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Chester Nimitz on the Super Chief

The following railroad anecdote is reproduced without permission from "Nimitz", E. B. Potter's biography of Chester Nimitz.

Shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt decided to transfer Nimitz from his current assignment (Chief of the Bureau of Navigation) in Washington DC to a new assignment (Commander in Chief, Pacific Fleet) in Pearl Harbor, Hawaiian Territories; a promotion from Rear Admiral (two stars) to Admiral (four stars) went with the new assignment. A fatigued Nimitz persuaded Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox to allow him to go by train to the west coast in order to catch up on his sleep, regain his strength and read some reports. Nimitz and his Flag Secretary, Lieutenant (j.g.) H. Arthur Lamar, were booked on the B&O's Capitol Limited departing Washington on Friday December 19th, 1941, and the Santa Fe's Super Chief departing Chicago on the next day. The two travelled incognito; Nimitz choose to call himself "Mr. Freeman" and Lamar choose to call himself "Mr. Wainwright."

To relieve the monotony of the long ride across the plains, Nimitz and Lamar got off the train during its infrequent stops and strolled about the station platform. On one such occasion, as he headed to leave the train, the admiral stopped into a men's room. Along came the porter routinely locking the toilets before the engine came to a stop. The one who locked the facility Nimitz occupied failed to check whether the room was in use. Hence when "Mr. Freeman" was ready to emerge, he found he could do nothing of the sort. Worse, when the train pulled out of the station, the porter forgot to unlock the door.

The admiral banged on the door to no avail. Equally unavailing were his efforts to unfasten the lock from the inside. He had designed and installed naval machinery and had been a national authority on diesel engines, but that little lock defeated him. Some how the irony of the prospective Commander in Chief of the Pacific Fleet being trapped inside a two-by-four jakes failed to commend itself to his sense of humor. For fifteen minutes the sweating admiral alternately tinkered with the lock and pounded on the door.

At long last the porter, passing along the narrow passage, heard the banging. Taking out his key, he unlocked the door, to be instantly confronted by a wrathful "Mr. Freeman." The porter turned a scornful look on what he took to be a bungling middle-aged civilian.

"Now, look," he said pityingly, "if you are inside, you can always get out by just moving this latch."

"Oh, you think so?" said Nimitz. "Well, good. Try it. Give me the key and get in there."

Nimitz shut the door and turned the key, leaving the porter as helpless to get out as he himself had been. Back in his compartment the admiral concentrated a quarter of an hour on the report. He then arose and, swinging the borrowed key, marched back down the aisle and released the impounded porter, now exhausted with fruitless banging and yelling. Nimitz returned to his compartment in a merry mood. In retrospect he began to find the whole caper, including his own discomfiture, vastly amusing.


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