The Great War had shown that the U.S. Navy couldn’t meet the demands for officers during a rapid expansion of the force; an experiment with a three-month cram course called the “Midshipman School” was not very effective. The force needed a cadre of trained and experienced officers, larger than could be produced by the Naval Academy alone, ready to go but held in reserve.

Therefore, the Navy moved to emulate the successful college-level Army Reserve Officers Training Program (ROTC)—which provided classroom and some field military training roughly equivalent to, although not as intense as, that offered at West Point. The Navy set up six Naval ROTC units, at Northwestern, Yale, Harvard, Georgia Tech, the University of Washington, and the University of California (UC) at Berkeley. The program began in the fall semester of 1926, with Nimitz as the first professor of naval science at Berkeley. He was assisted by Lieutenant Commander Ernest Gunther and four chief petty officers.

There was a bit of irony in this assignment, and some personal discomfort. Here he was, a 41-year-old Navy commander, who not only lacked a college degree (not granted at Annapolis until the class of 1933) but hadn’t even graduated high school. Now he was ranked as a full professor and dean of his department in an environment where advanced degrees and earned status counted for everything.

There were some touchy moments. At a staff meeting, the head of the department of astronomy learned that Nimitz planned to teach a class on nautical astronomy, a key element in the education and training of any naval officer. He complained—loudly—that this was an invasion of his professional domain. Nimitz quietly asked if the professor might be willing—as he was far more qualified—to take over this course? The professor agreed. Thus, the Department of Naval Science was able to shift a small responsibility off to another department, freeing up time to address other subjects. Over time, jealousies evaporated as Nimitz slowly gained the confidence of the rest of the faculty and was invited to serve on the university’s faculty promotion board and new-faculty search committee.

The NROTC program was in two parts of two years each. The first two years—the basic course—offered three hours a week of instruction in navigation, ordnance, and seamanship. The advanced course added a fourth hour for engineering. At drills, students wore uniforms like those at the Naval Academy but were called “naval reserve students,” rather than “midshipmen.” There was no scholarship or other monetary compensation in the basic course, but students in the advanced course received a $210 subsistence allowance. There were also three summer cruises of fifteen days each for which the students were paid seventy cents a day, but only the cruise during the advanced course was mandatory. Graduates of the full four-year program would be eligible for commissions as ensigns in the Naval Reserve, have the opportunity to attend drills with annual compensation of two months active duty pay, and be on call in the event of war.

The first real problem at UC Berkeley: No students signed up for this brand-new program. Nimitz and Gunther posted announcements around campus and set up a table in a high-traffic area, where they cajoled passersby. Nimitz, looking very official in his dress whites, cruised the campus and buttonholed likely prospects. One young man asked if it made any difference that his father was a colonel in the Army; Nimitz assured him that it did not. The student, James D. Archer, gladly came aboard, perhaps relieved that he might thus be freed from subtle familial pressure to “Go Army.” And, he induced his roommate, Tracy D. Cuttle, to enroll also.

Eventually—to his embarrassment—Nimitz attracted more candidates than the program could accommodate. Eighty showed up for the first muster, and twenty had to be told, “Gentlemen, I’m very sorry . . . I will call out twenty names. They will have to go.” In the confusion, Nimitz enrolled one student from Finland who was not a United States citizen. This was not an underhanded ploy by the student; he was just never asked. Onnie P. Lattu corrected that oversight and became a citizen before graduation.

Nimitz, obviously, had not been trained as a teacher but had hands-on experience with the subject matter and sufficient experience as a student to establish a program. He adapted some aspects of the Naval Academy practice: The instructors assigned material for study at the end of each class and held a quiz at the beginning of the next. However, while the Naval Academy quizzed students by sending them to the blackboard to be critiqued by the instructor, Nimitz elected for something easier to evaluate, because it created a paper trail that could be saved and reviewed. On entering the classroom, the students drew slips of paper on which were one or more questions related to the day’s assignment. The students had twenty minutes to write their answers, and then the instructors would conduct a thirty-minute teaching and discussion session. This certainly was more rigorous than in many of the other classes at the university where students might drift along from week to week, hitting the books only when confronted by a major exam.

The NROTC final exam for the first semester was a three-hour comprehensive open-book review. This was significantly longer than the university standard of one hour, and the students rebelled en masse, turning in blank exam books in protest. When they showed up to register for the next semester of the program, each was handed a note requesting his presence in the office of the dean of men. They learned that by failing to meet the requirements for the last class, they were blocked from enrolling in the next. As the emotional dust was settling, Nimitz walked into the room. “Gentlemen,” he said, “I’m going to abide by the rules of the university and I expect you to do so also. I understand that you only have to have one hour for a final exam. So that’s what you will have, but you have to take it this afternoon.”

Of course, he gave them the original three-hour exam, on which no one did very well. As they turned in their answers at the end of the hour, he said, “I hope this will make better sailors out of you.” Was this overly harsh, the mark of a narrow-minded martinet? Not if you allow for the consideration he gave one freshman, poorly prepared in math in high school, to take as much time as he needed—more than six hours—to complete an important exam in navigation. The student passed, albeit barely, but earned high praise for determination.

Nimitz was always attuned to the interests of his students. Joseph Chase was interested in aviation, so Nimitz arranged a series of orientation flights with some basic instruction from the Naval Reserve air unit in Oakland. Chase went on to Navy flight training, became a pilot for Pan American Airways, and during the war assisted Nimitz in mapping air supply and escape routes across the Pacific.

Commander and Mrs. Nimitz believed that socializing with the students was an important part of the job, and on Saturdays they would usually have several to their home for lunch. The students formed a Quarterdeck Club and often invited the pair to their functions, most of which involved dancing. The commander would gamely waltz a coed or two, and Mrs. Nimitz would assay a few steps with one of the students.

At one point, Onnie Lattu invited Nimitz and Gunther to a lunch at his fraternity house. They arrived in their dress white uniforms just as a few of the fraternity brothers were engaged in some extracurricular hijinks. As he was getting out of the car, Nimitz got hit full-on with a bag of water thrown down from an upstairs window. He was not the intended target but was the only one hit. Drenched and dripping, he went on in, chatted amiably with his hosts, sat down to lunch, and never said a word.

After one year in the job, Nimitz was promoted to captain. As enrollment increased, so did the size of the staff. When Nimitz’s three-year tour was over, in June 1929, the program had about 150 students and the staff included six commissioned officers and six petty officers. His relief as CO of the unit was Captain Bruce Canaga, his partner in patrolling the Philippines back in 1907.

Nimitz believed that his teaching philosophy, a hybrid of the Naval Academy style and contemporary civilian practice, was an improvement over both. As at the Naval Academy, it was a focused regimen that required the student to dig out things for himself. To that, Nimitz added the daily tracking and a broader civilian-style lecture and discussion period. In 1928, his mentor Admiral Robison—with whom Nimitz had been sharing his pedagogical thoughts—became superintendent of the Naval Academy and introduced the Nimitz method. It did not quite catch on. There was—surprise!—some resentment among the faculty at having the half-brained ideas of an amateur thrust upon them. However, Robison and several of his successors managed to impose a few Nimitz-inspired changes, especially his method of daily testing and grading. Long-term, the U.S. Naval Academy drifted toward a university system that put less demand on both students and instructors.

In a 1928 article for the Naval Institute Proceedings, Nimitz mused, “Has the government made a wise investment in the establishment of the Naval ROTC? We think that in the passage of time this question will be answered in the affirmative.” For the record, the NROTC flourished. By the end of World War II, the program was offered at fifty-two colleges and universities. The students were now called “midshipmen” and provided full tuition, books, and a monthly stipend of $50. By the 1950s, some graduates received regular (rather than reserve) commissions in the U.S. Navy, to serve on par with their Naval Academy contemporaries.

The long-range track record for the first UC Berkeley class was a bit spotty. Of the sixty students, only twenty-one made it through to graduation. The others had not failed the NROTC, but most had dropped out of school altogether, especially following the financial shocks of the stock market crash of 1929. Among the graduates of the Class of June 1930: Onnie Lattu went on to a career in the Supply Corps, retiring as a rear admiral; he was one of the first NROTC graduates of any school to make flag rank. Archer became a lawyer and effectively dropped out of participation in the reserves until the war, when, embarrassed that he had abandoned the opportunity to be involved, he managed to get his commission reinstated (with assistance from Admiral Nimitz). He served on a cruiser in the Pacific. After the war, Archer became president of the UC Alumni Association, a regent of the university, and a key player in the successful effort to establish a branch of UC in San Diego. Archer tried to get Nimitz to accept the gift of a house in San Diego, to be purchased with funds contributed by local admirers, but the admiral said “No.” The San Francisco Bay Area was his home of choice. Archer’s roommate Tracy Cuttle went on to medical school, became a Navy doctor, and, during Nimitz’s final years, Captain Cuttle was one of his attending physicians at Oak Knoll Naval Hospital.

Excerpted from Admiral Nimitz: The Commander of the Pacific Ocean Theater by Brayton Harris.

Copyright © Brayton Harris, 2011.

All Rights Reserved.

Reprinted with permission of the publisher.