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Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Chester Nimitz Born, February 24, 1885

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Today in 1885, Chester William Nimitz was born in Fredericksburg, Texas. No one knew at the time that this boy from a small town far away from any large body of water would one day become indispensable in his role as a Fleet Admiral during the Second World War.

The United States Naval Academy was not young Nimitz’s first choice as a place to pursue a college education. He initially applied to West Point, but all the appointments for that year, 1901, had already been allocated. Learning of Nimitz’s desire to attend a service academy, Congressman James Slayden informed him that he still had one appointment left to the Naval Academy. Nimitz knew this was the only shot he was likely to get for continuing his education, so he applied for and earned the appointment. He graduated from the Academy in 1905 ranked seventh out of a class of 114.

Nimitz served his required two years at sea before being commissioned an Ensign in 1907. He served on a series of surface ships, from a battleship to a destroyer which he ran aground near a beach in the Philippines while he was conning the ship, earning him a letter of reprimand but not seriously damaging his career.

The beginning of 1909 saw a radical change in Nimitz’s career. In January he was assigned to the First Submarine Flotilla and was given command of it less than six months later. As a Lieutenant, Nimitz commanded a series of submarines, including the first USS Plunger, later known by the less-than-memorable designation A-1. The tiny vessel was, according to Nimitz, “a cross between a Jules Verne fantasy and a humpbacked whale”. The subs Nimitz commanded were far smaller and cruder than the fleet boats that would prove so devastating to Japanese shipping a generation later, but they provided invaluable experience. By the end of the First World War in 1918, Commander Nimitz was the Senior Member for the Navy’s Board of Submarine Design. He was considered by both his superiors and subordinates to be the service’s leading expert on submarine design and operations.

The inter-war years were busy ones for Nimitz as he held various commands both at sea and on land. While he remained involved in the submarine community, he also commanded cruiser and battleship divisions. It was during this time he lost part of one finger during an accident involving a diesel engine; he was able to keep the rest of the digit only because the machine was jammed by his Naval Academy ring. By the time the Second World War began in Europe in September, 1939, Rear Admiral Nimitz was the Navy’s Chief of the Bureau of Navigation.

Nimitz became a full Admiral soon after the attack on Pearl Harbor in December, 1941, skipping the three-star rank of Vice Admiral. He was selected to be Commander in Chief, U.S. Pacific Fleet, known in navy parlance as CinCPAC. In March, 1942, British and American war planners divided the Pacific theater of operations into three parts: the Southwest Pacific Area commanded by General Douglas MacArthur, the Southeast Pacific Area and the Pacific Ocean Areas, known as POA, an area that encompassed most of the Pacific Ocean minus the Philippines and New Guinea. Nimitz was given command of the POA in addition to his position as CinCPAC, two titles that he would carry for the rest of the war.

Nimitz went to war with the fleet he had until the forces he wished for were ready. Although the attack on Pearl Harbor had been psychologically devastating, the Navy’s Pacific Fleet remained a potent albeit under-equipped fighting force. Within days of the attack, the submarine force was underway from Hawaii and ports in Australia, hunting for Japanese merchantmen and warships. During the first year of the war, the men under Nimitz’s command had but five aircraft carriers at their disposal. At one point in November, 1942, there were only two operational carriers holding out against the Japanese fleet. But with these meager resources, the US Navy stopped a Japanese invasion of Port Moresby at the battle of Coral Sea and put the Japanese in a permanent defensive position at the battle of Midway.

Nimitz utilized an island-hopping strategy by which heavily fortified Japanese-held islands were bypassed when possible in favor of weakly defended locations. The defenders of the islands that were skipped over soon found themselves behind the American lines without hope of re-supply or rescue. Ten of thousands of Japanese soldiers were thus taken out of the war without a shot being fired at or by them.

In December, 1944, the grade of Fleet Admiral of the Navy was established by Congress. President Franklin Roosevelt promoted Admiral Nimitz the next day, making him a five-star admiral. Three other admirals were appointed to this rank that December; one more, Admiral Halsey, was given a fifth star immediately after the war. These promotions corresponded with five Army promotions to five-star rank at the same time.

On September 2nd, 1945, the Second World War came to an end with the formal surrender of the Japanese on board the battleship USS Missouri. Fleet Admiral Nimitz signed the instrument of surrender representing the United States. He returned to America soon thereafter and was promoted to Chief of Naval Operations in November, 1945. He served one two-year term at this post, during which time he oversaw the downsizing of the world’s largest navy to a fraction of its wartime size. He left the position in December, 1947, but since a five-star admiral is technically on active duty until his death, Nimitz never retired.

Chester Nimitz died on February 20th,1966 at the naval quarters on Yorba Buena Island in San Francisco Bay from complications related to a stroke and pneumonia. With him died the rank of Fleet Admiral, which is still listed as a valid grade, but can only be re-activated by an act of Congress. He left behind his wife, Catherine, and four children--- three daughters and a son. Chester, Jr. followed in his father’s footsteps by graduating from the Naval Academy in 1936 and serving in submarines before retiring as a Rear Admiral in 1957.

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