Admiral Chester Nimitz’ Heroic ‘Hail Marys’

Coaching History
Photos Courtesy Mert Wagner
Panchito and Special Delivery|!!| two of five B-25 Mitchell bombers on display at the Destin Airport in conjunction with the 71st Doolittle Raiders Anniversary Reunion. These planes flew in the famous Tokyo Raid in April of 1942|!!| which is considered by historians to be a turning point for American morale during World War II.

This Veteran’s Day we honor the Doolittle Tokyo Raiders, a group of 80 men from all walks of life who flew into history on April 18, 1942. Many trained at Eglin Air Force Base, but only four live on to tell their story. Sixteen B-25 bombers took off from the deck of the USS Hornet, led by (then Col.) Jimmy Doolittle. They were to fly over Japan, drop their bombs and fly on to land in a part of China that was still free.

Many publications do a grand job with articles that re-cap the historic Doolittle Raid over Tokyo during WWII, but those articles consistently fail to mention the originator of that raid — Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz. His behind-the-scenes role in that mission should be told, as it was told to me by his daughter, Sister Mary Aquinas Nimitz, who earned her doctorate degree from Stanford University and was president of Dominican University. 

To tell the Nimitz story, as Sister Mary told me, we need to go back to the era when Nimitz was a young lieutenant commander and served on the faculty of the University of California, Berkeley. While there, he headed the Navy ROTC program and served as an assistant football coach. It didn’t take long for this coach to learn the value of team morale and student body esprit de corps. Above all, it was personal, team and school morale that stuck with Nimitz and became an indelible part of his future command persona.

The United States was coming out of The Great Depression when Pearl Harbor pulled us into World War II. 

Although the U.S. suffered massive naval damage and lost 3,800 lives during the Japanese attack, Nimitz found reasons to be optimistic when he arrived in Hawaii and surveyed the destruction. To his surprise, he discovered that the Japanese were so concerned about sinking our battleships that they never bombed our nearby dry docks.  

Another reason for optimism was almost beyond belief. Every drop of fuel in the Pacific theater of war was still intact in storage tanks some five miles away on a hill.   

In the meantime, Nimitz properly sensed that America’s morale was at low ebb, as was the nation’s military fighting spirit. For the first time, Americans were depressed. 

Roosevelt’s “the day which will live in infamy” speech further saddened Americans and with unemployment hovering in double digits throughout the country, the spirit of the body politic was lower than anyone could ever remember.

Nimitz decided to be a coach one more time. He needed a battle plan that included some aggressive, proactive sea and air strikes against the Japanese; decisive and consistent offensive actions to reverse the tide of battle and regain America’s spirit and our military’s morale.  

He devised a plan with three legs. 

After consulting with his comrade-in-arms, Gen. Henry “Hap” Arnold, Nimitz started the planning and training for a sea-launched air bombing attack on Tokyo.

Arnold selected Lt. Col. James Doolittle, who had a doctorate in aeronautical engineering from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, to lead the highly secret mission.  

The Nimitz-originated Doolittle raid on April 18, 1942, was the first leg of the triad. 

Banner headlines awakened Americans and reinstated a “can-do” spirit. That spirit swelled the civilian work force and thousands upon thousands of tanks, airplanes and ships were built ahead of schedule and went into battle. 

The second leg of the Nimitz triad started on May 4, when the U.S. Navy used Nimitz’s strategy and Admiral “Bull” Halsey’s tactics to win a decisive victory at the Battle of Coral Sea — a battle that saw air attacks for the first time in naval history.

The defeat forced Japan to bring its military assets closer to its home ports, leaving a much larger share of the Pacific to Nimitz’s ships. 

More morale-boosting headlines followed. 

The triad’s crushing blow occurred 30 days later during early June when Nimitz’s navy engaged the Japanese at Midway, scoring the first full-scale spectacular air battle, sinking most of the enemy’s carrier fleet and forcing what was left of its naval force back closer to their homeland.  

Nimitz, the former football coach, had thrown three successful “Hail-Mary” touchdown passes that routed the enemy and reinstalled grit, grace and glory in the hearts of Americans and the nation’s fighting forces.

Is there another Chester Nimitz among us?

Categories: Opinion