Happy birthday Chester Nimitz, born February 24, 1885. Victor in the Pacific in World War II and one of the few men to achieve the rank of Fleet Admiral, Nimitz was arguably one of the greatest leaders in American military history. Here are eight things to know about Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz.
1. The Army Was His First Choice
Nimitz tried to obtain an appointment to West Point. Ironic for a man who would come to embody the US Navy. But when he applied there were no openings. When his congressman told him there was one slot for the Naval Academy, Nimitz opted for the sea service. He graduated in 1905, seventh in his class.
2. He Almost Ran His Career Aground
Three years later, after billets in the Far East aboard a battleship and various destroyers, Ensign Nimitz was given command of his own ship, the destroyer USS Decatur (DD-5). In July he ran her aground on a sandbar in the Philippines after neglecting to check the tides and failing to accurately ascertain her position. Nimitz was court-martialed. But because his record was flawless and he freely admitted his culpability, he was let off relatively lightly with a letter of reprimand.
Later Nimitz would cite the incident whenever someone criticized another man’s career over a single incident. Perhaps this is why he didn’t fire his predecessor’s staff when he took command after Pearl Harbor—including Capt. Joseph Rochefort whose intelligence team cracked the Japanese naval code, giving Nimitz the key to victory at Midway.
3. He Was a Submariner First
Ironically, for a man whose name is so closely associated with carrier battles, Nimitz made his bones on subs. After the Decatur incident, Nimitz lectured on sub tactics, and was given command of the First Submarine Flotilla. Later on he commanded several subs himself, including USS Snapper and Narwhale. Eventually Nimitz became the Navy’s leading expert on marine diesel engines. He was sworn in as C-in-C Pacific on the deck of a submarine at Pearl Harbor, and unleashing his subs was one of his keys to defeating the Japanese. And he never forgot his roots. Thirty years later as Chief of Naval Operations Nimitz championed the construction of the USS Nautilus, the first nuclear powered submarine.
4. Roosevelt Had His Eye on Him Long Before Pearl Harbor
As Chief of the Navy's Bureau of Navigation--which, in the perverse lexigraphical world of the USN, was actually its personnel bureau--Nimitz spent a lot time with President Roosevelt, briefing him on Navy matters. In mid-December of 1941 Nimitz was offered command of the Pacific Fleet, an honor he declined since it would have meant his being promoted over more than a dozen admirals more senior. Things changed, of course, on December 7th. In one of his best decisions of the war, Roosevelt sent word to "Tell Nimitz to get the hell to Pearl and stay there until the war is won." Considering it his wartime duty, Admiral Nimitz did exactly that.
5. He Trusted the People Who Worked for Him
Nimitz was an excellent strategist, but above all he was first-rate leader. Only someone of Nimitz’s caliber could meld such different characters as introspective Admiral Spruance and the hyper-aggressive Admiral Halsey into an effective team. No micromanager, Nimitz was known for picking effective subordinates then letting them do their job with little interference.
And unlike his Army counterpart, General MacArthur, Nimitz was no glory hound. As one journalist said, “The Admiral was frequently the despair of his public relations men; it simply was not in him to make sweeping statements or to give out colorful interviews." This trait alone probably explains why Nimitz was able to get along with the egomaniacal MacArthur.
6. He Almost Didn’t Take the Japanese Surrender
Despite his coolness, Admiral Nimitz was outraged when told that General MacArthur would be in charge of the Japanese surrender ceremony. He felt the sea service was being slighted after all its contributions to victory in the Pacific. He sent word to President Truman that he would not be attending the ceremony. When Truman heard he rewrote the orders. MacArthur may have run the ceremony, but it was Nimitz who took the Japanese surrender for the United States.
7. He Was the Last Fleet Admiral
When he died in 1966, Nimitz was the last surviving officer to have achieved the rank of Fleet Admiral. Only Admirals Leahy, King, and Halsey also held the rank. Interestingly, the timing of the promotions to Fleet Admiral was carefully planned to establish seniority among the men. Admiral Leahy, Roosevelt's chief-of-staff and the most senior US military person during WWII, was promoted first on December 15th, 1944. Admiral King was promoted two days later, and Admiral Nimitz followed two days after that. Admiral Halsey was promoted on December 11, 1945. (Why Admiral Spruance wasn't promoted to Fleet Admiral is a whole story unto itself.)
8. He’s Buried with His Friends
Prior to his death, Nimitz and his close wartime friends, Admiral Raymond A. Spruance (victor of the Battle of Midway), Admiral Richmond K. Turner (commander of many of the Pacific invasions), and Admiral Charles A. Lockwood (commander of the Pacific submarine force) agreed that they would be buried together. When he died in 1966, Admiral Nimitz was laid to rest in the Golden Gate National Cemetery in San Bruno, California.
To find about more about Admiral Nimitz, check out US Commanders of World War II (2): Navy and USMC (Elite 87 / 9781841764757) by James Arnold.