Admirals Ernest J. King and Chester W. Nimitz
The S.O.B. and the quiet man
In the wake of the Pearl Harbor attack, President Franklin Roosevelt and Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox decided that not only did they have to relieve Adm. Husband Kimmel as Commander in Chief Pacific Fleet (CINCPAC), they needed to make a change in the command structure of the Navy itself. A new billet was created: Commander in Chief of the U.S. Navy Fleet (CinCUS) with authority over both the Atlantic and Pacific fleets and all Navy commands worldwide. For it they chose the Atlantic Fleet commander, Adm. Ernest J. King, a brilliant, tough-talking, hard-drinking, womanizing warrior with a fiery temper. One of his daughters famously observed that her father was “the most even-tempered man in the Navy. He is always in a rage.”
Their choice as Kimmel’s successor was someone whose personality was the polar opposite of King’s; a reserved man who, according to a staff member, looked like a “retired banker,” who was capable of astonishing coolness under pressure, and who had declined the billet in January 1941, claiming he was too junior for the post: Rear Adm.Chester W. Nimitz. Together “the S.O.B. and the Quiet Man” would form a not always harmonious team that would create and lead to victory the largest navy the world had ever seen.
When King was offered the post of CinCUS on December 16, he said he would accept after three conditions had been met: that the acronym CinCUS, which sounded too much like “sink us,” be changed to CominCh; that he would not have to hold any press conferences or testify before Congress unless it was imperative; and would have authority over the near-independent Navy bureau fiefdoms. Roosevelt agreed to the first two, but as the law would have to be changed to make the third possible, Roosevelt agreed to fire any bureau commander who refused to cooperate. Executive Order no. 8984 added something else. King would also be “directly responsible to the President.” This awkwardly put him on an equal footing with Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Adm. Harold Stark. In March 1942, King succeeded Stark as CNO, giving him absolute authority over every aspect of the Navy, from recruitment and shipbuilding to fleet operations. Not even Army Chief of Staff Gen. George C. Marshall exercised as much authority over his branch as King did over the U.S. Navy.
On December 31, in a ceremony at the submarine base he had constructed twenty years earlier and whose backdrops were sunken ships and oil-slicked waters where men in boats were still gathering the dead, Nimitz officially became CINCPAC, going immediately from two to four-star rank. Arriving on December 25, Nimitz had commenced a wide-ranging inspection.
His assessment was a combination of concern, hope, and disappointment. Addressing in part the first, Nimitz retained Kimmel’s staff, boosting its rock-bottom morale. With the second, Nimitz discovered that the situation, though grim, was not disastrous. Having been sunk in the shallow waters of Pearl Harbor, most of the battleships were salvageable. All three of his carriers were operational. And the all-important port facilities, including 4.5 million barrels of fuel oil, were undamaged. Finally, he knew that the first warships in the crash-construction program would start arriving later in the year. His short-term strategy would be: blunt Japanese advances until he was strong enough to conduct a counter-offensive.
The disappointment was Nimitz’ realization that, unlike his Japanese counterpart Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto, whose headquarters was the super-battleship Yamato, he would have to command from ashore. To effectively coordinate and control his far-flung forces, he needed the complex communications system available only at Pearl Harbor, so CINCPAC could no longer be a sea-going command.
Determined to strike back at the Japanese as quickly as possible, in January King “recommended” raids on Japanese facilities in the Gilbert and Marshall island chains. Nimitz selected his friend, Vice Adm. William Halsey, for the operation.
Though Nimitz had a reputation of appearing unemotional, he had a great sense of humor that he used often to help alleviate tension. As Nimitz escorted Halsey down the wharf from where Halsey would embark, Nimitz, wishing to lighten the mood, recalled a meeting al fresco Halsey had outside New York City’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel the previous year. The occasion was a conference with the admirals, naturally, in full dress uniform, with golden oak leaf “scrambled eggs” on their cap brims and a “fruit salad” of medals on their chests. The day’s meetings having finished, Halsey was waiting for the hotel’s doorman to hail him a cab.
Nimitz was standing behind Halsey when a drunk approached Halsey and slurred, “Shay, doorman, get me a cab.”
The offended Halsey stiffly replied, “I’ll have you know, sir, I am an admiral in the United States Navy!”
“Zat’s all right,” the drunk replied. “Then get me a boat.”
As Nimitz delivered the punch line, they reached the end of the wharf. Gesturing to the vessel that would take Halsey to his flagship, Nimitz smiled and said, “Well, there’s your ‘boat,’ Bill!”