Chester William Nimitz commanded the American Pacific Fleet during the Second World War. Accepting this post in the wake of Pearl Harbor, Admiral Nimitz inherited just the skeleton of a fleet; in 1945 it had grown to more than 6,000 ships. A submariner by training, Nimitz maintained a balanced view of all of the assets under his command, ensuring that surface vessels, submarines, aircraft, marines and Army forces saw their best use during the war; in recognition of his efforts, he enjoyed the highest confidence of sailors, marines and soldiers alike.
Nimitz was born in Texas in 1885. His grandfather had been a sea captain, and in the long run, this may have influenced Chester’s naval career, but that was not his original intention; indeed, he contacted West Point before the Naval Academy, although it was the latter that took him in when he was 15. He distinguished himself there, ranking seventh in his class.
His specialty as a young officer was the submarine service, and one of his major accomplishments in that period lay in persuading the Navy to adopt diesel engines. He assumed command of the Bureau of Navigation in 1939, making a positive impression on President Roosevelt in the process. When, in the following year, Admiral Kimmel was placed in command of the Pacific Fleet, Nimitz had been the other contender for the post.
Kimmel’s term in the post was cut short by Pearl Harbor, and Nimitz took command on December 31, 1941; he would remain CINCPAC (Commander-in-Chief, US Pacific Fleet) until the end of 1945, although the scope of his responsibilities would expand along the way. Nimitz began his term with a desperately small force under his command: he had three aircraft carriers, two damaged battleships, 21 cruisers (of which, three had been damaged) and 65 destroyers, as well as 27 submarines. Nimitz saw a providential hand in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, however: because the waters of the harbor were so shallow, most of the sunken vessels could be raised and repaired. Four battleships and a destroyer were brought back into service in this way, and much more quickly than they might have been replaced by new construction. Had the fleet gone out to meet the Japanese strike force on the open sea, the losses (which would certainly have been high) would have been permanent.
Nimitz worked closely with the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Ernest J King, in formulating a strategy for the Pacific Fleet: its role was to gain control over the central Pacific, smashing the Japanese Fleet if possible, while securing airfields and building up a blockade of Japanese merchant shipping. This was not the only American strategy in the Pacific, any more than the Pacific Fleet was the only American naval presence across the ocean; the Americans had maintained a smaller fleet, the Asiatic Fleet, at the Philippines, and this fleet had been lost in action against the Japanese by the end of the Battle of Java Sea. In this way, General MacArthur had lost the naval forces that would have supported his bid for liberating the Philippines, but he successfully lobbied for support for his own strategy of fighting his way back to the Philippines, and from there, to Japan itself. In the spring of 1942, this dual approach was formalized in the creation of a South-West Pacific Area under MacArthur’s command and a Pacific Ocean Areas command under Nimitz (now also known as CINCPOA to reflect the new scope of his duties); each command pursued its commander’s strategy, with the Joint Chiefs mediating between the two as each called upon Washington for resources. Each command crossed service lines; Nimitz commanded the Army (and Army Air Force) elements allocated to the Pacific Ocean Areas while MacArthur commanded Navy elements in the South-West Pacific Area.
When Nimitz first took over the Pacific Fleet, he focused more on restoring the fleet itself than on rebuilding its command structure, a decision that did much to win the confidence of his men. At the same time, he had an eye for talent and cultivated a very gifted command team, with Admirals William Halsey and Raymond Spruance as his principal task force commanders. Marc Mitscher and Richmond Turner were other major figures in his circle, as well as Holland Smith and Alexander Vandegrift in the Marine Corps. Even as he made the reconstruction of his fleet his top priority, he found ways to make limited, but palpable, attacks on the Japanese. In a pattern that would continue into 1944, Nimitz made the best possible use of his carrier force by initiating a series of carrier-based air raids on Japanese-held islands across a wide swath of ocean. Without ground forces and the larger train of vessels that such forces would require, these attacks made no lasting impact, but they kept the Japanese off-balance. The Doolittle Raid, which took off from one of Nimitz’s carriers in April, 1942, might be considered part of this strategy: in a phase of the war in which American forces could muster no more than a token attack, Nimitz made the most of the resources that he did have to mount an attack that defied Japanese expectations and battered the enemy’s confidence while simultaneously raising that of his own fleet.
The Pacific Fleet’s program of carrier raids proved its worth in May, when it provoked contact with a Japanese force in the Coral Sea between the Japanese-held Solomon Islands and Australia. In purely material terms, the Japanese performed somewhat better in the fight, but the failure of Japanese plans to extend their holdings in New Guinea and the temporary loss of two fleet carriers ensured that the Americans benefited more from the battle.
The full effect of this benefit was made manifest a month later, in the Battle of Midway. The new ULTRA intelligence efforts indicated that the Japanese meant to bring a large naval force back into the central Pacific; while effectiveness of the ULTRA system had not yet been demonstrated, Nimitz accepted the reports and set a trap for the Japanese, resulting in a victory that ensured that the American dominance over the central Pacific would not again be challenged.
Having secured his flank, Nimitz turned his attention to the offensive. Most of the islands of the South Pacific were part of MacArthur’s command zone, but several of the Solomon Islands, including Guadalcanal, lay in the Pacific Ocean Areas zone. Securing these islands would link the two zones while providing greater security to Australia; in more immediate terms, Guadalcanal was chosen for the first invasion because the Japanese were expanding their air presence there. Because it was the first invasion, American forces were unprepared for the intensity of Japanese resistance, and at sea, for Japanese skill in operations at night. Losses were heavy on land and at sea, but eventually the Americans prevailed, and Nimitz was able to proceed with island clearing in the central Pacific in 1943, while his submarines began to place their stranglehold on Japanese shipping around the home islands.
His experience with Guadalcanal had persuaded Nimitz that the best way to deal with large enemy concentrations was to do so indirectly, by striking at less heavily defended assets nearby. He and Admiral King both agreed that American forces could reach the Japanese more quickly and with lower cost through the islands of the central Pacific, from Tarawa in the Gilberts to the Marianas, and in 1943, they persuaded the Joint Chiefs to permit Nimitz to pursue this plan. This support was never exclusive, however; MacArthur was permitted to continue his drive toward the Philippines, and carrier raids continued to be used alternately in support of each plan. Nimitz accepted this state of affairs in good grace, seeing value in the unpredictability that this dual approach presented to the Japanese.
As the war proceeded, American industry furnished Nimitz and MacArthur with more and more vessels. MacArthur’s naval assets became large enough by the spring of 1943 to be considered a fleet in their own right, the Seventh. Pacific Fleet became two separate fleets, the Third under Admiral Halsey and later the Fifth under Admiral Spruance. In an effort to step up the pressure in his preparations for the Marianas campaign in 1944, Nimitz made use of the Navy’s protocols for the creation of Task Forces, which placed few restrictions in the way of flexible leaders, to join Third and Fifth Fleet into a single fleet under the alternating command of Halsey and Spruance. This was the force that managed to support the landings on Saipan and defeat the Japanese Mobile Fleet in the Battle of the Philippine Sea. Because these actions took place while Spruance was in command, the fleet was known as Fifth Fleet and the force that defeated the Mobile Fleet was called Task Force 58.
Success at the Marianas had advanced the Nimitz-King strategy substantially; the new B-29 bombers were capable of striking the Japanese home islands from airbases on Saipan. At the same time, MacArthur was nearly in reach of liberating the Philippines, and so Nimitz was ordered to assist him in October, 1944. The operation was a dual success: MacArthur managed to drive the Japanese from the Philippines while the US Navy finally had the opportunity to neutralize the Japanese Navy.
Promoted at the end of 1944 to the rank of Fleet Admiral, Nimitz oversaw the operations at Iwo Jima and Okinawa from headquarters at Guam. He was still formulating plans for the invasion of Japan when its surrender came; in the event, it was MacArthur who took the ceremonial role of accepting that surrender.
In November, 1945, Admiral King retired from service, and Nimitz was given his post as Chief of Naval Operations. He served in this capacity for another two years before his own retirement, which he enjoyed for nearly twenty years. He died in 1966.
At the end of 1941, Nimitz was a former submariner who accepted responsibility for a fleet that had been savaged only weeks before, and within three years, built it up into a force that could overwhelm the Imperial Japanese Navy. In 1942, his command was expanded into a joint services command, and earned the adulation of soldiers and airmen as well as sailors and marines. He made a career out of building great successes from modest beginnings.
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Keegan, John, ed. World War II: A Visual Encyclopedia. Collins & Brown, 2000
Parrish, Thomas. Simon and Schuster Encyclopedia of World War II. Simon and Schuster, 1978
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