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Nimitz at War: Command Leadership from Pearl Harbor to Tokyo Bay

Nimitz at War: Command Leadership from Pearl Harbor to Tokyo Bay PDF

Author: Craig L. Symonds

Publisher: Oxford University Press


Publish Date: June 1, 2022

ISBN-10: 0190062363

Pages: 496

File Type: Epub

Language: English

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Book Preface

Nearly fifty years ago, as a new assistant professor in the History Department at the U.S. Naval Academy, I shared an office suite with Elmer B. “Ned” Potter. Ned had taught at the Naval Academy since before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. He was also the co-editor with Chester Nimitz of the book Sea Power (1961), which we all used as a text in the required naval history course that I subsequently taught at the Academy for thirty years. Ned knew Nimitz well, having worked closely with him on Sea Power. Ned’s biography of the admiral (entitled, simply, Nimitz) appeared in 1976, and he kindly gave me an inscribed copy. I still have it.

Since we shared a telephone line, I often took calls intended for him. My favorites were from his wife, Grace, a Virginia lady in every sense of that term. She never identified herself, as in “Hello, Craig, this is Grace Potter.” She never had to. When I heard, “Wheyal, halloh thayah”—each word two distinct syllables—it could be no one else. I never got a call from Nimitz, since he had died in 1966, but Nimitz was very much a part of the many conversations Ned and I had about naval history until Ned retired in 1977. We remained friends until he died twenty years later, in 1997. I hope he would have approved of the wartime portrait of the admiral that I offer here.

This is not a biography of Chester Nimitz. It is, instead, a close examination of his leadership during his three and a half years directing World War II in the Pacific Theater when his actions and decisions guided the course of the war and helped determine its outcome, the legacy of which we still live with today. In many ways, it is remarkable that he assumed such a role. National trauma—social, political, economic, and military—produces a cultural tension that can challenge democratic norms. In such circumstances, the loudest, most aggressive voices often assume leadership roles. During World War II, military and naval leaders such as Admiral Ernest J. King, General Douglas MacArthur, Admiral “Bull” Halsey, and General George Patton all rose to prominence. All were talented and competent. All were also larger-than-life figures whose temperament, stubbornness, self-assurance, and impatience characterized their leadership. They were, and are, polarizing figures.

Nimitz, like Generals George Marshall and Dwight Eisenhower, exemplified another leadership style, a quieter one that depended on intelligent listening, humility, and patience. Nimitz did not shrink from hard decisions—he was, at critical moments, as bold as any commander in the war. Yet he believed that ultimate success depended on accommodation as well as determination, on humility as well as aggressiveness, on nurturing available human resources as well as asserting his authority. Rather than impose orders, he elicited solutions; he sought achievement, not attention. He unified. His was a quiet, calm, yet firm hand on the tiller during an existential crisis, and his leadership style reinforced rather than challenged democratic norms. It is a leadership template more relevant than ever.

The focus and purpose of this book is to recreate and evaluate Admiral Chester Nimitz’s experiences in the 1,341 days during World War II in the Pacific when he commanded, directed, and supervised the largest naval force ever assembled in the largest naval war ever fought.

as always, there are a number of individuals who have helped me in the preparation of this work. In addition to the inspiration provided by Ned Potter at the beginning of my career, I am indebted to my editor at Oxford, Tim Bent, who has mentored me during the more recent phases of that career. Tim and I have worked together on several book projects. Despite the inherent tension that exists between author and editor, he has always found the perfect balance of praise and criticism, suggestions and applause, and—like Nimitz himself—he has been patient and encouraging throughout. Over the many years of our association he has also become a valued friend. This book is dedicated to both Ned and Tim.

There are many others who lent their support and to whom I owe thanks. At the top of the list is Richard B. Frank, who read the entire manuscript carefully and saved me from a number of errors while also suggesting new ways of looking at particular issues. John B. Lundstrom read much of the manuscript and was both generous and meticulous in his comments and suggestions. In particular, he encouraged me to rethink Nimitz’s management of the Coral Sea action. Jon Parshall helped me further refine my understanding of the Battle of Midway. Admiral Nimitz’s twin grandsons, Chester (Chet) Lay and Richard (Dick) Lay, read all of the manuscript and offered encouragement and advice. Elliot Carlson read the two chapters dealing with Robert Ghormley and directed me to a number of useful sources, and Thomas J. Cutler read the chapter on Leyte Gulf. Barrett Tillman and James Sawruk helped me with technical details concerning U.S. fighter planes. All of them are generous to a fault, and I greatly appreciate their time and expertise. As always, of course, any errors that remain are mine alone.

Others played important roles in helping me find material, which was especially complicated during the pandemic of 2020–21. At the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, where I worked during the first two years of this project, archivists Stacie Parillo and Elizabeth Dalmage were essential in my hunt for documents, and patiently watched over me in the reading room. In the Nimitz Library at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, where I completed the work, the library director, Larry Clemens, helped me gain reentry to the COVID-restricted campus, and Jennifer Bryan, David D’Onofrio, and Samuel Limneos of the Special Collections Department always had my cart of boxes ready when I arrived. Chris McDougal, the archivist at the National Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg, Texas (Nimitz’s birthplace and hometown), was extraordinarily generous in tracking down resources about Nimitz. At the Naval History and Heritage Command in the Washington Navy Yard, I benefited from the help of John Hodges and Dale (Joe) Gordon. And at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library in Hyde Park, New York, I relied on Kristin Carter, Cliff Laube, and Paul Sparrow. Janis Jorgenson was indefatigable in tracking down photographs at the U.S. Naval Institute Photo Archive while remaining cheerfully helpful. My longtime friend John Hattendorf gave me a copy of the March 6, 1944, issue of Life magazine, which he found in an antique store, the cover of which is depicted in chapter 18. Jeff Ward once again demonstrated his perfectionism in rendering the fifteen original maps in the book. Amy Whitmer and Sue Warga at Oxford University Press saw the manuscript through the publication process and corrected several infelicitous passages for which I am grateful.

Michael Lilly, the author of Nimitz at Ease and the grandson of Nimitz’s close friends in Hawaii, Sandy and Una Walker, generously made available family letters, papers, and photographs, as well as Una Walker’s diary, all dealing with Nimitz’s friendship with his grandparents. Samuel P. King in Hawaii shared with me a copy of the unpublished memoir of Sandy and Una’s son, Henry A. “Hanko” Walker. Tom Savage, the grandson of Ernest J. King, shared family papers. In addition to their careful reading of the manuscript, Chet and Dick Lay also shared family letters and photographs (including the one used here as a frontispiece) and their grandfather’s complete medical history.

At the Naval War College, where (somewhat ironically) I spent the years 2017–20 as the Ernest J. King Professor, I benefitted from several lengthy conversations about the relationship between King and Nimitz with David Kohnen. My colleagues in the Hattendorf Historical Center commented on drafts of several of the early chapters. In addition to David, this included Rob Dahlin, Jeremiah “J” Dancy, Mark Fiory, John Hattendorf, Jamie McGrath, Tim Demy, Nick Prime, Tim Schultz, Geoff Till, and Evan Wilson. All of them were thoughtful and supportive colleagues.

As always, my greatest debt is to my wonderful wife, Marylou, partner of more than half a century, who, in addition to being an insightful and thoughtful sounding board and a meticulous editor, makes everything worthwhile.

Craig L. Symonds

Annapolis, Maryland

Summer 2021

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