William D. Leahy
Fleet Admiral Leahy.tif
Leahy c. 1945
Chief of Staff to the Commander in Chief
In office
July 20, 1942 – March 21, 1949
PresidentFranklin D. Roosevelt
Harry S. Truman
Preceded byOffice established
Succeeded byOmar Bradley as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff
United States Ambassador to France
In office
January 8, 1941 – May 1, 1942
PresidentFranklin D. Roosevelt
Preceded byWilliam Christian Bullitt Jr.
Succeeded byJefferson Caffery
Governor of Puerto Rico
In office
September 11, 1939 – November 28, 1940
PresidentFranklin D. Roosevelt
Preceded byJosé E. Colom (acting)
Succeeded byJosé Miguel Gallardo (acting)
Chief of Naval Operations
In office
January 2, 1937 – August 1, 1939
PresidentFranklin D. Roosevelt
Preceded byWilliam Harrison Standley
Succeeded byHarold Rainsford Stark
Personal details
William Daniel Leahy

(1875-05-06)May 6, 1875
Hampton, Iowa, US
DiedJuly 20, 1959(1959-07-20) (aged 84)
Bethesda, Maryland, US
Military service
Branch/serviceUnited States Navy
Years of service1893-1959
US-O11 insignia.svg
Fleet Admiral
CommandsChief of Staff to the Commander in Chief
Chief of Naval Operations
Battleships Battle Force
USS New Mexico
USS St. Louis
USS Princess Matoika
USS Dolphin
USS Mariveles
AwardsNavy Cross
Navy Distinguished Service Medal (3)
Complete list

William Daniel Leahy (May 6, 1875 – July 20, 1959) was an American naval officer who served as the senior-most United States military officer on active duty during World War II. He held multiple titles and was at the center of all major military decisions the United States made in World War II.

As Chief of Naval Operations from 1937 to 1939, he was the senior officer in the United States Navy, overseeing the preparations for war. After retiring from the Navy, he was appointed in 1939 by his close friend President Franklin D. Roosevelt as the governor of Puerto Rico. In his most controversial role, he served as the United States Ambassador to France from 1940 to 1942, but had limited success in keeping the Vichy government free of German control.

Leahy was recalled to active duty as the personal Chief of Staff to President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1942 and served in that position throughout World War II. He chaired the Chiefs of Staff and was a major decision-maker during the war. He continued under President Harry S. Truman until finally retiring in 1949. From 1942 until his retirement in 1949, he was the highest-ranking active duty member of the U.S. military, reporting only to the President. He was the United States' first de facto Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (not his official title) and he also presided over the American delegation to the Combined Chiefs of Staff, when the American and British staffs worked together.

As fleet admiral, Leahy was the first U.S. naval officer ever to hold a five-star rank in the U.S. Armed Forces. USS Leahy (DLG-16) was named in his honor, as is Leahy Hall, the U.S. Naval Academy admissions office.[2]

Early life and education

From an Irish-American family, Leahy was born in Hampton, Iowa, and moved with his parents to Ashland, Wisconsin, as a child. His father Michael Arthur Leahy (1838–1921) was a successful lawyer and Civil War veteran, and William had wanted to attend West Point and follow in his father's footsteps. However, after graduating high school in 1893 he attended the United States Naval Academy, graduating 15th in his class of 47 in 1897.

Naval service

Midshipman Leahy was assigned to USS Oregon, then in the Pacific. He was on that battleship when she made her famous dash through the Strait of Magellan, and around South America in the spring of 1898 to participate in the Battle of Santiago on July 3 during the Spanish–American War. This was the only battle Leahy ever saw in person.

Having completed the two years of sea duty then required by law, Leahy was commissioned Ensign on July 1, 1899. At that time, he was on the Asiatic Station, where, during the Philippine–American War and the Boxer Rebellion in China, he served on Castine and Glacier and commanded the gunboat Mariveles. He returned to the United States in 1902 and became a member of the Military Order of the Dragon. For the next five years, he did duty on board the training ship USS Pensacola, Tacoma and Boston, which were stationed in Panama during the early period of construction of the canal.

His first shore duty was at the Naval Academy. Beginning in 1907, he served as instructor in the Department of Physics and Chemistry for two years. He went to sea in 1909 and served as navigator of the armored cruiser California in the Pacific Fleet. On October 18, 1911, Lt. Cmdr. Leahy served as naval aide to President William Howard Taft, at the laying of the keel of USS Jupiter (AC-3), at Mare Island. During the American Occupation of Nicaragua in 1912, he was Chief of Staff to the Commander, Naval Forces there.

Late in 1912, he came ashore in Washington as Assistant Director of Gunnery Exercises and Engineering Competitions. In 1913, he was assigned to the Bureau of Navigation as a detail officer, where he served until 1915. At that time, he took command of the dispatch gunboat Dolphin, and established a close friendship with the then Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Franklin D. Roosevelt, who cruised with him on the ship. He was in that assignment in early 1917 in West Indian waters and had additional duty as Senior Aide on the Staff of Commander Squadron Three of the Patrol Force Atlantic Fleet.

Leahy served for almost a year as the Executive Officer of Nevada and in April 1918 went to command Princess Matoika, formerly Princess Alice, transporting troops to France. It was during this tour that he was awarded the Navy Cross.

After a short cruise in that command, he came ashore in 1918 and served for three years as director of Gunnery Exercises and Engineering Competition in the Navy Department. He was also a senior member of the Fire Control Board.

In 1921, he went to sea in command of St. Louis, flagship of the naval detachment in Turkish waters during the Greco-Turkish War. At the end of that war, he was given command of Mine Squadron One, and in 1922 further additional duty as commander, Control Force.

He returned to the United States, and from 1923 to 1926, he served as director of Officer Personnel in the Bureau of Navigation. For one year, he commanded the battleship New Mexico.

In 1927, he reached flag rank and became chief of the Bureau of Ordnance. After almost four years, he went to sea in 1931 as Commander Destroyers Scouting Force.

In 1933, Leahy came ashore in Washington as Chief of the Bureau of Navigation for two years. He went to sea as a vice admiral, and Commander Battleships Battle Force.[3] In 1936, he hoisted his four-star flag on California as Commander in Chief Battle Force.[3]

He was appointed Chief of Naval Operations (CNO), took the oath of office in January 1937 to serve until August 1939 when he was placed on the retired list. On that occasion, President Roosevelt said "Bill, if we have a war, you're going to be right back here helping me run it."[4]

Before retiring as CNO, Leahy joined his wife Louise Harrington Leahy when she sponsored Cimarron, which was commissioned on March 20, 1939.

Government service and recall

Governor of Puerto Rico

Admiral Leahy confers with Puerto Rican officials. Left to right: Rafael Martínez Nadal, Santiago Iglesias, Admiral Leahy, standing; Fernando Geigel, Alfonso Valdez, Bolivar Pagan, and Luis Obergh
Admiral Leahy confers with Puerto Rican officials. Left to right: Rafael Martínez Nadal, Santiago Iglesias, Admiral Leahy, standing; Fernando Geigel, Alfonso Valdez, Bolivar Pagan, and Luis Obergh

From September 1939 to November 1940, Leahy served as Governor of Puerto Rico after Roosevelt removed Blanton Winship over his role in the Ponce massacre. Leahy oversaw the development of military bases and stations across the island while serving as governor. He took an open stance of not intervening directly in[5] local politics, attempted to understand and respect local customs, and initiated various major public works projects in the island.[citation needed]

While given the unflattering sobriquet Almirante Lija ("Admiral Sandpaper") by locals, based on his family name, he was regarded as one of the most lenient American governors of the several who served Puerto Rico in the first half of the 20th century.[citation needed]

Ambassador to France

Leahy was appointed Ambassador to France (later referred to as Vichy France for the city in which the capital was located) in 1941 following that country's capitulation to Nazi Germany. Leahy relates in his memoir I Was There that (his) "major task was to keep the French on our side in so far as possible".[6] He was recalled in May 1942.

The United States supplied food and medical aid to the Vichy regime and to French North Africa, hoping in return to moderate Vichy collaboration with Germany and to avoid an open Vichy–German alliance in the Mediterranean. American aid proved too little to buy French support over North Africa.

President Roosevelt and Admiral Leahy meeting with King Ibn Saud of Saudi Arabia, on board USS Quincy.
President Roosevelt and Admiral Leahy meeting with King Ibn Saud of Saudi Arabia, on board USS Quincy.
Potsdam Conference: Clement Attlee, Ernest Bevin, Vyacheslav Molotov, Joseph Stalin, William Daniel Leahy, James F. Byrnes, Harry S. Truman and others.

Chief of Staff to the Commander in Chief

With Lucille Ball during a tour of Washington D.C. hotels presenting fundraisers for the President's Birthday Ball to fight infantile paralysis (1944)
With Lucille Ball during a tour of Washington D.C. hotels presenting fundraisers for the President's Birthday Ball to fight infantile paralysis (1944)

After the United States entered World War II, President Roosevelt decided he needed a senior military officer as personal adviser and point of contact with his three service chiefs, Admiral Ernest King of the Navy, General George Marshall of the Army and General Henry Arnold of the Army Air Forces. The service chiefs resisted this move until Marshall suggested that only Leahy would be accepted in this post.[citation needed] On July 6, 1942, Leahy was appointed Chief of Staff to the Commander in Chief, U.S. Army and Navy, the President of the United States. Leahy was also appointed to be the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, which would serve as the governing body of the U.S. Armed Forces, with the Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army, the Chief of Naval Operations of the U.S. Navy, which also had jurisdiction over the U.S. Marine Corps and the U.S. Coast Guard, and the Commanding General of the U.S. Army Air Forces also serving as members during World War II.

Leahy spent D-Day, June 6, 1944, in his home town of Hampton, Iowa. This well-publicized "sentimental journey" was part of the deception efforts surrounding the Allied invasion of Europe. The idea was to lull any German agents in Washington, D.C., or elsewhere in the United States into believing that the operation would not take place while such an important officer was out of the capital.

In July 1944, Leahy accompanied President Roosevelt to the Pacific Strategy Conference in Hawaii at which Roosevelt met Admiral Chester Nimitz (commander of the Pacific Ocean Areas) and General Douglas MacArthur (commander of the Southwest Pacific Area) to decide the course of the war in the Pacific theater.

Leahy was promoted to the rank of Fleet Admiral on December 15, 1944, the most senior of the seven men who received five-star rank in 1944.

Leahy accompanied President Roosevelt as his personal aide to the Yalta Conference in February 1945. At Yalta, Roosevelt met the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin to decide how Europe was to be reorganized after the impending surrender of Germany. Five months later, he went with President Truman to the Potsdam Conference where Truman met with Stalin and the new British Prime Minister Clement Attlee to make decisions about the governance of occupied Germany. Leahy was disappointed in the outcome of these conferences because he recognized they would leave the Soviet Union as a dominant superpower in Continental Europe.[7]

Atomic bomb

Sitting (from left): Clement Attlee, Harry S. Truman, Joseph Stalin; behind: William D. Leahy, Ernest Bevin, James F. Byrnes and Vyacheslav Molotov.
Sitting (from left): Clement Attlee, Harry S. Truman, Joseph Stalin; behind: William D. Leahy, Ernest Bevin, James F. Byrnes and Vyacheslav Molotov.

According to Truman's Memoirs: Year of Decisions, Leahy was present in 1945 when President Truman was given questionable advice by Vannevar Bush about the likely success of the atom bomb project:

The next day Jimmy Byrnes, who until shortly before had been Director of War Mobilization for President Roosevelt, came to see me, and even he told me few details though with great solemnity he said that we were perfecting an explosive great enough to destroy the whole world. It was later, when Vannevar Bush, head of the Office of Scientific Research and Development, came to the White House, that I was given a scientist's version of the atomic bomb. "That is the biggest fool thing we have ever done," he observed in his sturdy, salty manner. "The bomb will never go off, and I speak as an expert in explosives." Admiral Leahy was with me when Dr. Bush told me this astonishing fact.[8]

Once the bomb was tested, Leahy became strongly opposed to its use in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In his own memoirs, Leahy wrote:

Once it had been tested, President Truman faced the decision as to whether to use it. He did not like the idea, but he was persuaded that it would shorten the war against Japan and save American lives. It is my opinion that the use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan. The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender because of the effective sea blockade and the successful bombing with conventional weapons ... My own feeling was that in being the first to use it, we had adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages. I was not taught to make wars in that fashion, and that wars cannot be won by destroying women and children.[9]

After mediating between the United States Navy and the Puerto Rican government over the involuntary transfer of part of the islands of Vieques and Culebra to naval authorities, Leahy again retired from the Navy in March 1949, though as an officer with five-star rank, he technically remained on active service. The following year, he published his war memoirs, I Was There.

There is a bilingual book called Las memorias de Leahy: los relatos del almirante William D. Leahy sobre su gobernación de Puerto Rico (1939–1940) that lists his diary entries from Puerto Rico in both Spanish and English, which was published by the Luis Muñoz Marín Foundation in 2001.

Personal life

While serving on the USS Pensacola, which was based in San Francisco, Leahy met Louise Tennent Harrington, whom he married on 3 February 1904.[10] During Leahy's tenure as Ambassador to France, his wife underwent a hysterectomy, which could not be delayed until their pending return to the United States. While recovering from the operation, Louise Leahy suffered an embolism and died with Leahy at her side on 21 April 1942. After a service at the St Thomas Episcopal Church, she was buried on 3 June 1942 in Arlington National Cemetery.[11]

William and Louise had children, including a son, William Harrington Leahy, who graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1927. He engaged in pre-World War II naval intelligence.[12] William H. Leahy retired from the U.S. Navy as a 2-star rear admiral in 1961.


Grave at Arlington National Cemetery
Grave at Arlington National Cemetery

Leahy died at the U.S. Naval Hospital in Bethesda, Maryland, July 20, 1959, at the age of eighty-four. At the time of his death, he was the oldest officer on active duty in the history of the U.S. Navy. He was given an Armed Forces military funeral on July 23, 1959. His body was viewed at the Bethlehem Chapel at the Washington National Cathedral from July 22 noon until noon the following day. The funeral service was held in the cathedral at 1400 on July 23 and the burial was in Arlington National Cemetery.[13]

Honorary pallbearers were Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, Admiral Thomas C. Hart, Admiral Charles P. Snyder, Admiral Louis E. Denfeld, Admiral Arthur W. Radford, Vice Admiral Edward L. Cochrane, and Rear Admiral Henry Williams, all retired from service. Active military servicemen who were honorary pallbearers were Admiral Jerauld Wright, Admiral Robert L. Dennison, Rear Admiral Joseph H. Wellings, and close friend, William D. Hassett.

Dates of rank

United States Naval Academy Midshipman – Class of 1897, 15th of class of 47

Ensign Lieutenant Junior Grade Lieutenant Lieutenant Commander Commander Captain
O-1 O-2 O-3 O-4 O-5 O-6
US Navy O1 insignia.svg
US Navy O2 insignia.svg
US Navy O3 insignia.svg
US Navy O4 insignia.svg
US Navy O5 insignia.svg
US Navy O6 insignia.svg
July 1, 1899 July 1, 1902 December 31, 1903 September 15, 1909 August 29, 1916 July 1, 1918
Commodore Rear Admiral Vice Admiral Admiral Fleet Admiral
O-7 O-8 O-9 O-10 Special Grade
US Navy O7 insignia.svg
US Navy O8 insignia.svg
US Navy O9 insignia.svg
US Navy O10 insignia.svg
US Navy O11 insignia.svg
Not Held October 14, 1927 July 13, 1935 January 2, 1937 December 15, 1944

Admiral Leahy served on active duty for 63 years (1893–1939, 1942–1959) and had one of the longest careers in the history of the U.S. Navy.

Decorations and awards

1 golden star.svg
1 golden star.svg
Bronze star
PRT Military Order of Aviz - Officer BAR.png
Order of Abdón Calderón 1st Class (Ecuador) - ribbon bar.png
Order of the Bath UK ribbon.svg
U.S. Navy Rifle Marksmanship Ribbon.svg
Navy Cross
Navy Distinguished Service Medal
with two gold stars
Sampson Medal Spanish Campaign Medal
Philippine Campaign Medal Nicaraguan Campaign Medal
Mexican Service Medal
Dominican Campaign Medal World War I Victory Medal
with "TRANSPORT" clasp
American Campaign Medal
Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal World War II Victory Medal
Navy Occupation Medal National Defense Service Medal Order of Aviz, Officer
Order of Abdon Calderón, 1st class Order of the Bath, GCB (Military Division) Navy Rifle Marksmanship Ribbon

Note: Leahy was ineligible for the American Defense Service Medal, as he retired from the Navy in August 1939 and was recalled to active duty in May 1942. The medal was for active service from 8 September 1939 to 7 December 1941.


  1. ^ U.S. officers holding five-star rank never retire; they draw full active duty pay for life.Spencer C. Tucker (2011). The Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War: A Political, Social, and Military History. ABC-CLIO. pp. 1685. ISBN 978-1-85109-961-0.
  2. ^ "The United States Naval Academy: Who Gets in, What is It Like, What do They Do?".
  3. ^ a b Naval History & Heritage Command
  4. ^ Alexander, David (2007). The Building: A Biography of the Pentagon (1st ed.). St. Paul, Minn.: MBI. p. 52. ISBN 978-0760320877.
  5. ^ "Admiral Leahy Ambassador". The Capital Journal (Salem, Oregon). 1940-11-23. Retrieved 2021-01-13.
  6. ^ Leahy, William I Was There Whittlesey House 1950 p. 8
  7. ^ Reynolds, David (2009). Summits : six meetings that shaped the twentieth century. New York: Basic Books. ISBN 0-7867-4458-8. OCLC 646810103.
  8. ^ Truman, Harry S. (1955). Memoirs. Vol. I: Year of Decisions. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Company. p. 11. LCCN 55-10519.
  9. ^ Leahy, p. 513
  10. ^ Borneman. p. 66.
  11. ^ Borneman. p. 268.
  12. ^ Naval history section
  13. ^ Arlington National Cemetery – Five-Star Generals and Admirals, ANC Official Website
  14. ^ "Photo of the Earl of Halifax, British Ambassador to the U.S., and various U. S. Military leaders | Harry S. Truman".


Military offices Preceded byWilliam H. Standley Chief of Naval Operations 1937–1939 Succeeded byHarold R. Stark New office Chief of Staff to the Commander in Chief 1942–1949 Succeeded byOmar Bradleyas Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Political offices Preceded byJosé E. Colón Governor of Puerto Rico September 11, 1939 – November 28, 1940 Succeeded byJosé Miguel Gallardo Diplomatic posts Preceded byWilliam C. Bullitt United States Ambassador to France 1941–1942 VacantGerman occupation of FranceTitle next held byJefferson Caffery in 1944