The Commander of the Pacific Ocean Theater
By Brayton Harris
Palgrave Macmillan Copyright © 2011 Brayton Harris
All rights reserved.
Let us begin, at the beginning. Chester William Nimitz was born February 24, 1885, in the German-American settlement of Fredericksburg, Texas. He could claim a maritime heritage of sorts—both his grandfather and greatgrandfather had gone to sea. For his great-grandfather, it was a full-time job; his grandfather Charles Henry Nimitz's sea time was limited to perhaps one cruise as a teenager, yet for most of his adult life he was known as Captain Nimitz. This was a military not maritime rank that came from his role as organizer of a Civil War–era volunteer militia in Texas.
Charles Henry was the most influential person in young Chester's life. One of the founders of Fredericksburg, which he and a small group of settlers built from scratch in 1846, Charles Henry was a classic entrepreneur. He set up a hotel in an eight-room sun-dried-brick building, which over time grew to offer forty-five guest rooms, a dining hall, casino, bar, brewery, bathhouse, and a combination ballroom and theatre. And, over time, the ever-expanding building came to resemble a beached steamship—complete with a mast for the flag and a crow's nest for looking out over the hills. With a bit of enlightened marketing, it became known as Captain Nimitz' Steamboat Hotel. In its heyday, the Nimitz was the last commercial hotel between the Gulf Coast and San Diego and played host to such guests as Colonel Robert E. Lee, General Philip Sheridan, and the author O. Henry, who used the hotel as the backdrop for a short story.
Charles Henry had twelve children; one son, Chester Bernard, was never really well, perhaps a combination of rheumatic fever and a congenital weakness of the lungs. Chester Bernard thought that working in the great outdoors as a cowboy, moving large herds of cows from Texas to Nebraska, would be curative. It was not, and five months after he married Anna Henke, the daughter of a cattle rancher, Chester Bernard died. Anna was pregnant with their son. She named him after his father.
Anna and baby Chester moved into her father-in-law's hotel where she worked in the kitchen. Chester grew up as a scrappy kid. His friends all had fathers, he did not. His friends enjoyed a lot of playtime, he was often stuck helping his mother in the kitchen. His light-blond hair triggered the nickname "Cottontop," which he hated so much so early in life that he once dumped a pot of green paint on his head in a that-will-show-'em! sort of move. His mother had to shave his head. Quick to anger, he got into fights with kids at school who teased or bullied him. He seems to have been pretty good at it, at least, according to relatives telling tales some seventy years after the fact, who credited him with taking on and defeating two at a time. Somewhere along the way he decided that fighting was not the best way to solve problems and learned to control his temper. Most of the time.
When Chester was not quite six, Anna married her husband's brother, Willie, and the family moved some twenty-four miles away to Kerrville, to live in and manage another hotel, owned by Chester's aunt, a widow. The St. Charles was an overgrown boarding house, with only half the guest rooms and none of the charm of the Steamboat Hotel, but it offered a place to live and work. Willie and Anna had two children, Dora and Otto. Charles Henry turned day-to-day operation of his hotel over to his son Charles Henry Jr., drifted into politics, and was elected to the Texas State Legislature.
Willie was an engineer by education, a graduate of Worcester Polytechnic Institute, but once back in Texas, he became a professional overseer: an expert at watching other people work. He was amiable, played hotel host at times, but much to the disgust of his father, who had paid for his expensive education, Willie was never gainfully employed as an engineer. The only actual job anyone remembers him having was as a timekeeper, late in life. But Willie, to his credit, had no delusions. In an honest bit of regret, he once told his daughter, "You know, I couldn't sell gold dollars for fifty cents apiece."
Chester had his first paying job, a dollar a week, at the age of eight, as a delivery boy for a local meat market owned by his mother's family. As he got older, he waited tables in the hotel dining room, did yard work, chopped wood and carried it around to the dozen or so stoves and fireplaces in the hotel. When he was fifteen, his aunt started paying him fifteen dollars a month. In addition to the regular chores, he became the evening desk clerk, on duty until 10 P.M.
Perhaps influenced by knowledge of his father's systemic poor health and nudged by his mother, Chester became an exercise fanatic. He swam, ran, and walked—sometimes, as much as a fourteen-mile hike to an uncle's farm. Many years later a cousin recalled, "Nothing stands out more than his utter determination to remain physically fit." The cousin added that when Chester came home for a visit some years later, "He carried a clock on his leg and he got in a certain mileage every day."
His recreation was typical of boys in rural Texas: pitching horseshoes, fishing, hunting for rabbits and doves, catching rattlesnakes to harvest their rattles, going on week-long camping trips with grandfather Nimitz, or pretending to be a cowboy on the ranch where his maternal grandfather Henry Henke raised his cattle. Grandmother Henke did not speak English, so Chester became pretty fluent in German. He was also mischievous: "borrowing" a neighbor's boat for a row on the river (well, borrowed more than once, to the frustration of the neighbor who sometimes wanted to use the boat himself), and tying tin cans to a dog's tail. Fortunately, his solid Germanic middle-class background provided a few socially acceptable distractions, such as a love of classical music and skill at playing card games—notably cribbage, poker, and bridge—which would prove useful later in life.
Education? He was a quick study. The principal of Tivy High School said they "couldn't keep him busy, he was that fast." Whatever they gave him to do was quickly done, "and he was looking around for something to do ... some trouble to get into."
Confidence? A fishing party hired the cook at the hotel to go along on their river expedition and he was a no-show. Chester, barely in his teens, said, "I'll go and cook for you." The fishermen said, "What can you cook?," and Chester said, "I can cook all the fish you can get." And he did.
What of the future? Horizons were limited. Young Chester was not interested in either of the family businesses, but local opportunities were few. Traveling salesmen who stopped at the St. Charles talked of freedom on the open road; a team of surveyors described their work and suggested that Chester could become an apprentice and learn the trade, an option with some appeal. Then, one day in the summer of 1900 an army field artillery battery camped nearby. Fifteen-year-old Chester was fascinated by the pomp and circumstance and the "spanking-new uniforms" of two recent graduates of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. They spun tales of the wonders of army life and the glories of West Point, and at that moment Nimitz decided to become an army officer.
But entering West Point was no easy task. Appointments were tightly controlled, although every member of Congress had a quota. Nimitz applied to his own congressman, James Slaydon—and was devastated by the response. Slaydon's quota was filled.
However, Slaydon noted, he had an opening for the Naval Academy at Annapolis. Would Chester be interested? Chester had never heard of the place, but when he learned that it was the Navy's equivalent of West Point and that after a free college education, graduates become naval officers, he said, why not? But it was not a done deal: Slaydon had other candidates and would hold a local competitive exam in April. The winner would go on to a Naval Academy Prep School to study for an even more rigorous qualifying exam that included algebra (through quadratic equations), plane geometry, United States and world history, geography, reading, writing, spelling, and grammar—all of which had aspects that Chester, then in the middle of his junior year of high school, had probably never heard and certainly had not yet studied.
But he was game to try. His grandfather, Charles Henry, cheered him on, saying, "The sea—like life itself—is a stern taskmaster. The best way to get along with either is to learn all you can, then do your best and don't worry—especially about things over which you have no control."
"Do your best and don't worry" became a guiding principle. Chester had three months to prepare; Willie, some teachers, and the high school principal volunteered as tutors. Chester's daily schedule now began at 3 A.M.; he studied until 5:30, when it was time to light the stoves. School was from 9 to 4, followed by front desk duty and homework until 10 P.M., and to bed.
Competing against seven other hopefuls, Chester came in first and soon had his first set of official orders: Report to Annapolis to get ready for the entrance exam. If he passed, he would be immediately sworn into naval service and admitted.
Slaydon, headed to his congressional office at the Capitol, took the very excited young man in tow for the journey. Chester had never been more than a few dozen miles from home, had never seen a building larger than the Steamboat Hotel, had never seen, let alone ridden on, a train. It was quite an adventure.
Congressional enthusiasm for a larger Navy began with the start of the Spanish-American War, in 1898, when eight new battleships, six armored cruisers, and about three dozen smaller ships were authorized. Expansion of the fleet continued with encouragement from Theodore Roosevelt, who said, "There is a homely adage which runs, 'Speak softly and carry a big stick, you will go far.' If the American nation will speak softly and yet build and keep at a pitch of the highest training a thoroughly efficient navy the Monroe Doctrine will go far."
As a result, the Navy needed more officers. When Chester Nimitz was sworn in as a naval cadet on September 7, 1901, it was in the largest class in the fifty-six-year history of the Naval Academy. He and his 130 classmates were in for a six-year course: four years of academics and three summer training cruises, followed by two years of service with the fleet with the rank of "passed midshipman." Then, upon positive recommendations from their commanding officers and after passing another set of exams, graduates would be promoted to ensign.
The members of the teaching staff were professional naval officers, not professional educators, and their method of instruction was laissez-faire—they did not so much instruct as grade performance. At the end of each class, for instance, the instructor would assign the readings. The cadets were expected to absorb knowledge during their study time and give it back in the next class, when they would draw slips of paper on each of which was a question to be answered at the blackboard. After twenty minutes or so, the instructor would go from one to the next, critiquing the answers and only then, perhaps, offering some comment based on his own experience.
This philosophy of teaching was a reflection of the Navy's operational reality. Unlike their U. S. Army counterparts, commanding officers of warships were expected to be independent, often to operate their ships out of contact with higher command for months. They had to draw on their own initiative, intuition, and resources. They could not count on expert advice, guidance, or interference from afar. By such insistence on individual effort, the Navy expected only the strong to survive.
Then, too, there was a day-to-day regimentation that was hard for some young men to accept. Cadets marched to class, could be sanctioned for being late, for talking in formation, and for smoking anywhere on campus. In another form of testing, known far and wide as hazing, upperclassmen would verbally assault the newcomers with insults and demeaning questions. "What makes you think you're good enough to be a naval officer?" would be a mild example. Questioning a cadet's birth-legitimacy would be pushing the limits— there were rules—but was not unheard of. The answers were not as important as a demonstrated self-control. Did the cadet keep his anger in check? Was he properly respectful? The goal: to weed out those young men who could not handle pressure.
Of Chester's entering class, 114 made it through to graduation. Of those 114, Chester stood at number seven, a remarkable performance for an unsophisticated youngster who had not finished high school. From the start, he had continued his practice of early rising and had convinced his roommate to join him. They would get up at 4:30 to study, and off to a fast start, the pair were near the top of the class—until the middle of the semester when Chester caught pneumonia and spent a month in the hospital. (Vulnerability to diseases of the lungs may have been an unwelcome legacy from his father. During his lifetime, he would contract pneumonia at least three more times, and it would be the proximate cause of his death.) He was soon far behind in his classwork and catching up took native intelligence, diligence, and determination. With the help of his roommate, he was back near the top by the end of the school year. As a reward, he and his roommate were asked to split up and each room with a classmate who had not yet learned the secrets of academic success. They did so and coerced their new roommates to adopt the early-morning routine, with immediate result: everyone's grades improved.
Saturdays were for seamanship training aboard a large steel-hulled, square-rigged ship. By coincidence, the commanding officer and head of the Department of Seamanship was Commander William F. Halsey, father of Naval Cadet William F. (later known as "Bull") Halsey Junior, who was one year ahead of Chester. During Chester's senior year, the Navy's first submarine, the Holland, was based at Annapolis and the upperclassmen took turns going out in the bay on this curious new breed of warship. It was like a bathtub toy. None of them were much impressed.
Summer training cruises were a welcome break from routine, with new skills to be learned and new places to be visited. Chester cruised aboard two battleships and a destroyer—on which he developed an ear infection that affected him for the rest of his life. With no trained medical personnel in the small crew, the commanding officer elected to treat the infection with an antiseptic solution of boric acid squirted in the ear with a clean oil syringe. Whether from physical damage caused by the tool or the infection itself, Chester became slightly deaf in that ear. He developed some skill at lip reading to offset the handicap.
In September 1904, as they returned from their summer cruise, the seniors learned they would be graduating in January 1905, rather than June, to meet the needs of the fleet. Some classes were canceled and others doubled-up. And they were delighted to find they could move out of the makeshift Civil War-era quarters they had been occupying and into the newly built Bancroft Hall (then—and still—the largest dormitory building in the world). Nimitz, now a three-striper company commander, was assigned a private bedroom and an adjoining study he shared with another student. Several classmates quickly discovered a niche on part of the roof where they could gather, unseen from the street below or, for that matter, from any other vantage point inside or outside of the building, and drink beer. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Admiral Nimitz by Brayton Harris. Copyright © 2011 Brayton Harris. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
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