Triptych: Three Admirals

By Johna Till Johnson

Sailors preparing for the funeral

Sailors preparing for the funeral, May 2014 (photo provided by Steve Hannifin)

Medicine, the ministry, and the military. Those were the “three Ms” that—according to my mother—defined the callings of our family, dating back to before the American Revolution. Each is characterized by a commitment to a greater good than self, or even family: Healing, God, country.

That sense of commitment is likely one reason my mother came to marry my father, a naval officer, and it permeated my life growing up.

When we uprooted ourselves to move across the country or around the world for the fifth (or the seventeenth) time, it wasn’t for personal gain. It was because the Navy needed us there to protect our country. That’s what my parents said, and that’s what we believed. When our country called, we came—particularly my father, who spent years underwater in a nuclear submarine.

Some day I’ll write about my father. But meantime, this is enough to explain how I came to spend a recent Friday in Annapolis, at the Naval Academy cemetery, where the ashes of my father’s former commanding officer, Vice Admiral Patrick J. Hannifin, were laid to rest.

It was an uncharacteristically gray, cold, and drizzly day in late spring. I’d gotten up at 3:30 AM to make the four-hour drive to Annapolis. I arrived an hour and a half early, giving me plenty of time to think, and to remember.

As I sat in the white marble open-air “columbarium” overlooking the gray-green water of College Creek, the memories came flooding back. I’d spent three years living on the Naval Academy grounds from ages 8 to 11, while my father was head of the division of Math and Science.

Like many children, I was oblivious to the weight of history. To me, the Academy was a delightful, safe, and well-tended park. I never thought about the fact that the green torpedoes I loved to play on (just the size for an 8-year-old to ride!) were taken from Japan during World War II. Or that I practiced gymnastics, fencing, and swimming in MacDonough Hall (named after a remote ancestor on my mother’s side, Admiral Thomas MacDonough). Though from time to time I passed by Nimitz Library, the Halsey Field House, and the King Hall dining facility, these were all just names to me.


Nimitz Library from the air (photo by United States Naval Academy)

Even this May, as I looked out at the flowing water and the campus beyond, I didn’t think about history. I thought about my father, who died in 2008. I thought about Admiral Hannifin. I thought about all the men I’d known who shared my father’s commitment—and what they had exemplified as leaders, and as human beings.

The AdmiralsMaybe that’s why, walking through an airport on a business trip a few days later, I was inspired to pick up a book called “The Admirals”, by Walter R. Borneman.

It’s subtitled, “The Five-Star Admirals Who Won the War at Sea”, which pretty much says it all. It’s about Admirals Nimitz, Halsey, King, and Leahy, each of whom played critical roles in World War II (and who were the only admirals to earn five stars in all of American history).

The book is fantastic. It’s about more than just the people, or the events. It’s about leadership. And it’s about character, and how a flawed individual can rise to greatness—not in spite of, but often even precisely because of, those flaws.

Of the four men profiled by Borneman, three really resonated with me: Nimitz, Halsey, and King.

Nimitz was even-tempered and genial, a consummate engineer who threw himself into every project that was handed to him, and whose supreme satisfaction was a job well done. Halsey was a pugnacious fighter, wisecracking and hotheaded, whose passion was winning the game (or battle). And King was a brilliant careerist, convinced (usually correctly) that he was smarter than anyone else, and determined to win the accolades to which he felt entitled.

Their individual responses to learning of the war’s end sum each up perfectly. In each case, an aide burst into the Admiral’s office with the news that the goal of four years’ uncompromising and exhausting effort had been achieved: the Japanese had surrendered unconditionally.

Halsey’s response was to leap to his feet and begin pounding the aide’s shoulders in joy.

King reportedly looked stricken, and said, “But what am I going to do now?”

And Nimitz? He said nothing, just allowed himself a small, perfectly satisfied smile.

In three following posts, I will post a short sketch of each of these unique leaders, drawn largely from Borneman’s book (which again, I highly recommend) with some additional research:

Halsey: The Unstoppable
Nimitz: The Unflappable
King: The Impossible

33 responses to “Triptych: Three Admirals

  1. My father and his brothers all served in the Navy, although they weren’t career military. This is a great post. Your family philosophy is one that if more people followed it; the world would be a better place. I especially enjoyed your introduction to The Admirals.

    • Johna Till Johnson

      Thanks, Robin! It’s certainly a different world when the focus is on a goal outside yourself and your immediate family… And I do hope you have a chance to read The Admirals (if you haven’t already). It’s a great book.
      Thanks for reading, and posting!

      • I plan to read The Admirals when I can. I’m currently reading One Summer: America, 1927.

        • Johna Till Johnson

          Oh WOW! You mean this, I assume?

          Never even heard of this book, but Bil Bryson is one of my favorite authors, and I love books like this that capture history by taking a narrow focus. Ordering now, and thanks for the recommendation.

        • That’s the one. Thank you for your recommendation.

  2. An inspiring and warming story. The accompanying photo lends strength to the message. Having a father and grandfather who were West Point grads, finds this deeply resonating.

    • Johna Till Johnson

      Eric, thanks so much for reading and posting. And agree on that photo. I’m so happy Steve was able to provide it—it was really quite the experience to watch the young sailors practicing the choreography over and over (since I got there early). I didn’t think of taking a photo, though!

      And.. what I said to Robin, above. If you have the chance to read The Admirals, it’s well worth it. Fair warning, though: I found myself dreaming about the battle of Leyte Gulf!

  3. wells you know, I love your photos and the story of you and the mrs. out on the water with oars in hands – and well, love your writing too – and this post was special…. the book sounds great and well,
    loved so much here specially this:
    “It was an uncharacteristically gray, cold, and drizzly day in late spring. I’d gotten up at 3:30 AM to make the four-hour drive to Annapolis. I arrived an hour and a half early, giving me plenty of time to think, and to remember.”
    well done – and thanks….

    • Johna Till Johnson

      Thanks, yp! And thanks for calling out that section. I remember sitting in the columbarium and thinking, “I must remember this”. I’m glad I did! Thanks for reading, and posting!

  4. Wonderful post, Johna. Looking forward to the follow-ups, and your insightful impressions. M

    • Johna Till Johnson

      Thanks mv! I’m well into Admiral Halsey’s writeup as we speak. Poor Vlad had to listen over dinner last night to a blow-by-blow description of the Battle of Leyte Gulf, which was as exciting to me as if it had happened only yesterday. (Fortunately, he’s a huge fan of naval battles and already knew most of it, so it was a good discussion…). Thanks again for reading, and posting!

  5. Beautiful essay, Johna! We look forward to the next posts (and reading the book).

    • Johna Till Johnson

      Thanks, Jean, Alex, and Kuno! It really is an amazing book–full of short vignettes, perfectly sketched. My absolute favorite is the story of Admiral King’s salvage operation in Block Island Sound—having paddled over those waters, it was a real thrill. Thanks as always for reading, and posting!

  6. Johna I appreciated this post as I got to see another part of you. As you know i am enthralled with your strength and determination as a kayaker. Knowing more of your ‘history’ is greatly appreciated.

  7. It always surprises me how successful Admiral Nimitz was considering he grew up here in the land locked Texas hill country. Of course, there were many remarkable men and women that contributed to the war effort.

    • Johna Till Johnson

      :-). Hey, Texans make great warriors! Truthfully, Nimitz actually wanted to go to West Point, but the Naval Academy had a slot available first. And more than anything, he was fundamentally an engineer–so could happily function in either environment. Thanks for reading, and posting!

  8. Thank you for this wonderful post! So inspiring!

  9. A really lovely post, Johna. You must be so proud of your dad’s years of service. The book sounds like a great read.

  10. WOW … a special Thank You to your Dad. I found this post very touching, informational and inspiring. Very nice …

    • Johna Till Johnson

      Thank you, and thanks for the kind words about my dad. I appreciate your reading, and posting.

  11. What an amazing childhood you must have had, and whether you noticed or not it will have had a strong effect on your character!
    Great writing which drew me along, and great character summary :-)

    • Johna Till Johnson

      :-) Yes, someday I’ll write about my (decidedly odd) childhood. Thank you for the kind words, and thanks for posting!

  12. So interesting, Johna: do tell us more.
    Barely over the emotions D-Day commemorations aroused and the memories they evoked – heartrending! Now my mind is travelling along the path you are leading me on. thanks for this post Johna.
    Bless all those men – and women – good and true. RIP Vice-Admiral Hanafin

    • Johna Till Johnson

      You are most welcome, Pamela! (And I’m with you on the “and women”—particularly these days). I’m working on the telling more part….

  13. Pingback: Halsey: The Unstoppable | Wind Against Current

  14. looking forward to reading each one! the halsey post was riveting, i’ll mention.

    miss you two!

    • Johna Till Johnson

      Thanks Phil! Thinking the same. We were out the week before last looking for whales… and thought about the fun we had with you guys down on the Jersey shore…

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