Nimitz: The Man and the Freeway
Everyone knows the name Dwight David Eisenhower, at least I hope they do. Selected by President Franklin Roosevelt as the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe during the Second World War, he later became our thirty-fourth president when he was inaugurated in January 1953. He was re-elected for a second term and is considered by many to be one of the twentieth century’s greatest leaders.
Another great leader from World War II who deserves mentioning is Admiral Chester W. Nimitz (above). The name may be familiar to many of you, but do you know why? Certainly, those of you who are educated in the historical details of the Pacific Theater of Operation during the war will know Admiral Nimitz served as Commander in Chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet as well as the three Pacific Ocean Areas. His naval career was stellar.
Chester William Nimitz was born on February 24, 1885 in Fredericksburg, Texas, about seventy-eight miles west of Austin. His early life was greatly influenced by his German-born grandfather, Charles Henry Nimitz, who had been a seaman in the German Merchant Marine. When young Chester was in high school, he had his sights set on the Military Academy at West Point, but there were no openings when he reached the appropriate age. His congressman suggested he apply for the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis instead. He did, enrolled in 1901, and graduated with distinction on January 30, 1905, seventh in his class of 114.
By the time the U.S. entered the war in December 1941, Chester Nimitz had reached the rank of Rear Admiral (two stars). As soon as he was selected as Commander of the Pacific Fleet, he departed for Hawaii and was promoted to the rank of Admiral (four stars). He had a daunting task ahead of him, as so many of our ships and planes had been damaged or destroyed at Pearl Harbor on December 7th. However, he did have one advantage: American cryptanalysts had broken the Japanese diplomatic naval code and much of the main and most secure naval code JN-25. U.S. naval personnel were able to intercept and decipher coded radio messages without Japanese knowledge.
In December 1944, the U. S. Congress passed an act establishing the rank of Fleet Admiral (five stars)—the highest rank in the Navy—and President Roosevelt immediately appointed Chester Nimitz to that rank. Reaching a five star rank in the military is a lifetime appointment, meaning, he received full pay and benefits for the rest of his days.
On September 2, 1945 in Tokyo Bay, Japan, Admiral Nimitz was one of twelve men who sat at a table on the deck of the U.S.S. Missouri and signed the official Instrument of Surrender document which ended the Second World War. (Personal note: I've walked on the deck of the U.S.S. Missouri.) He went on to serve as Chief of Naval Operations and was influential in the decision to convert the U.S. naval submarine fleet from diesel to nuclear propulsion.
Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz died on February 20, 1966 and was buried in Golden Gate National Cemetery in San Bruno, just south of San Francisco, on his 81st birthday. Of course, he could have been buried in Arlington National Cemetery near Washington, DC with full military honors, but instead he chose to remain close to the men he had led during World War II. He joined them during a standard military funeral and was buried beneath a simple regulation headstone.
So, why do you know the name Nimitz? Maybe you live near a school named for him (there are currently eight across the country). Maybe you’ve seen him portrayed by famous actors in WWII-themed movies. Maybe you’ve studied in the Nimitz Library at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis. Maybe you’ve seen his statue in San Antonio, Texas or on Ford Island near Honolulu in Hawaii. Maybe you’ve performed the Admiral Nimitz Fanfare or the Admiral Nimitz March, both composed by John Steven Lasher in 2014. Maybe you’ve walked on Nimitz Glacier in Antarctica (probably not). Maybe you’ve driven on a road or lane or street or avenue or boulevard or highway named for Chester W. Nimitz.
Two weeks ago, at the end of my “June Brides (and Grooms)” post, I inserted a picture of my dad and mom and me that was taken in San Francisco about a month before the Loma Prieta earthquake shook our world, took sixty-three lives, and injured over 3,700 people. It's a stretch, but I think I’ve found a way to connect that natural disaster to World War II.
It was just past 5:00 in the afternoon on October 17, 1989. I was working late (as I sometimes did) in my office at the Graduate School of Business (GSB) library at Stanford University. It was a beautiful Indian summer day, not a cloud in the sky. The Oakland Athletics and the San Francisco Giants were taking the field at Candlestick Park, about thirty miles north of Stanford, for Game 3 of the World Series. There weren’t many people in the library at that time due to the interest in the game. And, there weren’t nearly as many vehicles on the roads for the same reason. Lives were saved by the World Series that afternoon.
I felt it before I heard it. At 5:03, the initial shaking began. It took me less than one second to dive under my desk. It was a natural reaction—I didn’t have time to wonder “Hey, I think we’re having an earthquake . . . what should I do?”—I just dove. The shaking lasted for just fifteen seconds. (It seemed much longer.) And it was loud—really, really loud! The 1960s-era building was breaking and most of the first and second floor metal shelving units fell or twisted in one way or another, tossing many of their books in all directions. Adding to the chaos, the fire alarms blasted away, and water poured from broken pipes above some of the bookstacks on the second floor.
And then the shaking stopped. I slowly got out from under my desk, opened my office door, and my first thought was: “someone died here.” (No one did, thankfully.) The damage was stunning. The pictures don’t really convey what we saw and felt and heard that afternoon. Karen, my supervisor, and Mike, my co-worker, were there, and we gathered other staff members and did our best to walk through the building where it was possible to do so. Everyone was accounted for and only one student was injured as he ran from the building during the quake and hit his knee on the entrance turnstile.
My job title at the GSB library was Stack Maintenance Services Coordinator (quite a mouthful), so yes, I was responsible for all those bookshelves that were now in, shall we say, “disarray.” Before I left Stanford at the end of March 1990, I supervised the clean-up and helped write a proposal for the purchase of new library shelving. Very little of the original shelving could be salvaged because almost every piece had been compromised during the quake.
The greatest loss of life during the “World Series Earthquake of 1989” occurred on the Cypress Street Viaduct on the Nimitz Freeway (I-880) in Oakland. A mile and a quarter section of the double-deck freeway collapsed, killing forty-two people and injuring many more. Ordinarily, traffic would have been bumper-to-bumper on that highway at that time of day, and the loss of life would have been substantially greater. A couple of weeks after the quake, Joe and I took a drive up to Oakland to see the damage, but we didn’t take pictures.
Blessings to all.
Sally Jameson Bond is retired and lives in Southwest Virginia with her husband and two dogs. My Mother’s Friend is her first novel. You can find her web site here: www.sallyjamesonbond.com.