Saving Nimitz's 'Graybook'

By John B. Hattendorf

As a rear admiral and chief of the Bureau of Navigation from 1939 to 1941, Nimitz found that the war plans called for closing the Naval War College during wartime, as had been the Navy’s policy during the Spanish-American War and World War I. In March 1941, Nimitz formally changed that policy in order to allow the college to carry out an educational role during wartime and be prepared for its expanded role in the postwar period. 7

The Graybook and Education

Admiral Nimitz’s personal connections to the Naval War College as an alumnus and supporter are key to the story of the Graybook. As a commander-in-chief, Nimitz certainly reflected his Naval War College education that he, most of his flag officer colleagues, and their staffs shared during World War II. When the United States entered the war in 1941, every flag officer in the U.S. Navy but one was a graduate of the Naval War College. 8 At the same time, the Graybook clearly reflects what the Naval War College had been doing in the interwar years to prepare officers for staff duties and to educate them to think critically when making operational decisions in positions of high command.

From 1910 through 1942, the Naval War College had been developing and refining a specific system for the naval operational-planning process. This approach culminated with the college’s publication of what its students had called “The Green Hornet,” or as it was formally titled in its ultimate form, Sound Military Decision , published in 1942. 9 This volume captured the essence of a Naval War College education in the interwar period, particularly in the refinements to it made under the guidance of Admiral Edward C. Kalbfus between 1934 and 1942. 10 The book was unquestionably the crowning expression of the college’s philosophy. It was the only approach to naval planning that American naval officers were trained in using, and its influence is found throughout American naval operations during World War II. The Nimitz Graybook is a very rare surviving example in the records of the U.S. Navy that documents the daily sustained use, over an entire war, of the War College’s “Fourth Step,” the highest level in the military planning process.

Sound Military Decision clearly explained what this was all about:

The fourth step, which calls for mental efforts in the solution of the problem of supervising the action, requires a constant, close observation of the unfolding of the original situation. The procedure employed is customarily termed The Running Estimate of the Situation . Only an alert commander can invariably determine whether the situation is unfolding along the lines desired by him, as promulgated in the directives of the third step. In effect, the commander, after action is begun, considers the changing situation as a variable in the problem presented for his solution by the original (basic) situation. With the march of events, he is therefore, constantly critical to detect whether variations have introduced new incentives which demand modification or alteration of his plan, or its complete abandonment. 11

In a chapter-long discussion of this fourth supervisory step in the operational-planning process, Sound Military Decision stated that a running estimate is “intended to keep pace with the flow of events, so that the commander may be assured, at any time, that his concurrent action will be based on sound decision. To this end, there is a definite technique,” the aim of which is “the rapid and successful exercise of mental effort in the fast moving events of the tactical engagement. It is under such conditions, more especially, that effective supervision of the planned action becomes a problem, calling for every facility that can be afforded the commander.” 12

The technique here was to assemble in writing all the information bearing on the operational situation and to organize it in a readily usable fashion. Among alternative approaches, Sound Military Decision recommended the use of a journal of events backed up by a file supporting it that would serve as aids to the commander’s continuing mental, decision-making process. This was normally accompanied by a work sheet to assist the staff in organizing the journal, but the work sheets were normally to be destroyed, as the journal formed the permanent record.

The Graybook in the Pacific

Prior to World War II, naval staffs had a degree of uniformity in organization and composition, based on Navy Regulations , personnel allowances, the particular requirements of a command and its commander, and evolving naval practice. During the war, the problem of how to best organize a staff was at one time an assigned topic for a Naval War College student thesis, and the subject of many articles in the U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings . Each major naval staff had its differences from the others and there was initially little standardization. The war created many changes to the U.S Navy’s approach to staff organization with a gradual standardization becoming apparent and the separation of administrative staffs from operational staffs, with large operational staffs moving ashore. At the same time, the experience of World War II gradually influenced the Navy into adopting some of the features of the Army’s General Staff system as part of the standardization process. 13

Located at Pearl Harbor, the staff of the commander-in-chief, Pacific and Pacific Ocean Area (CINCPAC-CINCPOA) under Nimitz went through a number of changes. In September 1943, for example, there were three separate, interrelated staffs—Fleet, Army, and Joint—each with five sections. In May 1944, the Fleet and Army staffs disappeared, and all were combined into one Joint staff. 14

The Graybook covers the period from 7 December 1941 to 31 August 1945. The first three weeks it covers predate Nimitz’s arrival and serve to document the running estimate of the situation under his predecessors, Admiral Husband Kimmel from 7 to 17 December and Vice Admiral William S. Pye, the acting commander-in-chief, from 17 December to 31 December, when Nimitz took command. The volume ends in late August 1945 with the surrender of Japanese forces.

The document, which remained classified until 1972, appears to have been maintained by the Naval Staff’s plans division (designated as N-1, later J-1). Even when the CINCPAC-CINCPOA staff became a Joint Staff, the J-1 section was headed by a naval officer. 15 The Graybook shows some evolution due to changing staff members, but the basic organization is followed throughout the document. For every day of the war, there is a running summary of events (that was originally classified top secret). This is followed by various supporting documents; among them are occasional “briefed estimates of the situation” that provide alternative courses of action, with advantages and disadvantages as well as operational plans.

Some of the pages are color-coded. At first, the pages are on white paper, interspersed occasionally with sheets of green that include directives and operational messages (that were originally classified as secret) affecting the situation. From May 1942, one begins to find pink pages that provide further information at very high classifications, to and from Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Ernest King, and some involving Allied forces. From January 1945, one begins to find yellow pages marked “Nimitz Only.”

Digitization of a Vital Resource

A number of historians have used the Graybook in their research. E. B. Potter lists it among his sources in his 1976 biography of Nimitz. John Lundstrom used it extensively for his study of Vice-Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher, and Craig Symonds used it for his work on Midway. 16

Douglas V. Smith, former head of the strategy and policy section of the Naval War College’s College of Distance Education, became aware of the Graybook during his graduate work at Florida State University and in teaching a Naval War College elective course on World War II. Recognizing the value of this document for research and teaching, Smith discussed the prospect of finding funding for the digitization of the Graybook with Rear Admiral Roger Nolan, then the executive director of the Naval War College Foundation. The foundation took up the suggestion to look for possible funding. In 2008, Smith—who was then the commander of the Newport Commandery of the Naval Order of the United States (NOUS) and has since become the order’s historian-general—interested NOUS in the project as part of its mission to promote naval heritage. NOUS donated $5,000 to the Naval War College Foundation, while 46 members of the foundation donated additional funds to make a total of $10,535.

In 2009 the foundation worked with the Naval Historical Foundation in Washington, D.C., to scan the Graybook. The first estimates indicated that it would be too expensive to digitize the original copies, as the books would have to be disbound at great cost. Soon, a more cost-effective method was found in scanning the loose carbon copies of the document rather than the original bound copies. This was completed in 2009 at reasonable cost, but usage showed there were serious drawbacks with the scan. First, the copies did not reproduce the different color-coded papers in the original manuscript, and, second, many copies were too blurry to use with searchable text. A high-resolution digital facsimile was needed to capture all the markings on each page, the different colors of paper, and handwritten marginalia. A new copy was needed to support browsing and full-text and key-word searching to maximize the document’s research value. Making the Graybook searchable was especially challenging because many of the pages contain tabular and other heavily formatted text.

Fortunately, the Naval War College Foundation, now headed by retired Navy Captain John Odegaard, had some $10,000 still available after its first effort. At that point, the Naval War College Library, headed by Allen Benson, hired a Providence, Rhode Island, firm, the Digital Ark Corporation, to create a high-resolution archival master file consistently and accurately rendering all of the manuscript’s fine detail with no distortions. Under the direction of the library’s Naval Historical Collection archivist, Evelyn Cherpak, and the Digital Initiatives librarian, Sue Cornacchia, the Naval History and Heritage Command shipped the eight volumes of the original copies to the Digital Ark, where the documents were carefully disbound and scanned by hand, one page at a time, in an environmentally controlled room.

The results of this effort transformed the nearly inaccessible and fragile Graybook into a digitally preserved naval/cultural document now available to researchers worldwide. And now, this invaluable resource of naval history can be accessed online through the Naval War College’s website, at .

1. Naval History and Heritage Command, Archives Branch. Collection 505: Papers of Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz. Series 1, Subseries A, Boxes 1–8 contain the originals; boxes 9 through 18 contain copies.

2. Instances of the use of this term and its spelling can be found in Book VI, 2486 and 3171, and on the cover sheets for volumes VI and VII.

3. Douglas V. Smith, “Chester Nimitz,” Oxford Bibliographies Online: Military History , .

4. Naval War College Archives, Record Group 15, Box 2, folder 24: LT Chester W. Nimitz, USN, “Defensive and Offensive Tactics of Submarines,” June 1912, published as “Military Value and Tactics of Modern Submarines,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings , vol. 38, no. 4 (December 1912), 1193–1211.

5. Naval War College Archives, Record Group 15, Box 31, file 27: FADM Chester W. Nimitz, USN, Address to the Naval War College, 10 October 1960, 11.

6. Ibid., 3.

7. Ibid., 5. John B. Hattendorf et al., Sailors and Scholars: The Centennial History of the Naval War College (Newport, RI: Naval War College Press, 1984), 167–68.

8. Hattendorf, Sailors and Scholars , 161.

9. U.S. Naval War College, Sound Military Decision , ed. with intro. by CAPT Frank M. Snyder, USN (Ret.) (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1992).

10. Ibid., ix–xxxv. Hattendorf, Sailors and Scholars , 155–161. Thomas B. Buell, “Admiral Edward C. Kalbfus and the Naval Planner’s Holy Grail: Sound Military Decision,” Naval War College Review , vol. 25, no. 5 (May–June 1973), 31–41.

11. Sound Military Decision , 107.

12. Ibid., 204–05.

13. Naval War College Archives, RG 14: Faculty and Staff Presentations: (ANSCOL) D. J. Evans, “Organization and Functioning of Naval Staffs,” 1–2.

14. Ibid., 19–21.

15. Samuel Eliot Morison, History of U.S Naval Operations in World War II , vol. 6: Breaking the Bismarcks Barrier , 22 July 1942–1 May 1944 (Boston: Little Brown, 1950), 10–11.

16. E. B. Potter, Nimitz . (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1976), 475. John Lundstrom, Black Shoe Carrier Admiral: Frank Jack Fletcher at Coral Sea, Midway and Guadalcanal (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2006). Craig L. Symonds, The Battle of Midway (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 431.



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