Chester William Nimitz

Chester William Nimitz (1885-1966), American naval officer, commanded the Pacific Fleet during World War II and played a major role in formulating and executing the strategy which led to the defeat of Japan.

Chester Nimitz was born on Feb. 24, 1885, in Fredricksburg, Tex. He graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis in 1905, seventh in a class of 114. Despite being court-martialed and reprimanded for running aground his second command, the destroyer Decatur, he rose relatively rapidly in the Navy. During World War I he was chief of staff to the commander of the Submarine Division, Atlantic Fleet. Later he was appointed the first professor of naval science at the University of California. During the 1930s he served aboard submarines, cruisers, and battleships. In 1939 Rear Adm. Nimitz was appointed chief of the Bureau of Navigation.

The Japanese attack upon Pearl Harbor precipitated a major shake-up in the Navy's command structure. In December 1941 Nimitz was promoted to admiral and made commander in chief of the Pacific Fleet. A few months later he was also named commander in chief of Allied forces in the Pacific Ocean area. This title proved somewhat inaccurate as Gen. Douglas MacArthur exercised an independent command over southwestern Pacific operations.

While realizing that the battered American fleet was in no condition to risk a major confrontation in early 1942, Nimitz knew that some offensive action was necessary to restore the Navy's confidence. He authorized a series of fast carrier strikes upon Japanese positions, culminating with Jimmy Doolittle's raid on Tokyo. While inflicting only limited damage, these helped maintain morale.

Nimitz's skill as a strategist and his ability to delegate authority produced more concrete results later in 1942 when he directed the Navy's actions in May at the Battle of the Coral Sea, which slowed Japan's advance southward, and in June at the Battle of Midway, where Japan's attack across the central Pacific was permanently halted. The United States next moved to occupy the island of Guadalcanal. When the first months of this operation produced heavy American naval losses, pressures began to build for evacuation. Nimitz, while admitting the gravity of the situation, continued to pour all available aid into the area and in October appointed the popular and aggressive Adm. William Halsey its overall commander. The following month Halsey decisively defeated the Japanese fleet, ensuring victory on Guadalcanal.

In 1943, with new units rapidly joining the fleet, the United States began major Pacific offensives. A dual approach was approved, with a force under Nimitz attacking across the central Pacific, while MacArthur's command moved up from New Guinea. Nimitz played a major role in developing the "leapfrogging" tactic of bypassing strongly held enemy positions and then neutralizing them by aerial attack and naval blockade.

Adm. Nimitz contributed major organizational methods to the Pacific war. He devoted considerable effort to creating forward repair stations and maintenance squadrons, without which the war effort might have been seriously hampered. He also devised the separate fleet staff organizations for his single fleet of fast carriers and their supporting vessels. While one staff commanded operations at sea, the other planned the next assaults. This arrangement provided continuous pressure upon the Japanese, leading them to overestimate American naval strength, and created as well improved command procedures.

In 1944 Nimitz was made a five-star fleet admiral. This gave him rank equal to Gen. MacArthur at a time when distinctions between their areas of command were becoming increasingly vague. Despite previous differences, they worked well together during the final stages of the war. In August 1945 Japan surrendered, and the following month, on behalf of the United States, Adm. Nimitz signed its instrument of surrender.

Following the war Nimitz was appointed chief of naval operations. In this position he dealt effectively with the massive problems of demobilization and successfully defended the Navy's continued control over carrier aviation under the proposed unification of the armed services. In December 1947 he retired and moved to San Francisco. From 1949 he devoted much time to serving as a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations. He died in San Francisco on Feb. 20, 1966.


Further Reading on Chester William Nimitz

There is no book-length study of Nimitz's career. Many of his ideas on strategy can be gleaned from the volume which he and E. B. Porter coauthored, Sea Power: A Naval History (1961). Probably the best one-volume history of the U.S. Navy's role in World War II is Samuel Eliot Morison, The Two Ocean War (1963). The development and use of naval air power in the Pacific are well set forth in Clarke G. Reynolds, The History and Development of the Fast Carrier Task Forces, 1943-45 (1964), and Joseph James Clark and Clark G. Reynolds, Carrier Admiral (1967).

Additional Biography Sources

Brink, Randall., Nimitz: the man and his wars, New York: D.I. Fine Books/Dutton, 1996.

Driskill, Frank A., Admiral of the hills: Chester W. Nimitz, Austin, Tex.: Eakin Press, 1983.

Potter, E. B. (Elmer Belmont), Nimitz, Norwalk, Conn.: Easton Press, 1988.