Best Defense

An old salt picks his four favorite American admirals — and explains why (II): Burke

My admirations for Admiral Arleigh Burke are twofold and they were acquired early.

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By Capt. Wayne P. Hughes, USN (Ret.)
Best Defense officer of maritime affairs

Only a whisker separates the rankings of my dream team, but I present them in order of my love for each. For my second pick, I look at Admiral Arleigh Burke.

My admirations for Admiral Arleigh Burke are twofold and they were acquired early. They are, first, his brilliance as a tactician and youthful battle leader, and second, his achievements as Chief of Naval Operations.

When Burke came down to the Naval Academy to talk to the faculty around 1959, he spoke to us and I was keenly disappointed. His speech seemed canned, dull, and full of platitudes. Then Burke took questions and with his answers he came alive and restored my admiration of him.

I knew that Burke, having gotten a Master’s Degree in Chemical Engineering from the University of Michigan, was treated virtually as an engineering duty officer, or EDO. It took until March 1943 for him to argue his way out of the Naval Gun Factory into the Pacific War. What I didn’t know was how technical tours kept him from a proper ration of fleet experience before he took over DesRon 23, the Little Beavers, for our campaign in the upper Solomons.

After the Navy’s indifferent performance in the night battles off Guadalcanal in 1942, Commander Burke figured out what our cruisers and destroyers had been doing wrong. By fighting in long columns to maximize gunfire effectiveness the cruisers and destroyers were vulnerable to a salvo of Japanese Long Lance torpedoes. Burke developed tactics that exploited our first-detection surface radar advantage to make sudden surprise attacks in two short columns, each one holding gunfire while first firing our own torpedo salvoes as the decisive weapon. The result was two magnificent little battles, one led by CDR Fred Moosbrugger using Burke’s ships and tactics, and the other one in November 1943 with Burke himself performing flawlessly.

In addition was the equally decisive Battle of Empress Augusta Bay. Burke was not in command and the battle deteriorated into a bit of a mess because there were three combat groups in the attack. But if we were confused the Japanese were more so. Two panicked cruisers collided with each other and the Japanese turned in confusion and fled. Thus with Burke’s tactics exploiting radar and torpedoes, we defended the beachhead on Bougainville Island.

Shift to Arleigh Burke as Chief of Naval Operations. In 1955 Rear Admiral Burke was promoted over 92 three and four-star admirals. Just as remarkable as being plucked from very junior status is that, as far as I can find, there was very little jealously. Certainly Burke came to office on the run with a very active first two years without notable friction. Among his immediate achievements, he appointed Admirals “Red” Raborn and Hyman Rickover to produce the Polaris missile and put it in 41 undetectable SSBNs in an amazingly short time. Burke’s many achievements as CNO are legend today. He served three tours in two administrations until 1961. He was the last CNO to actually command the Navy’s operations.

Burke did many other admirable things, like serving as Marc Mitscher’s Chief of staff in 1944 during the sweep across the Pacific described by naval historian James Hornfischer. In the late 1940s, still a captain, he was one of the supporting brains of a team that in the famous “Revolt of the Admirals” tried to give the Navy a nuclear deterrence role, fighting against Air Force dominance. I like to think Burke avenged the firing of his courageous CNO, Louis Denfeld, by introducing Polaris as the third leg of the deterrence triad only seven years after Denfeld was forced to retire.

Capt. Wayne P. Hughes Jr. (Ret.), during his 30 years of active duty, held three commands in the surface Navy. He also was an operations analyst afloat and ashore. He is the author of the naval classic Fleet Tactics. Since retiring some 34 years ago, he has been a teacher and administrator at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com.

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