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Admiral Chester Nimitz Takes Command in the Aftermath of Pearl Harbor

Dec. 12, 2022 | By Tyler Bamford, PhD, Historian, Naval History and Heritage Command
On the morning of 16 December 1941, nine days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Rear Admiral Chester W. Nimitz was working at his desk in the U.S. Navy’s Bureau of Navigation when he was summoned to the office of Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox. Exhausted from working more than a week with little sleep, Nimitz trudged over to Knox’s office. When Nimitz arrived, Knox asked the rear admiral how soon he could be ready to travel. Nimitz curtly replied that it depended on where he was going and how long he would be away. Knox answered, “You’re going to take command of the Pacific Fleet, and I think you will be gone a long time.”[1] Nimitz was stunned. That night, as he packed his things for the trip to Hawaii, he contemplated his mixed feelings at the new assignment. His wife Catherine noticed that he was lost in thought and commented that he must be gratified to have been given command of the U.S. Pacific Fleet. Unable to bear the weight of the nation’s secret any longer, Nimitz turned to her and confided, “Darling, the fleet’s at the bottom of the sea. Nobody must know that here, but I’ve got to tell you.”[2]

Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, Commander in Chief of the Pacific Fleet and Pacific Ocean Areas.
Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, Commander in Chief of the Pacific Fleet and Pacific Ocean Areas.
Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, Commander in Chief of the Pacific Fleet and Pacific Ocean Areas.
Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz
Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, Commander in Chief of the Pacific Fleet and Pacific Ocean Areas.
Photo By: Courtesy
VIRIN: 221212-N-IP911-0002
When Nimitz made this remark, even he did not yet know the full scope of the tragedy that had befallen the U.S. Pacific Fleet. Knox had publicly announced that the battleship Arizona (BB-39) had been sunk and the battleship Oklahoma (BB-37) had capsized as a result of the Japanese attack, but only a handful of Americans outside Hawaii knew that three additional battleships, three light cruisers, and two destroyers also sat in the mud at Pearl Harbor. Nor had the Navy and Army revealed that a total of 2,403 Americans had been killed and an additional 1,178 had been wounded. Even so, it was readily apparent after the attack that the current commander of the Pacific Fleet, Admiral Husband E. Kimmel, had lost the confidence of most political leaders and needed to be replaced. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who had previously served as the assistant secretary of the Navy during World War I, personally knew many of the Navy’s top admirals and handpicked Nimitz for the most important naval command of the war. In choosing Nimitz, Roosevelt passed over dozens of more senior admirals including Wilson Brown, William Pye, and William Halsey. While Roosevelt’s choice surprised many U.S. Navy leaders at the time, the successful course of the Pacific War vindicated Roosevelt’s faith in the affable admiral from Texas.

Chester Nimitz was born in 1885 to parents descended from German immigrants in the small town of Fredericksburg, Texas. After graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1905, Nimitz enjoyed a wide variety of assignments that included command of the gunboat Panay in the Philippines, the destroyer Decatur (DD-5), the submarine E-1 (formerly Skipjack), and the cruiser Augusta (CA-31). In the process, Nimitz helped pioneer the process of underway refueling at sea and became the Navy’s foremost expert on diesel engines. His skills did not go unnoticed both inside and outside the service, and he once declined an offer to work for a private diesel engine manufacturer and earn the then enormous sum of $25,000 per year.[3] In 1924, as the assistant chief of staff to the Commander in Chief, Battle Fleet, Nimitz pioneered the integration of the aircraft carrier into the Battle Fleet using the same circular formation that became standard during World War II.[4]

While Nimitz’s career was not without its mishaps, including running Decatur aground, he also benefitted from extraordinary good luck. In January 1941, President Roosevelt had actually offered Nimitz command of the Pacific Fleet, but he politely asked to be excused from accepting this charge, explaining that he was too junior for such a prestigious assignment and that he was likely to incur a substantial amount of ill will from the fifty more senior officers over whom he would jump to accept the command.[5] Instead, Admiral Husband E. Kimmel assumed command of the ill-fated fleet on 1 February 1941. Nimitz’s concerns about seniority had hardly abated ten months later, but the United States was now at war and he could not question an order from the president.

Upon arriving in Hawaii, Nimitz surveyed the damage to the fleet. He concluded that despite the grievous losses suffered in the attack, it could have been far worse if the battleships had received prior warning of the attack and been sunk in deep water outside the harbor as they sortied to meet the Japanese carriers.[6] As it stood, Nimitz knew that most of the ships except for Arizona could be raised and repaired, and in the meantime, the damaged ships’ crews could man the armada of new ships scheduled to enter service. “While I know I am facing a difficult task,” he wrote to Catherine on 28 December, “I am not discouraged and will do my best – but every one must be very, very patient because we are confronted with a most difficult period.”[7] Nimitz not only needed to repair the physical damage to the fleet, but he also had to restore the depressed morale of his predecessor’s command staff. He realized that the disaster was not Kimmel’s fault and could have befallen any admiral. Accordingly, Nimitz asked all of Kimmel’s staff officers to remain with him and help to avenge the attack.[8]

Admiral Nimitz assumes command of the US Pacific Fleet in a ceremony aboard USS Grayling (SS-209) on 31 December 1941.
Admiral Nimitz assumes command of the US Pacific Fleet in a ceremony aboard USS Grayling (SS-209) on 31 December 1941.
Admiral Nimitz assumes command of the US Pacific Fleet in a ceremony aboard USS Grayling (SS-209) on 31 December 1941.
Admiral Nimitz assumes command, Ceremony
Admiral Nimitz assumes command of the US Pacific Fleet in a ceremony aboard USS Grayling (SS-209) on 31 December 1941.
Photo By: Courtesy
VIRIN: 221212-N-IP911-0001
When Nimitz assumed command of the Pacific Fleet on 31 December 1941, the ceremony took place on the deck of the submarine Grayling (SS-209). The choice of a submarine deck for the change of command fittingly acknowledged that the U.S. Navy’s submarines were some of the first vessels to go on the offensive against the Japanese Navy. In fact, Nimitz’s own son was serving as an officer aboard the submarine Sturgeon (SS-187) in the Philippines when the war broke out, and was already on a war patrol when his father became the Commander in Chief of the Pacific Fleet. Catherine Nimitz did her part for the war effort as well by volunteering at the U.S. Naval Hospital at Oakland, California, and giving frequent speeches and radio addresses to support the Red Cross, Navy Relief Society, and war bond drives.

The initial months of the war were the most trying time for Nimitz as he endeavored to protect American supply lines to Australia and also strike back against the Japanese. The normally cheerful admiral expressed his concerns about the thinly spread fleet to Catherine in March 1942. He thought that he would be “lucky to last six months” since “the public may demand action and results faster than” he could deliver.[9] Nimitz need not have feared the wrath of an impatient public. The initial American carrier raids that Nimitz organized against Japanese held islands, including the raid led by Lieutenant Colonel James H. Doolittle against Tokyo, inflicted limited damage but had an enormous impact on American morale in the darkest days of World War II. Nimitz then checked the Japanese offensive in the South Pacific in early May 1942 in the Battle of the Coral Sea despite losing the carrier Lexington (CV-2).

Nimitz’s biggest gamble of the war came the following month, when he assembled every available American carrier in the Pacific to defend against a possible Japanese attack on Midway Island. Nimitz’s sole source of intelligence about Japanese intentions came from Navy code breakers led by Commander Joseph J. Rochefort. Nimitz dismissed the doubts of many officers on his own staff who doubted the accuracy of the information, and ordered the damaged carrier Yorktown (CV-5) to join Enterprise (CV-6) and Hornet (CV-8) in sailing for Midway.[10] While the Japanese fleet approached Midway on 2 June, Nimitz anxiously waited for news but confidently scribbled a note to his wife that declared, “we are better prepared than ever before.”[11]

In the space of less than ten minutes beginning at 10:22 AM on the morning of 4 June 1942, American naval aviators crippled three Japanese fleet carriers and destroyed more than 200 enemy aircraft, permanently ending Japanese naval supremacy in the Pacific. The pivotal victory at Midway paved the way for Nimitz to launch the first American offensive of the war on the island of Guadalcanal just two months later.

Nimitz commanded the Pacific Fleet for the remainder of the war, and although he was often overshadowed in the press by more outspoken commanders, Nimitz was the ultimate architect of American victory over Japan. In December 1945, three months after Japan surrendered, Nimitz became the Chief of Naval Operations. During his tenure, Nimitz eagerly endorsed the construction of nuclear-powered submarines, which ultimately provided a critical nuclear deterrent that continues to the present day.

Never one to seek the limelight or trumpet his own accomplishments, Nimitz steadfastly refused requests to write his memoirs after retiring from the Navy in 1947. He never sought political office and declined multiple offers to join the boards of private companies. It was Nimitz’s firm conviction that he should not profit from his wartime service because so many men under his command had sacrificed so much.

[1] E. B. Potter, Nimitz (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1976), 9.
[2] Ibid., 10.
[3] Ibid., 125.
[4] Ibid., 141.
[5] Ibid., 4.
[6] Ibid., 18.
[7] Chester Nimitz to Catherine Nimitz, 28 December 1941, Box 101, Papers of Chester W. Nimitz, Archives Branch, Naval History and Heritage Command, Washington, DC. Hereafter cited as Nimitz Papers, NHHC.
[8] Potter, Nimitz, 21.
[9] Chester Nimitz to Catherine Nimitz, 22 March 1942, Box 101, Nimitz Papers, NHHC.
[10] Walter R. Borneman, The Admirals: Nimitz, Halsey, Leahy, and King – The Five Star Admirals Who Won the War at Sea (New York: Little, Brown, 2012), 249.
[11] Chester Nimitz to Catherine Nimitz, 2 June 1942, Box 101. Nimitz Papers, NHHC.