Thursday, June 17, 2021

Douglas MacArthur and Chester Nimitz: Five-Star Leadership, Part 1

By Lee Duckworth
HRNM Volunteer 

A study of the background and early careers of General Douglas MacArthur and Admiral Chester Nimitz is essential to understanding the leadership styles and personalities of the two senior five-star officers in the Second World War’s Pacific Theater. MacArthur appears to have been born with the proverbial “silver spoon” and Nimitz came from a hard scrabble background. The marked differences in their upbringing and personality traits are reflected in their dissimilar leadership styles, yet both are venerated for their accomplishments during the Second World War.

The Early Years

MacArthur has an almost unmatched pedigree. On his paternal side, his grandfather was Lieutenant Governor of the state of Wisconsin and a Justice of the Supreme Court of Washington DC; his father was a Medal of Honor recipient and three-star army general (highest rank in the US Army at that time). From his mother’s side he was related to Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt. MacArthur’s mother, Mary “Pinky” Hardy MacArthur, played prominently in his career and unhesitatingly reminded senior officers who had served under her husband to see that her son was promoted. His father, Arthur MacArthur, was stationed throughout the West during the late 1800s, and that was the place where Douglas learned first-hand about riding horses, the cavalry, and the army.
A young Douglas MacArthur (Wikimedia Commons)
MacArthur was seemingly a shoo-in for West Point, although it took three attempts for him to be accepted. His father was stationed in the Philippines during much of the time Douglas was at the military academy, so his mother decided to spend all four years there and met almost daily with her son. Despite the hazing he received for being the son of a senior officer and having his mother watch over him, he rose to be the First Captain (head of the Corps of Cadets) and graduated first in the class of 1903.

By contrast, Nimitz came from a completely opposite background. His family was very poor and his father died before he was born. He too was raised by a strong mother, Anna Nimitz, who concentrated on keeping her son physically fit. Nimitz was strongly influenced by his paternal grandfather, Charles Henry Nimitz, who was a former Texas Ranger and Confederate Civil War veteran. The grandfather had served in the German merchant marine and was an innkeeper who loved to tell stories of his life at sea and in the military. He counseled his grandson to “…learn all you can, then do your best and don’t worry—especially about things over which you have no control.”[1]
Midshipman Chester Nimitz with his grandfather, c. 1905
(Naval History and Heritage Command)
Nimitz grew up in the land-locked German immigrant city of Fredericksburg, Texas, and was an excellent student. His family could not afford college so an appointment to a military academy was Chester’s only avenue for further education. He studied hard for the better part of a year in preparation for the Naval Academy’s entrance exam, besting all other candidates and was admitted to the class of 1905.

Commissioning and Early Careers

Nimitz in 1905
(Wikimedia Commons)
Both men were extremely intelligent and academy classmates sensed they were destined for great military futures. Nimitz graduated 7th in his class and immediately after graduation went to sea on a destroyer. He yearned for command as a young officer, receiving his first command as the CO of USS Decatur, a torpedo boat destroyer. As a 22-year-old ensign he managed to run it aground in the Philippines and was court-martialed for the incident. He accepted full responsibility and learned to never let down his guard. Because Nimitz had a strong engineering background and proficiency in the German language, in 1913 he was selected to serve in Germany, learning about diesel engines and their application in submarines. He later became a submariner, where he spent the majority of his career prior to reaching flag rank.

MacArthur as a student in 1897
(Wikimedia Commons)
MacArthur elected to go into the Army Corps of Engineers and didn’t distinguish himself initially. While stationed in Washington DC he was more interested in the social scene serving as a temporary aide in the White House--his evaluations reflected his less than enthusiastic interest in engineering. In 1905-1906 he served as aide to his father in the Philippines, and along with his mother, made a nine-month tour of Asia observing military capabilities and operations in various countries from Japan to India. This was the first of his four assignments to Asia, where he fell in love with the culture and people. He had the benefit of learning about leadership from a senior officer perspective at his father’s knee. From him he was urged to be bold, do the unexpected, and to act quickly and decisively.

An added benefit of being the son of a three-star general officer was that Douglas was asked for by name to fill vital positions. The posting that paid the most dividends was to Washington DC in 1912, where he joined the Army Staff and later served as its first Public Relations person (then called the Bureau of Information). He became a favorite of Secretary of War Newton Baker and his career soared.

World War I

MacArthur was in the trenches and on the front lines in Europe in 1917-1918 and was the nation’s most decorated soldier, earning two Distinguished Service Crosses and seven Silver Stars. He was promoted from major to colonel (skipping over Lt Col) and by war’s end, was a brigadier general. MacArthur saw firsthand the futility of fighting from the trenches and the use of direct assault. He applied those lessons in his World War II island-hopping campaigns.

Conversely, during World War I, Nimitz served on a surface ship that never saw combat. He was however, instrumental in pioneering the underway refueling of ships from auxiliary vessels, which stood him in good stead for World War II.

Check back next week for part 2 of the Nimitz and MacArthur story!

[1] Potter, E. B. Nimitz. Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, MD (1976)

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