In the wake of the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, he took command of the still-smoldering remnants of the Pacific Fleet and brought the U.S. back from the brink of defeat.
Editor’s Note: Now an operating executive with the Carlyle Group, Adm. Stravridis served as NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe. He has authored or co-authored four books including Sailing True North: Ten Admirals and the Voyage of Character, from which the following is adapted.
On the morning of December 31, 1941, a little more than three weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Admiral Chester W. Nimitz stepped into the defining role of his life. He completed a journey spanning an entire continent and half an ocean to take command of the shattered US Pacific Fleet in a brief ceremony aboard the submarine USS Grayling.
There was still oil floating on the surface of Pearl Harbor, and the smell of smoke and cordite hung in the tropical air. A few yards away, thousands of sailors were still entombed in the massive battleships sunk on December 7. It was a grim and purposeful rite, and a striking contrast to the normally happy atmosphere of a change of fleet command.
The admiral came to the microphone in the center of the deck and turned to face the small huddle of fellow officers and pressmen gathered for the ceremony. As a submariner by training and therefore one to spot the humor in any situation, the irony was not lost on Nimitz that Grayling, a submarine, offered one of the only floating warship decks in Pearl Harbor on which to conduct the change of command.
Suppressing the hint of a smile but not the glint of determination in his eye, Nimitz took a barely perceptible deep breath and read his orders, relieving his good friend Husband E. Kimmel from command. He knew that Kimmel’s life and career were shattered, and he felt deeply the hurt of his old friend.
As soon as Nimitz uttered the traditional “I relieve you, sir,” the sense of irony vanished. Instantly, those four words invested the four stars newly pinned on Nimitz’s collar with the full weight of his responsibility. Salutes were exchanged, the boatswain’s whistle trilled, and with eight sharp dings of the Grayling’s bell, Nimitz went ashore. “Pacific Fleet, departing,” called the boatswain, and Nimitz began the task that would occupy him for the next four years.
Setting his face and his will, Nimitz — a lifelong walker — began making his way up the extinct volcano of Makalapa Hill to his new headquarters. The walk up from the harbor that day was short, but it was the beginning of a long, arduous climb back from the disaster of Pearl Harbor to the singular height of glory Nimitz would achieve three and a half years later.
At that moment, he of course could not foresee that the voyage of the war would end in another harbor, Tokyo’s, where he would accept the surrender of Japan. All he could think about on that final day of 1941 was the shattered fleet under the oily water.
Once on-site, however, Nimitz had the presence of mind to make several key decisions that ensured that the fleet would recover, but faster than anyone could have expected. First, he stabilized the personnel situation by keeping nearly all of Admiral Kimmel’s people on staff — and keeping himself ashore. Intentionally retaining a defeated and demoralized staff was not merely a matter of discretion, but a deeply practical decision that began rebuilding morale and allowed the Navy to focus on striking back rather than building a new staff. Moving his own command ashore cost him the chance to command ships at sea in combat (something he never had the opportunity to do), but was absolutely the right decision for managing a war on the scale Nimitz soon confronted.
Second, Nimitz — ever the clear-eyed optimist — had the perspicacity to see that even such a terrible defeat was not total destruction. Burning and sinking battleships were quite a spectacle, but Nimitz realized what the Japanese had missed. As he pored over the photographs of a destroyed Pearl Harbor, he focused on what was not in the pictures of the carnage, namely the fleet’s fuel reserves and aircraft carriers. Had either of those assets been knocked out, the US war effort would have been in great peril indeed. As it was, most of the battleships sunk at Pearl Harbor would be refloated and returned to combat, but the course of the war would demonstrate their obsolescence. Fuel oil, aviation gasoline, and aircraft carriers would be far more decisive in the conduct of the war.
Finally, Nimitz was involved early and deeply in setting the strategy that the United States pursued throughout the course of the Pacific War. Working with his superior back in Washington, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Ernest King, and his own staff in Pearl Harbor, Nimitz had a hand in drawing the rough outlines of the central Pacific strategy that would be the US Navy’s main line of effort for the next three and a half years.
Nimitz was no armchair strategist, either. Within six months after Pearl Harbor, he had made the bold decision to launch the quick (though symbolic) retaliatory Doolittle bombing raid on Tokyo; had gambled and won at Midway, inflicting a defeat from which the Imperial Japanese Navy would never truly recover; and had put Marines ashore on Guadalcanal, beginning the islandhopping campaign toward the Japanese home islands.
Nimitz later said that those first six months were the hardest, but the war in the Pacific raged on for three more years. The scale, violence, and intensity of the fighting grew in a horrible crescendo from bloody amphibious landings, to fanatical banzai and kamikaze attacks, to the ultimate breaking of the enemy’s will with the dropping of two atomic bombs. Along the way, Nimitz’s responsibilities grew exponentially until he “commanded thousands of ships and aircraft and millions of men, amounting to more military power than had been wielded by all the commanders in all previous wars,” as his biographer wrote.
Nimitz clearly could not be everywhere at once — and he determined not to try to be the next Nelson by playing strategist, sailor, and warrior all at once. The war was much too big and complex for that. Instead, the secret to Nimitz’s success was his skillful management of a relatively few people: those above him who managed the entire war effort, and those around and just below him who conducted the actual fighting. As his biographer put it, Nimitz’s personality served as the “link and buffer” that turned this complicated group of admirals into “one of the most effective fighting teams in history.”
Without Nimitz as the glue holding it together, the unique abilities of each of the others might not have meshed. Perhaps equally important, Nimitz also managed to work out a modus vivendi with the most temperamental and difficult officer in the theater, General of the Army Douglas MacArthur. Probably no one save Nimitz could have maintained an even keel in working with that colossal ego.
The memory of this “American Nelson” lives on strongly in the US Navy today. Nimitz’s name adorns the library at the Naval Academy, as well as the lead ship of the Nimitz class of super carriers that have projected American power and maintained the peace Nimitz won seventy years ago.
When USS Nimitz was commissioned in 1972, President Gerald R. Ford quoted E. B. Potter, the admiral’s biographer, in delivering this tribute to Nimitz: “He surrounded himself with the ablest men he could find and sought their advice, but he made his own decisions. He was a keen strategist who never forgot that he was dealing with human beings, on both sides of the conflict. He was aggressive in war without hate, and audacious while never failing to weigh the risks.”
In so many ways, Chester Nimitz was the greatest of our Navy’s admirals.