To become a great admiral, one must have not only the ambition to reach flag rank, but also the ability to perform well once that rank is attained. In his book, Master of Sea Power, Thomas Buell shows us not only how Ernest King possessed the requisite ambition and ability, but also how history and circumstances cooperated in King's becoming Chief of Naval Operations and Commander in Chief of the United States Fleet during WW2, allowing him to command more ships, men and aircraft than any other admiral in history.
The early part of the book shows King's upbringing and early naval career. Buell documents how King carefully chose among assignments whenever possible in order to make the move that would best bolster his upward mobility toward flag rank. Even when King was surprised, and did not have the time to decide if a certain assignment would aid his career, he performed well any way, such as in his high profile undertakings to salvage submarines S-51 and S-4. The most interesting achievement I found in King's prewar career was his performance in Fleet Problem XIX, in the spring of 1938, wherein a carrier force, commanded by King, successfully "attacked" targets in and around Pearl Harbor.
When the United States' involvement in WW2 started, King was in the right place as commander of the Atlantic fleet, which placed him outside of the chain of command leading from Pearl Harbor back to Washington. King then became both Chief of Naval Operations and Commander-in-Chief of the United States Fleet. As the top admiral in the navy, King was also a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the United States and ipso facto a member of the Combined Chiefs of Staff with top British Officers. King was a persistent advocate of his own service, who saw the Pacific as its exclusive domain, and he kept up the clarion call for more resources for the theater, despite the "Germany first" strategy that had been declared by the Allies. Perhaps his most strategically influential decision was his push for the Guadalcanal invasion, after which, not only were the Japanese on their heels, but the supply flow to the Pacific was steadily increased.
Buell does not spend a lot of time on battles. This is because once a battle began King's job was over with until the battle ended. What Buell does spend a lot time on is the strategic and diplomatic wrangling in choosing objectives and deciding which admirals to place in command, and which ones to relieve when necessary. King had no tolerance for stupidity or incompetence. He only respected people who stood up to him, and then again only those who showed they were right in doing so. Much of King's most important work was done negotiating at the big conferences with FDR, Churchill and the Combined Chiefs of Staff. It was at these conferences that King reinforced his reputation for being abrupt and tactless, but also a sound thinker and strategist. And although he did not get along well with his British counterparts, mutual respect did exist between them.
One place where Buell could have done differently, I believe, has to do with King's personal life: the assertion that King was a philanderer and perhaps even "downright lecherous." In Buell's chapter on King's command of the Lexington before WW2, he states in the notes that King's "marital infidelity and philandering were common knowledge." That may have been, but Buell does not cite a specific source, nor does he ever point out a specific woman. It may be gentlemanly not to name names, but without attribution to a specific source, it has the ring of gossip, and has found its way into other works, such as Adams' "If Mahan Ran the Great Pacific War," and Tuohy's "America's Fighting Admirals."
Anyone well-read on the Pacific theater in WW2 has at least come across references to Master of Sea Power in the bibliographical notes of subsequent works. Buell has done such a thorough job in documenting King's role and influence as head of the USN in WW2, that other authors must include Buell to give a full picture of anything decided or influenced by King in the course of the war. Any serious enthusiast of the USN's role in WW2 must read this biography, in order to flesh out the meager characterizations found in other works.