Admiral Chester W. Nimitz: Biography & Quotes

Instructor: Matthew Hill
Admiral Chester W. Nimitz was a naval commander who was a pioneer in submarines. During the Second World War, he was Commander in Chief of all U.S. Pacific naval forces.

The Makings of an Admiral

Chester W. Nimitz took an unlikely path to naval greatness. He came from a distinguished naval family, but wanted to join the army; however, at the end of his career, he found himself the highest-ranking person in the Department of the Navy. He was born in 1885 in Fredericksburg, Texas, to parents of German descent. He wanted to attend West Point, but given there were no openings, he attended the U.S. Naval Academy, graduating in 1905. He showed great promise, as he graduated 7th out of a class of 114 officers. He was assigned to the battleship USS Ohio and spent the next four years with the Asiatic Fleet in the Pacific. The new battleships were recalled to the U.S. ports, but Nimitz stayed in the Pacific and was assigned to two older models. These ships were outdated, but he got valuable naval experience. He then served two-years duty in the Philippines. Bad fortune stuck in July 1908, as his ship ran aground. This could spell a death-knell for a naval career, but though he was court-marshaled and found guilty of 'neglect of duty', he only suffered a minor reprimand.

Admiral Chester W. Nimitz
Admiral Chester W. Nimitz

Submarine Commander

His career path shifted directions as he was assigned to four successive submarine commands - the USS Plunger, USS Snapper, USS Narwhal, and the USS Skipjack. At this time, battleships, not submarines, were what top commanders coveted, as submarines were in their infancy stage of development. This turned out to be career-boost, though, as he became a leading expert in this emerging technology. He became a principal innovator in converting submarines from gasoline to diesel. For his knowledge, he was given command of the Atlantic Submarine Flotilla and then sent to Germany to study diesel engine designs. In 1912, he was given the honor of addressing the Naval War College on submarine warfare, though it was still considered peripheral to naval operations. Despite his growing knowledge of these new technologies, Nimitz put great stock in the American people. He said: 'That is not to say that we can relax our readiness to defend ourselves. Our armament must be adequate to the needs, but our faith is not primary in these machines of defense but in ourselves.'

Painting of Chester W. Nimitz
Painting of Chester W. Nimitz

During the First World War, he was made Executive Officer and Chief Engineer of the USS Maumee, the Navy's first diesel-powered surface ship. He was made the Aide and Chief of Staff to the Commander, Submarine Force, U.S. Atlantic Fleet (COMSUBLANT). After the war, he was the Executive Officer of the USS South Carolina, which was his first large-ship command. In 1920, he was sent to Pearl Harbor to construct a submarine base and then attended the Navy War College. He was then assigned the coveted command of the USS Augusta, which was the flagship of the U.S. Asiatic Fleet.

Nimitz in the Second World War

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor launched the U.S. directly into the Second World War. The Secretary of the Navy, Frank Knox, appointed Nimitz as the Commander in Chief, U.S. Pacific Forces and Nimitz was tasked with coordinating all land, air, and naval operations in the Pacific. This was a complicated role that required him to coordinate army and marine landings alongside aerial bombing raids and naval operations. Nimitz played the naval role that General Douglas MacArthur did with land forces. Nimitz, however, was congenial and diplomatic, whereas MacArthur was abrasive and fiery. Nimitz set up his headquarters in Hawaii until January 1945, when he relocated to Guam. Nimitz quickly showcased his talents with a decisive victory in the Battle of Midway in May 1942. Midway was a pivotal battle, as it was the first major U.S. victory over Japan after Pearl Harbor and is considered a turning point in the war. Of the Americans who fought at Iwo Jima, he movingly said that 'uncommon valor was a common virtue.' This was indeed the sentiments of many.

L-R General Douglas MacArthur and Admiral Chester W. Nimitz
MacArthur and Nimitz

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