By Joshua L. Wick, Naval History and Heritage Command, Communication and Outreach Division
When Adm. Chester Nimitz stood on USS Grayling (SS 209) in port Hawaii to assume the duties of Commander in Chief, Pacific Fleet and Pacific Ocean Areas, did he really know the task ahead of him? A battleship might be more befitting such a ceremony, but many of the Navy’s battleships were at the bottom of Pearl Harbor and the carriers were out chasing down the Japanese.
While the ceremony itself may have taken place on the 31st, however, Nimitz was selected for the position on Dec. 17. Three days after his selection, Nimitz is on a train heading for the West Coast. It is through Nimitz’s hand-written diaries and letters, many written to his wife Catherine Vance Freeman, that we can better understand the man who was thrust into national leadership.
It’s hard to imagine a world void of PowerPoint presentations, mobile devices and instant updates. His first task on the train was deciphering all the information, data and reports to piece together a more complete picture of the situation at Pearl Harbor. Once on station he’d have to focus on rebuilding the Fleet and wining the naval war in the Pacific Theater.
Those days spent traveling offered Nimitz some of the few in which he might enjoy a restful night’s sleep through the war years.
As he traveled westward, his correspondence decreased as the demand for his attention to the war effort increased. Sleep became less satisfying as his mind became increasingly “active.” He grappled with the unfolding uncertainty and enormity of the task at hand, but – as if to assure himself – added frequently that he’d do his best.
Dec. 20, 1941 – It was 4:30 p.m. Saturday when Nimitz and his aide Cmdr. Hal Lamar, passengers on the Santa Fe “Chief” headed west through Illinois, when Nimitz takes the time to write home. “I have preliminarily read all the data which was furnished me on leaving Washington – some 10 pounds of paper – and my conscience will now permit me to relax,” he wrote, adding they had stopped at the Navy Department only long enough to see Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Harold Stark and Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox before getting on the train in Washington, D.C. “I was plum frazzled out and emotionally torn and worn. Even the Secretary was highly emotional and had difficulty controlling his voice.”
Nimitz and Lamar managed to keep the classified documents away from prying eyes because they had adjoining rooms with a door between them, so they could lock the outer doors. The two shared scotch cocktails, had dinner and then perhaps the last “fine” sleep Nimitz would reference.
“I awoke at 7 a.m. really refreshed and feeling that I would cope with the situation,” he wrote. His anonymity on the train, however, was compromised when a professor who had heard him speak on Oct. 31 at Lincoln, Neb., recognized him and called him by rank and name. “My professor friend had the decency not to pursue me further on the train then, as we passed through the lounge car on the way from dinner and heard him point me out as “the Admiral.”
The professor wasn’t the only one on the train Nimitz needed to avoid. “Lamar warned me that (an ex-Congressman Ralph E. Church) was sitting just behind me in the diner. He had been in the Navy Department yesterday to try to get back the Naval Reserve Commission which we took away from him last summer.”
Nimitz took a layover in Chicago for the opportunity to get a haircut near the Navy pier as “I had tried for the last week to get a haircut in Washington and had no time.” While there, he “saw the old fat Chief that used to be at the destroyer base as assistant to Martin and Carter in taking care of the grounds.”
After squeezing in a few more meetings, Nimitz continued to go over papers. “As I get more sleep and rest things are looking up and I am sure by the time I reach Pearl Harbor I will be able to meet the requirements of the situation.”
Dec. 21, 1941, Sunday p.m. – After having spent a sunny morning in Colorado, Nimitz and Lamar were now in New Mexico, where the weather had turned dreary, and so, too, Nimitz’s thoughts. “Had a fine sleep and awoke much refreshed – but after spending most of today reading reports and estimates I find it difficult to keep on the cheerful side. Perhaps when I actually arrive and get over the first shock things will be better.”
He also wrote of seeing the changes in command throughout the Navy. “Last night’s paper announced King as C in C N.S. [Fleet Admiral Ernest Joseph King, Commander in Chief and the Chief of Naval Operations] and he is apparently displacing Stark insofar as concerns operations. Ingersoll is C. in C. Atlantic [Royal Ingersoll, Commander in Chief]. What a grand overall shakeup! At any rate I am convinced that there will be more action in the Pacific then elsewhere for many a day to come.”
Dec. 24, 1941, 3 p.m. – Nimitz and Lamar visit Rear Adm. Ernest Gunther at Air Station 11th Naval District, San Diego, Calif., after adverse weather prevented Nimitz’ departure the day before. Among the visitors was Vice Adm. John S. McCain. “I greatly regret taking these pilots away – and the crews on Christmas Eve, but I see no choice on my part. I only hope I can live up to the high expectations of you and the Pres. [President] and the Dept. I will faithfully promise to do my best. I am sorry I could not get out to P.H. [Pearl Harbor] before the inspecting board got there.”
Dec. 31, 1941 – Just minutes before his change of command ceremony, Nimitz took a moment to write: “This is just a very hasty note to tell you that at 10.a.m. – just 30 minutes from now — I will relieve Pye and become C in. C. Pacific Fleet [Commander in Chief Pacific Fleet]. May the good Lord help and advise me and may I have all the support I can get for I will need it. I have still not reached the point where I can sleep well because there is so much going on and so much to do. I am well however and full of energy.”
Jan. 22, 1942 – Nimitz’ time writing home has become greatly impacted by his overwhelming responsibilities. “My days are very much the same – long hours in the office – long discussions etc. Two days ago I sneaked onto and played two sets of tennis near the BOQ with Capt. T. Davis – my aviation assistant. I felt very strange on the court, but won in 1 set 6-4, and post 6-1 second set. Although I enjoyed the games I am afraid tennis will be very infrequent.”
Jan. 29, 1942 (P.H.) Pearl Harbor – When Nimitz penned this, it was during a time when the Japanese menace threatened the entire Pacific, while promotion news for two of his peers was not favorable. “I do feel depressed a large part of the time but I always hope for a turn for the better. The news has not been too cheering recently so far as our allies are concerned.
“Secretary Stimson [Henry L. Stimson, Secretary of War] announcement went that I was holding the bag out here forced a press conference on me today and he had to duck a lot of tough questions. The unity of command was placed in the Navy before I reached here.”
“Although this has been a bad day for me, it has had its compensations. The flag selection list came in today and there are some sad people. I most distressed over Train and Gunther, both of whom should have been promoted.”
“I will turn in hoping to get to sleep. My mind is still in a whirl and I lie awake long hours but perhaps that will end.”
Editor’s Note: Transcriptions of this portion (Dec. 1941 to Jan. 1942) of Nimitz’s diaries were compiled and transcribed from original scans of hand written entries pictured above. To download scans of the original documents click here Dec. 1941 and Jan. 1942.
In mid-February 2014, the Naval War College unveiled an online 4000-page “Gray Book” collection of Fleet Adm. Chester Nimitz “operational communications” that started in the wake of the Pearl Harbor attack and ran right up until the closing days of the war.