The war diaries of Adm. Chester Nimitz, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet during World War II, are now available online. In this photo from late September 1942, Nimitz, seated, discusses South Pacific strategy with several top officers: Army Major Gen. Richard Sutherland, left, was chief of staff to Gen. Douglas MacArthur in the Southwest Pacific. Vice Adm. Robert Ghormley, standing behind Nimitz, was commander of the South Pacific Force. Army Air Forces Major Gen. Millard Harmon, at far right, commanded U.S. Army forces in the South Pacific area. (Navy)
WASHINGTON — “The war opened with the attack of Japanese aircraft on Oahu.”
So reads the first entry of the war diaries of Adm. Chester Nimitz, commander in chief of the US Pacific Fleet (CINCPAC) during World War II. The original documents, starting on Dec. 7, 1941, chronicle the activities of the fleet from then until Aug. 31, 1945, the close of the war with Japan and of the Second World War.
“All battleships had been damaged, at least two irreparable,” continues the entry for Dec. 7, date of the surprise Japanese carrier attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii.
“The indications as to enemy position were equally divided between north and south of the island,” the account reads. “The view was held for some time that carriers were both north and south of the island.”
In reality, of course, the Japanese carriers were north of Oahu, but they were never found by the Americans. The diaries give an account of events as they happened or soon after, written by people dealing only with the facts as they were known at the time of writing.
“It’s not a diary per se,” explains Robert Cressman, a naval historian on the staff of the Naval History and Heritage Command in Washington. “Diaries have emotion. This is just a statement of facts, day by day, based on what the writers had in front of them.”
Contained in the collection’s 4,000 pages are thousands of admiral-to-admiral reports, descriptions of combat actions, enemy movements, the status of ground, air and sea forces — allied and enemy, damage reports, situation estimates, strategic discussions, notes from staff meetings. Commanders plead for more forces, other messages explain why reinforcements might not come.
Together, the documents are known as “The Gray Book.” The collection was declassified in 1972.
Access to such primary material — original documents, not second-hand reports or published works — is often restricted to historians or individuals meeting strict requirements, and requires traveling to the command’s archives in the Washington Navy Yard. But now, through the efforts of the Naval War College Foundation, the entire CINCPAC war diaries have been made available online, broken into eight parts and available for download by anyone with a computer connection.
The newly-available documents were ceremoniously unveiled Feb. 24 by the Naval War College, on the anniversary of Nimitz’ birth in 1885.
The collection is “the most authoritative source on the Pacific War available anywhere,” Naval War College historian Douglas Smith said. The documents reveal much of what Nimitz and his commanders thought and knew as they made crucial decisions throughout the course of the conflict.
The documents had been scanned once before, but beginning in August 2012 a new effort to create high-quality scans was begun. The result is like looking directly at the documents, with all their original markings and colorings, including hand-written notes.
“At Midway a group of ships probably combatant first sighted 700 miles west may be escort group heading toward a rendezvous with the occupation force vessels,” reads an early morning entry from June 4, 1942, the first day of the Battle of Midway, when a large Japanese force attempted to invade the island atoll in mid-Pacific.
“Believe the striking force has not yet been located,” the entry continues. “Nine B-17 [bombers] are enroute to attack the supposed escort group.”
Thousands of such entries are contained in each volume of the diaries, providing detailed insight into virtually every Pacific campaign during the war.
“The value in the Gray Book is in the accessibility, showing how the war in the Pacific was fought,” Cressman said. “It’s a tremendous way to view the war, an absolutely invaluable source.”
Cressman himself often consulted the original documents —contained in three microfilm reels — using them for published histories of the carrier Yorktown, the battle for Wake Island and the Battle of Midway.
“It gives you a great sense of how things were developing,” he said. “You see the formation of strategy, how the war went on. Any student of the Pacific War will delight in being able to go through this.”
“It’s a powerful document,” Cressman said. “And sobering.”
The Nimitz Gray Book documents are available on the Naval War College website. ■