Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, who at the height of the Pacific war commanded more than two million men and women, 5,000 ships and 20,000 planes, was of humble and landlocked beginnings. Nimitz was born February 24, 1885 to an already widowed mother, and was raised in the small German community of Fredericksburg, Texas. Nimitz and his mother lived and worked at Grandfather Nimitz's steamboat-shaped hotel, a famous frontier hostelry, until he was six. Chester Nimitz had a close relationship with his grandfather and often called him "the most important man" in his life. His mother married her deceased husband's younger brother in 1891, and the family moved to Kerrville, Texas, where they managed the St. Charles Hotel.
Hoping for an appointment to West Point but offered a chance for an education at Annapolis instead, young Chester studied early mornings and late evenings around his schoolwork and chores to prepare for the three-day Annapolis examination. His self-discipline paid off and he was accepted to Annapolis in 1901 at age 15 before he completed high school. The Admiral's class was graduated ahead of schedule on January 30, 1905, due to the need for junior officers in Theodore Roosevelt's expanding Navy. Chester graduated seventh in the class of 114.
Decorations and awards from foreign governments include:
Nimitz was sent to the Phillipines only two years later during a scare of war with Japan, and the 22-year-old ensign was given command of USS Decatur, an old destroyer. The ship had been out of commission for some time, the crew and armament had been assembled in only two days, and with only sketchy charts of the Philippine water, the young naval officer ran the ship aground on a mud bank. The future Fleet Admiral received a court-martial for "hazarding" a ship of the U.S. Navy. During his early career Chester Nimitz also received the Silver Life Saving Medal, for leaping overboard to rescue a seaman while commanding the USS SKIPJACK, one of the Navy's earliest submarines.
Nimitz married Catherine Vance Freeman of Massachusetts, and in the following years four children were born: his son, Chester Jr. and three daughters, Catherine, Mary and Nancy.
A defining characteristic of Admiral Nimitz's life was his devotion to the Navy. After the war, he remarked, "Being a part of the Navy is honorable and soul-satisfying work." In 1913, Nimitz was sent to Germany to study diesel engines and upon his return was instrumental in supervising the building of engines for the Navy's first diesel-powered ship, the MAUMEE. Aware of Lt. Nimitz's skill, a leading American engineering firm, offered him a job for $25,000 a year (his Navy pay was $3,456 at the time). He refused the offer, preferring the "honorable, soul-satisfying" duties of a Naval Officer.
During World War I, Nimitz served on the staff of the commander of submarines in the Atlantic; in the future he was always to consider submarines his first love.
Between wars Admiral Nimitz had varied duties. He commanded the battleship SOUTH CAROLINA, the cruisers, AUGUSTA and CHICAGO, and the Pearl Harbor submarine base. He established one of the first campus NROTC units at Berkeley, California. In 1939 he was appointed Chief of the Bureau of Navigation, (now the Bureau of Personnel) and was serving there in Washington when Pearl Harbor was attacked and war began. President Roosevelt picked Nimitz from 28 flag officers senior to him to relieve Admiral Kimmel at Pearl Harbor.
As Commander-in-Chief, Pacific, Admiral Nimitz proved to be the right man at the right time. He restored morale by building an aggressive combat team led by men like Admirals William Halsey and Raymond Spruance. He brilliantly and instinctively chose the correct moves in the gamble of the Battle of Midway, which is to this day considered the greatest victory of the United States Navy.
As overall commander of the Central Pacific area Nimitz commanded all U.S. and Allied military forces in his theater bordered on the west by the Southwest Pacific area of General MacArthur's. Nimitz led the "island hopping" amphibious drive toward Japan. The Navy and the Marines took Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Kwajalein, Eniwetok, Saipan, Tinian, Guam, Pelelui, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa; each island brought them a step closer to Japan, and each was won at a greater cost than the one before.
On December 19, 1944 Chester W. Nimitz was promoted to the grade of fleet admiral, newly established by the Congress about a year earlier. Only four five-star admirals were to be chosen during World War II: Leahy, King, Nimitz and Halsey.
The atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki forced the Japanese to admit defeat, and on September 2, 1945, on board the battleship MISSOURI in Tokyo Bay, Fleet Admiral Nimitz signed the surrender document on behalf of the United States. Later in November he relinquished his command at Pearl Harbor as he had accepted it, aboard a submarine. Three weeks later he was sworn in as Chief of Naval Operations. It then became his job to demobilize all but a fraction of the most powerful Navy in history - one he had helped build and lead.
After the war Nimitz continued to be sought out and honored for his wartime service. He was decorated by 14 nations and became a goodwill ambassador of the United Nations. He also worked to restore goodwill with Japan by raising funds for the restoration of the Japanese memorial ship MIKASA and urging return of ancestral samurai swords. He believed in the importance of turning "swords into plowshares".
In the afterglow of World War II books written by officers involved in the war's battles and decisions fueled rivalries and controversies. Admiral Nimitz refused to take part in the literary autopsy of the war. He felt no one would be helped and that his beloved Navy would be hurt the most in the end. Also during these years, the Admiral was often approached with business opportunities and high-salaried positions. He turned down all such offers considering instead "how the Gold Star Mothers might feel". As his son later remarked, "he maintained the Navy's image until his death".
Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz died at his home on Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay on February 20, 1966. He would have been 81 years old on the day of his funeral at Golden Gate National Cemetery at San Bruno. He was the last surviving five-star admiral.
In addition to the Distinguished Service Medal awarded by Congress, the Distinguished Service Medal with two Gold Stars in lieu of like awards by the Navy, the Army Distinguished Service Medal, and the Silver Life Saving Medal, Fleet Admiral Nimitz had the Victory Medal with Escort Clasp and Star; the American Defense Service Medal; the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal; the World War II Victory Medal; and the National Defense Service Medal.
Britain - Order of Knight Grand Cross of the Bath
Greece - Grand Cross of the Order of George I
China - Order of the Grand Cordon of Pao Ting (Tripod) Special Class
Guatemala - The Cross of Military Merit, First Class
Great Britain - Pacific Star
The Netherlands - Order of Orange-Nassau with Swords in the Degree of the Knight Grand Cross
France - Grand Officer in the National Order of the Legion of Honor
Cuba - Grand Cross of the Order of Carlos Manuel de Cespedes
Argentina - Order of the Liberator
Belgium - Grand Cross of the Order of the Liberator, Grand Cross Order of the Crown with Palm, Croiz de Guerro with Palm
Italy - Knight of the Grand Cross of the Military Order of Italy
Philippines - Medal of Valor
Ecuador - Star of Abdon Calderon (1st Class)