This episode of "The Big Picture" is a biography of Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz, one of the greatest naval leaders in the history of the United States. Chester William Nimitz (February 24, 1885 – February 20, 1966) was a fleet admiral of the United States Navy. He played a major role in the naval history of World War II as Commander in Chief, United States Pacific Fleet (CinCPac), for U.S. naval forces and Commander in Chief, Pacific Ocean Areas (CinCPOA), for U.S. and Allied air, land, and sea forces during World War II.
Born nearly five months after his father died from a rheumatic heart, Nimitz graduated seventh in the Annapolis class of 1905.
After two years of service in East Asian waters on the battleship Ohio and on various small craft, Nimitz was commissioned an ensign and remained in the Far East until late 1908 when he returned to the United States and began duty in submarines. He became a lieutenant in 1910. Between 1918 and 1922 Nimitz had short tours in the office of the chief of naval operations and as executive officer of the battleship South Carolina. He was promoted to rear admiral in 1938.
When Nimitz began his tenure as CinCPac on 31 December 1941, his principal assets were three aircraft carriers and the various cruisers and destroyers that had come through the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor unscathed. He also had under his command many submarines, but defective torpedoes would hamper their effectiveness for over a year.
Nimitz's major strategic responsibilities were to guard the supply lines between the United States and the Hawaiian Islands (including the outpost of Midway Island) as well as the South Pacific route between the United States and Australia, whose defense was considered an American priority. The only offensive actions Nimitz's command could undertake were hit-and-run raids on scattered Japanese bases. (None was more heartening than the raid on Tokyo carried out by air force bombers operating from the carrier Hornet in April 1942.)
At the end of March 1942 Nimitz was given the additional title of commander in chief Pacific Ocean Area. With the exception of the Tokyo raid, Japanese forces retained the initiative in the Pacific throughout 1942. Relying on timely information provided by his intelligence experts, Nimitz ordered carrier task forces to the Coral Sea in May and to the vicinity of Midway in June to thwart Japanese plans to occupy Port Moresby, New Guinea, and Midway Island. Beginning in August 1942, the struggle for Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands dominated events in the Pacific.
By the last half of 1943, the combined air groups from the new carriers that Nimitz had available numbered some 700 planes, enough to give his forces air superiority in any operation they undertook. Among those taken by American forces were Tarawa in the Gilberts, Kwajalein and Eniwetok in the Marshalls, and Saipan, Tinian, and Guam in the Marianas.
Planners in Pearl Harbor and Washington agreed on taking Leyte in the Philippines after the conclusion of the Marianas operation, but King then wanted to seize Formosa while Generals George C. Marshall and MacArthur favored a return to Luzon, the northernmost of the major Philippine Islands. The capture of Okinawa in the spring of 1945 turned out to be the last of the great amphibious operations undertaken by Nimitz's forces.
Nimitz's place in history rests primarily on his command of the Pacific Fleet and the Pacific Ocean Area during the Second World War. For almost four decades after the end of the war historians treated him kindly, but thereafter they raised questions about his grasp of strategy, his knowledge of logistics, and his proclivity to compromise on issues of planning and on personnel assignments. While some of these criticisms have merit, in the largest sense Nimitz was a superior leader.
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