James Holmes

The Lone Sailor: America’s Lord Nelson?

No US maritime figure stands as tall as Horatio Nelson does in the UK. Maybe that’s a good thing.

So the Naval Diplomat started Walter Borneman's popular history The Admirals, which chronicles the lives and times of "the five-star admirals who won the war at sea" seventy years ago. I won't presume to review it — although an old joke has a professor protest when asked if he's read a new book, "Read it? I haven't even reviewed it yet!" — but it promises to be a rip-snorting good read. Borneman has a gift for storytelling.

His book dredges up a question that has long vexed me, though. "The admirals" from Borneman's title are Chester Nimitz, Bull Halsey, William Leahy and Ernest King. That's quite a pantheon. But none of these admirals commands the stature among the American body politic that Admiral Horatio Nelson still commands in Great Britain two-plus centuries after he fell at the Battle of Trafalgar. There's no Midway or Leyte Gulf Square in Washington, D.C., with a pillar topped by a statue of Nimitz or Halsey. Indeed, I doubt your average American Joe could name one of these admirals. By contrast, Nelson rolls off the tongues of ordinary Britons.

But it's not just five-star admirals from World War II. Is there any figure from U.S. maritime history with the allure of a Nelson? Jones? Hull? Farragut? Dewey? Burke? Spruance? Great though they were, none of them combines the derring-do, glamour, and martyrdom of Nelson.

Take Borneman's five-star admirals. Among them only one, Halsey, was a true fighting admiral. That probably excludes Nimitz, King and Leahy from demigod status. Yet even Halsey remains controversial for a variety of reasons, including leaving the landing force at Leyte Gulf uncovered in October 1944 to chase around a task force of Japanese aircraft carriers denuded — unbeknownst to him — of aircraft. Only the gallantry of the tin-can sailors of Taffy Three fended off disaster when Japanese surface forces, including the superbattleship Yamato, closed in on the transports off Samar (Speaking of Nelsonic figures, how about Commander Ernest E. Evans, skipper of the destroyer USS Johnston, who led a desperate charge against the Yamato and her escorts — inducing Godzilla to give up the fight?). Similarly, it's possible to find something keeping each of the leading commanders in American naval history from attaining truly iconic standing in the public eye.

For that matter, Nelson is a unique figure even in British maritime lore. He inflicted a series of stinging defeats on the French Navy during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars, only to fall at his moment of greatest triumph, at Trafalgar in 1805. That's Hollywood stuff. He overshadows seafarers of comparable dash and seamanship as a result. Exhibit A: Fleet Admiral Edward Hawke, who led a Royal Navy fleet into Quiberon Bay during the annus mirabilis of 1759. Hawke sank the French fleet during a hurricane, no less. By cutting off beleaguered French troops in North America, the Battle of Quiberon Bay sealed British control of Canada. That's a feat that ought to — but didn't — earn Hawke the enduring fame of a Nelson. Or there are Edward Pellew and Thomas Cochrane, the greatest frigate captains of the age of sail. Nelson outshines Pellew and Cochrane as well. His story strikes a chord with posterity in a way few stories do.

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So there's an element of happenstance in Nelson's renown. But the lack of such heroes may say something — something good — about the culture of the U.S. Navy and of the larger American society. Americans are mutts skeptical of hero worship. If the Royal Navy has Lord Nelson, our navy has the anonymous Lone Sailor, representing all who ply the sea. Not some commander strutting around the bridge of his ship but a bluejacket, or enlisted man, is emblematic of the navy's egalitarian ethos.

Far be it from me to withhold praise from famous men like Nimitz or the rest. For my money, though, every man makes a better face for the U.S. Navy than some figure from the past. Does America have a Nelson? Nope. But maybe it doesn't need one.