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Admiral Chester Nimitz

From Fredericksburg to Tokyo Bay

I must admit to being a little intimidated being with so many scholars who do great research and then who write so eloquently. When Al Hurley first asked me to join this effort about 18 months ago, I willingly agreed. He’s very hard to turn down. It was much, much further along that the idea came up of a paper. And the reality is, I don’t do papers. So pity the poor transcriber for these remarks, and the editor who’s going to have to try to turn it into something that will be suitable for the Proceedings.

Now, the honest answer is, I have written, occasionally, but half of it’s all classified.

The intimidation disappears with excitement about the topic that I was asked to cover. I had the great privilege of meeting the late Admiral Nimitz in 1957, when a friend of mine was his escort on one of his trips to Washington, and he was an astonishing figure to spend some time with.

Jane has already set the stage. He was born in Fredericksburg on February 24, 1885, near the hotel that his grandfather, a retired sea captain, had built. His father died before he was born. His mother remarried when he was five to his father’s younger brother who promptly moved the family to Kerrville.

When he was a senior in high school, he decided he wanted to go to West Point. He couldn’t get an appointment, the slots were already filled. So, somewhat reluctantly he took a competitive examination for the Naval Academy and was accepted. And so he actually left before he finished high school. He got his high school diploma in 1945 as a Fleet Admiral.

He entered the Naval Academy in 1901, graduated in 1905 as the seventh out of 114 select students. In those days, as a matter of law, you were not commissioned when you graduated. He went to sea and served two years on the USS Ohio out in the Far East.

And then after the two years, he was commissioned as an Ensign. 1907 was a very eventful year, because almost immediately as an Ensign he took command of a gunboat—the Panay—operating on the Yangtze, and then a little later, the USS Decatur. And not long after, ran the Decatur aground on the banks of the river and was court-martialed.

And that usually brings an end to the career of naval officers. Happily he was given the benefit of the doubt, having been in a river as opposed to the open oceans.

He came back, in 1907, to the U.S. and went into duty under instruction for submarines. Most of the rest of his career, until World War II, he worked his way through submarine assignments and tours, also occasionally in larger surface combatants. And that’s important to remember as we get to the role he plays in World War II.

He showed his personal courage clearly in 1912, standing on the deck of a ship, saw a seaman swept over the side of the ship and being swept away in a heavy current. He jumped overboard and held him aloft until they were rescued by people who had managed to man a boat and get it out. For that, the Treasury Department gave him the Silver Life Saving Medal.

In 1913 he went to shore duty in Groton, Connecticut, for the first time, and met and married Catherine Vance Freeman. They went together as a newly married couple to Europe to observe the building of diesel engines for ships there, and came back. Pretty soon thereafter he served in the first ship to have those diesels, and then became aide and chief of staff to the Commander of the U.S. submarine fleet in the Atlantic.

In 1917, he went to the battleship South Carolina as its executive officer just at the end of World War I. Then more duties back in submarines.

But then in 1922, he went to the U.S. Naval Academy, he looked at the requirement to do a major project, and he elected to develop a plan for a hypothetical Pacific war. And the plan that he developed in 1922 became the focus of his efforts when he suddenly faced the challenge of a real war, not a hypothetical war.

A major event in the history of the Nimitz family was a decision in 1926 to send him to Berkeley to create a Naval Reserve Officer Training unit at the University of California, Berkeley. The war department had already been there, but the Navy had been very reluctant to look at creating an ROTC program.

So Chester Nimitz, as a Commander, went out to create a program, was promoted to Captain, and spent three years there. And they fell in love with Berkeley in that time frame.

He alternated in sea and shore assignments for the next 10 years, was eventually selected for flag rank, had done a tour as an Assistant Chief of the Bureau of Navigation. In those days, that was the title given to what we now call the Bureau of Naval Personnel, career development and assignment of all naval officer and enlisted personnel.

In 1939, he was ordered back to Washington to be the Chief of the Bureau of Navigation. And among his friends was the President of the United States, who occasionally would invite the Nimitzes to come to the White House for dinner.

He was serving in that role on the 7th of December, 1941. The decision was made within days to relieve Admiral Thomas Kimmel as Commander of the Pacific Fleet. On the 21st of December, Chester Nimitz was promoted from two stars to four, and appointed as the Commander in Chief of the Pacific Fleet. He actually took over the duties on the 25th of December.

Assuming command at that very critical point after the huge losses suffered at Pearl Harbor, he focused on what was remaining and how could you use the assets? Now remember, this is the man who had served in submarines, cruisers, and battleships. Fortunately, most of the aircraft carriers had survived. They’d been at sea.

He made an early decision to focus on submarines and aircraft carriers. He took the battleships, to the great dismay of a number of his colleagues, and used them largely for convoy duty between the West Coast and Hawaii. And he shaped around the aircraft carriers fast strike units that could move.

His partner in all of this was Admiral King, the Chief of Naval Operations. He and Ernie King were comrade spirits, who both served as line officers, but who would come to appreciate the potential of naval aviation in the process. They were like minded, they were simple, and they were very direct with one another.

Out of that dialogue grew the strategy for island hopping across the Pacific, gradually whittling away at Japanese outposts, but much more importantly, creating bastions from which you could leapfrog the next leg, but most importantly, to begin to bring air power to bear against the Japanese homeland.

That strategy was strikingly different from what General MacArthur had proposed. Sitting in Australia after his evacuation from the Philippines, he had advocated a tran-Pacific advance from Australia to New Guinea up through to the Philippines, north through the Philippines, then directly to the Japanese homeland. In Admiral Nimitz’s view, the Navy would merely be a taxi driver to deliver the Army where MacArthur wanted to conduct his battles.

This provoked Admiral Nimitz. His strategy, in fact, envisioned a triservice campaign, the Army, the Navy, the Marines, steadily advancing, capturing strategic points, and ultimately bypassing those where large casualties might be undertaken to get closer and closer to bringing the war directly to the Japanese mainland.

When the Joint Chiefs of Staff decided to adopt Nimitz’s strategy, MacArthur was understandably enraged. More importantly, Nimitz had developed a concept that would eventually be known, not only as island hopping, but more importantly would become the antecedent for a joint task force approach to the conduct of military operations.

The fast carrier task force had been born out of necessity, in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor. With the battle fleet crippled, Admiral Nimitz decided to dispatch the surviving carrier closest to the scene down to the Coral Sea to try to stop the Japanese fleet headed to take the battle to the northern part of Australia.

Initially both he and Admiral King were apprehensive. They thought that Admiral Fletcher was too timid, but his conduct at the battle at Coral Sea, even though he lost the Yorktown, persuaded them that he was the right man and that it, in fact, had bought them time.

As this effort proceeds, and Nimitz solidified his view of how you would unify the components of the Army, the Army Air Corps, the Marines, and the Navy, it was a principle essentially of unity of command and then direct delegation of authority to conduct operations. He recognized early the potential synergy that would ultimately become the hallmark 40 years later of all joint operations.

From the tactical side, after the Battle of Coral Sea was over, he had to make a very wise and very fortuitous judgment about what to do next. There was evidence of Japanese movement toward capturing the Hawaiian Islands, at least that was the interpretation from Washington.

Admiral Nimitz took the time to understand how what was called radio intelligence was being derived. The success in breaking the Japanese codes had provided some alerting information that was overlooked, the dots were not connected, before Pearl Harbor. Admiral Nimitz spent a lot of time trying to understand exactly what they had and what it possibly meant. As he contemplated the evidence he was presented, he made a decision to cast all the forces toward Midway. He concluded, based on the advice from his intelligence analyst, that the target was Midway, not Pearl not Hawaii.

Therefore, he sent three carrier task forces with the intent to go ambush the ambushers. By a secure land cable, they ordered the one submarine at Pearl Harbor—that was at Midway, sorry—to go out to a position 50 miles northwest of Midway and patrol, awaiting further instructions.

Nimitz summoned the final staff meeting on Wednesday, May 27 to review his own estimate of the situation. He was prepared to stake everything on Joe Roquefort’s analysis of what would likely occur. Three days later, they reached a final decision point.

Captain Eddie Layton, his intelligence officer, made a presentation to him on exactly what he believed the Japanese were going to do. And Admiral Nimitz, sensing hesitation, said, I want you to be specific. After all, this is the job I’ve given you, to be the Admiral Commanding the Japanese forces and tell me what you’re going to do. Captain Layton carefully recapped what he knew and delivered his assessment.

Japanese carriers would attack Midway on the morning of 4 June, and could be sighted at 0700 hours approximately 175 miles from Midway bearing 325 degrees. Six days later, when the enemy force was detected, Admiral Nimitz turned to Captain Layton, and remarked with a smile, “Well, you were only five minutes, five degrees, and five miles out.”

The rest is history. The war turned. Admiral Yamamoto’s plan was enormously elaborate. He had five separate forces, over 200 ships, 250 aircraft, 11 battleships, eight carriers, and 23 cruisers. The simplicity of the plan was to attack in advance while aircraft were off striking Midway. The Americans sunk three of the carriers and later got a fourth.

Two critical features came out of it. The Japanese retreated, never again threatened to further expand their empire, and it did mark the end of the battleship era. From that point on, until we got to the missile age, aircraft carriers became simply the heart of U.S. Navy ability to reach out to the world.

This, from an officer whose career had begun in submarines and surface ships.

It also marked a major advance for understanding code breaking and the impact it could have on the conduct of war. You’ll forgive a little personal pleasure on the side. I had the privilege, when I was the Director of the National Security Agency, to declassify the seven volumes on the cryptographic successes in World War II and make them available for historians.

If Nimitz had followed Washington’s analysis, the carriers would have been defending the Hawaiian Islands, and not in place to ambush the Japanese.

I could go through many comparable conflicts on Leyte Gulf, the largest battle of the war, but instead I’d like to focus on Admiral Nimitz’s style, his leadership, his temperament, his legacy.

His greatest gift was his leadership ability. Naval historian Robert Love writes that Nimitz possessed a sense of inner balance and calm that steadied those around him. He had the ability to pick able subordinates and the courage to let them do their jobs without interference.

He molded such disparate personalities as the quiet, introspective Admiral Raymond Spruance and the ebullient, aggressive William Halsey into an effective team.

His relationships with General MacArthur were somewhat more troubled. Nimitz did not share General MacArthur’s need for publicity. In fact, one of the journalists, Robert Sherwood, noted that the admiral was frequently the despair of his public relations men. It was simply not in him to making sweeping statements or give colorful interviews.

But he could respond if he thought the Navy and its role were being slighted. He received an invitation to the Japanese surrender in Tokyo Bay which was to be accepted by General MacArthur. He told the Secretary of the Navy to inform President Truman he would not attend, unless Truman changed the orders. Everyone got something. MacArthur ran the show; Nimitz took the surrender for the United States.

Over the course of the war, his clashes with General MacArthur were suitably epic. General MacArthur was the only commander in the theater outside Nimitz’s command. He had the Southwest Asia command. And as I’ve already indicated to you, they had a very substantial disagreement on strategy.

Yet they demonstrated, ultimately in the time of need, they could work effectively together. And that really became apparent, beginning in 1944 with the campaign for the Mariana Islands and with Nimitz’s support across the Central Pacific for the landings in the Philippines. The success reinforced Nimitz’s belief, ultimately, in a tri-service force.

When the war ended, he came back to Washington. I left out one critical event. In 1944, the Congress enacted legislation creating General of the Army and Admiral of the Fleet. Five-star rank—five in the Army, four in the Navy. Admiral Nimitz received his promotion to Fleet Admiral—again, he had an affinity for things happening in December, and he actually got that designation in December 1944.

He became the Chief of Naval Operations after the war, for two years. Fleet Admirals, Generals of the Army, were not permitted retire. So the Secretary of the Navy assigned him as a Special Assistant to the Western Sea Frontier in San Francisco in 1947, and he and his wife went back to their beloved Berkeley.

After he suffered a fall, they moved into quarters on Treasure Island and it was there that his pneumonia proceeded. He suffered a stroke and finally died in 1966 on February 20th. He is buried at the Golden Gate National Cemetery in San Bruno.