Togo and Nimitz: Naval Leaders of Their Days

Margaret Dudley

Left: Admiral Heihachiro Togo. Right: Admiral Chester W. Nimitz

International relations between Japan and the United States had been strained for years before the outbreak of World War Two, but there were many individual relationships and friendships forged between people from the two countries. One such relationship existed between two men who would rank among the greatest naval geniuses of their countries: Admiral Heihachiro Togo and Admiral Chester W. Nimitz.

Mikasa Bridge Painting by Tojo Shotaro. Admiral Togo is slightly right of center facing outward.

Heihachiro Togo was Japan’s leading admiral, a shrewd and innovative leader who took calculated risks to achieve great victories. Although he had a long and successful career with the Imperial Japanese Navy, one of his most famous achievements was his victory at the Battle of Tsushima Strait in 1905 during the Russo-Japanese War. During this battle, Admiral Togo correctly predicted the path of Russia’s battered fleet to Vladivostok and prepared to engage them at Tsushima Strait. The Japanese had vastly superior technology and ships, while the Russians had been sailing for months and were critically low on supplies and fuel. The Japanese ships outpaced the Russian fleet and performed a maneuver called “crossing the T”, positioning their ships at the greatest firing advantage while making themselves a minimal target to the enemy. The result was a decisive victory for Japan, destroying most of the Russian fleet while losing only a few ships and a handful of men in the process.

Admiral Heihachiro Togo on the cover of TIME Magazine, 8 November 1926.

Admiral Togo held great prestige and reverence in the eyes of the Japanese people, who worshipped their military leaders, and his strategic planning and excellent leadership won him praise not just from Japan but from other countries as well. After their victory in the Russo-Japanese War, the Japanese emperor gave a garden party to celebrate his military leaders, and officers from other militaries stationed around Japan were invited. Of the officers on the American ships in Tokyo Bay, a young Ensign Chester W. Nimitz was among those selected to represent the American military. It was during this party that Nimitz had his first and only face-to-face meeting with the Japanese naval hero. During that meeting, the Japanese admiral spoke and laughed with the group of young American officers, and this left a great impression on young Nimitz. When Togo died in 1934, Nimitz attended both the admiral’s public and family funerals to pay his respects.

Admiral Chester W. Nimitz. Photo from the Naval History and Heritage Command.

Chester Nimitz went on to become a great American naval hero in his own right, with assignments such as submarine service during WWI, creating the Navy Reserve Officer Training Corps at Berkley, and eventually becoming the Chief of the Bureau of Navigation. He turned down the position of Commander-in-Chief, US Fleet (CinCUS), since it would place him at a higher rank than dozens of other more senior officers. However, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941, Secretary Frank Knox informed Nimitz that President Roosevelt had chosen him to be the next Commander-in-Chief, Pacific Fleet, which had been recently separated from CinCUS.

Tell Nimitz to get the hell out to Pearl Harbor and stay there till the war is won!

President Franklin D. Roosevelt, to Secretary Knox.

Admiral Nimitz guided the US to victory in the Pacific through brilliant strategy and excellent leadership skills, leading by example of respect, determination, and fortitude. He utilized these traits again after the surrender of Japan in September 1945 when he insisted on respectful treatment of the Japanese people, as they were no longer America’s enemies. When the Russians demanded the destruction of the Mikasa, Togo’s flagship, to remove the reminder of their humiliating defeat at the Battle of Tsushima Strait, Nimitz placed guards at the ship memorial and fought to preserve it. He contributed the first of the funds that would eventually allow for the restoration of the old battleship, reviving this memorial to Admiral Togo and his great naval career.

The Japanese Garden of Peace at the National Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg, Texas.

In response to the assistance with the Mikasa memorial, the Japanese people helped raise money to create a Japanese-style garden as a gift to the National Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg, Texas—the birthplace of Admiral Nimitz. This garden represents the friendship and mutual respect between Admirals Togo and Nimitz. The dedication ceremony on 8 May 1976 featured many American and Japanese officials and celebrated the comradery between not only these naval heroes but the peoples of the two nations. This Japanese Garden of Peace remains today a reminder of the promise of peace and beauty of friendship even in times of turmoil.


Margaret Dudley, Content Creation Coordinator, National Museum of the Pacific War