief and the Chief of Naval Operations, and Admiral King assumed those combined duties on 18 March, when he relieved Admiral Stark as Chief of Naval Operations, the first and only officer to hold such an assignment. On 17 December 1944 he was advanced to the newly created rank of Fleet Admiral.

In 1945, when the position of Commander in Chief, U. S. Fleet ceased to exist, as an office established by the President pursuant to Executive Order 99635, Admiral King became Chief of Naval Operations in October of that year. In December he was relieved by Fleet Admiral Nimitz. From that time he served in an Advisory Capacity in the office of the Secretary of the Navy, and as President of the Naval Historical Foundation. He died at the Naval Hospital, Portsmouth, New Hampshire on 25 June 1956.

Graduated from the Naval Academy – Class of 1901
Ensign – June 7, 1903
Lieutenant (junior grade) – June 7, 1906
Lieutenant – June 7, 1906
Lieutenant Commander – July 1, 1913
Commander – July 1, 1917
Captain – September 21, 1918
Rear Admiral – November 1, 1933
Vice Admiral – January 29, 1938
Admiral- February 1, 1941
Fleet Admiral – December 17, 1944


Navy Cross
Distinguished Service Medal with two gold stars
Spanish Campaign Medal
Sampson Medal
Mexican Service Medal
Victory Medal, Atlantic Fleet Clasp
American Defense Service Medal, with bronze “A”
American Campaign Medal
World War II Victory Medal
National Defense Service Medal

Admirals Nimitz, King, and Halsey at a conference in Pearl Harbor on 29 September 1943.

Admiral Nimitz points out the situation in the Pacific to General Douglas MacArthur, President Roosevelt, and Admiral Leahy at Pearl Harbor on 10 August 1944.

Conference of Big Three at Yalta on the Crimean Peninsula, February 4 to 12, 1945. Admiral King is standing, second from the left, and Admiral Leahy is the fourth from the left.

Fleet Admiral Nimitz is welcomed aboard USS SOUTH DAKOTA (BB-57) in Tokyo Bay by then Admiral Halsey on 29 August 1945.


Chester William Nimitz was born on 24 February 1885, near a quaint hotel in Fredericksburg, Texas built by his grandfather, Charles Nimitz, a retired sea captain. Young Chester, however, had his sights set on an Army career and while a student at Tivy High School, Kerrville, Texas, he tried for an appointment to West Point. When none was available, he took a competitive examination for Annapolis and was selected and appointed from the Twelfth Congressional District of Texas in 1901.

He left high school to enter the Naval Academy Class of 1905. It was many years later, after he had become a Fleet Admiral that he actually was awarded his high school diploma. At the Academy Nimitz was an excellent student, especially in mathematics and graduated with distinction — seventh in a class of 114. He was an athlete and stroked the crew in his first class year. The Naval Academy’s yearbook, “Lucky Bag”, described him as a man “of cheerful yesterdays and confident tomorrows.”

After graduation he joined USS Ohio in San Francisco and cruised in her to the Far East. On 31 January 1907, after the two years’ sea duty then required by law, he was commissioned Ensign, and took command of the gunboat USS Panay. He then commanded USS Decatur and was court martialed for grounding her, an obstacle in his career which he overcame.

He returned to the U. S. in 1907 and was ordered to duty under instruction in submarines, the branch of the service in which he spent a large part of his sea duty. His first submarine was USS Plunger (A- 1). He successively commanded USS Snapper, USS Narwal and USS Skipjack until 1912. On 20 March of that year, Nimitz, then a Lieutenant, and commanding officer of the submarine E-1 (formerly Skipjack), was awarded the Silver Lifesaving Medal by the Treasury Department for his heroic action in saving W.J. Walsh, Fireman second class, USN, from drowning. A strong tide was running and Walsh, who could not swim, was rapidly being swept away from his ship. Lieutenant Nimitz dove in the water and kept Walsh afloat until both were picked up by a small boat.

He had one year in command of the Atlantic Submarine Flotilla before coming ashore in 1913 for duty in connection with building the diesel engines for the tanker USS Maumee at Groton, Conn. In that same year, he was sent to Germany and Belgium to study engines at their Diesel Plants. With that experience he subsequently served as Executive Officer and Engineering Officer of the Maumee until 1917 when he was assigned as Aide and Chief of Staff to COMSUBLANT. He served in that billet during World War I.

In September 1918 he came ashore to duty in the office of the Chief of Naval Operations and was a member of the Board of Submarine Design. His first sea duty in big ships came in 1919 when he had one year’s duty as Executive Officer of the battleship USS South Carolina. In 1920 he went to Pearl Harbor to build the submarine base there. Next assigned to the Naval War College, his studies of a possible Pacific Ocean war’s logistics would become extremely relevant two decades later.

In 1922 he was assigned as a student at the Naval War College, and upon graduation went as Chief of Staff to Commander Battle Forces and later Commander in Chief, U.S. Fleet (Admiral S. S. Robinson).

In the meantime, the ROTC program had been initiated and in 1926 he became the first Professor of Naval Science and Tactics for the Unit at the University of California at Berkley. Throughout the remainder of his life he retained a close association with the University. After three years in that assignment, in 1929, he again had sea duty in the submarine .service as Commander Submarine Division Twenty for two years and then went ashore to command the USS Regil and decomissioned destroyers at the base in San Diego. In 1933 he was assigned to his first large ship command, the heavy cruiser Augusta which served mostly as flagship of the Asiatic Fleet. Coming ashore in 1935 he served three years as Assistant Chief of the Bureau of Navigation. His next sea command was in flag rank as Commander Cruiser Division Two and then as Commander Battle Division One until 1939, when he was appointed as Chief of the Bureau of Navigation for four years. In December 1941, however, he was designated as Commander in Chief, Pacific Fleet and Pacific Ocean Areas, where he served throughout the war. On 19 December 1944, he was advanced to the newly created rank of Fleet Admiral, and on 1 September 1945, was the United States signatory to the surrender terms aboard the battleship Missouri in Tokyo Bay.

Admiral Nimitz assuming command as Commander-in-Chief Pacific Fleet on 31 December 1941 on board the USS GRAYLING (SS-209).

He hauled down his flag at Pearl Harbor on 26 Nov. 1945, and on 15 December relieved Fleet Admiral E.J. King as Chief of Naval Operations for a term of two years. On 01 January 1948, he reported as special Assistant to the Secretary of the Navy in the Western Sea Frontier. In March of 1949, he was nominated as Plebiscite Administrator for Kashmir under the United Nations. When that did not materialize he asked to be relieved and accepted an assignment as a roving goodwill ambassador of the United nations, to explain to the public the major issues confronting the U.N. In 1951, President Truman appointed him as Chairman of the nine-man commission on International Security and Industrial Rights. This commission never got underway because Congress never passed appropriate legislation.

Thereafter, he took an active interest in San Francisco community affairs, in addition to his continued active participation in affairs of concern to the Navy and the country. he was an honorary vice president and later honorary president of the Naval Historical Foundation. He served for eight years as a regent of the University of California and did much to restore goodwill with Japan by raising funds to restore the battleship Mikasa, Admiral Togo’s flagship at Tsushima in 1905.

He died on 20 February 1966.

Graduated from the Naval Academy – Class of 1905
Ensign – 07 Jan. 1907
Lieutenant (junior grade) – 31 Jan. 1910
Lieutenant – 31 Jan. 1910
Lieutenant Commander – 29 Aug. 1916
Commander – 8 March 1918
Captain – 02 June 1927
Rear Admiral – 23 June 1938
Vice Admiral – Not held – promoted directly to Admiral
Admiral – 31 Dec. 1941
Fleet Admiral – 19 Dec. 1944


Distinguished Service Medal with two gold stars
Army Distinguished Service Medal
Silver Lifesaving Medal
Victory Medal with Escort Clasp
American Defense Service Medal
Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal
World War II Victory Medal
National Defense Service Medal


William Frederick Halsey, Jr., was born in Elizabeth, New Jersey, on October 30, 1882, the son of the late Captain William F. Halsey, U. S. Navy. As a Navy junior, he made the usual round of schools prior to his appointment to the Naval Academy. President McKinley gave him an appointment in 1900.

While at the Naval Academy he distinguished himself in class committees and athletics, but not in scholarship. He was a member of the “Lucky Bag” yearbook staff, won his letter in football as a fullback and was president of the Athletic Association. As a First Classman, he had his name engraved on the Thompson Trophy Cup as the Midshipman who had done the most during the year for the promotion of athletics.

Upon graduation in February 1904, he was assigned to USS Missouri and later transferred to USS Don Juan de Austria in which he was commissioned an Ensign after having completed the two years at sea — then required by law. In 1907, he joined USS Kansas and made the famous World Cruise of the Fleet in that battle ship.

For the next almost 25 years practically all his sea duty with the Fleet was in destroyers, starting in 1909 with command of USS DuPont (TB-7 commissioned in 1897), USS Lamson, USS Flusser and USS Jarvis. In 1915 he went ashore for two years of duty in the Executive Department at the Naval Academy.

During WWI he served in the Queenstown Destroyer Force in command of USS Benham and USS Shaw. From 1918 to 1921 he continued his destroyer service in command of USS Yarnell, USS Chauncey, USS John Francis Burnes and Destroyer Division Thirty-two. In October of 1920 he assumed command of USS Wickes and of Destroyer Division Fifteen. At that time a destroyer division commander also commanded the division flagship. Another shore cruise sent him to duty in the Office of Naval Intelligence, in Washington, — which was his only duty assignment in that city. In October 1922, he was ordered as Naval Attache at the American Embassy in Berlin, Germany. One year later, he was given additional duty as Naval Attache at the American Embassies in Christiana, Norway Copenhagen, Denmark and Stockholm, Sweden.

On completion of that cruise he returned to sea duty, again in the destroyers in European waters, in command of USS Dale and USS Osborne. Upon his return to the U.S. in 1927, he served one year as Executive Officer of the battleship USS Wyoming — and then for three years in command of USS Reina Mercedes, station ship at the Naval Academy. He continued his destroyer duty on his next two-years at cruise starting in 1930 as Commander Destroyer Division Three of the Scouting Force. In 1932 he went as a student to the Naval War College.

Then in 1934, he embarked on his aviation career when he reported to the Naval Air Station, Pensacola for flight training. He was designated a Naval Aviator on 15 May 1935, and went in command of the carrier USS Saratoga for two years, followed by one year in command of the Naval Air Station, Pensacola.

In 1938, when he reached flag rank, he held successive commands of Carrier Division Two in USS Yorktown and Carrier Division One in Saratoga. In 1940, he became Commander Aircraft Battle Force with the rank of Vice Admiral. He was in USS Enterprise in that command when World War II broke out. In April 1942 he was designated Commander Task Force Sixteen, in Enterprise to escort the carrier USS Hornet to within 800 miles of Tokyo to launch the Army planes for the initial bombing of Japan.

In October 1942 he was made Commander South Pacific Forces and South Pacific Area. With the rank of Admiral, and for the next 18 months he was in command of that area during the offensive operations of the U. S. Forces. In June 1944 he assumed command of the Third Fleet, and was designated Commander Western Pacific Task Forces. As such, he operated successfully against the Japanese in the Palaies, Philippines, Formosa, Okinawa and South China Sea. Subsequent to the Okinawa campaign in July 1945, his forces struck at Tokyo and the Japanese mainland. The last attack of his forces was on 13 August 1945. Admiral Halsey’s flag was flying on USS Missouri on 2 September in Tokyo Bay when the formal Japanese surrender was signed onboard.

Ensign Halsey (Extreme Lower Right) and the crew of the USS DON JUAN DE AUSTRIA in 1906

Immediately thereafter, 54 ships of the Third Fleet, with his four-star flag in USS South Dakota, returned to the United States for annual Navy Day Celebrations in San Francisco on 27 October 1945. He hauled down his flag in November of that year and was assigned special duty in the office of the Secretary of the Navy. On December 11, 1945, he took the oath as Fleet Admiral becoming the fourth and last officer to hold the rank.

Later, Fleet Admiral Halsey made a goodwill flying trip through Central and South America covering nearly 28,000 miles, and 11 nations. He was relieved of active duty in December 1946, and upon his own request transferred to the retired list on 1 March 1947.

Upon retirement, he joined the board of two subsidiaries of the International Telephone and Telegraph Company and served until 1957. He was active in an unsuccessful effort to preserve the USS Enterprise as a national shrine, and was an elected Honorary Vice President of the Naval Historical Foundation.

He died on 16 August 1959 at Fishers Island Country Club.

Graduated from Naval Academy – Class of 1904
Ensign – February 2, 1906
Lieutenant (junior grade) – February 2, 1909
Lieutenant – February 2, 1909
Lieutenant Commander – August 29, 1916
Commander – February 1, 1918
Captain – February 10, 1927
Rear Admiral – March 1, 1938
Vice Admiral – June 13, 1940
Admiral – November 18, 1942
Fleet Admiral – December 11, 1945


Navy Cross
Distinguished Service Medal with three gold stars
Army Distinguished Service Medal
Presidential Unit Citation
Mexican Service Medal
Victory Medal, Destroyer Clasp
American Defense Service Medal with Fleet Clasp
Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal
World War II Victory Medal
National Defense Service Medal
Philippine Liberation Medal

Watch the video: Admiral Leahy (June 2022).


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