By Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Eric Lockwood
What used to be known as “Quarters BB” at the Old Naval Observatory was recently renamed “Leahy House” in honor of Fleet Adm. William D. Leahy, who served during the Spanish-American War through to the Cold War.
But why Leahy?
The home’s current resident, Vice Adm. Kurt W. Tidd, Assistant to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, believes Leahy does not share as prominent a place in history’s spotlight as some of his contemporaries.
“When you ask people to name all the five-star naval officers, they get [Chester] Nimitz, they get [Ernest] King, they get Bull Halsey,” said Tidd. “Almost nobody thinks about Fleet Adm. Leahy.”
Leahy started his long career as a Midshipman at the Naval Academy in 1897. He originally wanted to follow his father’s path as an Army officer, but West Point wasn’t offering any appointments, so he chose the Navy instead.
At that time in the Navy, by law, candidates for commission had to serve two years at sea before becoming officers. Leahy’s first two years were spent on the battleship Oregon, getting his first experience in conflict as the ship participated in the Battle of Santiago during the Spanish American War on July 3, 1898. Leahy donned his well-deserved ensign rank almost a year later on July 1, 1899.
During the Philippine Insurrection and the Boxer Rebellion in China, Leahy was there, serving on gunboat Castine, stores ship Glacier, and Mariveles, a gunship he commanded, between his commissioning date of Jul. 1, 1899 and 1902. During the American occupation of Nicaragua in 1912 he served as Chief of Staff to the Commander, Naval Forces in the country.
When Leahy took command of the dispatch gunboat Dolphin in 1915, he developed a close friendship with then-Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR). It was a friendship that would influence his career profoundly later in life.
Leahy saw a lot of action on-ship and off during his career before WWII. He was a part of transporting troops to France in 1918 during WWI and sailing Turkish waters during the Greco-Turkish war in 1921. This was followed by auspicious assignments as Director of Officer Personnel in the Bureau of Navigation and eventually becoming the Chief of Naval Operations in 1936.
As war clouds were forming over Europe, one month shy of the invasion of Poland, Leahy retired. If that was the end of his story, he would have been able to tell the story of a long and honorable career. But almost as premonition, an old sailing buddy of his that had become the President of the United States, FDR told him on the occasion of his retirement, “Bill, if we have a war, you’re going to be right back here, helping me run it.”
War there was. Germany invaded Poland in September 1939 and Europe started towards another “Great War,” WWII. Before U.S Involvement, Leahy acted as Governor of Puerto Rico, and as the U.S. Ambassador to Vichy France until recalled in May 1942.
Franklin fulfilled his latent promise two months later, recalling Leahy to active duty as the Chief of Staff to the Commander in Chief, U.S. Army and Navy, the President of the United States. In this position, he presided over the Joint Chiefs, and also the combined Chiefs when the U.S. was host. His duties were extraordinarily diverse, and it is to his credit and an attestation of his work ethic that his job is now separated into three different government positions: the chief of staff of the White House, the National Security Advisor and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Leahy was the first promoted to the highest rank achievable, Fleet Admiral in 1944, and it was at this rank that he retired permanently in 1949.
Leahy continued to serve the Navy even after retiring a second time, in the office of the Secretary of the Navy and as the president of the Naval Historical Foundation. He died July 20, 1959.
So why Leahy? The reasons are numerous, including being the first five-star admiral of World War II, a diplomat and confidante of presidents, a strategist, a veteran of three wars and living nearly his whole life in service to his Navy and his country. His remarkable career can serve as both an icon and a lesson for its steadiness of the Sailor’s spirit through the gamut of adversity — during times of prosperity, depression, war and peace. One thing is for certain, as Tidd intended it, when we see the house named for Leahy, we’ll remember and appreciate the man who gave so much in service to the nation that repeatedly called on him during her darkest hours.