Fleet Admiral Chester William Nimitz led the Allied naval forces to victory in the Pacific in World War II. He was born February 24, 1885, in Fredericksburg, Texas to Anna (Henke) Nimitz. He died on February 20, 1966, of complications following a stroke.
Nimitz’s father, Chester Bernard Nimitz, did not live to see his son born. His grandfather became his surrogate father, influencing his character and values during his early years. Charles H. Nimitz was a German immigrant, former seaman, and owner of the Nimitz Hotel.
Anna married her late husband’s younger brother, William Nimitz, in 1890. He was manager of the St. Charles Hotel in Kerrville. Chester eventually became chief handyman at the hotel. To get a college education he decided to get an appointment to the United States Military Academy. No appointment was available, however. He then applied for the United States Naval Academy. He graduated January 30, 1905, seventh in his class of 114 at Annapolis.
After two years’ service on the U.S.S. Ohio, he was commissioned an ensign. His first command was aboard the Spanish gunboat Panay in the Philippines. Later transfered to the destroyer Decatur, he ran the ship aground. As a result, he was court-martialed and reprimanded. He was also denied the battleship duty he wanted, and was ordered to serve on a submarine instead. Four consecutive submarine commands, however, would give him invaluable experience in the coming world wars.
Nimitz married Catherine Vance Freeman in 1913. They would have three daughters and a son. The newlyweds soon went to Europe so Chester could learn about diesel engines in Germany and Belgium. After returning to the Brooklyn Navy Yard, he supervised the building and installation of the first diesel engine to power a United States Navy vessel.
With the coming of the First World War, he was given the rank of commander, and served as chief of staff to Admiral Samuel S. Robison, commander of the Atlantic Submarine Force. Soon thereafter, Nimitz was executive officer of the battleship South Carolina. He was then sent to Pearl Harbor where he built the submarine base and commanded the Submarine Division.
After the war, Nimitz underwent extensive naval command training. A plan he developed in 1922-23 at the Navy War College for a hypothetical Pacific war was the one he eventually put to use in the Second World War. Then, with Admiral Robison now commander-in-chief of the United States Fleet, Nimitz returned as his chief of staff.
In 1926, Nimitz developed a prototype for the Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps at the University of California at Berkeley. His model was widely used. Rising to the rank of captain in 1929, he left Berkeley to command a submarine division, the San Diego destroyer base, and the cruiser Augusta, flagship of the Asiatic Fleet.
He then served in Washington as assistant chief of the navy Bureau of Navigation. Following promotion to rear admiral, he commanded a cruiser division. That was followed by command of a battleship division. In 1939 he returned to Washington as chief of the Bureau of Navigation. It was during his service there that the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. In need of a scapegoat for the disaster, the Navy relieved Admiral Husband E. Kimmel as commander-in-chief of the Pacific Fleet. Nimitz became his replacement at Pearl Harbor on December 25, 1941.
Avoiding the political finger pointing over the Pearl Harbor disaster, Fleet Admiral Nimitz concentrated on positives such as the fact that the Pearl Harbor submarine base was spared, and the aircraft carriers survived the attack by going to sea. It was with such unwarranted optimism that Nimitz directed the early morale-boosting victories of James Doolittle’s carrier-based raid on Japan, and the battles in the Coral Sea and at Midway Island.
Fifty-three years after the battle of Midway, Nimitz’s leadership ability was reaffirmed by a new discovery. The family of Vice Admiral Stanhope Cotton Ring discovered a handwritten, twenty-two-page letter by Ring dated March 28, 1946. It had been locked away in his sea chest. In it was Ring’s previously unknown account of the loss of twenty-seven aircraft from the sixty-plane squadron he led into battle in the early hours at Midway. Historians had falsely speculated all those years that the planes simply got lost, costing greater U.S. losses than necessary. According to Ring’s letter, however, communications problems caused the planes to ignore a changed homing signal, forcing them to rely on dead reckoning to return to the carrier Hornet. Ring’s analysis, that failed communication and an inexperienced crew caused the planes to run out of fuel and ditch at sea, corroborated the evaluation Nimitz gave in his official report of the battle.
As the war unfolded, Nimitz became commander-in-chief of Pacific Ocean Areas, while keeping his Pacific Fleet command. That promotion gave him command of the whole Pacific theater except for General Douglas MacArthur’s section of the Southwest Pacific and the inactive southeast. After their unconditional surrender, Nimitz signed the peace treaty with Japan aboard the battleship Missouri in Tokyo Bay on September 2, 1945. He was awarded the army and navy Distinguished Service medals and many foreign decorations.
On December 15, 1945, Nimitz was named commander-in-chief of the United States Fleet, a position he held for the next two years. In somewhat of an unofficial retirement, he was assigned unspecified duty by the Secretary of the Navy. He was a roving ambassador for the United Nations and a regent of the University of California. President Truman appointed him chairman of the Presidential Commission on Internal Security and Individual Rights.
Admiral Nimitz suffered a severe fall in 1963 and he and his wife moved from Berkeley to naval quarters on Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay. In January 1966 he had a stroke. His recovery was complicated by pneumonia, however, and he died on February 20, 1966. He is buried in Golden Gate National Cemetery, San Bruno, California.