July 2022 Handgrenade, The Boy from Ohio

John T Kuehn's picture

Hoary Myths About the Boy from Lorain Ohio

July 2022 Handgrenade.

John T. Kuehn


The boy referred to is E. J. King.   Probably the most popular myths refer to his personality, much of it coming from what would be considered hearsay evidence in a court of law, but if everyone is saying the same thing must be true, right?  Except many of them’s that’s doing the saying were folks whose agendas did not align with King’s,   U.S. Army and British military types being foremost.   Sometimes I think FDR put (and kept) King where he did as a foil to these folks, who constantly patronized and pandered to him.  Hard to say, but that is a myth for another day.

The main one today is the one about the Battle of the Atlantic and King’s handling, in particular, of Operation DRUMBEAT by the Germans in 1942—80 years ago.  This was the German sub offensive off the East Coast of the United States and in the Gulf of Mexico that brought the war to the very doors of America.  The tired myth, or rather trope, is that King and by extension the Americans, were too arrogant to learn from the British experience of the first THREE years of the war. This is often said without context, and ignores the fact that King had been heavily involved in the Battle of the Atlantic before war came in December 1941 formally to the United States. This was because King was the first commander of the new Atlantic Fleet and thus was executing the neutrality patrol operations involving convoys in the north Atlantic and neutrality patrolling short of war by ships like USS Greer and USS Reuben James.

              As for the reaction to DRUMBEAT,  retired Commander (or did he retire as a captain) Ken Hansen, of the Royal Canadian Navy came to King’s unlikely defense several years ago with a brilliant paper, later published, at the Annapolis Naval symposium, now the McMullen Naval symposium, held every two years at that locale on the grounds of the Naval Academy.  Bottom line, he does a fine job of showing all the factors at play, including the Germans getting in a good blow, but also looking at what convoying would require in 1942, that busy busy key year of WW II.   Hansen does have SOME criticism for King--no one is mistake free, even Ernie King--but they are minor, and he identifies the unexpected shock of medium and long range U-Boats essentially pulling off a “black Swan” event that none of the Allied intelligence organizations provided any indications and warning (I&W) about. 

But the hoary criticisms continue.  The other key piece is that convoying does not JUST happen,  it has to be implemented and this takes time, allocation and movement of assets like ships, which require time to sail and group and then go forth, and creation of command and control structures.  Often the comeback is,  “that should all of have been ready on December 8th”—and does not take into account Congress asking why are we doing all this if we are NOT at war?  Interestingly, in addition to advocating for more escort vessel construction from his perch on the General Board, King pressed for the unification of the USCG and USN for the formation of roving ASW task forces in the vicinity of convoys during 1940 and 1941.  King also pushed his contacts in the shipbuilding industry to ramp up their efforts to prepare.[1

Nuff said, let the King (and Kuehn) bashing and gnashing begin.


[1] Much of my information regarding the myths about King came from your unpublished manuscript by David Kohnen of the Naval War College on King and the Navy of the first of half of the 20th century that I reviewed and recommended for publication.  Kohnen also has considerable information on King in his fine anthology of Dudley Knox’s writings in  21st Century Knox, published by Naval Institute Press.

Oh, this should be fun.

But first, where can we get a copy of the Ken Hansen, Royal Canadian Navy, paper? Thanks.

I agree with you about those who blame King for the failures in 1942. My only acquaintance with the issue is from Cohen and Gooch (Military Misfortunes) and Morison. The matrix Cohen and Gooch constructed to explain the levels of military misfortune is instructive in this case, which they characterize as a "failure to learn."
I think that most critics ignore the conflicts between the Navy and the Army over coastal defense and the role of air power as well as the career enhancing ability of ASW in the Navy mirrors the conflicts in the UK over this issue. Was ASW career enhancing in the RN as well as the question of roles and missions in the RAF (between Coastal Command and Bomber Command).
It seems to me that the entire issue rests on constructing doctrine, logistics (constructing the appropriate types of ships and aircraft) and personnel. This took time and learning and applying lessons did not occur at the speed the critics would have liked.

Lew Bernstein

I happen to have been reading a lot about the anti-war sentiment in the US, and it's easy to forget how strong it was. Congress knew that FDR was trying to plan for war, and many believed he was repeating what they saw as the errors of Wilson, so I think your point about what the Congressional response would have been is compelling.