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Arleigh Albert Burke, the grandson of a Swedish immigrant, was born on a farm in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains near Boulder, Colorado on 19 October 1901, the first of six children. He attended a one room elementary school through the eighth grade and then high school in Boulder. Deciding early that farming fitted neither his talents nor desires, he sought and received a congressional appointment to the US Naval Academy. He entered the Naval Academy in June 1919 and graduated on 7 June 1923, standing 71 in a class of 413. On the afternoon of Graduation Day, he was married in the Naval Academy Chapel to Roberta Gorsuch of Washington, D.C. who became his beloved wife, his best friend and lifelong companion, and, at age 97, his only survivor.
Following graduation Burke served in the battleship USS ARIZONA (BB-39) for five years. Thereafter, he served afloat in fleet auxiliary USS PROCYON (AG-11), heavy cruiser USS CHESTER (CA-27), fleet auxiliary USS ANTARES and fleet auxiliary USS ARGONNE. Ashore he completed postgraduate study in Ordnance Engineering and served two tours in the Bureau of Ordnance. In June 1937, he was ordered to his first destroyer as prospective Executive Officer of USS CRAVEN (DD-382), under construction in Boston Navy Yard. In August 1938 - early in his sixteenth year of commissioned service - he was promoted to Lieutenant Commander and in June 1939 took command of USS MUGFORD (DD-389), sister ship to CRAVEN. During his tour, MUGFORD excelled in gunnery and participated in the development of high speed night gunnery and torpedo attack tactics. After little more than a year in command, Burke was relieved and reassigned to the Naval Gun Factory in Washington, D.C. and was there when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Despite his persistent requests for sea duty, he remained there until the end of 1942.
In January 1943, he was awarded command of DESTROYER DIVISION 43 and hoisted his flag in USS WALLER (DD-466) which, in March 1943, blew up a Japanese destroyer in the Central Solomons. In May, he shifted to command of DESTROYER DIVISION 44, flagship USS CONWAY (DD-507), where he received wounds while escorting convoys in the Solomons. Captain Burke took over DESTROYER SQUADRON 12 in August 1943 and DESTROYER SQUADRON 23 (Little Beavers) in October. In addition Burke commanded one of the squadron's two divisions, DESTROYER DIVISION 45, with his flag in USS CHARLES AUSBURNE (DD-570).
In October, Burke was detached from DESRON TWELVE and ordered to command DESRON TWENTY THREE. During the next four months the squadron participated in 22 separate engagements and destroyed one Japanese cruiser, nine destroyers, one submarine, several smaller ships and approximately 30 aircraft. Between operations the U.S. surface combatants exercised at night high speed tactics, where, thus far, the Japanese had excelled. Burke was a leader in this effort. Notable among these actions was the battle of Empress Augusta Bay, Bougainveille, in early November and later that month the Battle of Cape St. George, New Ireland, where Burke led his destroyers in night torpedo attacks on Japanese surface forces. This battle is regarded by many naval historians as the perfect naval engagement. He was awarded the Navy Cross for "extraordinary heroism in operations against an armed enemy" in the Battle of Cape St. George. The ships of the time were capable of 34 knots, but while enroute to a rendezvous prior to that battle, a boiler casualty had limited his group's top speed to 30 knots. When the fleet commander signalled him to make best speed, they mustered an extra knot and he answered "Proceeding at 31 knots" The response, addressed to "31-knot" Burke was a "rib", but captured the imagination of the press and the public and conveyed the image of a dashing, hard-charging combat commander - an accurate description of Arleigh Burke. Early in the new year the decision was made to bypass Rabaul in favor of the Admiralty Islands, 300 miles farther west. DESRON 23 supported landings at Cape Gloucester, in the Green Islands, and participated in the bombardment of Rabaul and its backup base at Kavieng. On the morning of 22 February, Burke's destroyers sank a large Japanese naval tug and rescued 73 survivors. When the captain, who had chosen to fight rather than capitulate, was not among the survivors, Burke ordered a brief prayer service in his honor, an action which gained him great respect in post-war Japan.
In March, Burke, to his great surprise, received orders to report to Commander Carrier Division THREE, Vice Admiral Marc Mitscher, as Chief of Staff. Mitscher had recently become Commander Fast Carrier Task Forces Pacific (CTF 58) and was one of the great naval leaders of W.W.II. Burke was disappointed in the assignment which took him away from his beloved destroyers; Mitscher was equally disappointed to find that his highly capable aviator chief of staff was to be relieved by a surface officer. (Admiral Ernest King had directed that a surface officer commanding a fleet or task force must have an aviator chief of staff and vice versa.)
After a brief tour in the Bureau of Ordnance, Burke returned to sea with VADM Mitscher early in 1946 as Chief of Staff of the Eighth Fleet, being formed for Mediterranean duty. In midsummer, plans for deployment of the fleet were placed on hold and Admiral Mitscher was ordered to relieve Admiral Jonas Ingram as CINCLANTFLT which he did in September. Burke continued to serve as his Chief of Staff until February 1947 when Mitscher, who had been ill throughout much of the war and had never regained his health, suffered a heart attack and died. Thus ended the long, close relationship of two of the great combat leaders of WWII.
Reassigned to the Navy's General Board in Washington after Mitscher's death, Burke, recognizing that his experience had been limited through necessity to warfighting skills, began a serious effort to broaden his understanding and knowledge of history, economics, science, politics, and international relations. He foresaw a need to study and define the future national security interests of the United States and the role of the Navy in pursuing those interests. This eventually led to a comprehensive paper, completed in mid-1948, entitled "National Security and Naval Contributions for the Next Ten Years." The paper, as such, had little impact but it contributed mightily to the development of Arleigh Burke as a strategic thinker and to his reputation.
In July 1948, Burke took command of the light cruiser, USS HUNTINGTON, then deployed to the Sixth Fleet. After fewer than six months in command, he received an unexpected set of orders to report immediately to the staff of the Chief of Naval Operations in Washington to head the OPNAV section which dealt with matters concerning unification of the armed services. There he became a key player in what was to become known as "the revolt of the Admirals." A primary issue was the strategic role and relative capability of the Air Force B-36 bomber vis-à-vis the Navy's proposed supercarrier. In hearings before the House Armed Services Committee in October 1949, Secretary of the Navy Mathews led off by supporting Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson's position favoring the B-36 and relegating Navy aviation to a secondary role. He was followed by CINCPACFLT, Admiral Arthur Radford; by the naval leaders of WWII - King, Nimitz, Halsey, Spruance and others including Burke; and by the CNO, Admiral Louis Denfield. The naval officers uniformly took issue with the SECDEF and SECNAV position. (Burke and his small staff had been instrumental in orchestrating the Navy position.) Following the hearings, Secretary Mathews forced Admiral Denfield into retirement prior to completion of his term and attempted to remove Burke's name from the promotion list to Rear Admiral. This latter action was over-ruled by President Truman. The Committee Report of 1 March 1950 offered no opinion on the B-36/aircraft carrier dispute and concluded that the government should accept the advice of the military professionals of each service regarding weapons.
By the time the Committee report was issued the new CNO, Admiral Forrest Sherman, had disbanded Burke's OPNAV office and Burke had been reassigned as the Navy representative on the Defense Research and Development Board. He was promoted to Rear Admiral on 15 July 1950 and in August ordered to the staff of Commander, Naval Forces Far East as Deputy Chief of Staff. The Korean War was, by then, in its third month and there was an urgent need for a senior officer with warfighting experience on the staff (as well as for a trusted emissary who could, and would, report directly to Admiral Sherman on the conduct of operations. Burke did this, but with the full knowledge of VADM Joy, COMNAVFE.) Burke arrived on station just in time to participate in the planning for the Inchon landing and for support of the subsequent drive north to the Chinese border. The UN offensive ended in November when the Red Chinese armies crossed the Yalu River and drove the allied forces back down the peninsula. The battle line eventually stabilized in mid-January just south of Seoul.
After a brief
sojourn in command of Cruiser Division FIVE, Burke was again ordered to
Korea on "temporary duty" to join the UN team, headed by VADM
Joy, appointed to negotiate an armistice with the North Koreans. He remained
in this assignment as one of the two principal negotiators for the UN
until a cease fire line was established in November.
Upon becoming CNO on 17 August 1955, Admiral Burke could look back upon a naval career of 32 years in which he had served his apprenticeship at sea, completed postgraduate study and acquired technical expertise in shore assignments, demonstrated brilliance and achieved fame as a wartime commander, gained broad experience in the application of military power and, through self-study, in the wider fields of history, economics, politics, and national security affairs. He was a tough taskmaster who insisted on the best efforts of his people and was intolerant of laxity and poor work. He worked extraordinarily long hours and demanded the same from his staff. He believed that an overworked staff was more productive than one that worked routine hours. He was modest, however, about his own achievements and loyal to his associates. One of his greatest attributes was his ability to set clear objectives and goals and then allow his subordinates leeway to achieve them without interference or undue supervision. He was well and thoroughly prepared to lead the Navy. He was reappointed to a second two year term in 1957, a third in 1959, and declined a fourth in 1961.
One of Burke's
first and foremost priorities as CNO was the development of a solid propellant
fleet ballistic missile. He established the Special Projects Office, appointed
RADM William Raborn as head, and gave him wide latitude to accomplish
the objective. Polaris was the result. Another priority was construction
of nuclear powered surface ships - carriers, cruisers, and destroyers.
USS LONG BEACH and USS ENTERPRISE were authorized and built, and USS BAINBRIDGE
and USS TRUXTUN followed. He pressed for conversion of cruisers to employ
guided missiles and their introduction in other ships to defend against
air attack. Antisubmarine warfare programs were accelerated and an Atlantic
Fleet Antisubmarine Defense Force was established to test and evaluate
sensors and weapons, and to develop tactics and coordination of air, surface,
and submarine forces. He took pains to ensure that the Navy achieved and
maintained a high state of readiness. He was the chief spokesman for the
Navy and was tireless in his efforts to educate the public on sea power
and the Navy. He functioned as a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and
continued, not always successfully, his fight against further centralization
in the Department of Defense.