Today is the birthday of Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, the namesake of USS Nimitz (CVN 68). In honor of this day, we’d like to share five amazing things from his life, ranked in order of importance. It’s obviously subjective, but after reading this we’re sure that we can all agree: Nimitz had a pretty awesome life.
5. Ran his ship aground, took a nap.
In 1908, Nimitz was bringing his ship, the Decatur, into Batangas Harbor in the Philippines. He not only guesstimated his position, he also failed to check the tides. Consequently, the ship came to a stop, run aground on a mudbank. When he couldn’t get the ship off immediately, he recalled the advice of his grandfather: “Don’t worry about things over which you have no control.” He ordered a cot to be brought to the bridge, and he slept until the tide rose and freed the ship.
He went to court-martial over the incident, but when they looked at his otherwise flawless record and the way he freely admitted his culpability, he was only reprimanded. As an admiral, he would cite the incident whenever anyone was quick to judge a career over because of a single mistake.
Bonus fun: While on the Decatur, during a storm, the engineer of the ship informed Nimitz that the ship was flooding and was going to sink.
“Just look on page 84 of ‘Barton’s Engineering manual,’” said Nimitz. “It will tell you what to do.”
And so the ship was saved, thanks to his apparently photographic memory.
That combination of confident calm and technical knowledge would mark his entire naval career.
4. Rescued man from drowning.
It’s hard to imagine being in the Navy and not knowing how to swim, and even harder to imagine being rescued by your commanding officer. But for a young Fireman, both of those scenarios weren’t imaginary.
In 1912, Nimitz was a lieutenant and commanding officer of the submarine Skipjack, when Fireman W.J. Walsh went overboard. There was a strong tide, and since Walsh didn’t know how to swim, he was quickly swept away from the ship. Nimitz dove in after him, and kept him afloat and alive until they could be rescued by a small boat.
He received the Silver Lifesaving Medal for his actions. Bonus fun: There have been fewer Lifesaving Medals awarded than the Medal of Honor.
3. Survived a plane crash.
Right after the Battle of Midway, Nimitz flew from Hawaii to San Francisco in a seaplane to give an after-action report. On landing, the seaplane hit a log, flipping over and cracking in two. The co-pilot was killed, and another severely injured.
Wrapped in a blanket by a corpsman, Nimitz stayed on the sinking wing out of concern for the other passengers. The rescuers tried to gently direct him to the crash boat, but he evaded all attempts to steer him to safety.
Finally, an eighteen year-old seaman snapped at the old man who was getting in the way: “Commander, if you would only get out of the way, maybe we could get something done around here.” Nimitz saw that he was correct, and went to the boat.
On the little boat, Nimitz stood up to better view the wreck, and was promptly yelled at by the coxswain to sit down. When he sat down, the blanket slipped, and the coxswain realized he’d just yelled at a four-star admiral. Nimitz stopped him as he tried to apologize.
“Stick to your guns, Sailor. You were quite right.”
2. Won the War in the Pacific
Sure, there was that other guy MacArthur who did some stuff. And obviously Nimitz didn’t do everything single-handedly. But that was why he won the war: He was terrific at building a team, and it was his team that won the war.
When the former commander of the Pacific Fleet was relieved because of the attack on Pearl Harbor, his staff assumed that they would be fired as well. Nimitz took command and kept all of them. He knew that they couldn’t have predicted the attack on Pearl Harbor, and saw no point in blaming them for something almost no one could have predicted.
One of those people was Cmdr. Edwin Layton. Layton was friends with Cmdr. Joseph Rochefort, who worked in Hawaii deciphering encrypted Japanese communications. The head of Naval intelligence back in Washington, D.C. wasn’t receptive to Rochefort, and so when he began finding evidence that the Japanese were planning an attack on Midway Island, he got the information directly to Nimitz through Layton. When they had a meeting to plan the defense of Midway, Rochefort was able to present what was essentially the Japanese battle plan.
And it’s likely none of that would have happened if Nimitz had replaced Layton on his staff.
So you’re probably asking, why wasn’t this the number one incredible thing? Because of this:
1. Turned down big money to stay in the Navy.
Nimitz originally started out in the submarine fleet, and while he was there, he became one of the Navy’s leading experts in aquatic diesel engines. He was such an expert that a manufacturer that built engines for the Navy approached Nimitz in 1913 with a job offer. At a time in his career when he was paid only $300 a month, he turned down a job that would have paid $25,000 a year. He was then told that if that wasn’t enough, he should just name his price.
But because he was so committed to the Navy, he turned down the second offer too.
And if it hadn’t been for that commitment, the six-months from the devastation of Pearl Harbor to the turning point of Midway might have been a lot longer, if not for a young man choosing service to his country over a high-paying job.
To read more about Admiral Nimitz visit Navy History and Heritage’s bio here.