They Deserve Better Biographers

A Review of Nimitz by E.B. Potter and The Quiet Warrior, a biography of Admiral Raymond A. Spruance by Thomas B. Buell.

The two greatest admirals in American naval history are Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz, architect of American victory in the Pacific in World War Two, and four star Admiral Raymond Spruance, who won the Battle of Midway; the most critical naval battle in the entire Pacific War. These two great captains of history deserve to be better known and to have far better biographies than the standard ones available for each of these extraordinary men.

After the Japanese caught the American forces at Pearl Harbor by surprise on 7 December 1941, “a date which will live in infamy”, said President Roosevelt, the admiral commanding the US Pacific fleet, Husband Kimmel, was, not surprisingly, removed from command. On 16 December Chester Nimitz was appointed to replace him. Said President Roosevelt to Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox, “tell Nimitz to get the hell out to Pearl and stay there till the war is won.”

After being informed by Knox of his new position, Nimitz went to his apartment in Washington and gave his wife the news. She commented that he had always wanted to command the Pacific Fleet. “Darling, the fleet’s at the bottom of the sea.”

During World War Two, from his headquarters at Pearl Harbor, Nimitz served as both CINCPAC (Commander-in-Chief, Pacific Fleet) and CINCPOA (Commander-in-Chief, Pacific Ocean Areas). Nimitz commanded the largest naval force ever assembled in history and ever likely to be assembled. This force included thousands of ships, several hundred thousand ground troops from the US Marines and US Army, and thousands of aircraft from the US Navy, US Marine Corps, and US Army Air Force. (The US Air Force did not become a separate service until after World War Two.) A force of this size required massive logistical support all of which came under Nimitz as well.

Naturally, Nimitz has had a large number of admirals and generals under him commanding all the different formations. Yet Nimitz had the final word. Their were only two men who ranked higher than he: Admiral Ernest King, Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) as well as the Commander-in-Chief of the US Fleet (COMINCH), the only US admiral in history to hold both of those commands, and the President of the United States, Franklin D. Roosevelt.

I have a lot of sympathy for biographers. As a historian, I can appreciate the incredible amount of research that must go into a comprehensive biography. As a novelist, I am keenly aware of how difficult it is to discover the human element behind the persona of a great man. Nimitz is no exception. He was one of the great captains of history yet he was often unsure, on occasion so tense his hands trembled, and under constant pressure to win the war in the Pacific with the President and the CNO looking over his shoulder.

It would be easy to explain how a man failed at this. It is much more difficult to explain how he succeeded – and succeeded so brilliantly. How did a man who grew up in hardscrabble circumstances in a small Texas town in the middle of nowhere, having never seen the ocean till he was 18, without the benefit of a superb school system, become the greatest admiral in US history? That is the central question which a biography of Nimitz should answer. Unfortunately, this biography doesn’t attempt to do this. It simply recites the details, all the details, of Nimitz’s life. And then he did this and then he did this and then he did this….

Fleet Admiral Nimitz commanded ships of every size as he went up through the ranks and took his turns at shore duty as the Navy alternated him from sea duty to shore duty as it did with all officers. Whatever the Navy assigned him to do he did cheerfully and superbly. He was one of those unusual men who did everything well. For a man who clearly “thought outside the box,” he knew the bureaucracy of the US Navy like a friend. He knew how to make it work and at one point served as Chief of the Bureau of Navigation which was in charge of personnel and later changed its named to ‘Bureau of Personnel’ or ‘Bupers’ as it was know in WWII.

He was one of the handful of senior officers in the US Navy who actually got along with COMINCH and CNO Ernest King, an irascible son of a bitch who personally dragged the US Navy out of its battleship mentality. From the earliest days of naval aviation, King understood that aircraft carriers would be critical in the next war. He was one of the US Navy’s few older admirals to be a qualified naval aviator. “Ernie King is a son of a bitch,” FDR often said, “but he’s my son of a bitch.” And that was very true. FDR took a proprietary interest in the Navy, more so than other services, having been Undersecretary of the Navy during World War One. King reported directly to Roosevelt and in spite of his personal disdain for the New Deal, he was deeply loyal to the President.

“He is the most even-tempered person in the United States Navy. He is always in a rage,” one of King’s daughter’s said of him. Nimitz was far more even keeled. He rarely lost his temper. But the two men could not have been more different. Yet King and Nimitz had served together as younger officers and had great professional respect for each other. King sometimes went around Nimitz and fired admirals he regarded as not up to the task because he felt, with justification, that Nimitz had a difficult time removing an admiral from command, knowing that would end the man’s career.

They weren’t friends. No one is sure if Ernie King had any friends. They addressed their letters to each other as: “Dear King” or “Dear Nimitz”. But they formed a brilliant team and King played the Washington game like an ace and was constantly able to gather up the men and ships Nimitz required, in spite of the “Germany first” strategy which the Allies had adopted and which both Nimitz and King endorsed. The Germans were thought, correctly, to be a far greater threat than the Japanese. Yet in the biography, Nimitz, we learn nothing of the interaction of these men. They got along. Great. But how? Why? When did they serve together? How often had they seen each other before the war? These questions along with so many others go unanswered.

Part of the difficulty of this biography of Fleet Admiral Nimitz, is that the author knew Nimitz and the Nimitz family. Fleet Admiral Nimitz himself refused to write his memoirs saying historians in decades hence would be a far better judge of what he had done than he could be. His wife also burned most of their correspondence from the war years. After Nimitz died, Mrs. Nimitz asked E.B. Potter to write the Admiral’s biography and so in many ways this is the “official” biography of Fleet Admiral Nimitz or the “authorized” biography and suffers from all the faults common to those genres.

The second biography under review is: The Quiet Warrior, a biography of four-star Admiral Raymond Spruance. Here again, while it would be easy to explain why a man failed, it is very hard to explain why a man like Spruance succeeded. Yes, he was intelligent. Yes, he played the silly games the US Navy required under the guise of war games which had no connection with reality. Yes, he was a professional naval officer of some distinction. But Spruance was also a very taciturn man – hardly affable or friendly in the way of Admiral Nimitz. In fact, Spruance rarely spoke.

As someone who suffers from clinical depression, it is clear to me after reading The Quiet Warrior that Raymond Spruance also suffered greatly from depression, something he even mentions in his frequent letters to his wife. How did this affect his judgment? His life? His biographer does not, or chose not, to even mention this. Yet Spruance clearly dealt with his depression by his manic exercise which the author constantly mentions but never gives one hint as to why someone would walk two and three hours a day – even at sea. When ashore, he not only walked two or three hours a day, he swam long distances in the ocean as well.

Nimitz was a walker, too, and far ahead of his time in understanding the critical role exercise played in reducing tension and keeping one healthy but it wasn’t an obsession. Yet with Spruance exercise was almost a maniacal obsession. At sea he simply walked back and forth along the foredeck or quarterdeck of the ship. Usually he commanded his fleet from the light cruiser USS Indianapolis, itself hardly suitable to serve as a command ship. At one point when the fleet was being attacked by Japanese kamikazes, the Captain of the Indianapolis had to yell at one of Spruance’s flag lieutenants to get the admiral off the foredeck where he was walking so the ship could fire its forward anti-aircraft guns. I don’t think I’m being a nitpicker by wishing the biographer had tried to answer those questions.

This is a standard biography and the author interviewed Spruance – who wouldn’t say much. But the author does a brilliant job of dismantling piece by piece the myth that others – not Spruance – won the Battle of Midway, a myth which has persisted for far too long. The author establishes once and for all that Spruance won the Battle of Midway. And further, that Spruance’s decision to withdraw during the night after the US carrier pilots had sunk four out of Japan’s six largest fleet carriers versus the loss of one US aircraft carrier, was absolutely the correct thing to do. Had Spruance not withdrawn he would have made contact with the Japanese battle fleet. Given that the Japanese had a number of their battleships at hand and Spruance had none, he would have been annihilated. His decision to withdraw was correct and was specifically within the limit set by Nimitz’s order that Spruance not endanger the fleet unless the chance for victory was very high.

Toward the end of World War Two, the Congress created the rank of Fleet Admiral, a five star rank which can only be instituted by the Congress. Four vacancies were created by Congress and these were filled by Leahy, King, Nimitz, and Halsey. That Spruance was passed over and Halsey made Fleet Admiral was thought then and now as an absurd decision made only to mollify a powerful Congressman who was a friend of Halsey’s. Spruance always thought history would prove him right and it has. Unfortunately, the man who assembled this information then bungled the job of writing Spruance’s biography.

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Charles McCain

Charles McCain is a Washington DC based freelance journalist and novelist. He is the author of "An Honorable German," a World War Two naval epic. You can read more of his work on his website: http://charlesmccain.com/

2 thoughts on “They Deserve Better Biographers”

  1. I was in the Navy in the early 1980s. I served aboard the USS Forrestal (CV-59) for two Med cruises. Even then, the Forrestal at 25 years old was a dinosaur, relegated to flying the dated F-4 Phantoms as fighters. The old girl always stunk of the kerosene used to fire her boilers; sometimes there would be a thin film of kerosene on the top of the water we used to make our coffee. Ships of her class were essentially the last of the old conventionally powered carriers. As crewmembers relegated to the regal old lady, we bitched constantly about the dated living and working conditions. We envied the guys in the new Navy, those sailors lucky enough to deploy aboard the spanking new Nimitz-class nukes. As 20 year-olds, we had only the haziest of notions about what sailor was great enough to give his name to an entire class of ships rumored to be almost as luxurious as cruise ships. I probably knew more about Nimitz than 90% of my shipmates, but that’s not saying much. Still, the name had the ring of greatness to even the lowliest snipe striker.

    It was only after I returned to civillian life and developed a deeper interest in naval history that I became truly curious about the man who had such powerful naval vessels made under his name. In time, I heard about Potter’s biography, “Nimitz”. Surely, I thought, such a great Admiral deserved a detailed biographical look into his life, a story for the ages. This book had to be that biography, didn’t it? Uhhh, no, it isn’t, and I knew it less than a hundred pages in. Potter’s “Nimitz” is only a step above hagiography. It seems it was written as a formal afterthought, a book designed to offend no one and offer no insights. A timeline would have been more educational. I wanted some insight into the man, I wondered about the answer to every question mentioned above and dozens more. Its emptiness had me seething. How could the crucial meeting with MacArthur be glossed over in a few lame pages? How on earth did Nimitz deal with, even come out on top of such a demagogue? Potter didn’t see fit to explain this intriguing storyline or hundreds more. His “Nimitz” is why I won’t read even semi-official biographies. It’s a problem inherent in the genre (as Mr. McCain notes). I tried reading Gilbert’s biography of Churchill, only to run into the same problem.

    I’ve never read the Spruance biography, in spite of intense curiosity about that enigmatic warrior, because of my bad experience with “Nimitz”. From Mr. McCain’s review, it seems I guessed right about the “Quiet Warrior”. It’s too bad such great and interesting men have yet to have their fascinating stories, warts and all, placed before the world. Biographies that fear offending the families of their subjects are worthless, leaving one wondering how such great men could lead such boring, empty, uncontroversial lives.

    I’ve resigned myself to the fact that I’ll never read the real story about the Admiral considered great enough to have a fleet of the most powerful warships ever made under the umbrella of his name (indeed, Spruance has a class of ships named for HIM). There is no greater honor this Navy can offer a man. Surely, he couldn’t be as bland as Potter portrays him. Mr. McCain is dead on in his review.

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