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BOOK REVIEW: ‘Admiral Nimitz’

- - Monday, December 26, 2011

ADMIRAL NIMITZ: THE COMMANDER OF THE PACIFIC OCEAN THEATER
By Brayton Harris|
Palgrave MacMillan, $26, 256 pages

Brayton Harris' "Admiral Nimitz" is the easy-to-read story of the career of the nation's foremost Navy flag officer of the 20th century. Mr. Harris has done an admirable job of condensing a long and colorful career into a mere 256 pages. With so few pages to work with, he seldom goes into great detail, but it's an easy read, it flows in a natural chronological order, and it covers all important events in Nimitz's life, especially the period when he was the "commander of the Pacific Ocean theater" during World War II. For the reader who might wish to learn about or refresh his or her knowledge of Nimitz, this book is a quick way to do so. It's also a great story of leadership.

The first third of the book describes Chester Nimitz's steady development as a leader from boyhood in Fredericksburg, Texas, through the Naval Academy, early duty stations in the Far East and the Naval War College to assignment as chief of the Bureau of Navigation, now the Bureau of Naval Personnel, in Washington just before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. His was not an unusual Navy biography for the era, but he clearly was someone who excelled at whatever he did.

Adm. Ernest King, the Navy's senior-most officer, and even President Franklin D. Roosevelt recognized Nimitz's abilities, and it was almost natural that he was the one chosen to go to Hawaii after the Pearl Harbor attack and get the war against Japan organized and under way. How he did that is the centerpiece of the book.

Especially interesting are Nimitz's relations with other well-known leaders in World War II. Besides Roosevelt and King, there were Frank Knox, James Forrestal, Gen. Douglas MacArthur and Adm. William "Bull" Halsey, Adm. Raymond A. Spruance and others who pass in and out of the narrative. So too do the many soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen whom Nimitz led to victory. In that regard, the author's use of a large number of oral histories lends significant color to the book.

On the other hand, Mr. Harris has taken on a monumental task, given that a superb Nimitz biography by a pre-eminent naval historian already exists and is available in libraries and the usual book outlets: the 1976 "Nimitz" by E.B. Potter. If Mr. Harris' intent was to reduce the page count of Potter's work, he did that and thereby developed a quicker read for a new generation. To be sure, he incorporated the essentials, but if one really wants the detailed Nimitz story, he or she would be better served by launching into Potter's longer biography.

The publicist for Mr. Harris' publisher implies that this newer book is necessary because, "This is the first biography of the renowned admiral in over thirty years." That statement may be true, but she also writes, "The book is informed by recently de-classified documents, which bring this great wartime hero to life." If the implication is that Mr. Harris provides new information, it's hard to find. That sort of information does not leap out.

Nevertheless, of particular interest as the 70th anniversary of the epic Battle of Midway approaches in June 2012 is Nimitz's hands-on planning in the days before the battle. Yes indeed, it was those intrepid dive-bomber pilots who found and administered the coup de grace to the Japanese fleet, but in the days leading up to the encounter, it was the admiral himself positioning his submarines and badgering his signals-intelligence people and code-breakers for information.

The story doesn't end with Midway, of course. The steady march across the Pacific from Guadalcanal to the Mariannas, Iwo Jima and Okinawa and, finally, the surrender in Tokyo Bay are all there. Yet, in the end, what proved the key to victory was Nimitz's placing full trust and confidence in his people to carry out his plans. Unfortunately, not all leaders can or will lead that way, but the proof of the effectiveness of that sort of leadership is implied by the Nimitz story.

Despite more colorful and, perhaps, more politically astute contemporaries, it was Chester Nimitz, a boy from Fredericksburg, Texas, who led the United States and its allies to victory in the Pacific in World War II. This book tells how it was done. If you want to know the story and don't want to bury yourself in detail, this book is for you.

Vice Adm. Robert F. Dunn is president of the Naval Historical Foundation.