In 1919, Captain King headed the Naval Academy's postgraduate school. During the next seven years, the ambitious, hard-driving, and forceful King specialized in submarines. In 1926, he took command of an aircraft tender and was senior aide to the commander of Air Squadrons, Atlantic Fleet. In 1927, King underwent flight training, and the next year, he became assistant chief of the Bureau of Aeronautics. In 1929, he commanded the Norfolk Naval Air Station, and from 1930 to 1932, he commanded the aircraft carrier Lexington.
King then graduated from the Naval War College and, promoted to rear admiral, served as chief of the Bureau of Aeronautics from 1933 to 1936. He spent the next five years in senior naval aviation assignments, including a tour as commander of the Aircraft Base Force. In 1938, he was promoted to vice admiral. Appointed to the Navy General Board in 1939, King criticized the lack of war preparations, recommending that should the United States go to war with Japan, it had to follow an offensive Pacific naval strategy. He also proposed measures for the better integration of aircraft, submarines, and small fast ships with battleships and aircraft carriers.
In February 1941, King won promotion to admiral and was appointed commander of the Atlantic Fleet. On 30 December 1941, following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, he became commander in chief of the U.S. Fleet. The following March, President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed King as chief of naval operations, making him the only U.S. Navy officer ever to hold both positions concurrently.
As a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, King was a major architect of wartime strategy. He vigorously prosecuted a two-front war in both the Atlantic and the Pacific but consistently gave higher priority to operations utilizing naval forces. He was therefore more committed to extensive Pacific operations, which relied heavily on naval power, than was his colleague General George C. Marshall, the army chief of staff, who generally followed a Europe-first strategy. King forcefully implemented a strategy of aggressive advance against Japan through the Central Pacific, later modified to include a second, southwestern offensive by way of the Philippines and Taiwan. Despite feuds over authority with Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox and his successor, James Vincent Forrestal, King successfully built up American naval forces, introduced tactical and technological innovations, and contributed heavily to the Allied victory in the Pacific.
In October 1945, King abolished the position of commander in chief of naval forces, and in December, he retired, succeeded as chief of naval operations by Admiral Chester W. Nimitz. Over the next decade, he served as a special adviser to the secretary of the navy and also headed the Naval Historical Foundation. King died in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, on 25 June 1956.
Priscilla Roberts and Spencer C. Tucker
Buell, Thomas. Master of Seapower: A Biography of Fleet Admiral Ernest J. King. Boston: Little, Brown, 1980.; Hayes, Grace Person. The History of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in World War II: The War against Japan. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1982.; Love, Robert William, Jr. "Ernest Joseph King, 26 March 1942–15 December 1947." In Robert William Love Jr., ed., The Chiefs of Naval Operations, 137–179. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1980.; Love, Robert William, Jr. "Fleet Admiral Ernest J. King." In Stephen Howarth, ed., Men of War: Great Naval Leaders of World War II, 75–107. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1992.; Stoler, Mark A. Allies and Adversaries: The Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Grand Alliance, and U.S. Strategy in World War II. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000.