Ken Beaton: The right man, time and place

Ken Beaton

Ken Beaton

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World War II Fleet Admiral Chester William Nimitz was born in Fredericksburg, a settlement of German immigrants in the Hill Country. He was fluent in German.

His frail father, Chester Bernhard Nimitz, died of rheumatic fever Aug. 14, 1884, six months before Chester’s birth. Similar to biblical writings, Chester’s mother, Anna, married her brother-in-law, William Nimitz in 1890. Chester’s grandfather, Charles Henry Nimitz, was a seaman in the German merchant marine. Charles spent hours with his grandson. “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.”

Chester learned to be a responsible person in his early teen years as the manager of The Nimitz Hotel while he attended school. Chester didn’t know it at the time, but he had developed the skill to hire the correct person for the job at the hotel. Next, he allowed that person to do their job, no micromanaging!

This skill carried over to Chester’s service in the U.S. Navy. Ten days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Admiral Nimitz was selected by President Roosevelt to be commander-in-chief of the United States Pacific (CINCPACFLT) over more senior officers. As soon as the admiral arrived, he had a boatswain’s mate give him a tour of Pearl Harbor in a captain’s gig. The boatswains mate pointed out all the destruction. However, the admiral pointed out that the Japanese pilots didn’t touch the fuel storage tanks or the submarines. (U.S. subs were only 2 percent of the Navy, but they sank 54.6 percent of Japanese ships, military and merchant, during the war.)

At Station Hypo, an underground bunker in a secret Pearl Harbor location, Nimitz had selected Capt. Joseph Rochefort, a cryptanalyst, to head the “Project Hypo.” One of the members of Rochefort’s team was Elvin Urquhart, a code breaker. In a conversation with Rochefort, Nimitz mentioned that he wanted to engage the Imperial Japanese Navy and give them a punch so they would realize that they made a major mistake with their sneak attack on Pearl Harbor.

Rochefort thought that the next IJN attack would be at Midway Island. He sent a non-coded message that a water evaporator valve had malfunctioned on Midway. When Rochefort decoded a JN25 message, it mentioned that Midway Island had a freshwater malfunction, Rochefort had confirmation that Midway was the next IJN invasion!

The IJN strike force had four of the six carriers that had attacked Pearl Harbor six months earlier. On June 4, 1942, IJN pilots attacked Midway Island with bombs. They returned and landed on their carriers to refuel and rearm with bombs when the IJN detected the U.S. Navy’s torpedo bombers, SBD-5 dive bombers and fighters. The IJN carrier flight decks had bombs removed all over the flight deck with torpedoes being mounted on their planes and aviation fuel lines on the flight deck. A major disaster was seconds away!

Within five minutes U.S. Navy dive bombers had changed course of the battle. The IJN had three of their four carriers experiencing secondary explosions. They were in the process of entering, “Davy Jones Locker,” sinking. Their fourth carrier was sunk the next day by dive bombers. The IJN lost 144 planes and 3,000 men including their most experienced pilots. Over the course of World War II, the other two carriers that had attacked Pearl Harbor were sunk leaving a “sweet taste” in the mouths of the entire U.S. Pacific Fleet.

Unfortunately, CV5, the USS Yorktown, was sunk during the Battle of Midway. There was an Essex Class carrier, the USS Bonhomme Richard, CV-10, under construction; it was renamed the USS Yorktown. CV-10 earned 11 battle stars in the Pacific theatre between 1943-45.

What kind of a person was Nimitz? A young girl from Iowa wrote to the admiral. She shared her farm life in the letters. He answered her letters. After the war, he was invited to her community to give a speech. He invited the young girl and her family to ride with him in her hometown’s parade.

A second example was on Sept. 2, 1945. After the admiral signed the Japanese surrender document on the USS Missouri, he toured a Japanese military hospital. He visited with wounded Japanese soldiers honoring the sacrifice of his adversaries.

What made Chester Nimitz a person to emulate? These are the character traits he learned early in his life. He had “a strong work ethic, profound humility, love and sacrifice for family and country, and genuine care for all people. Those are traits which made our country great!”

Chester and Catherine had four children, three girls and a boy, Chester W. Nimitz, Jr. The admiral passed away on Feb. 20, 1966; four days short of his 81st birthday. Senior was laid to rest on his 81st birthday. When friends offered her condolences, Catherine responded, “To me, he had just gone to sea and, as I have done so many times in the past, someday I will follow him.” The admiral married an intelligent woman with good character traits who loved her man, family and country.

FYI, a little over two months after the IJN’s sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, Nimitz’ Carrier Task Forces with cruiser and destroyer escorts raided Wake Island on Feb. 14, 1942; the Japanese base at Rabaul Island on Feb. 20, 1942; Marcus Island on March 4, 1942; and Lae and Salamaua in New Guinea more than a month before the 16 Doolittle’s Raiders were launched from the USS Hornet, CV-8 on April 18, 1942. They attacked targets on the Japanese home islands, six weeks before the Battle at Midway, June 4-7, 1942. Two months later, Aug. 7, 1942, the 1st Marine Division and the Marine Raiders invaded Guadalcanal, beginning the Pacific island-hopping campaign. Nimitz quickly became our hero in the Pacific.

If you visit Fredericksburg, first visit the National Museum of the Pacific War. Second, eat a meal including dessert at one of the German restaurants in Fredericksburg. Your taste buds will be forever grateful.


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