WASHINGTON, July 21, 2014 —
Fleet Admiral William D. Leahy stood at the crossroads of power during and after World War II, but few people know who he was, or what he did.
The most-senior five-star officer in the U.S. military got some recognition July 17 when Quarters BB at the Old Naval Observatory here was renamed Leahy House in his honor.
“This is all about celebrating the life and accomplishments of an extraordinary and unsung naval officer,” said current Leahy House resident Navy Vice Adm. Kurt W. Tidd.
Tidd serves as the assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and is the chairman’s principal liaison with the State Department. “When you ask people to name all the five-star naval officers, they get [Chester] Nimitz, they get [Ernest] King, they get Bull Halsey,” Tidd said. “Almost nobody thinks about Fleet Admiral Leahy.”
Leahy served as the Chief of Naval Operations from 1937 to August 1939. He was a friend of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, whom he met while the president was serving as the assistant secretary of the Navy during World War I.
He retired as a four-star admiral just as war clouds gathered in Europe. Roosevelt told the admiral, “Bill, if we have a war, you're going to be right back here helping me run it.”
He was true to his word.
Leahy served in Puerto Rico and as the U.S. Ambassador to Vichy France before being recalled to active duty in July 1942. Roosevelt appointed him chief of staff to the Commander-in-Chief. The position had never existed before.
Leahy was never far from President Roosevelt’s side. Translated to today, Leahy actually occupied three positions -- the chief of staff of the White House, the National Security Advisor and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Leahy biographer Paul Miles said that when Roosevelt appointed Leahy to this new position it was at a low point in the allies’ war effort. The Germans were marching on Stalingrad and advancing on Cairo and the Suez Canal. Allied shipping losses in the Battle of the Atlantic had reached a peak.
“Those were setbacks on the military front, but there were also setbacks on the home front,” the retired Army colonel said. Roosevelt was being faulted for lack of progress in the war. There were disagreements between the War and Navy Departments. There were questions about the president’s command arrangements.
Enter Leahy. He took over as the president’s representative to the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Combined Chiefs of Staff -- a U.S.-British panel. Leahy presided over the organization “in such an even-handed and impartial manner over the deliberations of the chiefs of staff that one naval historian called him the original purple-suiter,” Miles said during the renaming ceremony.
Over time Leahy’s responsibilities grew. In 1944 and 1945, the admiral became more involved in politico-military affairs and was at Roosevelt’s side at meetings in Quebec, Teheran and Yalta. And Leahy stayed on under President Harry S. Truman when Roosevelt died in April 1945.
Leahy stepped down in 1949 -- after serving in the Navy from the Battle of Santiago during the Spanish-American War through World War I, World War II and into the Cold War. Leahy died in 1959.
The Leahy House itself is emblematic of the politico-military mélange that is Washington. The house is one of three Navy quarters on land owned by the State Department. It is just blocks from the White House and lies between the State Department and the Defense Department. The Leahy House was built in 1910 and housed officers stationed at the Naval Observatory -- a facility that broke new ground in science and was a favorite destination of President Abraham Lincoln during the American Civil War.
Leahy relatives and descendants attended the re-naming ceremony, as did the neighbors -- Adm. Michelle J. Howard, the vice chief of naval operations, and Adm. John M. Richardson, the director of the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program.
The House is not just a museum piece. Tidd and his wife Eileen -- a doctor at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, -- have two teenage daughters and it is a warm and welcoming home.
But history is never far away. On the mantelpiece was an order Leahy signed in the White House in August 1945 to General of the Army George C. Marshall, the service chief of staff, and Fleet Admiral Ernest J. King, the chief of naval operation, ending World War II.
(Follow Jim Garamone on Twitter: @garamoneDoDNews)