Nimitz graduated from the Naval Academy in January 1905, at a time when the Academy was the sole source of new officers. The expansion of the fleet after the Spanish-American War during the administration of Theodore Roosevelt was so rapid that new ships were built faster than the existing officer strength could man them. To provide the junior officers needed at the time, the Class of 1905 graduated as “Passed Midshipmen” six months early. Nimitz stood seventh out of 114 in the class – definitely a “star” man – and his first orders were no different from those of his classmates; he went to the newly-commissioned battleship, USS Ohio (BB-12) and shipped out in her to the Asiatic Fleet.
Once in the Far East, he stayed there – moving from assignment to assignment under orders of the local commanders – apparently without the benefit of a central detailer or preference cards. When the battleships were called back to the United States in 1906, Nimitz stayed behind in the old cruiser USS Baltimore (C-3), a veteran of the Battle of Manila Bay. Evidently, his Baltimore tour was what we would call temporary duty, for in January 1907, he was assigned command of an old gunboat, USS Panay, a prize taken during the war with Spain. One can assume that Nimitz worked to get this assignment under the principle that it was “Better to be first on the Rubicon than second in Rome.” The other officer assigned to Panay was Passed Midshipman John S. McCain of the Class of 1906. Nimitz and McCain got to select a crew of 30 men from the drafts that remained in the Orient after the capital ships departed for the United States. They subsequently had the marvelous assignment of cruising through the Philippine Archipelago visiting whatever ports they chose. In addition to his gunboat, Nimitz commanded a small shore facility at Polloc, Mindanao where 22 Marines were stationed.
Such a dream assignment couldn’t last long. Because of Japanese belligerency fueled by prejudicial treatment of Japanese immigrants on the West Coast, Roosevelt ordered the battle fleet to the Pacific, and Panay was recalled to the Cavite Naval Base in Manila Bay. Making his arrival call on the Senior Officer Present, the 22-year old Nimitz, now an Ensign, was sent immediately on board USS Decatur (DD-5) to take command. At the time, Decatur had been out of commission for about a year – in some form of inoperative or reserve status in which the ship was not only cold iron but without any crew. When he went on board, still in the whites with sword that he had worn to make his formal call, he was greeted by two Filipino watchmen, since a crew was still being assembled. Surmounting the problems of an idle ship, unbunkered with a scratch crew, ENS Nimitz managed to get Decatur to the dry dock at Subic Bay within the two-and-a-half days demanded by the admiral.
The war scare over, Decatur operated independently for almost two years in Philippine waters. In July 1908, on entering an unfamiliar harbor in Manila Bay she ran aground and had to be towed off the next day. Relieved of command and court-martialed, Nimitz was found guilty of “neglect of duty” and sentenced to a reprimand. The Commander-in-Chief of U.S. Naval Forces Philippines declared in his endorsement, “The promulgation of the proceedings and sentence will be regarded as constituting in itself the reprimand.” Later in life, as an admiral, Nimitz was quick to cite this incident when questioned if anyone who ran a ship aground could have a future in the Navy.
In a way, this grounding and his ensuing relief were a break for Nimitz. After three years in the Orient, he was without an assignment and free to return to the United States. He assumed a billet as a watch officer on a gunboat that occasionally steamed – but mostly sailed – from Manila west to Boston – a 13-week trip that completed his circumnavigation of the globe that began in 1905. Nimitz hoped, like all his contemporaries, to be assigned again to a battleship, which during that era was not just the pride of the Navy, but the capital ship, the embodiment of seapower. It was duty sought by every officer and viewed as the sine qua non for promotion. But for whatever reason, he was assigned to submarines – then in their infancy – and generally despised and neglected by “real” naval officers.2 Nimitz himself observed later,
Though discouraged by these orders, Nimitz threw himself wholeheartedly into the assignment and over the next two years, in succession, commanded the A-class USS Plunger (later A-1, SS-2), commissioned the USS Snapper (later C-1, SS-16), and finally commanded USS Narwhal (later D-1, SS-17). Though the French had introduced diesel engines into submarines as early as 1900, gasoline engines powered all these ships. Since Nimitz was an early advocate of changing from gasoline to diesel engines for submarines, it was natural that in 1911 he was sent back to new construction as skipper of USS Skipjack (later E-1, SS-24), the first U.S. submarine with diesel-electric drive. Although in the little over three years that Nimitz commanded submarines, they had tripled in size – from 107 to 287 tons – these were truly “boats,” with crews of only seven to 22 men and the capability for remaining at sea for only a day or two. So little was thought of these craft that they lost their earlier names in 1911, and until 1924, submarines were designated by class-letter/number combinations.
Submarines were still novelties in 1912. While generally objects of derision and disregard in the officer corps, it meant that those few officers who did serve in submarines were unencumbered by directives from higher authority on how they should be operated. Nimitz was an experienced, if not the preeminent, practitioner. Now a lieutenant and serving additional duty as Commander, Third Submarine Division, Atlantic Torpedo Fleet, he was invited to address the Naval War College on the subject. His lecture went unremarked at the time and when adapted for publication by the Naval Institute Proceedings, it apparently stimulated little or no response.4
Given the limited mobility and armament of the submarines of that era, it is understandable that Nimitz portrayed them primarily as defenders of coasts and harbors. However, in retrospect, his essay had some remarkable insights on the value of submarines and their future development, and he predicted, for example, that rapid advancements in submarine propulsion would eventually make them more capable than their surface ship adversaries. Most significantly, from a career standpoint, he demonstrated that he was a thinker as well as a doer.
His championship of diesels in submarines together with his ability to speak German – he was born and raised in a German-speaking immigrant community in Texas – led to an assignment to spend the summer of 1913 in Germany visiting the principal diesel engine manufacturers. His assiduousness in that task seems typical of talented and zealous officers:
“He took off his coat and rolled up his sleeves in every important Diesel factory in the country. He talked, ate, slept Diesels until even his wife, so she says, ‘… learned the lingo of wrist pins and bushings.’ When he returned, he was the Navy’s last word on the subject.”5
On that return, he was assigned as the Executive Officer and Chief Engineer on the Navy’s first diesel-powered surface ship, the oiler USS Maumee (AO-2), then under completion at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Maumee was a good-sized ship for her time, 14,500 tons, and her engines were very large, developing 2,500 horsepower each. Once again, Nimitz was handed an assignment that he did not want, thwarted in his attempt to get duty on battleships, and now marked as a specialist in a propulsion technology of limited utility when most promotions went to gunners.
Then still in their infancy, diesel engines were suffering many developmental problems, and it was no secret in the manufacturing community that Chester Nimitz was the Navy’s expert on the subject. During Maumee’s construction, a representative of Busch-Sulzer Brothers, a manufacturer in St. Louis that began building diesel engines for the Navy in 1913, approached Nimitz offering him a job for $25,000 a year at a time when his pay was $240 a month, plus $48 BAQ. When Nimitz turned that down, he was offered the opportunity to “…write his own ticket,” but he remained firm in his determination not to leave the Navy.
Apparently, extended new-construction periods are not a recent development nor related solely to nuclear-powered ships. Maumee did not go to sea until October 1916. In the year that followed, her Captain, CDR Henry C. Dinger, and his Executive Officer worked out the first procedures for transferring fuel oil at sea. Initially, refueling with oil followed the same pattern as coaling – done at anchor in a protected roadstead with the receiving ships moored alongside. In less than six months, Dinger and Nimitz had worked out a mechanism for underway replenishment by towing the receiving ship alongside. When the United States joined the Allies in World War I, Maumee was the oiler that made possible deployment of the Navy’s destroyers across the Atlantic. Nimitz credited Dinger with the plan and its accomplishment, but it is clear that his own reputation was enhanced because of Maumee’s success.6
Promoted to Lieutenant Commander, Nimitz left Maumee in the summer of 1917 and reported as engineering aide to Commander, Submarine Force, Atlantic Fleet. His boss, CAPT Samuel S. Robison, became a lifelong friend, mentor, and sponsor. In less than a year, Nimitz was the SUBLANT Chief of Staff. At the end of the war, he toured Europe with then-RADM Robison assessing German and British submarines. He then served as a member of a board deliberating the design of the next U.S. submarine class. Nimitz’s specific contributions to the new submarine designs are not documented, but the outcome of this board – generally conservative but with strong endorsements of improved habitability, reliability, and specific research and development priorities – reflect the practicality and innovation that seem to have been one of Nimitz’s trademarks.7
At last, assignment to a battleship came – in 1919 he went to USS South Carolina (BB-26) as the Executive Officer. South Carolina was the oldest of the American battleships and would be scrapped two years later – a good but not a premier line billet. Nimitz stayed there not quite a year before returning to the Submarine Force. Fast rotations through ships were not uncommon in that era, when as a result of post-World War I reductions in force, the number of officers exceeded the number of sea-going billets. Competition was great, because with the preeminence of the Battle Line, assignment to – and ultimately command of – a battleship was obviously, and very rightly, a necessary prerequisite for selection to Captain, much less flag rank.
In June of 1920, now-Commander
Nimitz was ordered to build Submarine Base, Pearl Harbor. Told to use
surplus equipment left from the wartime expansion, he and the four chiefs
assigned to him had no funds or equipment. As officers then and now will
readily understand, the commanders of East Coast Navy Yards and Stations,
to whom Nimitz had to apply for the material to build and equip his base,
were loath to declare anything surplus. The evidence suggests that the
cohort of chiefs Nimitz gathered around him believed in the adage that
it was better to seek
forgiveness than ask permission. Moreover, his own years in the Orient
probably equipped him with the adaptability necessary to understand cumshaw
– the art of reorienting the government’s property for the
benefit of the government, though not necessarily in accordance with the
government’s rules and regulations. According to his biographer,
his minions even lifted a Navy car for Nimitz in the machinations that
took place. Even today, there remain buildings on the Pearl Harbor base
without official Navy building numbers – an indication that their
construction was neither sanctioned in law or in accordance with the direction
of the Bureau of Yards and Docks. But by 1922 Submarine Base Pearl was
in operation, and Nimitz was off to the Naval War College.
When Nimitz finished War College, his mentor, former CAPT Robison, was now Commander-in-Chief, Battle Fleet, embarked in USS California (BB-44). Nimitz became his Flag Aide, then Assistant Chief of Staff and Tactical Officer. In this billet, he brought ideas from the War College about the fleet’s tactical formations, and initial work with circular formations at sea began. In 1925 Robison became Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Fleet, and of course Nimitz went with him. During the Fleet Exercise that year, Nimitz tried to get the USS Langley (CV-1), then the only aircraft carrier, to operate with the fleet. He failed – and it would be three more years before carriers operated in Fleet Exercises – but his effort reflected a foresight and imagination that lurked behind the ready smile and sunny disposition. After three years on Robison’s staff, Nimitz was selected – nominated by Robison to be sure – to be one of the first six Commanding Officers of Naval Reserve Officer Training Units and Professors of Naval Science. In the fall of 1926 he went to the University of California, Berkeley in what must have then been seen as another diversion from the accepted career path. Although he enjoyed Berkeley and his students, the assignment was not, as is said, “career-enhancing.”
It was at Berkeley that he made Captain in 1928 – 23 years after graduating from the Naval Academy. His was an “on-time” promotion – early selection in the Navy was still far in the future. In 1929, at San Diego, he was back in the Submarine Force as Commander, Submarine Division 20, which had recently been formed around the Navy’s four newest submarines, USS V-1 through V-4 (later Barracuda, Bass, Bonita, and Argonaut, SS-163 through 166, respectively). In the annual Fleet Exercises that were the only significant operations of those years, Nimitz fretted at having to tie the submarines to the battle line as scouts. He wanted to deploy them far ahead in independent operations to attack the enemy well before the major engagement was joined.
In June of 1931 at the height of the depression, Nimitz began a two-year tour in charge of 35 out-of-commission destroyers in San Diego, with his family quarters on the upper decks of an old tender, USS Rigel (AD-13). This novel setting was not without amenities that have long passed into history – a cook, a steward, and two mess attendants to serve the family. On the other hand, there were rats in the bilges, and the Nimitzs still had a daughter in diapers, so Mrs. Nimitz must have harbored some concern about “Child Overboard” situations.
Though Nimitz was out of the mainstream, he was certainly not forgotten. In 1933, he was ordered as Commanding Officer of the heavy cruiser, USS Augusta (CA-31), flagship of the Asiatic Fleet, a prime sea-going command. Early in his tour, Augusta – with Nimitz at the conn – collided with the moored oiler USS Pecos (AO-6), damaging Pecos’ bridge structure and boat davits. No repercussions seem to have come from this incident – indicating a certain tolerance for the errors of talented and promising officers. For most of his 18 months in command he lived afloat as the ship shifted berths between Manila, Shanghai, and Tsingtao, China, while his family resided first in Japan and then in Shanghai. After 18 months in command, he became Assistant Chief of the Bureau of Navigation (now Personnel) where in 1938, 33 years after graduation, he was selected for flag.
As is evident from this account, ADM Nimitz did not follow an “optimum,” or even conventional career path. In an age when big guns dominated naval strategy, and the most promising officers served in battleships, he served most of his time in vessels that hardly deserved the appellation man-of-war. His dedication to the Navy was manifest. His performance was marked with intelligent application and attention to detail in the tasks he was assigned, a grasp of the technical fundamentals of the matters at hand, an unhesitant willingness to innovate, and finally good relations with seniors, contemporaries, and juniors. Like his contemporaries, he never seems to have had to worry about reenlistment programs or officer retention, though Nimitz and his wife frequently hosted social events for junior officers in his commands. His application, intelligence, and good humor earned him a place in the inner circle of senior officers and brought him a powerful mentor who pushed his advancement, not as favoritism, but because his benefactor saw that such promotion benefited the service. Nimitz’s characteristics are ones that officers of any time or era can appreciate and emulate.
Admiral Jerry Holland is a retired flag officer, who served most of his career in submarines. Currently he serves as the Vice President of the Naval Historical Foundation.
2 In The Fateful Hours, Peter Maas describes the suggestion of the Commanding Officer of the battleship USS Oklahoma when then-Ensign, later Vice Admiral “Swede” Momsen turned down orders to a battleship to go to Submarine School in 1921. “I think you’ve a bright future. Better reconsider. Only the scum of the Navy go into pigboats.”
Thomas Wildenberg, Grey Steel and Black Oil, Annapolis, Maryland,
Naval Institute Press, 1996, pp. 9-13.