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First Name: Chester

Last Name: Nimitz

Birthplace: Fredricksburg, TX, USA

Gender: Male

Branch: Navy (present)


Middle Name: William

Date of Birth: 24 February 1885

Date of Death: 20 February 1966

Rank or Rate: Fleet Admiral

Years Served: 1905-1966
Chester William Nimitz

Graduate, U.S. Naval Academy, Class of 1905

•  World War I (1914 - 1918)
•  World War II (1941 - 1945)


Chester William Nimitz
Fleet Admiral

The Early Years

Chester William Nimitz, a Texan of German heritage, was the son of Chester Bernhard and Anna Henke Nimitz. He was born 24 February 1885 in a gingerbread hotel in Fredericksburg, TX, built by his grandfather, Charles H. Nimitz, a retired Captain in the German Merchant Marine. The captain equipped his hotel with a ship's bridge and a pilot house from which he could scan the hills and prairies. (That property is now the Admiral Nimitz State Historic Site.)

Chester's frail, rheumatic father died five months before he was born. In his early years, the future admiral was significantly influenced by his grandfather, from whom he heard many tall tales about the sea. His grandfather also taught him, "The Sea - like life itself - is a stern taskmaster. The best way to get along with either is to learn all you can, then do your best and don't worry - especially about things over which you have no control."

But young Nimitz dreamed of being a soldier, not a sailor. While in high school, he tried for an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy in hopes of becoming an Army officer, but there were no appointments available. His congressman, James L. Slayden, told him that he had one appointment available for the Navy and that he would award it to the best qualified candidate. Nimitz felt that this was his only opportunity for further education and spent extra time studying to earn the appointment. He took a competitive examination for Annapolis when he was only 15 years old and was accepted. He left high school to enter the Naval Academy and was not awarded his high school diploma until many years later, after he had retired from active Navy duty. [He was probably the only person ever to graduate from high school wearing the uniform of a 5-star fleet admiral.] Nimitz was appointed to the U.S. Naval Academy from Texas's 12th Congressional District on 7 September 1901.

At the Naval Academy, Nimitz excelled in mathematics and in physical exercise. He was sometimes called "Matty" because his proficiency in sit-up exercises was second only to that of Matty Strohm, the Academy's physical education instructor. [He was also known to his USNA classmates as "Natchew," "Nonnie," or "Nim-i-tiz."] Nimitz stroked the crew in 1905, the year he graduated. In the Academy yearbook, "The Lucky Bag," he was described as a man "of cheerful yesterdays and confident tomorrows." Nimitz graduated with distinction on 30 January 1905; seventh in a class of 114.

Military Career

Nimitz' first assignment was as a Warrant Officer aboard the battleship USS Ohio (BB-12) and he joined the ship at San Francisco. [Until 1912, a Midshipman graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy was required to have two years of sea duty as a warrant officer before receiving a commission as an Ensign.] Designated flagship of the Asiatic Fleet, Ohio departed San Francisco on 1 April 1905 for Manila, where she embarked the party of then Secretary of War William Howard Taft, which included Miss Alice Roosevelt, President Theodore Roosevelt's daughter. She conducted this party on much of its Far Eastern tour of inspection, and continued the cruise in Japanese, Chinese, and Philippine waters until returning to the U.S. in 1907.

On 15 September 1906, Nimitz was transferred to the cruiser USS Baltimore (C-3); and, on 26 September 1907, after the two years' sea duty required by law, he was commissioned as an Ensign with date of rank from 2 February of that year. He said later that he was not overly enthusiastic at his first experiences with the sea. "I got frightfully seasick, and must confess to some chilling of enthusiasm for the sea," he said.

Remaining on Asiatic Station in 1907, he next served on the gunboat USS Panay (1899). Panay was repaired and re-commissioned on 12 January 1907, Warrant Officer (Ensign from 2 February 1907) Chester W. Nimitz in command. Assigned to patrol Mindanao, Nimitz took Panay, his first command, ("my first command," he later recalled, "and what a fine ship I thought she was") into many of the small ports to show the flag. He also commanded the naval station at Polloc. Returning to Cavite in July, Nimitz and his men were assigned to re-commission the torpedo boat destroyer USS Decatur (DD-5), and Panay went into reserve, decommissioning on 5 October 1907.

Ensign Nimitz was a handsome, self-assured young officer who ensured that he knew the technical phases of his profession. In his early days in the Navy, he commanded a variety of obsolete minor vessels and was much pleased when he received command of the old Decatur. During a storm, the engineer of the destroyer telephoned from the engine room that the vessel was taking on water rapidly and would soon sink. Nimitz replied soothingly: "Just look on page 84 of 'Barton's Engineering Manual.' It will tell you what to do." The vessel was saved.

Based at Cavite, Decatur made infrequent cruises, including one to the southern Philippines in January-February 1908 and to Saigon in May 1908. On 7 July 1908, Decatur entered Batangas Harbor south of Manila Bay. Nimitz apparently estimated the ship's position, rather than taking bearings, but failed to account for tidal variances. Consequently, Decatur grounded on a sand bar at about the mid-point in the first watch, and remained fast. The U.S. Army Transport Wright failed in four tries to pull the warship free. Ultimately, the steamer Buena Lurte, alerted to Decatur's plight, pulled the torpedo boat destroyer free during the mid watch on 8 July. Nimitz duly reported the incident, and a general court martial, convened on board USS Denver (C-14) at Cavite, Philippines, arraigned and tried him on a charge of "culpable inefficiency in the performance of duty." However, due to his previously spotless record and the poor conditions of the available charts of the bay, the board reduced the charges, finding him "guilty in a less degree than charged...of neglect of duty," on 1 August 1908. He received a letter of reprimand from the Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Naval Force in Philippine Waters.

He served for eleven days on the cruiser USS Denver, the ship on which his court martial took place, and then served on USS Ranger from 12 August 1908-26 January 1909 for passage back to Boston, MA, via the Suez Canal. Ranger was then converted to a school ship and loaned to the State of Massachusetts as a school ship to replace USS Enterprise at the Massachusetts Nautical Training School.

In January 1909, Nimitz was given duty "under instruction" with the First Submarine Flotilla. On 3 May of that year he was given command of the flotilla, with additional duty commanding USS Plunger (SS-2), later renamed A-1. Nimitz was sent to the Boston Navy Yard in connection with fitting out USS Snapper (SS-16) (later renamed C-5. He reported for duty on 26 January 1910, and took command when that submarine was commissioned on 2 February 1910. (On 12 March, Nimitz received simultaneous promotions, first to lieutenant (j.g.) and then to lieutenant, with rank from 31 January 1910.) Nimitz then served a tour of temporary additional duty (under instruction in torpedoes) at the Naval Torpedo Station, Newport, RI, after which he assumed command of USS Narwhal (SS-17) on 18 November. In this command he was given additional duty, from 10 October 1911, as Commander 3rd Submarine Flotilla, upon completion of battle practice.

Nimitz was ordered to the Boston Navy Yard in November 1911 to assist in fitting out USS Skipjack (SS-24) and assumed command of that submarine, which had been renamed E-1, at her commissioning on 14 February 1912.

On 20 March 1912, Fireman Second Class W.J. Walsh fell overboard while helping to haul a steam launch on board USS Tonopah (BM-8) at Hampton Roads, VA. A strong tide carried Walsh, a non-swimmer, away from the ship. Nimitz, on Tonopah's quarterdeck at the time, immediately jumped in the water and went to Walsh's aid. The strong tide, however, carried both men away from the ship, and the enlisted man struggled, interfering with the officer's attempt to save his life. MM2c L.G. Kaufman threw a life buoy in the water and then dove in and helped the exhausted Nimitz keep Walsh afloat. Soon thereafter, a passing motor launch from North Carolina (ACR-12) picked up all three men. The Treasury Department later awarded Nimitz the Silver Lifesaving Medal. [Nimitz proudly wore this medal throughout the remainder of his career, along with the five Distinguished Service Medal awards he received for wartime exploits.]

After commanding the Atlantic Submarine Flotilla from May 1912 to March 1913, he supervised the building of diesel engines for the tanker USS Maumee (AO-2), under construction at the New London Ship and Engine Company, Groton, CT.

World War I

In the summer of 1913, Nimitz studied engines at the diesel engine plants in Nuremberg, Germany, and Ghent, Belgium. (He was promoted to Lieutenant Commander on 29 August 1916.) Returning to the New York Navy Yard, he became Executive and Engineer Officer of the fleet oiler Maumee on her commissioning, 23 October 1916. After the U.S. declared war on Germany in April 1917, Nimitz was on board the Maumee when it served as a refueling ship for the first squadron of U.S. Navy destroyers to cross the Atlantic to participate in the war. During this time Maumee conducted the first ever underway refuelings.

On 10 August 1917, Nimitz reported on board the protected cruiser Chicago "for duty in connection with submarines" and soon became an aide on the staff of Rear Admiral Samuel S. Robison, Commander, Submarine Force, U.S. Atlantic Fleet (COMSUBLANT). Nimitz was promoted to Commander on 19 February 1918 with date of rank 1 February and, five days later was appointed Chief of Staff (he was later awarded a Letter of Commendation for meritorious service as COMSUBLANT's Chief of Staff). Nimitz later remembered that duty fondly saying "with this assignment I made contact with one of the finest men in the Navy, whose ability and high character have always been an inspiration to me."

He also served on a Board of Standardization of Submarines (October 1917) and had "temporary additional duty in connection with submarines operating in European waters" (May 1918) which he later wrote involved "getting our submarines ready and then across the Atlantic to operate with the Allies." Submarines at that time, Nimitz said, were still regarded "as a cross between a Jules Verne fantasy and a whale."On 14 September, he reported to the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations and, on 25 October, he was given additional duty as Senior Member, Board of Submarine Design.

Between the Wars

Nimitz served as Executive Officer of the battleship USS South Carolina (BB-26) from May 1919 to 20 May 1920, when he was to proceed to the 5th Naval District "in connection with [the] assembly of material for shipment to [the] Submarine Base, Pearl Harbor," Territory of Hawaii. Detached from that duty on 7 June, he was ordered "to take passage on [an] Army transport sailing about July 5, 1920, for Honolulu." He arrived at Naval Station, Pearl Harbor, on 11 July, to oversee the building of a submarine base. Soon thereafter, he assumed command of protected cruiser USS Chicago (CA-14) on 17 July, with additional duties as Commander, Submarine Division (SubDiv) 14, Pearl Harbor.

He returned to the U.S. on 7 April 1922 on board the transport Argonne (AP-4), and traveled to the Naval War College at Newport, RI, to begin instruction. In June 1923, he served as Aide and Assistant Chief of Staff to Commander Battle Fleet, Admiral Edward W. Eberle, and later to serve with Admiral Robison again, who had risen to be the Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Fleet. In August 1926 he went to the University of California, Berkeley to establish the Navy's first Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps unit. He later remembered that assignment as being "new ground and [where] there were no precedents on which to base one's actions." During that tour, he was promoted to Captain on 2 June 1927.

Nimitz lost part of one finger in an accident with a diesel engine; the rest of it was saved when the machine jammed against his Annapolis ring. Even through the excruciating pain, Nimitz continued to bark orders.

On 15 June 1929 he took command of Submarine Division 20 (re-designated SubDiv 12 on 1 April 1931). On 17 June 1931 he assumed command of the destroyer tender USS Rigel (AD-13) and the decommissioned destroyers that were laid up at the Destroyer Base in San Diego, CA. He took command of the cruiser USS Augusta (CA-31) on 16 October 1933 and deployed to the Far East, where in December Augusta relieved the heavy cruiser USS Houston (CA-30) as flagship for Admiral Frank B. Upham, Commander in Chief, U.S. Asiatic Fleet. In April 1935, Nimitz returned to Washington and reported to the Bureau of Navigation (BuNav) on 28 May, becoming Assistant to the Chief of the Bureau, Rear Admiral William D. Leahy (relieved by Rear Admiral Adolphus Andrews) on 1 June.

Designated as Commander, Cruiser Division 2, Battle Force, he was to report for duty on 9 July 1938. On 23 June 1938, Nimitz was promoted from Captain to the two-star rank of Rear Admiral Upper Half. [At the time of this promotion, the U.S. Navy did not maintain a one-star rank; thus the promotion directly to Rear Admiral (UH).] In September 1938 he broke his flag in battleship USS Arizona (BB-39) as Commander of Battleship Division 1, Battle Force. On 15 June 1939 he returned to Washington and was appointed Chief of the Bureau of Navigation for a term of four years.

In 1940, Admiral Nimitz's name was one of two submitted for the post of Commander-in-Chief of the Pacific Fleet. The other was that of Admiral Husband E. Kimmel, who got the assignment.

However, before Nimitz could complete his tour as Bureau Chief, the Japanese initiated hostilities in the Pacific with simultaneous operations on a wide front, including a surprise attack on the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941.

World War II

On 7 December 1941, Admiral Nimitz was in his home in Washington listening to a symphony on the radio when he heard the news that Pearl Harbor had been attacked. He picked up his hat and went down to the office of the Chief of Naval Operations for orders. Ten days later, Admiral Kimmel was relieved of command and Admiral Nimitz was selected as Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Pacific Fleet (CINCPAC), and left for Pearl Harbor in the submarine USS Grayling (SS-209). By Congressional Appointment, he skipped the rank of a three-star Vice Admiral and became a full Admiral effective from 31 December 1941.

Admiral Nimitz made the train trip from Washington, DC, to the West Coast in civilian clothes and under an assumed name. Catherine Nimitz missed her sewing bag, and it was not until many months later that she learned that her husband had used it to carry secret documents dealing with the extent of damage to the fleet in the Pearl Harbor attack.

Assuming command at the most critical period of the war in the Pacific, Admiral Nimitz, despite the losses from the attack on Pearl Harbor and the shortage of ships, planes and supplies, successfully organized his forces to halt the Japanese advance. When he took over command of the Pacific Fleet, Nimitz was quick to see that a great weakness existed due to the lack of forward repair stations and maintenance squadrons. When those squadrons came into being, at his insistence, the Navy was prepared to take the fight to the Japanese.

The 65 million square miles of the Pacific became well known to Admiral Nimitz as he contemplated the operations charts that were to carry the story of defeat and victory in the next few years. While waiting for the U. S. shipyards to turn out the ships he needed, Admiral Nimitz built up his combat teams. These were commanded by Admirals William F. Halsey, Jr.; Marc A. Mitschner; Richmond K. Turner; Raymond A. Spruance; and Thomas C. Kincaid. Admiral Nimitz handled these complex men with skill and insight, as he did everyone.

Deploying his surviving aircraft carriers (which were fortunately away from Pearl Harbor at the time of the Japanese' bold strike) with supporting cruisers and destroyers, Nimitz adopted the principle of the strategic defensive. He struck at the enemy in a series of surprise raids -- the Marshalls and Gilberts, Wake, Marcus, Lae and Salamaua -- that culminated in the Halsey-Doolittle Raid on Japan on 18 April 1942.

On 24 March 1942, the newly-formed US - British Combined Chiefs of Staff issued a directive designating the Pacific Theater an area of American strategic responsibility. Six days later the US Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) divided the theater into three areas: the Pacific Ocean Areas (POA), the Southwest Pacific Area (SWPA, commanded by General Douglas MacArthur), and the South East Pacific Area. The JCS designated Nimitz as Commander in Chief, Pacific Ocean Areas (CINCPOA) with operational control over all Allied units (air, land, and sea) in that area.

To avoid any protocol friction, he flew to Australia to call on General Douglas MacArthur, the Southwest Pacific Area (SWPA) commander. Once, when a sailor from Texas dropped in on him at Pacific Fleet headquarters to chat, Admiral Nimitz sent for a Navy photographer to take a picture. "It seems that his shipmates bet him $20 he wouldn't get to see me," the admiral explained. "I wanted him to have the evidence."

The first major Pacific naval battle after Pearl Harbor came on 8 May 1942, in the Coral Sea. This was the world's first naval battle fought entirely in the air; the carriers never even saw each other or exchanged fire between surface vessels. It was adjudged an American success, although the Japanese shot down many U.S. planes. The aircraft carrier Lexington was lost to Japanese bombs, but the Coral Sea victory saved Australia and New Zealand from invasion.

As rapidly as ships, men, and material became available, Nimitz shifted to the offensive and defeated the Japanese navy in the pivotal Battle of Midway. The victory at Midway removed the Japanese Navy as an immediate threat to Hawaii, the Panama Canal, and the United States.

Aircraft Crash in San Francisco Bay

The Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco, in its Chronology of 1942 San Francisco War Events, contains this brief entry:

June 30, 1942
Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz barely escaped death today when his plane crashed into the Alameda Estuary near the San Francisco County line.
[Actually, Nimitz was not yet a fleet admiral; that didn't occur until 19 December 1944.]

On the morning of 30 June 1942, Admiral Nimitz and key members of his staff were aboard a four-engine Sikorsky XPBS-1 amphibian airplane making an unannounced visit to NAS Alameda. The plane also carried a top-secret briefcase containing the CINCPAC action report of the Battle of Midway. Due to tailwinds, the aircraft arrived ahead of schedule and the boats that were sent out to clear the landing area of floating objects hadn't yet completed their patrols. As it landed, the aircraft struck a large floating object that ripped away the bottom of its fuselage and flipped the plane onto its back. At this point, the balance of the story will be told by a brief excerpt from the excellent book, "Nimitz" by Elmer Belmont Potter, Naval Institute Press, 1976.

When the inverted cabin began to fill with water, everyone inside, disregarding broken bones, made for an open freight hatch. As they clambered out onto what had been the underside of a wing, Mercer [Commander Preston V. Mercer, Flag Secretary to Admiral Nimitz] anxiously asked Nimitz if he was hurt. "I'm all right," replied the admiral, "but for God's sake save that briefcase."

Already the debris-collecting boats were heading for the topsy-turvy plane, which was slowly settling. Everybody in the cabin was able to get out, but rescuing the pilots and crew members from the cockpit and adjacent spaces took some doing. Admiral Nimitz refused to go ashore while men were still trapped inside the plane. He and his fellow passengers, soaking wet and shivering, were still standing on the wing when a crash boat arrived with crew, two medical officers, and several corpsman.

The medics climbed onto the wing, and while the doctors examined the more seriously injured men, corpsmen and boat crews guided or lifted passengers and plane crewman into the boats. Everything had to be done in haste before the plane went down. Each time a corpsman with an armful of blankets draped one around Nimitz's shoulders, the admiral took it off and wrapped it around an injured man.

At last everybody was out of the plane. All except Nimitz and Mercer had suffered at least broken bones. One of the pilots had been killed. Corpsmen tried politely to lead Nimitz into one of the boats, but in his deep concern he would not let himself be conducted from the wing while there were still injured men there. Inadvertently, he was making a nuisance of himself. At last an 18 year-old boat crewman from Texas, a Seaman Second Class with vague notions about insignia and rank, turned to the admiral and shouted, "Commander, if you would only get the hell out of the way, maybe we could get something done around here." Without replying, Nimitz meekly stepped into the crew boat.

As the boat pulled away from the plane, Nimitz, at last wrapped in a blanket, stood in the stern watching the rescue proceedings.

"Sit down, you!" yelled the coxswain.

When Nimitz obeyed, the sailor caught sight of his uniform sleeve with more gold stripes than he had ever seen before. He reddened and tried to apologize.

"Stick to your guns, sailor," said Nimitz gently. "You were quite right."

[This brief story of the plane crash gives real insight into the personal character of Admiral Chester W. Nimitz.]

The Guadalcanal campaign that was fought between 7 August 1942 and 9 February 1943 was a significant strategic combined arms victory by Allied forces over the Japanese in the Pacific Theatre. The Japanese had reached the high-water mark of their conquests in the Pacific, and Guadalcanal marked the transition by the Allies from defensive operations to the strategic offensive in that theatre and the beginning of offensive operations that resulted in Japan's eventual surrender and the end of World War II. It also protected the vital convoy routes between the US, Australia, and New Zealand.

During the first half of 1944, Admiral Nimitz employed the main fighting strength of the Pacific Navy in the central Pacific. The bloody victory at Tarawa was followed by the "great turkey shoot" in the Marianas, where U.S. aviators shot down 402 out of the 545 Japanese planes they saw.

At his headquarters at Pearl Harbor, Admiral Nimitz set an example to his staff by keeping in the peak of physical condition. He swam and took long walks; his pet schnauzer dog trotting along beside him. At night, he sometimes took a drink of bourbon whisky to relax. While waiting for news of a Navy engagement, he would go to the firing range and grimly fire his pistol, or stand in his kitchen and make jelly from the prickly pears he grew outside his quarters. Subordinates dutifully tasted the jelly, which he made with a recipe from his boyhood days.

By Act of Congress, approved 14 December 1944, the grade of Fleet Admiral of the United States Navy - with 5-stars, the highest grade in the Navy - was established and the next day President of the United States Franklin Roosevelt appointed Admiral Nimitz to that rank. Nimitz took the oath of that office on 19 December 1944 with that date of rank. (Two other Admirals were promoted to Fleet Admiral of the United States Navy with dates of rank ahead of Nimitz: William D. Leahy with a DOR of 15 December 1944 and Ernest King with a DOR of 17 December 1944. Only one other Admiral received promotion to Fleet Admiral: William Halsey, Jr. with a DOR of 11 December 1945.)

In the final phases in the war in the Pacific, he attacked the Mariana Islands, inflicting a decisive defeat on the Japanese Fleet in the Battle of the Philippine Sea, and capturing Saipan, Guam, and Tinian. His Fleet Forces isolated enemy-held bastions of the Central and Eastern Caroline Islands and secured in quick succession Peleliu, Angaur, and Ulithi. In the Philippines, his ships turned back powerful task forces of the Japanese Fleet, a historic victory in the multi-phased Battle for Leyte Gulf 24-26 October 1944. Fleet Admiral Nimitz culminated his long-range strategy by successful amphibious assaults on Iwo Jima and Okinawa. In addition, Nimitz also ordered the United States Army Air Forces to mine the Japanese ports and waterways by air with B-29 Superfortresses in a successful mission called Operation Starvation, which severely interrupted the Japanese logistics.

In January 1945, Nimitz moved the headquarters of the Pacific Fleet forward from Pearl Harbor to Guam for the remainder of the war. Mrs. Nimitz remained in the continental United States for the duration of the war, and did not join her husband in Hawaii or Guam.

On 2 September 1945, Nimitz signed for the United States when Japan formally surrendered on board the USS Missouri (BB-63) in Tokyo Bay. On 5 October 1945, which had been officially designated as "Nimitz Day" in Washington, DC, Admiral Nimitz was personally presented a Gold Star in lieu of the third Distinguished Service Medal by the President Harry S. Truman "for exceptionally meritorious service as Commander in Chief, U.S. Pacific Fleet and Pacific Ocean Areas, from June 1944 to August 1945...." The operations recognized in that citation ranged from the attack on the Marianas, the invasion of Saipan and the Battle of the Philippine Sea to the isolation of the central and eastern Carolines and the securing of Peleliu, Angaur, and Ulithi; from the Battle of Leyte Gulf to the amphibious invasions of Iwo Jima and Okinawa, and the final placement of "representative forces of the United States Navy in the harbor of Tokyo for the final capitulation of the Japanese Empire..."


On 26 November 1945, Nimitz' nomination as Chief of Naval Operations was confirmed by the US Senate and, on 15 December 1945, he relieved Fleet Admiral Ernest J. King. He had assured the President that he was willing to serve as the CNO for one two-year term, but no longer. He tackled the difficult task of reducing the most powerful Navy in the world to a fraction of its war-time strength, while establishing and overseeing active and reserve fleets with the strength and readiness required to support national policy. He supported the development of nuclear propulsion, as well as nuclear weapons; assisted Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal in his efforts to formulate the Navy's position concerning the unification of the armed forces; and worked on determining the Navy's mission in view of the growing threat posed by the Soviet Union.

For the post-war trial of German Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz at the Nuremberg Trials in 1946, Admiral Nimitz furnished an affidavit in support of the practice of unrestricted submarine warfare, a practice that he himself had employed throughout the war in the Pacific. This evidence is widely credited as a reason why Dönitz was only sentenced to 10 years of imprisonment. After Dönitz was released, Admiral Nimitz went to visit him. [To understand why Admiral Nimitz offered support for Dönitz, it would be helpful to read what occurred during the actual event, The Laconia Incident.]

The Laconia Incident

It was early in the morning of September 15, 1942, when Ascension Island's British liaison notified Captain Richardson that the troopship RMS Laconia had been torpedoed. Later that morning, a transiting A-20 reported sighting and taking fire from, two German submarines. Two dispatched B-25 bombers found neither the submarines nor the Laconia. At 2200 hours that night, Richardson was asked to assist in rescue efforts by providing air cover for the enroute merchant ships, the nearby Empire Haven and the HMS Corinthian at Takoorida. The next day, a transiting B-24D was sent to investigate and found four U-boats displaying a Red Cross flag and engaged in rescue operations from the sinking of RMS Laconia. The commander of submarine U-156, Lt. Cmdr. Werner Hartenstein, had secured permission to conduct rescue operations after discovering that the ship he had just torpedoed carried 1,800 Italian prisoners and a few hundred British and Polish soldiers. U-156 was crammed above and below decks with nearly two hundred survivors, including five women, and had another 200 in tow aboard four lifeboats. The patrolling bomber, loaded with depth charges and bombs, reported that the submarine had a White Flag with a Red Cross and they had unsuccessfully challenged the submarine via radio to display its national flag. The submarine blinked, via signal light, what the bomber crew understood to say "German Sir." The bomber crew asked Ascension Island what to do next.

The German Navy had notified British authorities of the rescue operations, but the British thought it was a trick and didn't communicate the information to the U.S. forces on Ascension Island. Not knowing that this was a Red Cross-sanctioned German rescue operation, Richardson, made a tactical assessment of the potential threat that the U-boats posed to the unarmed British rescue ships enroute, as well as the possibility that the U-boats could discover and shell the airfield and its vulnerable fuel tanks, thus cutting off this critical Allied air route. Richardson then ordered the B-24 to "bomb the sub." After the (unsuccessful) attack ordered by Richardson, the U-boats, under German Navy command, were ordered to cease all rescue operations and depart the area. A majority of the survivors were later rescued by British merchant ships and by two unarmed Vichy French warships, the cruiser Gloire and the sloop Annamite, out of Dakar, Africa.

This action led Admiral Karl Doenitz, Chief of German Submarine Operations, to issue the Triton Null signal (which came to be known as the "Laconia Order") to his U-boat commanders on September 17, 1942, that stated in part, "No attempt of any kind must be made at rescuing members of ships sunk..." The United States Navy in the Pacific Theater of Operations then used his decision to justify their unrestricted submarine warfare. After the war ended, the Laconia Order was used, unsuccessfully, against Admiral Doenitz in his war crime trial. That was due to Admiral Nimitz's testimony that, because of this incident, he too had ordered his submarine crews not to rescue anybody under similar circumstances. [The Laconia Incident is a prime example of how a lack of communication, and the small tactical decision that resulted, can have a strategic impact across history.]

Inactive Duty as a Fleet Admiral

On 15 December 1947, Nimitz retired from office of Chief of Naval Operations and received a third Gold Star in lieu of a fourth Navy Distinguished Service Medal. However, since the rank of Fleet Admiral is a lifetime appointment, he would remain on active duty for the rest of his life with full pay and benefits. He and his wife Catherine moved to Berkeley, CA. But after he suffered a serious fall in 1964, he and Catherine moved to U.S. Naval Quarters One on Yerba Buena Island in San Francisco Bay.

In San Francisco, he served as a Special Assistant to the Secretary of the Navy in the Western Sea Frontier, a mostly ceremonial post. He was also suggested as a United Nations envoy to help mediate the Kashmir dispute, but due to the deterioration of relations between India and Pakistan, the mission did not take place.

After World War II, Nimitz worked to help restore goodwill with Japan by helping to raise funds for the restoration of the Japanese Imperial Navy battleship Mikasa, Admiral Heihachiro Togo's flagship at the Battle of Tsushima in 1905.

It is important to understand that Mikasa was never used in battle against the United States. In fact, she was decommissioned on 20 September 1923 and, from 12 November 1925 onward, Mikasa had been a Museum Ship on public display in Yokosuka, Japan. During World War II, Mikasa was bombed during various air raids by the U.S. Army Air Forces. Following Japan's defeat, the American occupation forces confiscated Mikasa and dismantled her guns, leaving her in very poor state. A preservation movement resumed in 1958, with U.S. participation through financial support and the direct involvement of Admiral Chester Nimitz. Restoration work was completed on 27 May 1961, at a cost of 180 million yen. A substantial quantity of the missing parts and fittings were provided from the Chilean Navy battleship Almirante Latorre, which was being scrapped in Japan at the time. Currently, the tourist brochure given to visitors boarding the Mikasa describes the ship as one of the "Four Great Historical Warships of the World" together with Victory in Portsmouth, United Kingdom; USS Constitution in Boston, USA; and the monitor Huáscar in Talcahuano, Chile.

Nimitz became a member of the Bohemian Club of San Francisco; a private men's club that has a diverse membership of many local and global leaders, ranging from artists and musicians to businessmen. In 1948, Nimitz sponsored a Bohemian dinner in honor of Army General Mark Clark, known for his campaigns in North Africa and Italy.

Nimitz served as a Regent of the University of California from 1948-1956, where he had formerly been a faculty member as a Professor of Naval Science for the NROTC program. Nimitz was honored on 17 October 1964, by the University of California on Nimitz Day.

Military Insignia, Medals and Awards

Awards from United States

Submarine Warfare Insignia
Navy Distinguished Service Medal with 3 Gold Stars
Army Distinguished Service Medal
Silver Lifesaving Medal
World War I Victory Medal with Secretary of the Navy Commendation Star
American Defense Service Medal
Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal
American Campaign Medal
World War II Victory Medal
National Defense Service Medal with Bronze Star

Foreign Awards

United Kingdom - Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath
United Kingdom - Pacific Star
France - Légion d'honneur
Philippines - Philippine Medal of Valor
Philippines - Liberation Medal with One Bronze Service Star
Netherlands - Order of Orange-Nassau with Swords in the Degree of the Knight Grand Cross (Dutch: Orde van Oranje Nassau in de graad Ridder Grootkruis)
Greece - Grand Cross of the Order of George I
China - Grand Cordon of Pao Ting (Tripod) Special Class
Guatemala - Cross of Military Merit First Class (Spanish: La Cruz de Merito Militar de Primera Clase)
Cuba - Grand Cross of the Order of Carlos Manuel de Cespedes
Argentina - Order of the Liberator (Spanish: Orden del Libertador San Martin)
Ecuador - Star of Abdon Calderon (1st Class)
Belgium - Grand Cross Order of the Crown (Belgium) with Palm (French: Grand Croix de l'ordre de la Couronne avec palme)
Belgium - Cross of War with Palm (French: Croix de Guerre Avec Palme)
Italy - Knight of the Grand Cross of the Military Order of Italy (Cavaliere di Gran Croce)
Brazil - Order of Naval Merit (Ordem do Merito Naval)

Honors and Memorials

Besides the honor of a United States Great Americans series 50¢ postage stamp, nineteen universities and colleges awarded him honorary degrees.

The following have been named in honor of Nimitz:

• USS Nimitz (CVN-68), the first of her class of ten nuclear-powered supercarriers. She was commissioned in 1975 and remains in service.
• Nimitz Foundation, established in 1970, which funds the National Museum of the Pacific War.
• The Nimitz Freeway (Interstate 880) - from Oakland to San Jose, CA, in the San Francisco Bay Area.
• Nimitz Glacier in Antarctica for his service during Operation Highjump as the CNO.
• Nimitz Boulevard - a major throughfare in the Point Loma Neighborhood of San Diego.
• Camp Nimitz, a recruit camp constructed in 1955 at the Naval Training Center, San Diego.
• The Nimitz Highway - Hawaiian state route 92 on Oahu.
• The Nimitz Library, the main library at the U.S. Naval Academy, Annapolis, MD.
• Callaghan Hall (the Naval and Air Force ROTC building at UC Berkeley) containing the "Nimitz Library" was gutted by arson in 1985.
• The town of Nimitz in Summers County, WV.
• Nimitz Middle School in San Antonio, TX.
• Nimitz Hill, Former site of Commander of Naval Forces Marianas (ComNavMar) Guam
• Admiral Chester W. Nimitz Elementary School, a Department of Education, State of Hawaii school, first opened in September, 1954, in Honolulu, HI.

Personal Life

Nimitz married Catherine Vance Freeman (22 March 1892 - 1 February 1979), the daughter of a shipping broker, on 9 April 1913, in Wollaston, MA. Lieutenant Nimitz notified a friend by writing: "On April 9, I had the good sense to marry Catherine Vance Freeman of Wollaston, Massachusetts." By way of a honeymoon, the young naval officer was assigned to study diesel engines in Germany and Belgium for a year.

Chester and Catherine Nimitz had four children:

Catherine Vance "Kate" Nimitz (born 1914). Catherine Vance graduated from the University of California, Berkeley in 1934, became a music librarian with the Washington DC Public Library, and married U.S. Navy Commander (retired as Captain) James Thomas Lay (1909-2001http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chester_W._Nimitz - cite_note-15), from St. Clair, MO, in Chester and Catherine's suite at the Fairfax Hotel in Washington, DC, on 9 March 1945. She had met Lay in the summer of 1934 while visiting her parents in Southeast Asia.

Chester William "Chet" Nimitz, Jr. (1915-2002). Chester W. Nimitz, Jr., graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1936, and he served as a submariner in the Navy until his retirement in 1957, reaching the (post-retirement) rank of Rear Admiral; he served as chairman of PerkinElmer from 1969-1980. Nimitz married Joan Leona Labern at the Mare Island Naval Shipyard on 18 June 1938. She was born in León, Nicaragua in 1912 to British parents. The health of Chester and his wife, Joan, deteriorated in later years. Joan was blind, and Chester had lost 30 pounds due to a prolonged stomach disorder; he was also suffering from congestive heart failure. On 2 January 2002, Chester and Joan committed suicide by ingesting a quantity of sleeping pills in their home at a retirement residence in Needham, MA.

Anna Elizabeth "Nancy" Nimitz (1919-2003). Anna was an expert on the Soviet economy at the RAND Corporation from 1952 until her retirement in the 1980s.

Mary Manson Nimitz (1931-2006). Nimitz, assuming the name Sister Mary Aquinas, became a sister in the Order of Preachers (Dominicans). She served at Dominican University of California teaching biology for 16 years; was academic dean for 11 years; was acting president for 1 year; and was vice president for institutional research for 13 years, before becoming the University's Emergency Preparedness Coordinator. She held this job until her death on 27 February 2006 when she lost her battle with cancer.

Death and Burial

Chester William Nimitz suffered a cerebral thrombosis (stroke) in December 1965, which was then complicated by pneumonia. In January 1966, he left the U.S. Naval Hospital (Oak Knoll) in Oakland to return home to his naval quarters. He died the evening of 20 February 1966 (4 days before his 81st birthday) at Quarters One on Yerba Buena Island in San Francisco Bay.

On Thursday, 24 February 1966, his birthday, Nimitz' body lay in state for one and a half hours at the chapel of the Treasure Island Naval Base. That afternoon, a graveside service and burial was held at Golden Gate National Cemetery in nearby San Bruno. Typical of his modest, self-effacing character, Nimitz had requested simple ceremonies incident to his burial at the Golden Gate National Cemetery which he chose as "a final resting place close to those who died in the Pacific."

Nimitz was survived by his wife, Catherine; his son, Rear Admiral Chester W. Nimitz Jr., retired; and three daughters; Mrs. Catherine Vance Lay of Newport, RI; Mary Monson Nimitz, a nun in the Dominican Convent at San Rafael, CA; and Miss Anne Elizabeth Nimitz of Topanga, CA.

Catherine passed away at age 86 on 1 February 1979 and was buried beside her husband at Golden Gate National Cemetery.

Final Remarks

As a teenager, Chester Nimitz wanted to attend the U.S. Military Academy and be a soldier. When an appointment to West Point wasn't available, he decided that being a sailor would suffice and attended the U.S. Naval Academy.

On his first duty at sea, he got terribly seasick and admitted that his enthusiasm for the sea "had chilled somewhat." Three years after graduating from Annapolis, Nimitz received a court-martial and reprimand for running his second command, the destroyer Decatur, aground. Most would agree that this wasn't exactly an auspicious start for a young sea-faring officer.

Four years later, Nimitz risked his life to rescue an enlisted man from drowning and was awarded his first medal. He married Catherine the following year. His career gave him a broad range of duties ashore and at sea, including the commands of destroyers, submarines, cruisers and battleships. He also began being considered an expert on the topics of diesel engines and undersea warfare. So, despite the early court-martial and reprimand, Nimitz's advancement through the naval ranks was swift. 

As a two-star rear admiral in 1940, Nimitz's name was one of two submitted for the post of Commander-in-Chief of the Pacific Fleet, headquartered at Pearl Harbor. The other name was that of Husband E. Kimmel, who got the assignment and took command in February 1941. Ten days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Kimmel was removed from command for failing to prepare appropriately and to react quickly and adequately. He was reduced to his permanent two-star rank of rear admiral and Nimitz was chosen to replace him.

Was it actually good fortune for both the United States, and Nimitz, that he was initially 'passed over' for the command? Consider this: In a 1964 interview, Admiral Nimitz concluded that "it was God's mercy that our fleet was in Pearl Harbor on December 7." If Admiral Kimmel, "had advance notice that the Japanese were coming, he most probably would have tried to intercept them. With the difference in speed between Kimmel's battleships and the faster Japanese carriers, the former could not have come within rifle range of the enemy's flattops. As a result, we would have lost many ships in deep water and also thousands more in lives."

Instead, at Pearl Harbor, most of the crews were easily rescued, and six battleships were ultimately raised. [If Nimitz had been in command, would he have reacted as he related above? If he did and the results were what he discussed, would he have been relieved of command? Could this sequence of events then have totally changed the outcome of the war in the Pacific? It is a subject worthy of contemplation.]

During World War II, as an Admiral, and then as Fleet Admiral, Nimitz was in charge of assembling the Pacific force of two million men, and 1,000 ships, that stopped the advances of the Japanese and drove them back to their homeland. Despite his tremendous responsibility and experience, Nimitz refused to write his memoirs. And, although he allowed others to organize birthday parties for him in his later years, it was not without grumbling. On his 75th birthday, he was asked if he were looking forward to the celebration. "I'm looking forward to the end of it," he said. "I feel the same way about it as the man who bought himself a small boat. His two happiest days were when he bought it and when he sold it."

"It is the function of the Navy to carry the war to the enemy
so that it will not be fought on U.S. soil."

Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz

Mission accomplished, Admiral. Thank you, Sir.

Honoree ID: 10   Created by: MHOH




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