Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Wilkes-Barre, Luzerne County
Adm. Harold Stark was Chief of Naval Operations from 1939 to 1942.
Admiral Harold Raynesford Stark wasborn November 12, 1880, in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. Receiving his commission from the United States Naval Academy in 1903, Stark quickly ascended the ranks, being appointed as the eighth Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) in 1939. As CNO, he was responsible for the critical buildup of U.S. naval forces prior to World War II. After receiving partial blame for the Navy’s unpreparedness during the attacks of Pearl Harbor, Stark resigned as CNO and took the position of Commander of U.S. Naval Forces Europe. He proved vital in the allied effort through his anti-submarine tactics and preparations for the invasion of Normandy. Stark retired in 1946 after forty years of naval service. He died of natural causes on August 20, 1972 in Spring Valley, Washington D.C.
For many, Admiral Harold R. Stark invokes only one image, the horrific destruction of Dec. 7, 1941. Dramatized in Hollywood films such as Tora, Tora, Tora and Pearl Harbor, the mistakes of the military brass will not soon be forgotten. While specific individuals have taken the brunt of the blame for the cause of these events, the reality of Hitler and the Axis made war inevitable. Admiral Stark may hold a part of the responsibility for the United States’ unpreparedness prior to the attacks on Pearl Harbor; however, his actions before and after the strike prove that he should be remembered for much more.
Born on November 12, 1880, Stark grew up in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. Growing up Stark’s parents influenced his career early by sending him to the Harry Hillman Academy, an Army grade school. While there, Stark dreamed of becoming a military hero. His chance came after his successful admission to the United States Naval Academy in 1899.
Upon entering the Academy, Stark quickly made an impression on his peers. Smart, amicable, and disciplined, Stark developed the attributes that would later define both his personality and career. His charisma was often attributed to his quick ascension through the ranks.
As a fourth year student, or “plebe,” at the Academy, students traditionally underwent rigorous conditioning and “tough love.” During this period, Stark earned the nickname that would stick with him until his death, and one that only his closest friends were permitted to use.
An upperclassman inspecting Stark recalled a quotation from Stark’s distant relative General John Stark. The actual quotation was, “Tonight the American flag floats from yonder hill or Molly Stark sleeps a widow,” the upperclassman forced Stark to quote it as he recollected; “We will win today or Betty Stark will be a widow tonight.” Stark’s good nature allowed him to continue to misquote his relative, earning him the nickname “Betty.”
Graduating from the Naval Academy in 1903, Stark would command seven Navy vessels in the span of 25 years. During these years he served through World War I, gaining significant experience onboard torpedo boats and in dealing with anti-submarine warfare. Here he also earned his first Navy Distinguished Service Medal as he commanded several destroyers through a hurricane during a critical time in the war. The anti-submarine knowledge that Stark learned in World War I, would become essential during World War II in developing tactics against the German U-boats.
In his years as a young officer, Stark would make an acquaintance and lifelong friend in Franklin D. Roosevelt. Roosevelt and Stark first met when young Lieutenant Stark was charged with the task of escorting then Assistant Secretary of the Navy Roosevelt to his summer home onboard the USS Patterson in 1914. During the navigation of difficult waters that were familiar to Roosevelt, the Assistant Secretary asked Stark for the conn. Ignoring the intimidating title Mr. Roosevelt held, Stark swiftly replied, “No, sir. This is my command and I doubt your ability to relieve me.” From there Stark increased the ship’s speed and easily navigated the treacherous waters. Thoroughly impressed by the young officer’s ability and confidence, Roosevelt befriended him and would forever reference him as “Betty.”
Stark’s experiences as an operational leader distinguished him as an excellent ship-handler and strategist; however, his career as a diplomat would be the mark of his career. Accelerating through the ranks he was promoted to captain in the early 1930’s where his career in Washington D.C. began.
Serving first as naval aide to the Secretary of the Navy and then as Chief of Bureau of Ordinance, Stark’s best abilities shone. In the office environment, Stark’s skills as a diplomat became apparent. He became the Navy’s liaison to Congress and an expert in naval structure and organization, establishing himself as a top naval officer.
It was this innate diplomatic style and disciplined attitude that lead to Stark’s early promotion to the Navy’s highest command, Chief of Naval Operations (CNO). As a Vice-Admiral, Stark was appointed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt over 50 senior flag officers for the position, an unprecedented decision. The appointment as the eighth CNO in U.S. Naval history came as no surprise to anyone except Stark himself. Stark believed that his future successor, Admiral King, was more deserving of the job, because he was a better operational commander. Stark attributed his appointment to his relationship with President Roosevelt.
Admiral Stark and President Roosevelt’s close relationship cannot be deenied, but it is doubtful that this was the cause of his promotion to CNO. Every other top Navy official at the time agreed with the selection of Admiral Stark as CNO due to his great diplomatic skill and friendly nature. It was even said of Stark that he had “the demeanor of a friendly bishop.” This personality would later become instrumental in Stark’s dealings with the British.
Although it cannot be labeled as the reason for his selection as CNO, Stark’s relationship with President Roosevelt would allow the two to construct a naval force worthy of fighting the Axis powers. After assuming the position of CNO, Stark quickly worked to construct the Navy he felt was necessary in case of U.S. involvement in World War II.
Having close ties to many of the leaders in the British military, Stark understood that the British were slowly being pushed back. As the main force against the Axis, if Britain were to fall, the U.S. would not likely win a struggle alone. With war looming, Stark requested an 11 percent increase in naval forces.
In his appeal to Congress he stated, “Dollars can not buy yesterday,” meaning precious time had already been lost in preparing for the nation’s defense. Pushing for an even greater increase in naval forces, Stark was initially only granted his 11 percent, signed into law on June 15, 1940. Two days later, after the fall of Paris to Nazi forces, Congress would reconsider Stark’s plea.
Introducing what became known as his “two-ocean Navy” bill, Stark called for a 70 percent increase in naval forces and reserved the ability to relocate 30 percent of the funding throughout the war. This would allow the CNO and the President to change the amount of production of certain naval assets as demanded by the war. The bill passed quickly and was signed into law on July 19, 1940.
The “two-ocean Navy” became the foundation of naval forces throughout the war. Without such a vast and immediate buildup of naval force, it is unlikely that the Allied forces would have been able to sustain the huge losses to German U-boats.
Admiral Stark played another vital role prior to U.S. involvement in World War II by formulating what became known as “Plan Dog.” On November 12, 1941 Stark wrote a memorandum to President Roosevelt outlining his strategies for war. The plan consisted of four options lettered “A” through “D.” Stark heavily favored the plan lettered “D,” which became known as “Plan Dog.”
President Roosevelt, along with other Allied leaders, agreed with the strategy laid out in “Plan Dog” as the best option for U.S. and world success. The plan basically made Britain and Germany priorities. Protecting Britain against all odds was the first priority, and defeating Germany before any other Axis power, the second. This was a radical change to the U.S.’s current plan, “Plan Orange,” which made Japan the top priority. “Plan Dog” would maintain forces in the Pacific to fight the Japanese however, no offensives would occur.
President Roosevelt executed “Plan Dog” with one exception. Stark strongly advised the President to take all steps necessary to avoid conflict with Japan; most importantly, that he not sanction an oil embargo on the country. Japan had a large navy which required excessive oil, yet they had few resources available. Stark knew an embargo would likely push the country to desperation, and war with the oil-rich United States would be unavoidable.
Admiral Stark’s heavy involvement in pre-war strategy and personal relationship with the President, coupled with the embargo on Japanese oil, caused many to accuse both he and President Roosevelt of purposively taking the country to war. Highly unlikely that either would ever place their country in the situation that soon followed, Pearl Harbor would change both the war and Admiral Stark’s career.
Prior to the Pearl Harbor attacks, many controversial decisions were made. After the oil embargo, relations between the U.S. and Japan quickly deteriorated. The Navy began receiving countless intelligence reports of intercepted Japanese messages, however, so many different locations were named that it was too difficult to narrow the exact location of the attack.
Fearing an attack, Stark issued a war warning to his commanders across the Pacific stating:
This dispatch is to be considered a war warning. Negotiations with Japan looking toward stabilization of conditions in the Pacific have ceased. An aggressive move by Japan is expected within the next few days. The number and equipment of Japanese troops and the organization of naval forces indicates an amphibious expedition against either the Philippines, Thai, or Kra Peninsula, or possibly Borneo. Execute appropriate defensive deployment preparatory to carrying out the tasks assigned to WPL 46.
This message would later receive harsh criticism for its lack of certainty and urgency. With a barrage of information, no official break in negotiations with Japan, and the high unlikelihood of an attack on Pearl Harbor, Stark simply aimed at preparing every base for the worst. Part of that preparation was the “WPL 46,” or the emergency actions each base was to take in case of attack.
Admiral Kimmel, the Commander of Pacific forces, did not fully carry out “WPL 46,” at Pearl Harbor. If he had done so, the Army and Navy assets would have been dispersed through the Pacific and the base would have been prepared for a bombing. This lack of planning caught the forces at Pearl Harbor totally unprepared, causing massive casualties.
Admiral Stark has received much of the blame for the events of Pearl Harbor for various reasons. On the day of December 7, 1941, Washington D.C. actually received intelligence from the Japanese, breaking relations and declaring hostility. Activity had been noticed near Pearl Harbor, and it was apparent an attack would occur there. The Army’s communication with Pearl Harbor had been severed and they appealed to Stark for help. During this time, the military did not often conduct joint exercises and the use of another services assets was unorthodox. Sticking to military protocol, Admiral Stark refused to allow General George C. Marshall, head of Army forces in the Pacific, the use of Navy communications. This greatly delayed the amount of time in which the message of attack would reach Pearl Harbor.
Although Admiral Stark’s name would officially be cleared of any charges after investigation, his name and career were severely blemished. Stark’s inability to take decisive action and failure to share critical intelligence should have ended his career. The fact that Stark was able to maintain his career is attributed to President Roosevelt’s quick reorganization of Navy administration. In doing so, the President salvaged both his friend’s and top military advisor’s career.
Shortly after Pearl Harbor, Admiral Stark remained as the CNO; however, the operational authority was branched to Admiral King, essentially making the CNO a dual position. Realizing the inefficiency of having two authoritative figures play one role, Stark conceded his position fully to Admiral King in March 1942. Stark received a new position as Commander of Naval Forces Europe.
Out of his new headquarters in London, Stark took charge of a post that better suited him than that of CNO. He had extensive experience in dealing with the Royal Navy, and in his new role exploited the skills he had learned from those experiences. He is credited with his uncanny ability to tactfully deal with fellow Allied leaders, especially difficult ones such as France’s General Charles De Gaule, best described as “prickly.” Also, Stark’s World War I experiences in anti-submarine warfare became the foundation of his strategy in Europe.
Immediately Stark went to work combatting one of the biggest problems of the war, German U-boats. His work alongside the British convinced the U.S. to adopt convoy and “hunter-seeker” strategies which would eventually outlast the German submarines. The ability of the Allied forces to overcome the German U-boats became a significant turning point in the war.
In 1943, Stark would receive an additional responsibility as Commander of Naval Forces Twelfth Fleet. As Commander, Twelfth Fleet, Stark would oversee all naval organizational and logistical build-up for the invasion of Normandy in 1944. As the largest amphibious attack the world would ever witness, this was no trivial task.
Army General Dwight Eisenhower, the allied commander of the invasion, said this of Admiral Stark before awarding him his second Navy Distinguished Service Medal,
More than 4,000 naval ships and craft and over 100,000 naval officers and men were used in the D Day assault. The fact that these ships and men were available is directly attributable to the efforts of Admiral Stark...Planning for the assault was complete in the smallest detail, and served to make the combined naval and ground forces of the United States an integrated unit. The results so far accomplished in this assault on the Fortress of Europe would have been impossible without the complete and wholehearted support on the part of the Navy.
This commendation not only asserted the effort in Stark’s preparation for D Day, but also proved that he had worked to recover from his communication mistakes of Pearl Harbor.
At the end of World War II, Admiral Stark would maintain his position until his retirement in 1946. He retired to Washington D.C. where he maintained an active diplomatic role as a naval advisor until his death on August 20, 1972. He is buried in section 30 of Arlington National Cemetery.
Admiral Stark’s legacy may be best summarized in the words of Samuel Eliot Morison, United States Navy historian and author of History of United States Naval Operations in World War II, when he said:
Admiral Stark’s correspondence during the war, which I have been privileged to read, and which one day should be published, proves him to be a keen diplomatist, a firm though courteous champion of the United States Navy in Britain, an equally tactful interpreter of the Royal Navy to us, and an intelligent and far-seeing naval strategist.
This praise by one of the leading authorities on naval involvement during World War II is testament to Stark’s ability to recover from the mistakes he made during Pearl Harbor. Although many still do not recognize this, the U.S. Navy regards Admiral Stark as a hero.
On October 23, 1982, the USS Stark (FFG 31) was commissioned in his namesake, one of the Navy’s greatest honors. The USS Stark would become best known after it suffered damage in 1987 from two missiles launched by Iraqi aircraft.
In his illustrious 40 year career as a naval officer, Admiral Stark earned three Navy and one Army distinguished service medals. His global outlook for the U.S. Navy, and superb attitude and nature, made Admiral Stark a hero of World War II and a renowned naval officer.