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Nimitz, Chester W. (1885-1966)


Phogograph of Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz

National Archives #80-G-427844

Chester W. Nimitz was born at Fredericksburg, Texas, to a family of German immigrant hotel keepers. He originally sought admittance to West Point, but his Congressman informed him that the appointment had already been given to another but that an appointment was still open to the U.S. Naval Academy. Nimitz graduated from the Academy in 1905 and became a submariner, rising to command a submarine flotilla by 1912 and directing construction of the Navy’s first diesel submarine. During the latter assignment he lost the ring finger of his left hand when he pointed at a diesel engine while briefing some distinguished visitors. The tip of his gloved finger caught in a gear and was crushed before the engine could be shut down. Thus, like his arch-foe Yamamoto, Nimitz was missing part of a hand lost in the line of duty.

Nimitz later was executive and engineering officer on oiler Maumee, the Navy's first surface ship constructed with diesel engines. During this tour of duty, Nimitz made significant contributions to the development of underway refueling of warships.

Nimitz attended the Navy War College between the wars and rose steadily upwards. He was a rear admiral in command of the Bureau of Navigation (actually the Navy’s personnel bureau) at the start of the Pacific War, a position traditionally regarded as a steppingstone to high rank. This was realized after the Pearl Harbor disaster, on 17 December 1941, when Nimitz was promoted over numerous senior admirals to relieve the disgraced Admiral Kimmel as commander of the Pacific Fleet. This proved to be one of Roosevelt’s best appointments.

Nimitz spoke generously of the man he relieved, stating that what happened to Kimmel could have happened to anyone. There was more to this statement than meets the eye: Many years later, Nimitz revealed that the Navy Secretary, Frank Knox, had offered him the job of Commander, Pacific Fleet, in January 1941. Nimitz had refused because he considered himself too junior and feared his early advancement would generate bad feelings.

Nimitz decided early in the war that his headquarters could not consist of a traditional Navy staff. Instead, he established a joint staff, in which many top positions were held by Army, Air Force, and Marine officers. He insisted that all headquarters officers wear the same summer "suntan" uniform, regardless of service, and he is reported to have once commented that he wished he could have his entire headquarters wear jumpsuits bearing the letters "POA" (Pacific Ocean Areas) to erase lingering service distinctions. This emphasis on unity went back at least as far as Nimitz' tenure as chief of the Bureau of Navigation, when he insisted that regular and reserve officers should wear the same uniforms, contrary to British practice.

Nimitz had a relaxed, informal manner that contributed to amicable interservice relations, particularly with the prickly MacArthur. However, Nimitz’ informality masked considerably toughness and intelligence. He valued innovation and recognized that aircraft would be decisive in the war. Though a submarine and surface officer, with no direct aviation experience, his thesis at the Naval War College concerned the use of circular formations built around aircraft carriers. This formation was adopted with much success in the war.

Nimitz was meticulous in his personal habits, and disliked politicians for their habit of arriving late. He was always accompanied by Makalapa ("Mak"), his pet schnauzer, "a mean little dog which growled" (Hastings 2007). He encouraged his otherwise hardworking staff to take an afternoon tennis break, and was himself an avid pistol shooter, a form of recreation he adopted at the recommendation of his physician. He often took long walks with Spruance, his chief of staff, and he was fond of classical music and ice creams with unusual flavors, such as avocado. He was decidedly skeptical of the use of women in noncombat roles, and saw to it that the only female naval auxiliary officer at his headquarters, a mine warfare intelligence expert, was administratively listed as being assigned elsewhere. His diplomatic skills included a repertoire of colorful jokes and anecdotes, which drew laughter from even the dour MacArthur.

King tried to keep Nimitz on a rather short leash. It was King who dictated the early Pacific strategy of carrier raids against the Japanese perimeter, which went against Nimitz' conservative instinct to protect his main base at Pearl Harbor. Arthur Davis, Nimitz' aviation officer, bluntly described him at this time as "scared and cautious" (Lundstrom 2006). However, the designation of Nimitz as Commander, Pacific Ocean Areas, gave him the authority he needed to begin asserting himself. Nimitz fully came into his own in the handling of the Midway campaign, when he decided to gamble everything on the intelligence estimates produced by his code breakers. As a result, the American carriers were in position to ambush the Japanese carrier strike force, destroying four Japanese carriers in exchange for the Yorktown, which restored the balance of power in the Pacific.

Nimitz' second great decision was to replace his old friend, Ghormley, with Halsey as commander, South Pacific Area, at the height of the Guadalcanal crisis. Another important decision was to strike directly at Kwajalein in 1944 rather than to first occupy more outlying atolls. His only serious mistake was to insist on the occupation of Peleliu prior to the Leyte landings.

One of the principal architects of the Allied victory, Nimitz rose to five-star rank and became Chief of Naval Operations after the war. Hastings (2007) describes him as "one of the greatest naval officers America has produced." "Jocko" Clark said of him that he was "the one great leader in the Pacific who had no blemish on his shield or dent in his armor." His son, Chester W. Nimitz, Jr., was also a submariner, an occasional critic of his father’s decisions, and a torpedo expert who helped resolve the difficulties with U.S. torpedoes. The younger Nimitz would rise to the rank of rear admiral in the postwar Navy.

Service record

1885     

Born in Fredericksburg, Texas
1905-1-24
Midshipman
Graduates from Naval Academy, standing 7th in a class of 144, and assigned to battleship Ohio
1906-9-15

Baltimore
1907-1-12

Commander, PG Panay
1907-7-8

Commander, DD Decatur
1907-9-26
Ensign

1908-8-12

Ranger
1909

Commander, 1 Submarine Flotilla
1910-1-26

Commander, SS Snapper
1910-3-12
Lieutenant junior grade     

1910-3-12
Lieutenant
Naval Torpedo Station
1910-11-18

Commander, SS Narwhal
1911-10-10     

Commander, 3 Submarine Flotilla
1911-11-23

Commander, SS Skipjack
1912-5-7

Commander, Atlantic Submarine Flotilla
1913-4-28

Engineering duty at Washington, D.C., Groton, New York, and Germany
1916-10-23

Executive officer/engineering officer, AO Maumee
1918-2-6

Chief of staff, Atlantic Submarine Force
1918-2-19
Commander

1918-10

Board of Submarine Design
1919-5-6

Executive officer, South Carolina
1920-5-20

Commander, Pearl Harbor Submarine Base
1920-7-17

Commander, Chicago, and Commander, Submarine Division 14
1922-6-21

Enters Naval War College
1923-5-26

Graduates from Naval War College
1923-6-30

Assistant chief of staff, Commander, Battle Fleet
1926-8-10

Director, Naval ROTC Program, University of California at Berkeley
1927-6-2
Captain

1929-6-15

Commander, Submarine Division 20
1931-6-17

Commander, AS Rigel
1931-10-16

Commander, CA Augusta
1935-5-28

Assistant chief, Bureau of Navigation
1938-7-9
Rear admiral     
Commander, Cruiser Division 2
1938-9-17

Commander, Battleship Division 1
1939-6-15

Chief, Burea of Navigation
1941-11-1
Rear admiral, upper half     

1941-12-17     
Admiral     
Commander, Pacific Fleet
1944-12-14     
Fleet Admiral

1945-12-15

Chief of Naval Operations
1947-12-15

Retires from the Navy
1949-3

Special ambassador for the United Nations
1952

Regent, University of California at Berkeley
1966-2-20

Dies at Treasure Island, California

Photo Gallery


NImitz as an ensign

U.S. Navy

Nimitz in old dress uniform

NARA

NImitz as a rear admiral

NARA

NImitz as a full admiral

NARA

Nimitz paying his respects at a Marine cemetary

NARA

Nimitz signing the Japanese surrender for the United States

NARA


References

DANFS

Hastings (2007)

Larrabee (1987)

Lundstrom (2006)

Potter (1976)
Wildenberg (1996)



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