How Chester Nimitz Won World War II’s Pacific Theater

Published November 7, 2019

Navy Admiral Chester W. Nimitz solidified his place in history thanks to his leadership as commander of the Pacific Fleet during World War II.

Chester Nimitz

Wikimedia CommonsAdmiral Chester Nimitz in 1942.

Admiral Chester William Nimitz was not the most senior officer in the U.S. Navy during the Second World War, but he was arguably the most important as his vision and drive in the Pacific Theater led to victory over Japan. Fleet Admiral Nimitz thus became one of the legends of U.S. Naval History and a model for leadership.

Early Life

Nimitz Museum

The National Museum of the Pacific War was the site of the Nimitz Hotel.

Chester Nimitz was born on February 24, 1885 in Fredericksburg, Texas, where his grandfather ran a hotel fashioned with a ship’s superstructure. His father, Chester Bernhard Nimitz died of a rheumatic heart condition some five months before he was born.

Nimitz was raised by his mother, Anna, and looked to his paternal grandfather, Charles Henry Nimitz — a German of old aristocratic blood who had become a merchant sea captain — as a father figure. Meanwhile, Anna remarried when Chester was five, to her late husband’s brother.

His family was too poor to send Nimitz to college, so he sought an appointment at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, but none were available. However, there was an appointment available through competitive exam to the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis.

Although Nimitz really did not have a strong interest in the Naval Academy, he decided to take the exams anyway. After rigorous study and tutoring by sympathetic friends and townsfolk, he passed and entered the Academy at age 16.

Chester Nimitz Cadet

Wikimedia CommonsChester Nimitz as a cadet, 1905.

According to naval historian Ian Toll, “…he was always popular with his classmates, and emerged as a natural leader.”

He graduated in 1905, seventh in his class. His entry in the academy yearbook, the Lucky Bag described vis-a-vis a line from William Wordsworth: “A man he seems of cheerful yesterdays and confident tomorrows.”

First Days At Sea

Decatue DD 5

Wikimedia CommonsThe destroyer, USS Decatur.

Nimitz was commissioned as an ensign after two years of sea duty in the Far East. His professional career had a rocky start. “I got frightfully seasick, and must confess to some chilling of enthusiasm for the sea,” he would later recall. But Nimitz early on showed a certain calmness in the face of disaster.

In one memorable episode on the USS Decatur, the ship was caught in a storm and the engineer telephoned Nimitz to inform him that the ship was sinking. Nimitz replied, “Just look on page 84 of Barton’s Engineering Manual. It will tell you what to do.” The ship was saved.

But there was to be a black mark on his career when he grounded the Decatur in the Philippines. He was court-martialed and reprimanded for neglect of duty.

Still, the optimistic Nimitz carried on. He went into the nascent submarine service, which was often a fast-track for command for budding officers. He commanded USS Snapper, USS Narwal, and USS Skipjack.

It was during this time that in 1912 he received a Silver Lifesaving Medal for rescuing W.J. Walsh, a second-class fireman from drowning. The next year he courted and wed Catherine Vance Freeman. They would have four children together.

War Clouds

USS_Narwhal_SSN 671

Wikimedia CommonsThe USS Narwhal, an early command of Chester Nimitz.

During the First World War, Chester Nimitz moved into the office of the Chief of Naval Operations and then became the executive officer of the battleship South Carolina.

He also attended the Naval War College where he studied “War Plan Orange” which was a theoretical strategy in the event of a war with Japan.

This plan, which did not anticipate the changes in technology that allowed for air and submarine power nevertheless formed the basis of Nimitz’s island hopping strategy of World War II.

He later recounted, “I was asked once how we were able to fight the war in the Pacific, and I said that we fought it just as we had fought it all on paper in the Naval War College. I fought the whole war of the Pacific when I was there in 1923.”

Nimitz With Gun Pistol

San Diego Air and Space Museum/FlickrAdmiral Nimitz taking aim.

His next notable stint was at the University of California where he established the first Naval Reserve Officers’ training unit. He headed the unit from 1926 to 1929.

Nimitz certainly had a sense of prescience at least according to his biographer who recorded that in the mid-1930s in response to his son’s question about his father’s career track, Nimitz said:

“I do believe we are going to have a major war, with Japan and Germany, and that the war is going to start by a very serious surprise attack and defeat of U.S. armed forces, and that there is going to be a major revulsion on the part of the political power in Washington against all those in command at sea, and they’re all going to be thrown out, though it won’t be their fault necessarily. And I wish to be in a position of sufficient prominence so that I will then be considered as one to be sent to sea….”

Getting The Hell Out To Pearl

Nimitz Grayling Change Command

Wikimedia Commons.Nimitz at the Change of Command Ceremony on the submarine Grayling in which he took command of the Pacific Fleet.

By December 7, 1941, Chester Nimitz was a Rear Admiral and the Chief of the Bureau of Navigation.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor and the chaos of the following days, President Roosevelt relieved Admiral Husband Kimmel as the Commander and Chief of the Pacific Fleet and selected Nimitz to replace him.

Roosevelt told the Secretary of War, “Tell Nimitz to get the hell out to Pearl and stay there till the war is won.” Nimitz was promoted to full admiral, skipping the rank of vice admiral.

Admiral Nimitz inherited a crisis. The fleet was compromised and the Japanese Empire was expanding rapidly throughout Asia and the Pacific.

Admiral Chester Nimitz At Sea

Bettman/Getty ImagesPacific Ship Conference-Left to right: Major General Ralph Smith (back turned), commanding Twenty-Seventh U.S. Infantry division; Admiral Chester W. Nimitz; Capt. M. O’Neill of the U.S. Coast Guard, commanding a transport, during a conference aboard ship in a Pacific port.

American morale was at a nadir and Admiral Nimitz took command at a sober ceremony on the submarine USS Grayling on December 31, 1941 for there were no battleships from which to transfer command.

He felt incredible pressure to turn the situation around. But his resources were limited not just because of the disaster at Pearl Harbor, but also by the Allied grand strategy of concentrating on Europe first. He was limited to attacking the Japanese periphery and small outposts.

The Admiral worried, writing to his wife in March 1942, “I will be lucky to last six months. The public may demand action and results faster than I can produce.”

Chester Nimitz’s Strength

Roosevelt Macarthur Nimitz

Wikimedia CommonsGeneral Douglas MacArthur, President Franklin Roosevelt, and Admiral Chester Nimitz.

Chester Nimitz’s great strength lay in his ability to act as part of a team and cultivate strong relationships. After an initial rocky start with his irascible superior, Admiral Ernest King, Commander in Chief of the U.S. Fleet, the pair developed a relationship of respect — which was apparently very hard to do considering Admiral King’s reputation for arrogance.

Nimitz also cultivated a strong team of subordinates, such as Admirals Raymond A. Spruance and William F. “Bull” Halsey.

Nimitz’s warm and accommodating personality that made him so popular is best seen in an anecdote in which a sailor “dropped in” on his headquarters to chat. Apparently the sailor had bet $20 to his shipmates that he could meet the Admiral. Instead of kicking the enlisted man out, Nimitz sent for a Navy photographer to provide evidence of the meeting.

Nimitz also developed a strong intelligence team which early on broke important Japanese codes that proved decisive during this critical period of the war.

Turning Point

Nimitz War Planning

Library of CongressNimitz looking at strategic maps during World War II.

It was from intelligence that Nimitz learned of Japanese movements that led to two critical battles. The first, the May 4 – 8, 1942 Battle of the Coral Sea, was a tactical win for the Japanese.

The U.S. Navy lost the carrier Lexington and suffered heavy damage on the carrier Yorktown but it showed Nimitz the importance of air power since it was the first battle in history to be fought entirely in the air. Strategically, it blunted Imperial Japan’s advance in New Guinea. The second battle was the famous Battle of Midway from June 4 to 7, 1942.

The battle was spurned on by Colonel Jimmy Doolittle’s air raid on Japan using land bombers launched from the decks of the U.S.S. Hornet. The raid, while having a limited military impact, incited the Japanese to attempt to expand their defensive perimeter by assailing the American base on the tiny atoll of Midway.

Yorktown Midway Torpedo Attack

Wikimedia CommonsThe Battle of Midway. USS Yorktown being attacked by torpedo.

Nimitz may have yielded and withdrawn the fleet to husband his carrier strength, but he made the strategic decision to use the intelligence of the impending attack to create an ambush. The Japanese launched three battle fleets at Midway which included four fleet carriers, while Nimitz only had two that were fully functional and the Yorktown, which was still recovering.

The battle, much like the Battle of Coral Sea, was fought almost entirely by air and resulted in an overwhelming American victory. Imperial Japan’s offensive was permanently blunted, its air power essentially lost. While the war would continue on for three more long years, Midway was the turning point.

British warships have arrived at Guam where they have been welcomed by the American Commander-in-Chief, Admiral Nimitz. The Admiral went abroad the King George V to inspect the ship’s Company.

The massive campaign that followed saw the United States exercise all its industrial and military power to the full. By the end of the war, Nimitz would command more men, aircraft, and ships than any other military leader in history.

Nimitz Missouri Surrender Ceremony

Wikimedia CommonsAdmiral Nimitz at the ceremony at which Japan gave its unconditional surrender.

At the formal Japanese surrender on September 2, 1945, on the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay, Admiral Nimitz signed as a representative of the United States. By this time he was a five-star Fleet Admiral, a rank that was created only the previous year by Congress.

Nimitz Truman Medal Ceremony

Wikimedia CommonsPresident Harry Truman shaking Admiral Chester Nimitz’s hand at a ceremony in which he was given the Distinguished Navy Service Medal.

October 5, 1945 was declared Nimitz Day in Washington DC. He received numerous decorations including the Navy Distinguished Service Medal and was awarded various orders from a dozen foreign nations including the United Kingdom, France, and China.

Later Years

Chester Nimitz And Family

Wikimedia CommonsAdmiral Chester Nimitz and his Family at a celebration in Washington, DC.

Chester Nimitz remained in the Navy immediately after the war, succeeding Admiral King as Chief of Naval Operations.

He oversaw the scale down of the massive U.S. Navy to peacetime footing as well as backing the use of nuclear power for the future fleet.

Nimitz National Portrait Gallery

Wikimedia CommonsPortrait of Admiral Chester Nimitz at the National Portrait Gallery.

While he formally retired as the Chief of Naval Operations on December 15, 1947, as a Fleet Admiral he was technically on active duty for the rest of his life and was given full pay.

He moved to Berkeley, California and took up some ceremonial roles as well as active ones such as being a Trustee for the University of California as well as a professor for the Naval reserve. Unassuming to the end, he did not write memoirs and did not care for people to fuss over him.

Chester Nimitz is featured in the upcoming World War II film Miday, played by actor Woody Harrelson.

Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz died on February 20, 1966 at age 80. His boyhood home in Fredericksburg, Texas is now incorporated into the National Museum of the Pacific War. His story, along with others from the most dramatic days of World War II is now told in the 2019 film Midway with Woody Harrelson playing Chester Nimitz.

Now that you’ve read up on the incredible career of Admiral Chester Nimitz, you should check out the story of famous American daredevil aviator Jimmy Doolittle who led the raid against Tokyo in response to Pearl Harbor, or the story of the Battle of Midway, the key turning point in the Pacific Theater of the Second World War.

Joseph Williams
Joseph A. Williams is a professional librarian and author of Seventeen Fathoms Deep and The Sunken Gold.