Adm. Chester Nimitz and Gen. George Marshall are the greatest American military leaders of World War Two. While Marshall made his mark at the level of grand strategy, Nimitz was a military commander and his accomplishments deserve to be mentioned with those of Grant, Wellington, and von Moltke.. Further, it is arguable that Nimitz had more lasting influence on the American military establishment than did Marshall.*
Nimitz took over the Pacific Fleet in January 1942. Most of his capital ships lay crippled in Pearl Harbor. The Japanese were sweeping west across Burma, south toward Australia, and east into the Gilbert islands. Three and one-half years later, the U. S. Navy had Japan isolated with an air-sea blockade and had completely destroyed the Imperial Japanese navy.
The Pacific war covered unimaginable distances. Paris is only 200 air miles from London. Berlin is only 1,000 miles from Moscow. Tokyo is nearly 4,000 miles from Pearl Harbor. The Atlantic sea lanes covered 3,400 miles from New York to London. The Pacific sea lanes measured 7,800 miles from San Francisco to Austrailia.
The official naval history notes that “nothing in past warfare told how amphibious forces could advance in great leaps across an ocean where the enemy had dozens of island bases.” Nimitz had to wage a modern combined-arms amphibious war across those vast distances. Moreover, the three critical components of that war--fleet logistics, carrier operations, and storm landings--were in an embryonic state. Each of them had a fledgling doctrine that had never been tested in battle. Nimitz was simultaneously building the greatest fleet in history, training that fleet in a new way to make war, and wielding that fleet against an enemy that was initially superior in numbers, quality, training, and experience.
It is easy to look at the lop-sided victories at the end of the Pacific war and chalk them up to the vast material superiority of the United States. This history by hindsight obscures Nimitz’s achievement. It ignores his masterful use of intelligence in 1942 when the Pacific Fleet was numerically inferior. At Coral Sea, Midway, and Guadalcanal he blunted the Japanese offensives and destroyed much of its carrier force. In 1943 he pressed forward in the Solomons and the Gilberts which denied Japan the opportunity to rebuild those forces. Even in the great battles of 1944, the relentless operational tempo of the Pacific Fleet had much to do with the overwhelming victories.
The Japanese fleet did not dare to oppose the landings at Tarawa and the Marshalls because her carriers had no trained aircrews: the fight for the Solomons and the defense of Rabaul had ground them down to the point of impotence. Nimitz followed up the success in the Marshalls with a massive strike on Truk (Japan’s “Gibraltar of the Pacific”) which neutralized that base for the remainder of the war. When Japan fought the decisive battle for the Marianas, Truk was of no use to them and no threat to the US fleet. Further, the Americans did not have to invade it and, thus, avoided months of effort and thousands of casualties.
Each month saved meant fewer losses for the Americans and more problems for the Japanese. IJN air crews went into battle with limited training and no experience. That was the main reason that the Battle of Philippine Sea became the “Marianas Turkey Shoot”.
This was the hallmark of the last half of the Pacific War. Japan, off-balance and with incomplete preparations, faced the onslaught of the greatest maritime force in history. Nimitz never relinquished the initiative and so never gave the IJN a chance to recover their strategic equilibrium.
It was a supreme example of the importance of “will” in strategy. Nimitz and his superior Adm. King had many opportunities to accept delay in the Pacific. Lesser commanders might have pointed to the long supply lines (often over 3,000 miles from the Fleet to Pearl Harbor) as a reason to move more slowly or to take smaller steps in the island hopping campaign. Nimitz pressed forward with a measured aggressiveness that marks the commander who possesses Clausewitzian “genius”.
Samuel Morison, the official historian of the Navy in World War Two introduces the man this way:
Nimitz, calm in demeanor and courteous in speech, with blue eyes, a pink complexion, and tow-colored hair turning white, was a fortunate appointment. He restored confidence to the decimated Pacific Fleet. He had the prudence to wait through a lean period; to do nothing rash for the sake of doing something. He had the capacity to organize both a fleet and a vast war theater, the tact to deal with sister services and allied commands, the leadership to weld his own subordinates into a great fighting team, the courage to take necessary risks, and the wisdom to select, from a variety of intelligence and opinions, the correct strategy to defeat Japan.
A half-century later, Nimitz’s star is even higher. Here is Dan van der Vat’s appraisal from The Pacific Campaign:
All in all, Nimitz has a claim to be considered the most important military leader in the war against Japan, the greatest admiral in American history, and the outstanding naval officer of the Second World War.
* Marshall’s military contribution in WWII was the building of a twelve million man army for the battle in Europe. After the victory, that army was dismantled and we have fought all our later wars with smaller armies. Nimitz, however, brought the carrier warfare to the fore of American military doctrine and refined the use of carrier task forces to near-perfection. The use of carriers has been central to every war, skirmish, and crisis the US has faced since 1945.