REFLECTIONS ON A GREAT LEADER
Thursday, August 14, 2014
Rising over the intersection of Main and Washington Streets in Fredericksburg,Texas, the Nimitz Hotel has been a dominant presence since its construction in the 1850s by Charles Henry Nimitz, Admiral Nimitz’s grandfather and a veteran of the German merchant marine.
Today, the former Nimitz Steamboat Hotel serves as the Admiral Nimitz Museum, the gateway to the National Museum of the Pacific War. Admiral Nimitz insisted that any museum in his boyhood hometown should not be dedicated to him, but rather to the men and women who served under his command and whose service and sacrifices led to ultimate victory. In the old hotel, however, the focus is on the Admiral, from his childhood in Fredericksburg through his days at the Naval Academy, to his distinguished career that culminated in his role as one of the architects of the allied strategy that defeated the Empire of Japan.
It’s difficult to imagine the enormity of the burdens and pressures of commanding such a huge naval and military force in such a complicated and vital task. A tour of the Admiral Nimitz Museum offers insights into the personality of the man who bore those burdens and pressures and into the influences that helped forge that personality.
Lighting in the museum is subdued, so that the visitor’s attention can be focused on the exhibits. The ambience created by this lighting is that of the late 1800s, when the hotel was in its heyday. As one reads about Admiral Nimitz’s early years, one can almost picture him, a small blonde boy, scampering through the hallways of his childhood home.
Anyone who reads or studies World War II history is familiar with the stories of many of the war’s military leaders--MacArthur, Montgomery, Patton, and King, for example--men whose egos and personalities are the stuff of legend. Admiral Nimitz was their antithesis. A humble man by nature, he led with quiet dignity and did not engage in self-promotion. His personality traits may have been developed and refined throughout his Navy career, but were instilled in him during his formative years in Fredericksburg. In his biography on Nimitz, author E.B. Potter noted:
“Yet the raw material with which he began was never obliterated.
Always discernible in his character and personality was his inheritance from the mercurial Nimitzes,
and from his mother’s family, the solid, hard-working Henkes.”
Growing up in Fredericksburg, still very much a frontier town at the end of the 19th century, was not easy under the best of circumstances. For Chester Nimitz, life hardly offered the best of circumstances. His father had died shortly before he was born, so he grew up under the influence of his grandfather. Grandfather Nimitz told Chester many stories of the sea. He didn’t romanticize his maritime career, rather, he used his experiences to teach young Chester valuable lessons that would serve him well throughout his life. It’s easy to imagine a young Chester Nimitz longing to get away from Fredericksburg and see more of the world, especially after listening to his grandfather’s tales.
But just how was an ambitious young man going to achieve his goal? At that time, the military academies were one of the few avenues to higher education available to young men of limited means. Nimitz knew he would have to excel academically, and so he spent countless hours studying, and sought additional tutoring to help him reach his goal. He was familiar with the U.S. Military Academy, and had hoped to go to West Point. Instead, he wound up competing for an appointment to the Naval Academy, where he would graduate seventh in a class of 114. One can only wonder how history might have been different, had Chester Nimitz become an Army officer.
One can also wonder how history might have changed, had several incidents in Chester Nimitz’s career not transpired as they did. As a very young officer commanding a destroyer, he ran the ship aground, an offense that has ended many a promising officer’s career. Though he did undergo a court martial and was charged with neglect of duty, he did not allow that unfortunate experience to dampen his enthusiasm for the Navy or his dedication to it. Initially offered command of the Pacific Fleet by President Roosevelt ahead of a number of officers senior to him, he respectfully declined because he felt that accepting the assignment would foster resentment. After the Pearl Harbor attack, President Roosevelt turned to Nimitz to take on the difficult mission of rebuilding the fleet and prosecuting the war against Japan.
Whether one is already familiar with the role Admiral Nimitz played in the Pacific War or is being introduced to him for the first time, the Admiral Nimitz Museum offers further insights into the man and how he came to be the great leader he was. A new addition to the Museum is a bronze statue located in a courtyard between the old hotel building and the “Command Post” bookstore and gift shop. Slightly larger than life-sized, the statue depicts a working Admiral in his khaki uniform, looking toward the west where he was to earn his place in history, but perhaps also toward the small home just down the street where he was born. It seems only fitting that this should be the case. Nearby, along a walkway adjacent to the Command Post are a series of placards that depict examples of the key elements of the Admiral’s personality as it was reflected in his leadership style. I often revisit those placards, because I find them to be very inspiring. I’m sure you will, too, when you visit the National Museum of the Pacific War.