In the cadre of great American World War II military leaders we all recognize the names of Eisenhower, McCarthur, Patton and Marshall, but clearly Admiral Chester Nimitz belongs in that list — if not equal to or greater than some.
In many places Nimitz is no longer the household name he was during the war years. Of course, the exception is here in the Hill Country where he grew up and attended Tivy High School before accepting an appointment to attend the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland.
A new movie that opens Friday chronicles one of Nimitz’s greatest victories — the Battle of Midway. Actor Woody Harrelson takes on the role of Nimitz during the big-budget movie.
In order to understand Nimitz, Harrelson visited the National Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg.
“He was primarily interested in his thought process and how he made his decision and his style of command,” said Chris McDougal, the museum’s chief archivist. “He specifically was interested in examples of his speaking voice.”
“He really seemed to want to nail the details,” added Rorie Cartier, the director of the museum.
Harrelson is not the first actor to portray the admiral. Henry Fonda played Nimitz twice — in 1965 in “Harm’s Way” and in 1976 in “Midway,” which also featured Charlton Heston.
“It’s a fascinating time in our history,” Harrelson said in an interview on the website DailyMotion. “The Battle of Midway is not really known to the average person. Everyone knows about Pearl Harbor, but people don’t know that the Battle of Midway really shifted the war.”
The movie is directed by big-budget director Roland Emmerich, who has focused on spectacle of disaster and invasion in movies like “Independence Day” and “2012.” The cast of this version of Midway includes Dennis Quaid, Nick Jonas, Luke Evans and Patrick Wilson.
In a story by the Department of Defense, Emmerich was credited with his attention to detail, and at least one admiral who consulted on the movie called it one of the most accurate depictions of naval warfare ever filmed (although much of it is computer generated).
“I’m glad they did a movie about real heroes and not comic book heroes. Despite some of the ‘Hollywood’ aspects, this is still the most realistic movie about naval combat ever made and does real credit to the courage and sacrifice of those who fought in the battle, on both sides,” said the director of NHHC, retired Rear Adm. Sam Cox, who personally supported each phase of the historical review.
Midway was fought from June 4-7 in 1942, with the Japanese believing they could seize the strategically important island and repulse any American counterattack. U.S. intelligence officers were able to crack the Japanese code and set up a trap for the Japanese carriers steaming toward the island of Midway.
Nimitz pulled all of his carriers, including the badly damaged U.S.S. Yorktown, and engaged the Japanese in a battle fought entirely between the air wings of the opposing carrier task forces. At the end, the U.S. destroyed four large fleet aircraft carriers, two cruisers and more than 240 airplanes. More than 3,000 Japanese died in the fighting, including many valuable veteran mechanics and technicians aboard the carriers.
For the U.S. there was a loss of the Yorktown, a destroyer and more than 150 aircraft, but more than 300 men were killed in the fighting.
However, it was a pivotal moment in the war for the U.S., which had been bruised by Pearl Harbor, and the victory helped the U.S. take the initiative in the Pacific back from the Japanese.
“Nimitz was very capable,” Cartier said. “He was very even tempered.”
During the war in the Pacific, Nimitz and Gen. Douglas McCarthur split command duties, including executing the plan of hopping from island-to-island to root out Japanese resistance across the Pacific.
Nimitz was born in Fredericksburg in 1885 but grew up in Kerrville, attending Tivy High School. Initially, he wanted an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y, but none were available. Instead, Nimitz buckled down and studied for the vigorous entrance requirements to gain an appointment to Annapolis.
It worked and Nimitz was appointed in 1901 and in 1905 he graduated seventh before setting out to sea aboard the battleship U.S.S. Ohio. Growing up in the Hill Country proved beneficial for Nimitz because he could speak German, and in 1913 he learned about converting ships to diesel power during a trip to Germany.
Nimitz would spend the World War I years, 1914-1918, helping master submarine warfare and he became one of the top submariners in the U.S. fleet. In the later years, Nimitz championed the conversion of U.S. subs from diesel power to nuclear propulsion.
By the end of World War II, Nimitz was one of the most recognized leaders in the country, and was on hand to accept the surrender of the Japanese in Tokyo Bay on the deck of the battleship U.S.S. Missouri.
Nimitz was named a fleet admiral — the navy’s highest rank — and he was active in the Navy until his death in 1966.
In addition to his service, the U.S. Navy named the first of its powerful super aircraft carriers for him. The U.S.S. Nimitz is still serving after being christened in 1972 and heading into service in 1975. The ship is expected to be decommissioned in the coming years.