'31-Knot' Burke, father of the modern Navy

January 08, 1996|By Nathan Miller

WASHINGTON -- ''If it will help kill Japs, it's important; if it does not help kill Japs, it's not important.'' This was the concise battle doctrine of Adm. Arleigh A. Burke, one of the greatest fighting sailors in the U.S. Navy's history.

Admiral Burke, who died New Year's Day at the age of 94, was the last of the generation of commanders who won the hard-fought victory over Japan in World War II. In a little over four months, he led his destroyers into battle 22 times -- sinking 11 Japanese ships and shooting down 30 enemy planes.

But Admiral Burke was more than a great wartime naval leader. Few figures have earned more respect, affection and admiration within the Navy. In the postwar era, he jeopardized his career to defend the service's role as key element in the nation's defense establishment. During the peak of the Cold War, he was chief of naval operations for a record six-year tenure. As a strong advocate of a nuclear fleet, carrier aviation and the missile-firing Polaris submarine, he is regarded as ''the father of the modern U.S. Navy.''

The admiral first attracted national attention in late 1943 when as ''31-knot Burke,'' a name supplied in jest by Adm. William F. Halsey, he led Destroyer Squadron 23 in a clutch of high-speed night torpedo attacks that devastated Japanese naval power in the Solomon Islands.

Burke was born as far from the sea as a man could get -- on a hardscrabble farm in the foothills of the Colorado Rockies. The big, easy-going grandson of Swedish immigrants, he attended the Naval Academy because he was too poor to afford college. Although he had never finished high school, he graduated in the top 20 per cent of the class of 1923.

In his plebe year, Burke was introduced to Roberta Gorsuch of Washington and they began dating. Fellow midshipmen were amused by the couple: he still had the lumbering gait of a plowman while she was little more than a dainty 5 feet tall. Prospects for promotion in the shrunken post-World War I navy were not bright -- Burke's class was told they would be lucky if they even reached the rank of lieutenant commander -- but he and ''Bobbie'' married on Graduation Day. They remained together for 72 years until his death.

Burke's career included service in battleships, cruisers and destroyers, and he became an ordnance specialist with a degree in chemical engineering. Pearl Harbor found him at the Naval Gun Factory in Washington and he immediately requested sea duty. It was a request not granted until early 1943 when he was sent to the South Pacific to lead a squadron of destroyers.

Guadalcanal had recently been secured and U.S. forces were beginning the advance up the Solomons to the main Japanese base at Rabaul on New Britain. Most of the action took place at night. Japanese tactics, night-fighting skills and deadly Long Lance torpedoes were superior to those of the U.S. Navy and there were several costly debacles.

Destroyer commanders complained that in action they were too tightly tied to protecting the larger cruisers and urged that they -- be cut loose to fight the Japanese on equal terms. Also, in contrast to the Japanese, American ships fired their guns before launching torpedoes which made them targets for enemy tin fish.

Burke suggested destroyer attacks be made in two mutually supporting columns. By darkness, one would slip in at high speed toward the Japanese while withholding fire to mask its approach. Once in range, these ships would launch their torpedoes and make their getaway. While the enemy was firing at the first group, the second would open up from another direction. As the rattled Japanese dealt with this new threat, the first column would whipsaw them with another attack.

The most widely heralded of a series of night actions in which Burke's tactics proved their worth occurred off Cape St. George, near New Ireland, early in the morning of November 25, 1943. Desron 23 -- known as the ''Little Beavers'' from a cartoon character painted on the ships' sides -- sank three Japanese destroyers in a wild melee with no hits being scored on the American ships. A Naval War College analysis termed it ''an almost perfect action.''

An inside joke

Cape St. George also gave Burke the name ''31-knot Burke.'' He had repeatedly informed Halsey that his ships were incapable of speeds greater than 30 knots, considerably less than designed speed, because they needed upkeep. When Halsey notified him of the approach of the Japanese, Burke reported that he was now under way at ''31 knots.'' With some merriment, Halsey addressed future orders to him as ''31-Knot Burke.'' Newsmen assumed the nickname meant he was a hell-for-leather destroyer sailor -- which he was -- but in fact it was an inside joke.

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