Choosing underrated and overrated admirals is especially tricky, because being at the right or wrong place at the right or wrong time has everything to do with how most military commanders are assessed. And biographical profiles of these officers rarely address the political machinations and motivations that may have put them in crucial command situations in the first place. Several admirals, even though they reached flag rank, have sunk to relative obscurity in the big picture of American history. Others had their careers shortened or at least marred by circumstances that some say were beyond their control. Command accountability was often the reason.
In my line of work, it’s risky business to say that any admiral has ever been overrated. But at least one might have received, through no fault of his own as far as I can tell, more than his due: Adm. George Dewey, hero of the Spanish-American War’s Battle of Manila Bay. His face could be seen practically everywhere after that war. Medals were stamped and lithographs printed with his likeness, songs were written about his heroics, and he was the only officer in United States history elevated to the rank of Admiral of the Navy. If the nation needed a hero in 1898, Dewey’s persona was certainly made to order. I know some will scream blasphemy, but I don’t believe his most notable military achievement, the defeat of a grossly inferior Spanish force at Manila Bay, was worthy of such worship.
My pick for most underrated admiral is Raymond Spruance. Referred to by his biographer, the naval historian Tom Buell, as “The Quiet Warrior,” he was indeed quiet and unassuming, the principal reasons I believe he was underrated. Among his many triumphs in World War II, he was largely responsible for the great victory at Midway. But as he said later in his usual mild manner, “There were a hundred Spruances in the Navy. They just happened to pick me for the job.” In an interview with Naval History a few years ago, the former Washington Post executive editor and World War II Navy veteran Ben Bradlee recalled: “My all-time favorite story about Spruance is the day he came up on deck while I was officer of the deck. I had been ordered to take the ship to Tinian. … [and] I had decided to take her to 30 knots that day. The admiral paged through a file of fleetwidedistributed directives, stopped at one, and left. It was the one he had issued months before, restricting the speed of all ships at 15 knots. We slowed her down, a knot at a time.” According to Bradlee, “Any destroyer skipper or officer involved at that time will tell you that Spruance was the class of the outfit. He didn’t blow his own horn, and he didn’t have a PR guy blocking for him.”
This last quality could be a reason why he was never promoted to the five-star rank of fleet admiral, as were his World War II peers, Nimitz, King, Halsey, and Leahy. A movement is now afoot to rectify that oversight. On March 9, 2001, Sen. Richard Lugar introduced a bill in the Senate for the “posthumous promotion of Admiral Raymond Ames Spruance.”