Best Defense

An old salt picks his 4 favorite American admirals — and explains why (IV): Nimitz

All my "greats" were deep into technology and its relation to tactics.



Best Defense is on summer hiatus. During this restful spell we offer re-runs from the past 12 months. This item originally ran on April 18.

By Capt. Wayne P. Hughes Jr. (Ret.)
Best Defense guest columnist


Chester Nimitz’s father ran a hotel shaped like the prow of a ship in Fredericksburg, Texas. I have visited this strange artifact, which is now a Nimitz museum. young Nimitz graduated from the Naval Academy in 1905 and, while still an ensign, commanded a gunboat and a destroyer, the latter of which he ran aground on an uncharted sandbar somewhere in the Philippines. Surviving his court martial and letter of reprimand, Ensign Nimitz soon became a submariner where he earned a reputation as an expert in diesel propulsion. That’s consistent with the theme that all my “greats” were deep into technology and its relation to tactics. Nimitz’s biography says he actually “oversaw the conversion from gasoline to diesel engines.”

Nimitz kept current in both submarines and surface warships with command and staff experience in all kinds of ships. As a rear admiral he commanded a battleship squadron. He had honed his strategic thinking at the Naval War College in 1922 and, as I recall, wrote his term paper on the then-novel idea of underway replenishment.

Nimitz will be number one in many minds for his brilliant leadership as commander-in-chief of the U.S. pacific fleet, and then chief of naval operations, both at critical times. Here is additional support for Nimitz as a combat tactician as well: I contend — I may be the only one — that at the Battle of Midway, Nimitz was his own tactical commander until he turned Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher and Admiral Raymond A. Spruance loose after Admiral Chūichi Nagumo’s carrier strike force was detected. Nimitz approved — may have designed — the long-range air search effort when much was uncertain about the Japanese multi-task-force’s approach. He stationed his three carriers where they could surprise the Japanese and gave Spruance and Fletcher distinct tactical tasks. He beefed up Midway Island with more aircraft than in any of the carriers and he ordered their initial strikes. Though the hodgepodge of aircraft on Midway made no hits, they were a fatal distraction for Nagumo. Nimitz retained tactical control well into the battle because he had special information, had it first, and could transmit it when Fletcher and Spruance dared not radiate and give away their presence and location.

A close look at the Pacific war shows Nimitz stayed as close to and involved in all the operations, just as a theater command should. At the same time he worked out a modus vivendi with General Douglas MacArthur and, perhaps less well known, had several tussles with the chief of naval operations when few people dared to push back against Admiral Ernest King. It is odd that neither Nimitz nor King are among the 19 flag officer biographies in the War College’s fine book, Nineteen Gun Salute, that includes Spruance, Burke, Radford, Zumwalt, Trost, and other great leaders.

Two tidbits:

— Nimitz was never a vice admiral. He jumped from two stars to four stars when he went from chief of the bureau of navigation directly to CINCPACFLT and relieved Admiral Husband E. Kimmel. His morale building after the Pearl Harbor embarrassment is crucial to later success, as was his wise application of local code breaking to affect his strategic decisions.

— Nimitz founded the very first, prototype NROTC unit in the country at UC Berkeley. The year was 1926. Later in retirement and living in San Francisco, he was on the Berkeley Board of Regents.

There’s more

By way of conclusion, I don’t have time to do justice to Rear Admiral J. C. Wylie, but want to mention him as another favorite. “Bill” Wylie’s short, incisive book, Military Strategy, is a classic among classics. It says the purpose of every strategy, anywhere, anytime, is to control something, and that a strategists’ genius is in picking the right thing to control .

Wylie also introduces to two kinds of strategies. One is sequential, executed in a series of battles like our march across the Pacific in 1944, each building on the previous victory. The other is a cumulative strategy, like the Battle of the Atlantic, in which no one submarine attack mattered but the cumulative effect could have been decisive.

Wylie got his combat experience as Executive Officer of USS Fletcher in the ugly Guadalcanal campaign. Using her modern surface search radar his ship was never touched. Someone recognized the significance of this and sent young Lt. Commander Wylie to Pearl Harbor to help design a makeshift destroyer CIC and write the manual for operating it. My first ship, a Fletcher class destroyer commissioned in 1944, had his CIC design in the captain’s in-port cabin. It was cramped and uncomfortable, but it did the job.

Yes, I have other favorites, admirals I worked closely for: Bud Zumwalt, Ike Kidd, Harry Train, Jim Wilson, Al Whittle, and Jimmy Holloway were all inspirational leaders. Each of you will have your own list. Like my wartime favorites, each of them could have succeeded at anything that was asked of him. 

Capt. Wayne P. Hughes Jr. (Ret.), during his 30 years of active duty, held three commands in the surface Navy. He also was an operations analyst afloat and ashore. He is the author of the naval classic Fleet Tactics. Since retiring some 34 years ago, he has been a teacher and administrator at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. This concludes the series.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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