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date: 26 March 2023

Nimitz, Chester Williamfree

(24 February 1885–20 February 1966)

Nimitz, Chester Williamfree

(24 February 1885–20 February 1966)
  • Lloyd J. Graybar

Chester William Nimitz.

Watercolor, gouache, and graphite pencil on paperfaced illustraiton board, by Boris Chaliapin.

National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Joseph and Rosalyn Newman.

Nimitz, Chester William (24 February 1885–20 February 1966), admiral, was born in Fredericksburg, Texas, the son of Chester Bernard Nimitz, a cattle drover, and Anna Henke. Born nearly five months after his father died from a rheumatic heart, Nimitz was brought up by his mother, assisted in various ways by several relatives. In 1890 Anna Nimitz married her late husband’s brother William. Despite a move to nearby Kerrville where the Nimitzes managed a small hotel, the family struggled financially. From the age of eight Chester Nimitz began working after school and on weekends as a delivery boy for a meat market and later as a desk clerk and handyman at the hotel. He hoped to attend the U.S. Military Academy, but when informed that no appointment would soon be available he entered the Naval Academy instead. He graduated seventh in the class of 1905.

After two years of service in East Asian waters on the battleship Ohio and on various small craft, Nimitz was commissioned an ensign and remained in the Far East until late 1908 when he returned to the United States and began duty in submarines. He became a lieutenant in 1910. While stationed in the Boston area in 1913 Nimitz married Catherine Freeman; the couple had four children.

During his four years with the Submarine Force, Nimitz gained extensive knowledge of the diesel engines that the navy had recently adopted for surface propulsion for submarines and in 1913 was selected to head a small mission to further study diesel technology in Germany. Nimitz was then ordered to the navy yard in Brooklyn, New York, to supervise the building and installation of large diesels in the new fleet oiler Maumee. He went to sea in the Maumee as executive officer and chief engineer. Nimitz was on board when the United States entered World War I and helped devise plans that allowed the Maumee to refuel destroyers while underway at sea, a procedure never before used by the U.S. Navy.

In August 1917 Nimitz was promoted to lieutenant commander and named engineering aide and then chief of staff to Captain Samuel Robison, commander Submarine Force, Atlantic Fleet. Nimitz’s expertise in diesels had been recognized in the navy (and by business where he turned down a financially rewarding career), but being stereotyped as an engineering specialist could be detrimental for a line officer who aspired to high command. In the words of his most informed biographer, Nimitz became “concerned less with machinery than with people, less with construction and maintenance than with organization, and thus he found his true vocation” (Potter, Nimitz, p. 130).

Between 1918 and 1922 Nimitz had short tours in the office of the chief of naval operations and as executive officer of the battleship South Carolina. He spent two years at Pearl Harbor where he supervised the construction of the first submarine base there. Following a rewarding year as a student at the Naval War College, he rejoined Robison (now an admiral and commander in chief, Battle Fleet) as aide and assistant chief of staff.

In 1926 Nimitz reported to the University of California at Berkeley to organize and direct its first Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps program. He was promoted to captain in 1927. Nimitz then spent four years at San Diego (1929–1933) where his principal duty was to command the tender Rigel and the deactivated destroyers whose maintenance was carried out by personnel from the Rigel. Next he commanded the cruiser Augusta in Far Eastern waters (1934–1935) before serving as assistant chief of the Bureau of Navigation, the agency that handled personnel matters, including promotion, assignment, recruiting, and training.

With his promotion to rear admiral in 1938, Nimitz spent a year in command of Battleship Division One based at Long Beach, California. His flagship was the Arizona. He was then ordered to Washington as chief of the Bureau of Navigation where the effects of a new program of ship construction necessitated accelerated recruitment and training. The V-7 program, which brought college graduates into the naval reserves as ensigns after a seven-week training course, was instituted during Nimitz’s tenure as bureau head.

On 16 December 1941 Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox advised Nimitz that he would become commander in chief of the Pacific Fleet (CinCPac). President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who had had frequent conferences with Nimitz about personnel questions during the previous three years, had already come to recognize Nimitz’s qualifications for a major fleet command and had in fact asked Nimitz if he wished to command the Pacific Fleet (then named United States Fleet) when Admiral James O. Richardson was relieved in January 1941. Nimitz declined, believing it would be inappropriate to move ahead of some four dozen more senior officers to accept this prized command. Admiral Husband Kimmel, whom Nimitz had long known and respected, received the appointment. However, after Pearl Harbor, when Roosevelt and Knox decided to replace Kimmel and agreed to offer Nimitz the position a second time, he accepted it as his wartime duty.

When Nimitz began his tenure as CinCPac on 31 December 1941, his principal assets were three aircraft carriers and the various cruisers and destroyers that had come through the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor unscathed. He also had under his command many submarines, but defective torpedoes would hamper their effectiveness for over a year. Since the Japanese had neglected to attack the oil storage depot and other shore installations, Pacific Fleet warships could continue to use Pearl Harbor as their operating base.

Nimitz’s major strategic responsibilities were to guard the supply lines between the United States and the Hawaiian Islands (including the outpost of Midway Island) as well as the South Pacific route between the United States and Australia, whose defense was considered an American priority. The only offensive actions Nimitz’s command could undertake were hit-and-run raids on scattered Japanese bases. (None was more heartening than the raid on Tokyo carried out by air force bombers operating from the carrier Hornet in April 1942.)

At the end of March 1942 Nimitz was given the additional title of commander in chief Pacific Ocean Area. In a decision many historians later criticized, the Combined Chiefs of Staff divided the Pacific into two areas: the Southwest Pacific, which included Australia, New Guinea, and the Philippine Islands (then almost entirely in Japanese control); and the Pacific Ocean Area, which included everything else save for the coastal waters of Central and South America. Within the Pacific Ocean Area Nimitz had command of the Pacific Fleet as well as all Allied ground and air forces based in the region. If the situation required, he could order units of the Pacific Fleet to operate in the Southwest Pacific, which was under the direction of General Douglas MacArthur. The Joint Chiefs of Staff in Washington decided overall matters of policy and communicated with Nimitz through the chief of naval operations, Admiral Ernest J. King, who represented the navy on the JCS. King and Nimitz conferred several times a year, ordinarily in San Francisco.

With the exception of the Tokyo raid, Japanese forces retained the initiative in the Pacific throughout 1942. Relying on timely information provided by his intelligence experts, Nimitz ordered carrier task forces to the Coral Sea in May and to the vicinity of Midway in June to thwart Japanese plans to occupy Port Moresby, New Guinea, and Midway Island. Beginning in August 1942, the struggle for Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands dominated events in the Pacific.

Nimitz’s responsibilities required that he command from shore where he would have available appropriate communications facilities and immediate access to intelligence analysts. Effective senior commanders, Nimitz believed, needed to choose competent subordinates, define their objectives, and provide them with the means necessary to meet these goals. They should not interfere with the conduct of any individual operation since the commander on the scene would know best what tactical measures to take. At Midway, as historian Dean Allard has pointed out, Nimitz did just that. He gave his chief task force commanders the strongest forces he could muster and told them to engage the enemy under the principle of calculated risk, defined as avoiding “exposure of your force to attack … without good prospect of inflicting … greater damage on the enemy.”

Nimitz did believe in seeing things for himself, however. He visited Midway in May 1942 to ascertain the needs of the key outpost, and in September he went to Guadalcanal when the operation there appeared to be in jeopardy. His evaluation of the Guadalcanal campaign and the South Pacific headquarters led him to replace the area commander, longtime friend Robert L. Ghormley, with the aggressive Admiral William Halsey. As the war continued Nimitz visited Tarawa and Okinawa among other places and in 1944 moved his own headquarters to Guam to be nearer the scene of combat.

Calm and affable, Nimitz got on well with both admirals and younger staff officers. His concern for enlisted personnel is amply documented. Nimitz loved a good story, but he also used his collection of tales, frequently described as “salty” or “Lincolnesque,” for serious purposes. Although reporters compared CinCPac conferences to college seminars where ideas were freely exchanged, the planning sessions at which he presided sometimes grew argumentative. Then Nimitz usually had an appropriate anecdote that eased tensions. Cautious in his strategic thinking, he often had good reason to be so. For instance, because two of the Pacific Fleet’s four carriers had been sunk during the Guadalcanal campaign and the remaining two damaged, Nimitz believed that any subsequent operation would have to take place within 300 miles of his nearest air bases.

By the last half of 1943, the combined air groups from the new carriers that Nimitz had available numbered some 700 planes, enough to give his forces air superiority in any operation they undertook. The bold steps that King had been urging Nimitz to pursue could finally be undertaken. While American troops continued to advance in New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, Nimitz’s air and amphibious forces began a devastating new Central Pacific campaign that seized those Japanese bases that promised to be useful in future American operations and bypassed the remainder. Among those taken by American forces were Tarawa in the Gilberts, Kwajalein and Eniwetok in the Marshalls, and Saipan, Tinian, and Guam in the Marianas.

Planners in Pearl Harbor and Washington agreed on taking Leyte in the Philippines after the conclusion of the Marianas operation, but King then wanted to seize Formosa while Generals George C. Marshall and MacArthur favored a return to Luzon, the northernmost of the major Philippine Islands. Nimitz and most of his senior officers believed that invading Formosa as King proposed would be too ambitious and that landings on Luzon followed by assaults upon Iwo Jima and Okinawa would require fewer personnel while also providing the steppingstones for the invasion of Japan. MacArthur would have control of the Luzon campaign and Nimitz of the Iwo Jima and Okinawa operations. King, who had been adamant about invading the Marianas, deferred to Nimitz’s reasoning in this instance. The capture of Okinawa in the spring of 1945 turned out to be the last of the great amphibious operations undertaken by Nimitz’s forces.

After the Japanese surrender Nimitz, who had been promoted to the five-star rank of Fleet Admiral in 1944, began a two-year appointment as chief of naval operations (CNO). His term was dominated by four primary concerns: overseeing the demobilization of the wartime navy; assessing the material and personnel needs of the service in the postwar years; assisting Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal in developing an appropriate position for the navy in regard to the unification of the armed services; and formulating a mission for the navy in opposing the Soviet Union, the only great-power adversary the United States might have to face in the foreseeable future. Since the Soviet Union, unlike Japan, was primarily a land power, the navy’s role was defined accordingly. Deciding how the navy could best use atomic energy was a closely related matter. Eager to see nuclear power developed for use by submarines, Nimitz also supported the inclusion of atomic weaponry in the navy’s arsenal.

Led by Admiral Forrest Sherman, Nimitz’s chief wartime planner, strategists assumed that in the event of a Soviet attack the Red army would make major gains in Western Europe. However, they anticipated that planes operating from carrier task forces in the Mediterranean could defend oil resources in the Middle East, bomb accessible targets in the Soviet Union, help to seize and defend bases that would enable the United States and its allies to gain the strategic initiative. Keeping open the Atlantic sea lanes would also be essential.

Nimitz reached mandatory retirement age in 1947. He rejected many lucrative business opportunities to lead a much anticipated life of leisure in Berkeley but soon grew restless. He became involved in public service, chiefly as a roving goodwill ambassador for the United Nations and then as a regent at the University of California. Mindful of the fact that his daughter Nancy had difficulty securing a government job because of her involvement in radical causes during the 1930s, Nimitz spoke firmly against McCarthyism when freedom of speech became an issue at Berkeley. He died in the naval hospital on Yerba Buena Island, California.

Nimitz’s place in history rests primarily on his command of the Pacific Fleet and the Pacific Ocean Area during the Second World War. For almost four decades after the end of the war historians treated him kindly, but thereafter they raised questions about his grasp of strategy, his knowledge of logistics, and his proclivity to compromise on issues of planning and on personnel assignments. While some of these criticisms have merit, in the largest sense Nimitz was a superior leader. One of the three Americans to command a theater of operations in World War II (the others were Generals Dwight Eisenhower and MacArthur), Nimitz had to take over a command that was in shambles and far inferior to the enemy. Furthermore, like most naval officers of his generation, he had spent much of his professional life expecting that the next great naval war would produce another Jutland. Yet the self-effacing Nimitz had the requisite leadership skills and flexibility to rebuild the Pacific Fleet and to reorient operations around powerful carrier task forces in which battleships played only supporting roles. While American submarines devastated Japanese merchant shipping, the mobility and striking power of the carriers made possible the island-hopping campaigns in which Nimitz’s forces seized positions that put Japan itself in striking distance and that would have provided essential forward bases had an invasion of Japan been necessary.


The most important papers relating to Nimitz can be found in various collections at the Naval Historical Division, Navy Yard, Washington, D.C. The Nimitz Museum in Fredericksburg, Tex., has other items of interest. Nimitz did not write a memoir but did participate in the preparation of E. B. Potter and Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz, Triumph in the Pacific: The Navy’s Struggle against Japan (1963). Biographies of Nimitz are E. B. Potter, Nimitz (1976), and Frank A. Driskill and Dede W. Casad, Chester W. Nimitz, Admiral of the Hills (1983). Virtually every book about World War II in the Pacific will have some materials about Nimitz, but among the most important are Samuel Eliot Morison, The Two-Ocean War: A Short History of the United States Navy in the Second World War (1963); Clark G. Reynolds, The Fast Carriers: The Forging of an Air Navy (1968); Reynolds, Admiral John H. Towers (1991); Edwin P. Hoyt, How They Won the War in the Pacific: Nimitz and His Admirals (1970); Ronald Spector, Eagle against the Sun: The American War with Japan (1985); Dan Van der Vat, The Pacific Campaign (1991); and Robert W. Love, Jr., The History of the U.S. Navy, vol. 2, 1942–1991 (1992). For insight into Nimitz’s leadership as recorded in contemporary magazine articles see, for example, Stanley High, “Nimitz Fires When He Is Ready,” the Rotarian, Apr. 1943, 29–30, 56; Joseph Driscoll, “Admiral of the Reopened Sea,” Saturday Evening Post, 8 Apr. 1944, pp. 24–25, 36–39; and Fletcher Pratt, “Nimitz and His Admirals,” Harper’s, Feb. 1945, pp. 209–17. Dean C. Allard, “Nimitz and Spruance: A Naval Style of Command,” in Military Leadership and Command: The John Biggs Cincinnati Lectures, 1988, ed. Henry S. Bausum (1989), is essential. On issues that arose during Nimitz’s tenure as CNO, Steven T. Ross, “Chester William Nimitz,” in The Chiefs of Naval Operations, ed. Robert William Love, Jr. (1980); Michael A. Palmer, Origins of the Maritime Strategy: American Naval Strategy in the First Postwar Decade (1988); Edward Sheehy, The U.S. Navy, the Mediterranean, and the Cold War, 1945–1947 (1992); and Townsend Hoopes and Douglas Brinkley, Driven Patriot: The Life and Times of James Forrestal (1992), are especially useful. An obituary is in the New York Times, 21 Feb. 1966.