Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz

by Kennedy Hickman

Chester William Nimitz was born in Fredericksburg, Texas, on February 24, 1885. He was the son of Chester Bernhard and Anna Josephine Nimitz. Nimitz’s father died before he was born and as a young man, he was influenced by his grandfather Charles Henry Nimitz, who had served as a merchant seaman. Attending Tivy High School in Kerrville, Texas, Nimitz originally wished to attend West Point but was unable to do so, as no appointments were available. Meeting with Congressman James L. Slayden, Nimitz was informed that one competitive appointment was available to Annapolis. Viewing the U.S. Naval Academy as his best option for continuing his education, Nimitz devoted himself to studying and succeeded in winning the appointment.

Nimitz departed high school early to commence his naval career. Arriving at Annapolis in 1901, he proved an able student and showed a particular aptitude for mathematics. A member of the academy’s crew team, he graduated with distinction on January 30, 1905, ranked seventh in a class of 114. His class graduated early, as there was a shortage of junior officers due to the rapid expansion of the U.S. Navy. Assigned to the battleship USS Ohio (BB-12), he traveled to the Far East. Remaining in the Orient, he later served aboard the cruiser USS Baltimore. In January 1907, having completed the required two years at sea, Nimitz was commissioned as an ensign. Leaving the USS Baltimore, Nimitz received command of the gunboat USS Panay in 1907 before moving on to assume command of the destroyer USS Decatur. While conning Decatur on July 7, 1908, Nimitz grounded the ship on a mud bank in the Philippines. Though he rescued a seaman from drowning in the wake of the incident, Nimitz was court-martialed and issued a letter of reprimand. Returning home, he was transferred to the submarine service in early 1909. Promoted to lieutenant in January 1910, Nimitz commanded several early submarines before being named Commander, 3rd Submarine Division, Atlantic Torpedo Fleet in October 1911.

Ordered to Boston the following month to oversee the fitting out of USS Skipjack (E-1), Nimitz received a Silver Lifesaving Medal for rescuing a drowning sailor in March 1912. Leading the Atlantic Submarine Flotilla from May 1912 to March 1913, Nimitz was assigned to oversee the construction of diesel engines for the tanker USS Maumee. While in this assignment, he married Catherine Vance Freeman in April 1913. That summer, the U.S. Navy dispatched Nimitz to Nuremberg, Germany and Ghent, Belgium to study diesel technology. Returning, he became one of the service’s foremost experts on diesel engines.

Re-assigned to Maumee, Nimitz lost part of his right ring finger while demonstrating a diesel engine. He was only saved when his Annapolis class ring jammed the engine’s gears. Returning to duty, he was made the ship’s executive officer and engineer upon its commissioning in October 1916. With the U.S. entry into World War I, Nimitz oversaw the first underway refuelings, as Maumee aided the first American destroyers crossing the Atlantic to the war zone. Now a lieutenant commander, Nimitz returned to submarines on August 10, 1917, as an aide to Rear Admiral Samuel S. Robinson, commander of the U.S. Atlantic Fleet’s submarine force.

With the war winding down in September 1918, he saw duty in the office of the Chief of Naval Operations and was a member of the Board of Submarine Design. Returning to sea in May 1919, Nimitz was made executive officer of the battleship USS South Carolina (BB-26). After brief service as the commander of USS Chicago and Submarine Division 14, he entered the Naval War College in 1922. After graduating he became chief of staff to Commander, Battle Forces and later Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Fleet. In August 1926, Nimitz traveled to the University of California-Berkeley to establish a Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps Unit.

Promoted to captain on June 2, 1927, Nimitz departed Berkeley two years later to take command of Submarine Division 20. In October 1933, he was given command of the cruiser USS Augusta. Principally serving as flagship of the Asiatic Fleet, he remained in the Far East for two years. Arriving back in Washington, Nimitz was appointed Assistant Chief of the Bureau of Navigation. After a brief time in this role, he was made Commander, Cruiser Division 2, Battle Force. Promoted to rear admiral on June 23, 1938, he was transferred to be Commander, Battleship Division 1, Battle Force that October.

Coming ashore in 1939, Nimitz was selected to serve as Chief of the Bureau of Navigation. He was in this role when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Ten days later, Nimitz was selected to replace Admiral Husband Kimmel as Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet. Traveling west, he arrived at Pearl Harbor on Christmas Day. Officially taking command on December 31, Nimitz immediately began efforts to rebuild the Pacific Fleet and halt the Japanese advance across the Pacific.

On March 30, 1942, Nimitz was also made Commander-in-Chief, Pacific Ocean Areas giving him control of all Allied forces in the central Pacific. Initially operating on the defensive, Nimitz’s forces won a strategic victory at the Battle of the Coral Sea in May 1942, which halted Japanese efforts to capture Port Moresby, New Guinea. The following month, they scored a decisive triumph over the Japanese at the Battle of Midway. With reinforcements arriving, Nimitz shifted to the offensive and began a protracted campaign in the Solomon Islands in August, centered on the capture of Guadalcanal.
After several months of bitter fighting on land and sea, the island was finally secured in early 1943. While General Douglas MacArthur, Commander-in-Chief, Southwest Pacific Area, advanced through New Guinea, Nimitz began a campaign of “island hopping” across the Pacific. Rather than engage sizable Japanese garrisons, these operations were designed to cut them off and let them “wither on the vine.” Moving from island to island, Allied forces used each as a base for capturing the next.

Beginning with Tarawa in November 1943, Allied ships and men pushed through the Gilbert Islands and into the Marshalls capturing Kwajalein and Eniwetok. Next targeting Saipan, Guam, and Tinian in the Marianas, Nimitz’s forces succeeded in routing the Japanese fleet at the Battle of the Philippine Sea in June 1944. Capturing the islands, Allied forces next fought a bloody battle for Peleliu and then secured Angaur and Ulithi. To the south, elements of the U.S. Pacific Fleet under Admiral William “Bull” Halsey won a climactic fight at the Battle of Leyte Gulf in support of MacArthur’s landings in the Philippines.

On December 14, 1944, by Act of Congress, Nimitz was promoted to the newly created rank of Fleet Admiral (five-star). Shifting his headquarters from Pearl Harbor to Guam in January 1945, Nimitz oversaw the capture of Iwo Jima two months later. With airfields in the Marianas operational, B-29 Superfortresses began bombing the Japanese home islands. As part of this campaign, Nimitz ordered the mining of Japanese harbors. In April, Nimitz began the campaign to capture Okinawa. After an extended fight for the island, it was captured in June.

Throughout the war in the Pacific, Nimitz made effective use of his submarine force, which conducted a highly effective campaign against Japanese shipping. As Allied leaders in the Pacific were planning for the invasion of Japan, the war came to an abrupt end with the use of the atom bomb in early August. On September 2, Nimitz was aboard the battleship USS Missouri (BB-63) as part of the Allied delegation to receive the Japanese surrender. The second Allied leader to sign the Instrument of Surrender after MacArthur, Nimitz signed as the representative of the United States.

With the conclusion of the war, Nimitz departed the Pacific to accept the position of Chief of Naval Operations (CNO). During his two years in office, Nimitz was tasked with scaling back the U.S. Navy to a peacetime level. To accomplish this, he established a variety of reserve fleets to ensure that an appropriate level of readiness was maintained despite reductions in the strength of the active fleet. During his term as CNO, Nimitz also advocated on behalf of the U.S. Navy’s relevancy in the age of atomic weapons and pushed for continuing research and development. This saw Nimitz support Captain Hyman G. Rickover’s early proposals to convert the submarine fleet to nuclear power and resulted in the construction of USS Nautilus. Retiring from the U.S. Navy on December 15, 1947, Nimitz and his wife settled in Berkeley, California. In late 1965, Nimitz suffered a stroke that was later complicated by pneumonia. Returning to his home on Yerba Buena Island, Nimitz died on February 20, 1966. Following his funeral, he was buried at Golden Gate National Cemetery in San Bruno, California.