Friday, December 30, 2016

31 December 1941

Admiral Chester W. Nimitz took command of the US Pacific Fleet on this day 75 years ago.  His change of command ceremony was held on board the submarine Grayling, SS-209 moored alongside the submarine base wharf.  The crew then hoisted his brand new four star flag on the Grayling’s mast.  Normally a Fleet Admiral would have raised his flag on a battleship but of course there were none available.  But there were sentimental reasons for the choice of the Grayling also as Nimitz had served in subs earlier in his career, commanding the Plunger, Snapper, Narwhal and Skipjack.

On 7 December Nimitz was Chief of BuNav, aka the Bureau of Navigation, and was soon tapped by SecNav Knox and President Roosevelt to take over the fleet in Pearl Harbor. Being in a desk job at BuNav may not sound like preparation for a fleet commander, but at that time it was accountable for much more than sextants, star catalogues, and oceanic charts. It was the primary naval organization responsible for procurement, training, promotion, assignment, and discipline of officers and sailors. In that job Nimitz had jurisdiction over the Naval Academy at Annapolis, the Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps (of which he was a founder), boot camps, and other Naval training facilities including technical ones. It was a job for an officer with outstanding people skills. Nimitz had those, even though he also had noticeable engineering skills. He had been a pioneer in adopting diesels for US subs. During WW1 he had developed one of the first ever UNREP, or Underway Refueling Systems, for cross Atlantic Navy combatants. Not long after WW1, as a young Lieutenant Commander (Major to you grunts) and with only a staff of four Chief Petty Officers, he built the sub base at Pearl Harbor. Much of the material he had to get through the cumshaw efforts of his four Chiefs who requisitioned it at midnight from stateside Navy Yards.

After Pearl was attacked Nimitz spent 12 days working around the clock at BuNav and at the Navy Department across the Potomac. He implemented the plan he had himself devised to bring the Navy up to a war standing. Then on 19 December he left Washington by the B&0 Capital Limited train for San Diego with just one Aide. No need for staff as there would be many officers in Pearl at loose ends who had no ships. He travelled incognito as Mr Freeman, his wife’s maiden name. In San Diego he boarded a Catalina flying boat. They left at 4pm on Christmas Eve. The Admiral apologized to the crew for taking them away from their families. He arrived at 7AM Christmas morning. After inspecting the damage in the harbor he had a late Christmas dinner with Admiral Kimmel and Admiral and Mrs Pye. Both Pye and Kimmel were senior to him and would be until he pinned on the four stars of CincPac. He was saddened to learn that a good friend of his, Admiral Isaac Kidd, was KIA on the bridge of the Arizona.

A lot has been said by historians about the good fortune of America that the Japanese raiding forces at Pearl primarily focused on battleship row and neglected to bomb the fuel farms just over the hill, and that the US carriers were at sea and unaffected. But at the time here was a spirit of despair, dejection and defeat at Pearl. You would have thought the Japanese had already won the war. Nimitz turned out to be critical in raising hopes. Over the next few days before taking command he attended many briefings and conferences, and conducted surveys of the damage. Those inspections included the harbor, damaged ships, salvage operations, dry-docks, warehouse, hangars, machine shops, communication facilities, offices and barracks. After a tour of harbor salvage ops, a coxswain asked: "Well Admiral, what do you think after seeing all this destruction?" He is reported as saying the Japanese made several huge mistakes surprising the sailor and the staff officers that were also aboard. He then expounded on the target opportunities the Japanese raiding force had missed.

"Not only were the fuel farms and the carriers saved".

”They attacked on Sunday morning. Nine out of every ten crewmen of those ships were ashore on leave. If those same ships had been lured to sea and been sunk--we would have lost 38,000 men instead of 3,000.”

”When they saw all those battleships lined in a row, they got so carried away sinking them, that they never once bombed our dry docks opposite those ships. If they had destroyed those, we would have had to tow every one of those ships to America to be repaired. As it is now, the ships are in shallow water and can be raised.  One tug can pull them over to the dry docks, and we can have them repaired and at sea by the time we could have towed them to America. And we already have crews ashore anxious to man those ships.”

”Their tunnel vision kept them from bombing the machine shops and warehouses in the Navy Yard. With those assets we will put the fleet back in order quickly."

”They also neglected to target the sub base and the subs tied up and helpless at the wharf. They will pay for those mistakes.”

That story spread around Pearl like wildfire. Everyone from the highest staff officers to the lowest swab jockey and paint chipper heard that tale. Morale skyrocketed and the depression evaporated, everyone turned to. 

His people skills also served him well dealing with hard-headed subordinates like “Bull” Halsey, “Howling Mad” Smith, and “Terrible” Turner (from FDChief’s fair city of Portland) – and dealing with prima donna peers like MacArthur – and dealing with superiors like the crotchety CNO Admiral King. He also was a leader who believed in second chances. That was probably due to his running a destroyer aground outside Manila Bay in 1908 as a young Ensign, he was court-martialed and reprimanded but given another chance. I cannot imagine that happening in todays risk averse military.


  1. The U.S. military of the pre-WW2 era was a very different critter than today's. I suspect than many of the officers who became prominent in the Big War would not have made it past O-5 today. There's no upside in thinking outside the box now, and the box itself is very different; the huge, rich expeditionary forces of a soft Great Power empire are very much unlike the small, ad-hoc outfits - even the Navy, that was still not seen as a legitimate Great Power force - that policed the Americas in the pre-1941 period.

    I'd argue that the pre-1960's services were generally more liberal where it came to things like officer relief and re-employment. It was easier to relieve an officer that ran on the rocks for one reason or another. But it was also not a complete career-killer provided that the problems weren't caused by some sort of personal shortcoming. George Marshall was known for relieving senior officers who proved incapable at their jobs but then finding other work for them if they were not complete oxygen-thieves. Not surprised that Nimitz, the ultimate organization man, was similar.

    Worth noting that the real artist at dealing with BOTH Nimitz and Mac was Roosevelt and his SecWar Stimson. When you think about it, to win the Pacific War the US needed both Mac's SoWesPac as well as Nimitz's SoPac drives. We just had that much more material that we could sustain both, and the IJN had that much less that it couldn't defend against both. So the trick was finding the right balance of playing one off the other. Ruling against Nimitz's Taiwan scheme in 1944 in favor of Mac's Philippine move was the right decision, IMO.

    If there's a single knock on Nimitz it would be his peculiar refusal to cancel the invasion of Pelilieu, something that historians still don't really understand.

    Definitely the right guy in the right place at the right time in December 1941.

  2. Oh, interesting story about King; before he became CNO he was promoted to the post of "Commander in Chief, United States Fleet" or CinCUS. This thing was an interwar invention, and the idea seems to be to have a position that was roughly equal to the CNO but administrative, head of the Atlantic, Pacific, and Asiatic Fleets. It was a horse designed by a committee and worked about as well as you'd think. It was abolished in March of '42 and the authority passed to the CNO where it has remained to this day.

    Apparently King, given his sulfurous personality, objected strongly to being something pronounced "sink-us" and insisted that the acronym be renamed. It was - to COMINCH - and King carried on until he was moved to CNO as well. He remained technically COMINCH until the post was abolished in '45...

  3. FDChief –

    MacArthur loved to zing Nimitz. He used the press brilliantly to brag about how great he was and how stupid his “so-called” peers were. PR was his forte. In fact the invasion of Formosa was pushed by Admiral King, not Nimitz. King was of the opinion that taking Formosa would end the war sooner and that Mac’s argument of national honor was primarily based on personal honor for MacArthur. Nimitz went along with it, but advocated for a limited operation to take Itbayat and other islands 100 miles south of Formosa, and then perhaps the rat-tail peninsula on the south end of Formosa if the Fourteenth Air Force could neutralize Japanese air on the coastal mainland.

    That is until Nimitz had a conversation with Admiral Spruance whose carrier task forces had been raiding along the Formosa coast. Spruance thought Formosa would rot on the vine and that Iwo and Okinawa were better options. Nimitz’s staff agreed. So Nimitz, his Chief of Staff, and Spruance met in San Francisco with King and convinced him to forego Formosa but neutralize enemy air and naval forces there through constant airstrike and submarine blockade.

    Unfortunately the MacArthur view that Formosa was Nimitz’s baby were cast in concrete in the Army’s historical records.

  4. Pelelieu was a true goat rope. It was one of the toughest operations of the war. The Japanese used new island defense tactics there never seen before except a month earlier at the Battle Of Biak where elements of MacArthur’s Sunset Division took over 25% casualties. Closer to 45% if you include typhus and malaria. I think your Highway 26 in Oregon was named the Sunset Highway in their honor. Unfortunately those new tactics never got passed on by Mac’s staff to Nimitz’s staff. The Japanese were dug in with over 500 caves with steel doors and connecting tunnels. No more suicidal banzai charges. No more trying to stop the invading force on the beach. Plus naval fire support vessels, escort carriers, and other shipping were diverted to support MacArhtur at Leyte. And there was a Marine Division Commander who was overconfident, arrogant, stubborn and insensitive to increasing casualties. But that is maybe grist for a future post.

    Admiral Halsey reportedly was the one who advised Nimitz by message to call off the supporting operations in the Palaus just three days before the landing. Halsey’s claim was based on his observations in the central Philippines that the Japanese there had few serviceable aircraft, no fuel, and no shipping left to sink. But Halsey was wrong as we found out later at the Sibuyan Sea, Surigao Strait, Cape Engano, and Samar.

    Nimitz had an obligation to protect MacArthur’s right flank. Plus the anchorages at Kossol Roads and the atoll at Ulithi were needed for future operations.

    1. Halsey the carrier guy called Pelilieu right; without aircraft the island was harmless and without a way to evacuate the guys there it was, effectively, a prison camp for the Japanese garrison. I suspect Nimitz had his reasons for not bypassing it, but they weren't really good ones, or worth the cost in lives.

      I'll buy your version of the Formosa-vs-PI as much because it fits w Mac's m/o as much as anything. While I'm not ready to slam him professionally as you do I'll readily admit his failings as a colleague. His instinct was always to assume that his counterparts were rivals and go into attack mode anytime he suspected anyone was trying to take the spotlight off him...

  5. You might say that the only reasonable knock on Nimitz re Peleliu is that he gave those fire support ships and escort carriers to Admiral Kinkaid supporting Mac's Leyte landing.

  6. FDChief -

    Of course you are right about the casualties. They were too high a price to pay on Iwo Jima also.

    Iwo turned out to be strategically inconsequential when LeMay and Hap Arnold changed their mind after its capture and decided afterall that they did not need to base fighters there to protect their B-29s. That had been the primary justification for that battle. But LeMay went to night bombing so did not need fighter escorts. The Japanese did not have night flyers and his targets were easily lit up by the burning of Japanese cities. So 6,800 Americans died, 19,200 were wounded, and three carriers were sunk or damaged at Iwo; all so that LeMay could burn a half million Japanese civilians to death. Makes no sense to me.

    Nimitz had a valid reason to invade the Palaus, including Peleliu. It may not have been strategically critical for the Leyte invasion as some historians claim. But so what? Those anchorages were critical. Ulithi atoll had a bigger harbor than Pearl and Subic. Its big, deep, calm lagoon was needed as a fleet base. It could (and did) hold over 800 ships simultaneously. It was needed for the Okinawa campaign for both a staging base and a major naval logistics center. It was used during the Leyte campaign to repair at least five carriers and many other ships hit by kamakaze. The Kossol Roads was used as a major patrol and search base of PBM Mariners. These had a range of 2600 nautical miles and the patrol info they provided was very useful in many campaigns including Leyte. Kossol Roads was also used by many ships in the Leyte campaign seeking replenishment from service vessels anchored there. There were no alternatives. You could not control Ulithi and Kossol Roads without controlling the airfields at Peleliu, Ngesebus and Angaur. And by the way, B-24s did use some of those same fields to support MacArthur in the Philippines when Tacloban airport could not come online fast enough.

    So we will have to disagree. Color me contrarian. Those historians were looking at it from an ground/air point of view. I don't think they understood fleet requirements. Were the casualties worth it? They never are. But don't blame that on Nimitz.

    1. I'd agree...except for the work I did researching the Philippine Sea.

      The take-home was that the Fast Carrier Force - combined with Japanese pilot losses and USN aircraft upgrades "sank" the islands-as-unsinkable-carriers strategy. So physically possession of places where Japanese had garrisons or airfields wasn't essential. The FCF could, and did, hammer those islands flat. Without aircraft, the runways cratered, out of fuel, places like Pelilieu were just open-air prison camps. I think a lot of the late '44 and '45 island campaigns were an artifact of nobody at CINCPAC recognizing that. I don't think that the question is one of "blame" so much as a lost opportunity.

      Iwo did have one significant effect; it saved a bunch of B-29 crews that, because of damage or mechanical breakdowns, had to abort or couldn't make it back to the Marianas. Still, while I'm sure those guys would disagree, that seems like a thin reed to hang the butcher's bill to...

  7. Those islands were never hammered flat. Airpower is way overrated Chief.

    In bypassing Rabaul and Kavieng we established a ring of airfields and naval bases directly on the islands around them; and directly on the west end of New Britain itself in the case of Rabaul. They were then cut off from re-supply and under "continual" air attacks. But to get to that point it took amphibious landings on Woodlark, Kiriwina, New Georgia, Rendova, Arundel, Vella Lavella, the Treasurys, Choiseul, Bougainville, Sardor, the Admiraltys, Emirau and Arawe & Cape Gloucester. Grunts had to make those landings in order for Seabees and Army Engineers to build those airfields and naval bases: five US Army Divisions plus three separate regiments, two Aussie Divisions, a New Zealand Division, two Marine Divisions plus two separate battalions. Altogether eleven plus division sized units. That is just to isolate Rabaul and does not count the southern Solomons.

    Airfields do not come cheap, even though Halsey claimed bulldozers won the war. That was another classic piece of the Bull’s malarkey.

    The same problem turned up again for Yap, which we bypassed. But we could only turn Yap into one of your open-air prison camps because we took the fields in the Palaus. The only other option was to station a carrier force permanently offshore - no way!