An Undersea Transformer

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There have always been individuals of vision who can see potential in technological innovation. They realize that all it takes is a new way of thinking, the right approach and hard work to transform the new innovation into a valuable tool in its particular field. During the early twentieth century, there was an American naval officer assigned to an emerging branch of the U.S. Navy. He dedicated himself to one of those new technological innovations, and he soon harnessed its power. With his drive and foresight, this new branch became an effective arm of the U.S. Navy. The officer’s name was Chester W. Nimitz. This is the story of how he helped shape submarines into one of the Navy’s best offensive weapons.

Like the submarines he later commanded, Chester William Nimitz seemed an unlikely choice for the important role he would play in naval warfare. He was born an only child in late February 1885 to a recently widowed mother in the small German community of Fredericksburg, Texas, located in the hill country not far from the state capital of Austin. His early years were spent in and around his grandfather’s “Steamboat Hotel” before he moved to nearby Kerrville with his mother and new stepfather. To help support his family, he worked at a local hotel and as a delivery boy for the local meat market. He believed he would never advance any further, but after meeting a couple of West Point cadets, he decided to enter the United States Military Academy. His Congressman told him he would be unlikely to enter West Point, but there was an opening at the Naval Academy in Annapolis. Despite never finishing high school, Nimitz was tutored well enough to pass the entrance exams and enter the Academy. Over the next four years, he often awakened before reveille even sounded so he could study an extra hour before classes began. He was well-liked by his classmates and developed a friendship with a football player named William F. “Bull” Halsey. In addition to his classes, he excelled in tennis and rowing. He graduated seventh in the class of 1905 and soon after was commissioned a Navy ensign. His first years in the Navy awakened him to the fact that naval officers needed to accept new innovations if they wished to create a truly global naval power.

At the time Nimitz began his naval career, the great bulk of America’s naval power rested with surface warships. Most of the new ships were battleships or cruisers. In fact, the first ship Nimitz served on was on the new battleship Ohio as it sailed from America to Japan on a highly sensitive diplomatic mission. His time at the Naval Academy had taught Nimitz that entrenched commanders judged surface warships to be the true masters of the waves, and to them — the bigger the better. Senior officers saw this view validated in America’s victory in the Spanish-American War and in Japan’s recent victory over Russia when battleships had engaged each other in in decisive sea battles. Even as America built newer surface ships however, others began to fall into disrepair. After serving on the Ohio, Nimitz served on several older ships such as the Decatur, which was so worn out that nothing on it functioned properly. He was eventually recalled to the U.S. with orders assigning him to submarines. It would be this duty that would launch Nimitz on the road to success.

Despite the fact that most naval officers looked down on submariners, Nimitz dutifully accepted his new posting without complaint. He had first sailed on a submarine as a cadet, but he had hardly been impressed with its capability. That view had not changed in the intervening years. He once called them “a cross between a Jules Verne fantasy and a humpbacked whale.” Nevertheless, he took command of the Plunger, the Navy’s second commissioned submarine, and he quickly concluded the submarine fleet needed a massive overhaul. The first issue he confronted was the type of engines used to power submarines. In the early days, gas engines powered submarines, but gasoline fumes fouled the air in the confined space and the volatile fuel even caused explosions at times. Seeing the danger with such engines, Nimitz immediately urged a switch to diesel engines instead. Over the next few years, nearly one-third of American subs became diesel powered. Subs that operated on diesel now had a greater range and could be adapted from defensive weapons to offensive weapons. This change in capability led submarine designers to build subs with additional torpedo tubes. Previously, most subs only had one tube. Nimitz led the way in transforming the submarine fleet, commanding such subs as the Narwhal, the Shipjack and the Sturgeon, all of which incorporated these modifications to the original design. It was not, however, only physical changes to submarines that Nimitz desired. His time on board subs further convinced him that one day such vessels might even be able to escort a fleet of surface ships far out into the ocean. As America headed towards war, it became apparent that submarines were destined to become a vital tool in the American arsenal.

Nimitz had become one of America’s leading experts on submarines by the time America entered World War I. In 1912 he had addressed the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island on the feasibility of using submarines for offensive purposes. Over the next five years, he was offered the chance to leave the Navy and join the private industry where his knowledge of diesel engines was highly valued. Instead he stayed in the Navy. After war erupted in 1914, he watched as Germany unleashed the might of its own submarine force against Allied merchant ships. This unrestricted warfare resulted in America entering the war in April 1917. American destroyers and subs were ordered out on seek-and-destroy missions. In August he too left for Europe to join the commander of the submarine force’s Atlantic fleet as an engineering aide. While U.S. submarine forces had little strategic impact in World War I, this assignment allowed him to observe the tactics and engineering capabilities of British and German submarines as they engaged each other in battle. In addition to lessons learned in submarine warfare, the experience moved Nimitz from the engineering and operational side of the Navy into the ranks of the command structure. After World War I ended, Nimitz returned home determined to build up the U.S. submarine fleet in anticipation of the next military conflict.

Chester Nimitz continued to be an advocate of undersea warfare even as he served in other positions. By the time he returned from Europe, the upper echelons of the Navy brass had begun to come around to the immense potential of submarines. New models, which would allow submarines to range far beyond America’s coastline, were being developed and launched on a regular basis. As part of this national buildup, Nimitz served as adviser to the Chief of Naval Operations on how best to design new submarines. Before long he received orders to report to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii to develop a Pacific submarine fleet and base. The fleet and base were soon completed, and Nimitz assumed command of the new sub base. He enjoyed the posting and even developed a close relationship with many of his subordinates. He later served in a similar capacity as the commander of the submarine fleet stationed in San Diego. During this posting, he befriended an officer he came to know well in the coming years, Raymond Spruance. When his tour at San Diego ended, he served as assistant chief of the Naval Bureau of Navigation and later as the bureau’s chief. He was in that position on the morning of December 7, 1941 when he received word that the Japanese had attacked his former base at Pearl Harbor.

In the immediate aftermath of the Japanese attack, Chester Nimitz was ordered to return to Pearl Harbor. He would not just be commanding the submarines though. This time he had orders to command the entire U.S. Pacific Fleet “till the war is won,” as President Franklin D. Roosevelt put it. Fittingly, Nimitz officially announced his presence as the new commander from the deck of a submarine in the debris-filled harbor. After touring his command, he realized that the submarine fleet was one of the few groups of ships to escape destruction. Understanding the need for America to strike back, he ordered the subs out to attack the Japanese. Over time, the rest of the American Navy was rebuilt and went on the offensive as well. Nimitz directed America’s response from his command base in Hawaii and later in Guam. He proudly watched the resurrected fleet push the Japanese across the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean to the waters surrounding the island nation. Two of his most valued commanders were his old friends “Bull” Halsey and Raymond Spruance, now four-star Admirals. He himself eventually rose to the rank of Fleet Admiral, a five-star rank, in December 1944. Despite often contesting the right strategy with General Douglas MacArthur, Nimitz became a national hero and was on hand to accept the surrender of Japanese forces on September 2, 1945.

With the war over, Nimitz continued working to bolster the capabilities of the Navy. He returned to the U.S. to serve as Chief of Naval Operations where he cooperated with the Air Force in developing nuclear weapons. His work eventually reaped huge rewards when submarines and other ships began to carry nuclear weapons. He eventually retired to California but did not retire from public service. He served as a regent for the University of California at Berkeley and wrote articulate articles and books supporting the need for a powerful Navy. He represented President Eisenhower at the funeral of his old friend, Admiral Halsey, and he even briefly served in a United Nations position before returning to Berkeley where his health faded over the next few years. He died in 1966 and was buried in Golden Gate National Cemetery in San Francisco, which overlooks the ocean he sailed on. Throughout his career, he had proudly worn the dolphin insignia of a submariner.

Chester W. Nimitz spent much of his professional life trying to effectively develop and utilize a new component of the United States Navy. He saw the benefits the country would reap if it aggressively pursued this innovative weapon system. Through his persistence and hard work, submarines became one of the most effective and lethal weapons in the U.S. arsenal. Today, they help to project American influence and power throughout the world. One of the prime movers of this major transformation in U.S. naval warfare has, for the most part, only been known as the commander of the Pacific Fleet in World War II. Long before he ascended to that lofty position however, Chester Nimitz proved that he was one of those rare individuals with the vision, courage and drive to challenge the conventional way of doing things and to embrace a new and innovative way of thinking.

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1 Comment

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One response to “An Undersea Transformer

  1. Eric Brown

    Jake, again another well written synopsis of a great leader’s impact on our military might which, as you well know, helps preserve our nation’s freedoms. I do have a question for you though; was Admiral Nimitz a proponent of nuclear powered submarines? Did he have a role in the development of the USS Nautilus?

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