Chester William Nimitz came from a German Texas family having a long seafaring tradition. His grandfather, Charles Henry Nimitz, a former seaman of the German Merchant Marine, broke the string when he moved to the Hill Country of Texas to landlocked Fredericksburg and built the hotel that bears the family name.
The Nimitz Hotel quickly became known for its good food, pleasant accommodations, stables for the horses and for its friendly saloon. In an early addition, he added on to the structure, giving it its present profile which resembles a steam ship. The Nimitz family continued to operate the hotel and Chester Bernhard Nimitz, the Admiral’s father, followed by managing the business until his untimely death just before Chester W. was born. Chester’s mother Anna then married his uncle William Nimitz, who helped to raise him. Chester W. learned stories of the sea from his family tales and legends as well as hearing them from a retired seaman, who was more or less a permanent resident of the hotel. The old sailor also told of a warning that those who didn’t follow the seafaring tradition would be gobbled up by the ocean if they later traversed it.
Chester acquired the nickname of “Cottonhead” and grew up doing odd jobs around the hotel. As a young man, he taught himself wrestling, using information he learned from a book. He was also fond of going fishing out in the nearby Guadalupe River. He was a good student and had applied to West Point, but he learned that examinations were to be given in San Antonio for admission into the U. S. Naval Academy. He was encouraged by his stepfather to give it a try and received the appointment in 1901. Nimitz graduated high in his class of 1905.
Two years later, Nimitz was assigned to his first ship, the USS Ohio, and served on a number of other ships of various classes until around 1913 when he was sent to Germany to study the German diesel engine plants. Nimitz’ knowledge of German was expected to assist him. He’d been previously assigned to the submarine group as the U. S. was converting its fleet from gasoline power to diesel. in 1911 he had been assigned to the command of the USS Skipjack as it was being converted to diesel from gasoline power. At the conclusion of this posting, he accepted an another assignment to the oiler USS Maumee in 1916 after its commissioning.
The U. S. entered World War I in 1917, after the war had been underway since 1914. Under Nimitz, who was serving as engineer and executive officer, the Maumee performed the first refueling operations at sea. This was to be a foreshadowing of things to come, as the concept of a navy that could sustain operations at sea almost indefinitely began to become a reality.
Between World War I and the outbreak of World War II, Nimitz served in a number of positions including being on the staff charged with submarine design, serving aboard ships and taking command of battle groups. He continued to pioneer the practice of refueling ships while they were yet underway. A few days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, he was appointed Commander in Chief of the U. S. Pacific fleet. For the rest of the war, from his headquarters at Pearl Harbor, he set about to reverse the early Japanese successes. Nimitz carried out an aggressive offensive plan of attack that gradually wore down the Japanese men and materials. He is credited with adopting the Axis tactic of unlimited warfare, under which noncombatant ships carrying supplies would be considered targets as well as military ships. Under his leadership, the U. S. Navy performed well as the Allies retook the islands of the Pacific, finally drawing closer to the Japanese homeland with the taking of Iwo Jima and Okinawa.
In late 1944, Nimitz was promoted to the rank of Fleet Admiral, a lifetime appointment, moving his headquarters to Guam as the war progressed in the Pacific. On September 2, 1945, Nimitz signed the documents on behalf of the United States when Japan surrendered on the deck of the USS Missouri as she sat in Tokyo Bay.
After the war, he agreed to serve as Chief of Naval Operations and to preside over the reduction in force of the huge navy that had been assembled for the war effort. During this period, he supported the construction of the navy’s first nuclear submarine, the USS Nautilus and the plan to convert the entire submarine fleet from diesel to nuclear power.
Nimitz retired from his position of Chief of Naval Operations in December, 1947, although as Fleet Admiral, he officially remained on active duty. He and his wife lived in California where they continued to stay active, as long as their health permitted. The great Admiral suffered a stroke in late 1965 leading to his death in February, 1966.
(Image credit: navy.mil)
68 years to the day after the Japanese signed the Instrument of Surrender, on September 2, 2013 a 9-foot tall Rip Caswell sculpture of the Fleet Admiral was unveiled at the USS Missouri Memorial in Pearl Harbor. It depicts Nimitz wearing a khaki short sleeve shirt and uniform, looking much as he did as he stood in the Marshall Islands in 1944. Nimitz is standing with his hands on his hips as he gazes out on the harbor, facing directly towards the Arizona Memorial. He wears no medals or campaign ribbons, just an indication of his rank and his two dolphin belt buckle indicating that he is submarine-qualified. The statue sits on a black granite base from the same source as the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D. C.
The dedication ceremony included a keynote speech by Admiral Cecil D. Haney (a Naval Academy graduate, a submariner and the 33rd commander of the U. S. Pacific Fleet) and addresses from the Fleet Admiral’s grandson Chester Nimitz Lay, U. S. Navy Captain Ret. Michael Lilly and an electronic message from Captain Jeff S. Ruth, the commander of the USS Nimitz (CVN 68).
On the base of the sculpture engraved in gold leaf is a fitting quotation from the Fleet Admiral, a tribute to all who gave their lives in the great conflict:
They fought together as brothers in arms
They died together and now they sleep side by side
To them we have a solemn obligation
The obligation to ensure that their sacrifice will help
To make this a better and safer world in which to live.
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