“God grant me the courage to not give up what I think is right even though I think it is hopeless.”                                           Chester Nimitz

July 7, 1908 – USS Decatur, Batangas Harbor, Philippines: The USS Decatur, the first destroyer commissioned in the U.S. Navy, ran aground on a sandbar as it entered Batangas Harbor. Chester Nimitz, the 22-year-old officer in command of the ship, was humiliated in front of his crew, the majority of whom were 10-15 years older than he.

It took almost 24 hours for the ship to be freed from the bar. It was the longest day of Nimitz’s life. He worried about the potential Navy repercussions for such an incompetent act. Two weeks later, he was relieved of his duties. It was the low point of his career.

The Decatur investigation determined that Nimitz carelessly estimated his position rather than verifying his bearings and that he failed to check the tidal charts. Although not entirely his fault, Nimitz took full responsibility for the incident. He was found to be in “neglect of duty” and court-martialed. The young officer was assigned to submarines, usually a career-ender in the early 20th Century. Despite the embarrassing incident, he never considered quitting the Navy

Chester Nimitz’s father died six months before he was born in Fredericksburg, Texas, in February 1885. He got his love of the sea from his grandfather, Charles Nimitz, a crusty, bearded German who had gotten his sea legs as a merchant seaman in Germany before immigrating to Texas in 1844. Young Nimitz would sit on the steps of his grandfather’s steamboat-shaped Nimitz Hotel and listen to tales of the sea. 

He graduated seventh in his class of 114 at the U.S. Naval Academy, one of the best and brightest the country had to offer. Impressed with his leadership and competence, the Navy promoted him right out of Annapolis to ensign and assigned him the command of the USS Decatur.

Following the Decatur incident, Nimitz served aboard four submarines between 1908 and 1915. His leadership, determination and decisiveness earned him a second chance. In 1918, Nimitz was promoted to Executive Officer of the 450-foot battleship USS South Carolina, a new class of turbine-powered, big-gun warships. During the next two decades, he rose steadily through the Navy hierarchy, achieving the rank of Rear Admiral in 1938.

A week after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt phoned Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox, “Tell Nimitz to get the hell to Pearl Harbor and stay there until the war is won.” On Christmas Day 1941, Nimitz became Supreme Allied Commander of the Pacific Theater.

The 56-year-old admiral arrived at a disaster in Hawaii. The surprise attack had killed 2,403 military and civilian personnel and injured 1,200 more. The Japanese sank or destroyed 19 U.S. Navy ships, including 8 battleships and 182 aircraft. Remembering the second chance he had once received, and aware the Sunday morning attack could not have been predicted, Nimitz retained the entire staff of demoralized officers.

The new commander found a silver lining in the Pearl Harbor disaster. The three aircraft carriers weren’t destroyed, and the Japanese had failed to bomb the fuel tanks. Nimitz utilized the airplanes from the carriers to make quick bombing attacks on Japanese strongholds in the southwest Pacific Islands. The success bolstered American morale.

Over the next three years, Nimitz commanded land and sea operations in the Pacific Theater, a force of two million men and 1,000 ships. He took the fight to the Japanese. On September 2, 1945, in Tokyo Bay, Japan, Admiral Nimitz accepted the Japanese letter of surrender aboard his flagship, the USS Missouri.

On December 15, 1945, and almost four decades after running the USS Decatur aground, Chester Nimitz was promoted to Chief of Naval Operations, the most senior officer in the United States Navy. He served there until his retirement in 1947.