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Obituaries

Chester W. Nimitz Jr., 86; Submarine Officer

January 08, 2002|MARTIN WEIL | THE WASHINGTON POST

Navy Rear Adm. Chester W. Nimitz Jr., a highly decorated World War II submarine officer who was the son of the fleet admiral who helped oversee the Allied victory in that war, has died. He was 86.

Nimitz and his wife, Joan Labern Nimitz, died Wednesday at a retirement residence in Needham, Mass. Family members said the couple took their lives. Joan Nimitz was 89.

"They were both very frail and fragile," said Nancy Nimitz, one of Nimitz's sisters.

Other family members noted that their deaths were not unexpected.

"They had lived their whole life together and wanted to die together," a daughter told Associated Press.

After leaving the Navy, Nimitz made a second career in the high-tech field, becoming chief executive of Perkin-Elmer Corp. before retiring in 1980.

Nimitz was the only son of Chester William Nimitz, the legendary officer who took command of the shattered Pacific Fleet less than three weeks after the calamitous attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, rebuilt it and helped lead the Navy and Marine Corps to victory over Japan.

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., Nimitz followed in his father's footsteps by attending the U.S. Naval Academy, from which he graduated in 1936. After three years on the cruiser Indianapolis, he entered the submarine service, as his father had.

Nancy Nimitz recalled her brother as "a very bright guy" and a man of "absolute probity." As a submarine officer, he received training in ascending to the surface from a damaged vessel and developed another important quality: the ability to hold his breath for as long as five minutes.

At parties, she said, when challenged, he would reply, "Try me," and would then "sit there, with his face getting pinker and pinker." The feat would be followed, she said, by a great "whoosh."

The submarine Haddo, the first of the two that the younger Nimitz commanded, received a Navy Unit Commendation in 1944 for the close-range sinking of a Japanese destroyer. The admiral's military honors included three Silver Stars.

After the war, he commanded a submarine division based in San Diego.

Nimitz's service under the ultimate command of his father made for some interesting family dialogue, Nancy Nimitz said.

Once, she said, her brother telephoned her to complain about the performance of an officer who served under her father and above her brother.

"Damn it," she recalled her brother saying, "the fleet is going in the wrong direction, and Dad knows it and isn't doing anything about it."

In 1957, he left the Navy to join Texas Instruments. Nancy Nimitz said the decision was prompted in part by recognition of the need to pay for the education of three daughters, closely spaced in age.

When his parents got word of his career-changing decision, she said, it was an uncomfortable moment. She said their mother eased the tension by saying to their father: "All right, now he's told you. Now call him up and say it's OK."

The Nimitzes had homes for years in Boca Grande, Fla., as well as Wellfleet, Mass.

They are survived by three daughters, five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. Joan Nimitz also is survived by a sister, and Chester Nimitz is survived by three sisters.

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