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Admiral Burke Disembarks

lucky, competent, and there

This is Dark Cloud on Wednesday, January 03, 1996.

“It is interesting,” wrote Richard Adams in Shardic, “to watch history emerge from legend.” One of Boulder’s genuine heroes, Admiral Arleigh Burke, died at 94 on January 1. Burke became a hero during the Second World War as a commander of a destroyer squadron in the Pacific. After a seemingly endless series of defeats, Burke won a stunning and complete victory over an equal number of Japanese destroyers at the Battle of Cape St. George. Without receiving a single hit, Burke sank three Japanese destroyers, an action called by the Naval War College “an almost perfect action.” This was November 25 of 1943.

Burke was called 31 Knot Burke, and the uninformed might believe this living legend was such a fire breather he inspired his ships to excessive speed. That is the legend. The fact is any destroyer since the First World War that couldn’t make 31 knots would have been dry docked. Burke was in the habit of claiming his ships were incapable of such a sustained speed, and then reporting his ships at 31 knots to impress everyone. Not a great story, but it’s the truth. As Adams further said, "of what value is the grain of sand at the heart of a pearl?"

And Burke, as a warrior, was a pearl. When he attended the launch of a ship named for himself, Burke regaled the crew. “This ship is made to fight and you’d better learn how.” Again, not a particular gem, but true. Burke was both extremely lucky and extremely gutsy, fully an American Nelson. But it is not so well known, for example, that the week before his greatest victory; Burke nearly blew up half his own ships by firing at them in error.

What made Burke great, or seem great - which may be the same thing - is that he fought. He attacked and pursued. And he always won. He was always great copy for a desperate press. And hey, a destroyer commander singing Come a Ky Yi Yippee during battle is a good story. What is now painfully clear after fifty years of records being closed and now open to the public is that the US was not a particularly competent warrior nation, and that we excessively reward the colorful beyond the competent and careful.

Burke was, like Admiral Halsey and General Macarthur, both colorful and arguably competent and over praised, perhaps, and unlike Jellico and Custer, he was always lucky. And he was there for us when we needed him. He won when the odds were even, and considering most of our victories was with odds incredibly in our favor, this counts. A great deal. And so, let us be there for him one last time. Farewell and hail, Admiral Burke.