Remembering Arleigh Burke
by Jeffrey G. Barlow
Admiral Arleigh A. Burke died on New Year's Day 1996 at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., after a lingering illness. He was buried on a hilltop in the U.S. Naval Academy cemetery on a cold, clear afternoon three days later. Admiral Burke's funeral, held at the Naval Academy Chapel earlier that day, was the occasion for honoring the man who had served as the Navy's senior uniformed officer for six years, a term longer than that of any other Chief of Naval Operations. Eulogized during the service by President Bill Clinton and by his long-time friend retired Vice Admiral Joseph Metcalf III, Burke, an innately modest man, likely would have been a bit bemused by all of the attention his passing garnered. Yet, for those of us in attendance at the funeral, it was fitting that this extraordinary man and the Navy he loved be commemorated in such a stately manner.
Aged ninety-four at the time of his death, Arleigh Burke had outlived all but a handful of his classmates and most of his friends of the same generation. Thus, it is not surprising that the overwhelming majority of people today only know of Admiral Burke by reputation. To them he has already become the larger-than-life figure who strode across the national stage at the height of the Cold War, Polaris missiles in hand. The lively individual with the engaging personality who was Arleigh Burke remains unknown to them. Yet before this man of flesh and blood completes his inevitable transformation into a marble statue, it would be worthwhile to remember him as he was.
Arleigh Albert Burke was born on a farm near Boulder, Colorado, on 19 October 1901 to Oscar and Clara Mokler Burke. His father was the son of a Swedish immigrant, and the family name Björkgren had been Americanized to Burke. Burke's grandfather, August Burke, had been the first baker in Denver. Oscar and August were not close, in part because the hard-working son thought his father a bit of a wastrel. Burke's mother, though, had a soft spot in her heart for her father-in-law, and when her husband was occupied in the fields, August was welcome to come by the house for a visit. Young Arleigh was fond of his grandfather, with his stories and his poignant fiddle-playing.
As the eldest of six children, Arleigh quickly began earning his keep on the family farm. His father raised hay and feed grain, and kept a few head of cattle and some dairy cows on a spread that eventually grew to some 200250 acres in size. The five-room house the family occupied boasted neither electricity nor running water. Arleigh could remember one of his first jobs, when only five or six, was helping to deliver the excess milk to a neighbor who operated a dairy. The chores on the farm seemed never-ending and the days were long, but there was always enough food to eat and time could be found on the weekends for playing with friends.
Arleigh's mother was a firm believer in education, and the young boy started school with his classmates at the age of six. He attended the rural, two-room Baseline Elementary School, located several hundred yards from his house on Baseline Road. It was common at that time for the schooling for farm boys to stop after eighth grade, but with the encouragement of his teacher and the strong support of his mother, Arleigh was allowed to go on to high school at the State Preparatory School in Boulder. For some months, though, his father (who had initially opposed his further education) remained unaware that Arleigh had signed up to take college preparatory courses.
While in high school, Burke determined that his best chance for a college education was in attending one of the Service Academies--West Point or Annapolis. Because in the fall of 1918 (the beginning of his junior year) most of the nation's schools were closed down in the wake of the deadly influenza epidemic, Arleigh never graduated from high school. Yet, with a lot of hard work and a sizeable dash of luck, he won an alternate appointment to the Naval Academy given by his local congressman. he reported in at Annapolis on 26 June 1919 to become a member of the Class of 1923. From the outset, Arleigh found the course work at the Naval Academy to be a demanding mistress. Given the relative weakness of his earlier education, he found that he had to apply himself to his studies with greater attention than many of his classmates. His hard work and determination paid off, however, and upon graduation he stood seventieth in a class of 412.
Commissioned an ensign in the U.S. Navy on the morning of 7 June 1923, Arleigh married Roberta Gorsuch, his steady girl since Plebe year, the same afternoon in the Naval Academy Chapel. Bobbie Burke (or "Bob" as Arleigh like to call her) remained his stalwart companion for the next seventy-three years.
Burke's first tour was as a junior officer in the battleship Arizona (BB 39). Staying in Arizona for five years, far longer than his classmates, he worked his way up in the gunnery department, becoming a turret officer, torpedo officer, and finally a plotting room officer. An eager, attentive officer of the deck, Arleigh steadily grew into an excellent shiphandler, able to maneuver the cantankerous battleship in all types of weather.
In April 1928, Burke was assigned to the auxiliary Procyon (AG 11), the flagship of Rear Admiral William W. Phelps, Commander, Base Force. After some weeks as the ship's assistant navigator and education officer, Burke was selected to be flag lieutenant on the Base Force staff and Admiral Phelps's personal aide. This assignment gave Arleigh his first instruction in the rarefied world of flag officers. When Admiral Phelps was relieved as Commander Base Force in September 1928, Burke returned to Procyon as assistant navigator and signal officer. While on the ship, he acquired an early interest in the work of the ship's camera party, which recorded gunnery practices to determine the position of each fall of shot relative to the target.
In January 1929, Arleigh was accepted in to the Navy's postgraduate program for a course in ordnance engineering. After some fifteen months at the Postgraduate School on the grounds of the Naval Academy, where he rapidly acquired the necessary background in chemical engineering he had not obtained as a midshipman, Burke was sent to the University of Michigan for nine months to complete his degree. Arleigh worked hard at his course work, helped by being able to study regularly at night with two experienced chemists. In June 1931, he was awarded a Master of Science degree in engineering. He spent the next year attached to the Bureau of Ordnance (BUORD) in Washington, D.C., completing his education by visiting military installations and civilian factories involved in the design, production, and storage of ordnance matériel, including the Naval Proving Ground at Dalghren, Va., and the Powder Factory at Indian Head, Md.
Requesting battleship duty following his period of shore duty, Burke instead was ordered to the heavy cruiser Chester (CA 27) in June 1932. After serving for a year as assistant gunnery officer and main battery officer in the cruiser (and acquiring his first taste of the delights of flying, courtesy of his shipmate Charles D. “Don” Griffin), he was assigned as officer in charge of the Battle Force Camera Party. Almost a year and a half later, Arleigh became camera officer on the staff of Commander Base Force. In May 1935, he reported in to BUORD where as a member of the Ammunition Section he worked on the procurement and distribution of ammunition and explosives. It was while he was in BUORD that Burke decided to switch his service preference from battleships to destroyers.
After some two years of shore duty, Arleigh was ordered in May 1937 to Quincy, Mass., where, as the prospective executive officer, he was assigned duty in connection with fitting out the destroyer Craven (DD 382). After almost two years in Craven as XO and navigator, Burke was given his own command, the destroyer Mugford (DD 389) in June 1939. Arleigh was a knowledgeable and demanding CO, and, during his year in command, Mugford won the Destroyer Gunnery Trophy for 1939-1940 and stood third in the engineering competition. The pinnacle of the ship's success was obtaining one hundred percent hits in record time during the 1939-1940 Short Range Practice and having all four of her guns awarded Navy "E"s.
In August 1940, Burke reported to the Naval Gun Factory at the Washington Navy Yard, serving in the Inspection Division as inspector of broadside and anti-aircraft gun mounts. Following two and a half years of this shore duty, he was finally detached to sea duty in the Pacific in January 1943. His requests for such duty had been assailing his superiors weekly since the day after the Pearl Harbor attack. His first combat assignment was as Commander Destroyer Division 43. After three months, he succeeded to command of Destroyer Division 44 and, in August 1943, to command of Destroyer Squadron (DESRON) 12. Unfortunately, his ships' duties in the Southern Pacific consisted of escort missions up and down the Slot (the 12- to 15-mile wide body of deep water in the Solomons running from northwest to southeast, bordered on the north by the islands of Choiseul, Santa Isabel, and Malaita and on the south by Vella Lavella, new Georgia, Guadalcanal, and San Christobal). Nonetheless, during these months Arleigh was busily thinking out tactics that would effectively employ destroyer squadrons in independent surface actions against the Japanese. His thinking was based on his careful analysis of the earlier U.S. Navy surface actions in the waters surrounding Guadalcanal.
In October 1943, Arleigh Burke's months of waiting finally paid off when he was given command of Destroyer Squadron 23, an element of new Fletcher-class destroyers assigned to Rear Admiral A.S. "Tip" Merrills' Task Force 39. Able to operate these eight destroyers for the first time as a single unit, Burke forged the soon-to-be-named "Little Beavers" (after Red Ryder's Indian sidekick in the Fred Harmon comic strip) into a highly effective fighting force. In two major night surface actions in November 1943, the Battle of Empress Augusta Bay and the Battle of Cape St. George, Burke proved the worth of his new tactics. in the latter fight, later called "an almost perfect action," DESRON 23 sunk three Japanese destroyers without receiving a single enemy hit in return.
It was during his months with the Little Beavers that Arleigh was christened with the humorous nickname "31-knot" Burke. This came about in the latter part of November 1943, when Spence, one of DESRON 23's ships, was suffering from a boiler casualty and could only make 31 knots with its engineering plant cross-connected. Limited by the speed of his slowest destroyer, Burke accordingly began reporting in messages to Vice Admiral William F. Halsey, Commander South Pacific (COMSOPAC), that his squadron was making 31 knots. Halsey's operations officer, Captain Harry R. "Ray" Thurber, a prewar squadron mate of Burke's, who knew that the Fletcher-class destroyers in DESRON 23 were capable of making at least 34 knots, picked up on this and decided to tease his friend about it. COMSOPAC messages sent to the squadron thereafter by Thurber directed "Thirty-One-Knot Burke" to do thus and so. Given the multiple addressees present on such messages, the nickname was seen by a sizeable number of people and, in the wake of the Little Beavers' remarkable combat successes, was quickly adopted by senior naval officers throughout the command.
In March 1944, Arleigh was reassigned form his beloved destroyers to the staff of Commander Carrier Division Three as chief of staff. His new boss, Rear Admiral Marc A. Mitscher, soon redesignated Commander Fast Carrier Task Force, Pacific, was none too happy to see him (or any other non-aviator). After quite a few weeks of unhappiness on both sides, Burke and Mitscher struck up a strong friendship that sustained both men until the latter's sudden death in early 1947. As Mitscher's chief of staff from March 1944 through June 1945, Arleigh played a pivotal role in some of the major naval engagements of the war, including the Battles of the Philippine Sea, Leyte Gulf, and Okinawa. When the exhausted Marc Mitscher was relieved for the last time as Commander Fast Carrier Task Force by Vice Admiral John McCain in June 1945, Burke was sent to COMINCH headquarters in Washington to direct a special organization researching new methods for defeating the Japanese kamikaze threat.
Shortly after the war's end, he was ordered to BUORD as head of the Research and Development Division, In January 1946, though, Marc Mitscher again tapped Burke to be his chief of staff and aide in the newly-created Eighth Fleet. This command was redesignated the Atlantic Fleet in September 1946. Following Mitscher's death, Arleigh was assigned in March 1947 to the General Board in Washington, D.C., where he originated several major postwar studies. In July 1948 he finally got his major ship command, the light cruiser Huntington (CL 107). It was while he was enjoying his tour as CO of Huntington that he was hastily recalled to Washington in December 1948 to become Assistant Chief of Naval Operations for Organizational Research and Policy--responsible to the Navy's senior uniformed leaders for keeping track of changes in unification. it was during this hectic tour that Arleigh was actively involved in the so-called "Revolt of the Admirals," a series of events that we now know helped to save carrier aviation.
In the aftermath of the fall 1949 "Revolt," Burke was assigned as Navy Secretary to the Defense Department's Research and Development Board. In July 1950 he was appointed a temporary Rear Admiral, and a month later, in the wake of the Korean War's outbreak, Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Forrest P. Sherman sent him to Japan as Deputy Chief of Staff to Vice Admiral C. Turner Joy, Commander, Naval Forces Far East. Because of his extensive World War II combat experience, he served as Joy's principal troubleshooter. In May 1951, Burke was given command of Cruiser Division Five in Korean waters, but he was forced to give up this choice assignment that September, when he was designated as a delegate to the U.N. Military Armistice Delegation at Panmunjon.
From December 1951 to March 1954, Burke was assigned to the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations (OPNAV) in the Pentagon. For most of that time, he served as director of the Strategic Plans Division, the important OPNAV billet involved with issues of high-level strategy and policy. From March 1954 to January 1955, Burke was Commander Cruiser Division Six, operating in the Mediterranean. He then spent some six months as Commander Destroyer Force Atlantic Fleet, based in Newport, Rhode Island. It was while he was in this billet that Navy Secretary Charles S. Thomas decided not to ask for Admiral Robert B. Carney's reappointment as Chief of Naval Operations. Looking for a younger admiral who would bring "new blood" to the upper levels of OPNAV, Thomas began questioning senior officers as to possible successors. Again and again in these sessions Burke's name came up.
After ascertaining in a series of personal meeting with Burke in May 1955 that he was the man for the job, Mr. Thomas went to President Dwight D. Eisenhower with his selection. Jumping over ninety-two officers senior to himself on the active list, Arleigh Burke was sworn in as the new Chief of Naval Operations on 17 August 1955 at ceremonies held at the U.S. Naval Academy.
During the next six years (three two-year appointments), Burke made a mark as CNO that few people could have imaged. Early on in his tour, he learned of advances in ballistic missile technology that would enable the Navy to take such missiles to sea. Over the objections of some of his own experts, he initiated the Polaris missile program, placing it under a Special Projects Office headed by aviator Rear Admiral William F. Raborn, Jr. He also pushed ahead with the Navy's nuclear power program, headed by Rear Admiral Hyman G. Rickover, that had been initiated by his predecessors. Burke provided strong support for a substantial nuclear submarine program and ordered that studies be conducted on the value of nuclear power for Navy surface ships.
Arleigh Burke also served as a strong voice in the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and, on occasion, in the White House, on issues of national policy and military strategy. Despite occasional policy disagreements, he remained very supportive of President Eisenhower, remarking years later, "I loved that man like I loved Mitscher."
His final months as CNO in the early days of the Kennedy administration proved frustrating in many ways. The new Defense team, headed by former Ford Motor Company President Robert S. McNamara, and the collegial-style Kennedy White House seemed to have little user for senior military advice. Nonetheless, Arleigh liked the young president and was pleased to receive a personal "well done" at the White House from John F. Kennedy, when he retired in August 1961.
Retirement for Burke--the man of fifteen-hour work days six days a week while CNO--undoubtedly was like a little death in those first months. Gradually, however, he found ways to use his creative energy: helping establish the Center for Strategic and International Studies at Georgetown University and sitting on the boards of certain corporations that needed people who would take an active part in advising them on company policies. He never forsook his love of the Navy, though. Navy visitors to the house on Fenway Drive in Bethesda, Md., and later the apartment in The Virginian, located just north of the city of Fairfax, Va., were always questioned about what their "shops" were doing and how the Service as a whole was faring.
In November 1982, Arleigh was given a signal honor when Secretary of the Navy John F. Lehman, Jr., announced that a new class of Aegis weapon system-equipped guided missile destroyers would be named for him. On the Fourth of July 1991, with Admiral and Mrs. Burke present on the dais, the destroyer Arleigh Burke (DDG 51) was commissioned on the Norfolk, Va., waterfront before a large crowd of official guests and well-wishers.
In his last years, Arleigh could not see well enough to read, but, even then, for a number of years he pursued his passion for history and biography through "talking books" provided by the Library of Congress. He retained a good memory for many of the milestones of his earlier career almost to the end of his life. It was these recollections of his part in great events that intrigued his many visitors over the years. Bobbie Burke remained his closest companion and confidant even during the trying months after 1991, when both were recovering simultaneously from various ailments and illnesses. Their marriage provided a strength of love and mutual purpose that served to buoy them despite life's invariable vicissitudes.
Arleigh Albert Burke was a fascinating individual by any measure. Those of us who had the pleasure of knowing him at some point during his long and distinguished life can only be grateful that he allowed us to share his company.
Note: Dr. Jeffrey Barlow has been a historian in the Contemporary History Branch of the Naval Historical Center since 1987. This article was based largely upon the many interviews that the author conducted with Admiral Burke during the last two decades of his life. Barlow’s Revolt of the Admirals: The Fight for Naval Aviation, 19451950 was published by the Naval Historical Center in 1994.
Adapted from: Jeffrey G. Barlow, "Remembering Arleigh Burke." Pull Together 35 (Spring/Summer 1996):1-6.
Acknowledgement: The Navy Department Library offers its appreciation to Dr. Barlow for revising this article, and to the Naval Historical Foundation for allowing the library to post it on the Naval History & Heritage Command website.