Many publications do a grand job with articles that recap historic American battles of WWII, such as the April 18, 1942, Doolittle Raid, the May 4, 1942, Coral Sea victory and the decisive win at Midway 77 years ago on June 7.
However, those articles consistently fail to mention the originator of that triad of success — Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz. His behind-the-scenes role in those missions should be told, as it was told to me by his daughter, Sister Mary Aquinas Nimitz, who had her bachelor’s and doctorate degrees in biology from Stanford University, was president of the Dominican University in Northern California and the leader of her Catholic order.
To tell the Nimitz story, as Sister Mary told me when I was doing research work for my current book, one must go back to the era when Nimitz was a young lieutenant commander and served on the faculty of the University of California, Berkeley. While at Cal, Nimitz headed the Navy ROTC program, and also served as an assistant football coach. It didn’t take long during two years of coaching for Nimitz to learn the value of team morale, student body esprit de corps, faculty involvement and alumni support. Above all, it was morale — personal, team and school morale — that stuck with Nimitz and became an indelible part of his future command persona.
Admiral Nimitz was in a New York theater watching a play when President Franklin Roosevelt called and informed him of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and appointed him commander of the Pacific Theater of Operations.
The United States was still coming out of the Great Depression when Pearl Harbor pulled us into World War II. Although the U.S. suffered massive naval damage and lost the lives of 3,800 personnel during the Japanese attack, Nimitz found reasons to be optimistic when he arrived in Hawaii and surveyed the destruction.
To his surprise, he discovered that the Japanese were so concerned about sinking our battleships that they never bombed our dry docks that were opposite those ships. By having the dry docks intact, Nimitz was able to have most of the ships repaired and at sea by the time he could have towed them to the West Coast.
Another reason for Nimitz’s optimism was almost beyond belief. Every drop of fuel in the Pacific theater of war was on top of the ground in storage tanks some three miles away on a hill. One attack plane could have strafed those tanks and destroyed our military’s entire Pacific fuel supply.
In the meantime, Nimitz properly sensed that America’s morale was at low ebb, as was the nation’s military fighting spirit. For the first time, Americans were depressed. Roosevelt’s “the day which will live in infamy” speech further saddened Americans, and with unemployment hovering in double digits throughout the country, the spirit of the body politic was lower than anyone could ever remember. Nimitz was faced with civilian despair among the populace, low morale among his military personnel, and an enemy that outnumbered and outstaffed his damaged naval fleet. Nimitz decided to be a coach one more time.
He needed a battle plan that included some aggressive, proactive sea and air strikes against the Japanese; decisive and consistent offensive actions to reverse the tide of battle and regain America’s spirit and our military’s morale. He devised a triad plan with three legs. After consulting with his comrade-in-arms, Gen. Henry “Hap” Arnold, who commanded the U.S. Army Air Corps, Nimitz, started the planning and training for a sea-launched air bombing attack on Tokyo and its abutting cities. Arnold chose the exceptionally talented Lt. Col. James Doolittle, who had a doctorate in aeronautical engineering from MIT, to lead the highly secret mission.
The Nimitz-originated Doolittle raid on April 18, 1942, was the first leg of the triad. Banner headlines followed the raid that awakened Americans and reinstated a “can-do” spirit. That spirit swelled the civilian work force and thousands upon thousands of armored personnel carriers, tanks, guns, airplanes and ships were built in American plants ahead of schedule and went into battle.
The second leg of the Nimitz triad started a month later on May 4, 1942, when the U. S. Navy used Nimitz’s strategy and Admiral William “Bull” Halsey’s tactics and won a decisive victory at the Battle of Coral Sea; a massive combat arena that saw carrier air attacks for the first time in naval history.
Then, the following month on June 7, Japan suffered a crushing defeat at Midway that forced it to bring its military assets closer to home ports and that left a much larger share of the Pacific to Nimitz’s ships. More morale-boosting headlines followed.
Nimitz, the former Cal football coach, had thrown three successful Hail Mary touchdown passes that routed the enemy and reinstalled grit, grace and glory in the hearts of Americans and her fighting forces.
Nimitz, more than any leader, saw widespread morose among his fellow citizens, took proactive leadership steps while commanding nearly 2 million troops, changed the American mode into a “can do” spirit, and managed the entire Pacific as if it were his backyard. If we have another Chester Nimitz among us, will he or she please step forward?
Retired Air Force Col. Elvin C. Bell lives in Fresno. His interview with Sister Mary Nimitz is covered in greater detail in Bell’s current book, “A Life Beyond Infinity.” He also served four terms on the City Council, the last three as mayor pro tem.