Pearl Harbor Scapegoat
by James L. Holloway III
From the October 6, 2000 issue of the Washington Post
Copy from the collection of Edward R. Kimmel
For nearly 60 years, an American Navy officer, the late Rear Adm. Husband Kimmel, has been saddled with much of the blame for the disaster visited upon the American fleet at Pearl Harbor by Japan's surprise attack.
Kimmel, the Navy commander on Oahu, was relieved of his command after the attack, as was the commander of Army forces on Oahu, Lt. Gen. Walter Short. Although both were eventually absolved of dereliction of duty, they were not allowed to retire at the highest wartime rank they had achieved. This has been seen by many, including their families, as a stain on their records.
As the current Congress expires, long-overdue action is being taken to rectify the injustice done these two officers. The Defense Authorization Act for 2001 includes a request that the president nominate Kimmel and Short to their highest-held World War II ranks, thus giving them posthumous restoration of their honor and reputations. The provision states dearly that these two officers performed their duties "competently and professionally."
Awhile back, the Naval Historical Foundation hosted a colloquium focused on the case of Kimmel and the degree to which he should be held accountable for the events at Pearl Harbor. Many of the facts brought forth at the gathering can also be applied by implication to the case of Short.
Participating in the colloquium were historians, authors and retired military officers representing the full span of opinions on the matter, from those holding Kimmel fully responsible to those exonerating him and recommending posthumous promotion to full admiral.
Participants were in substantive agreement on a number of essential points that, surprisingly, had not been emphasized in previous hearings:
Even with some warning of an impending Japanese strike, Kimmel's only practical option would have been to keep the fleet in harbor; venturing forth to engage the enemy would have resulted in even greater losses.
But to effectively protect the fleet in harbor, Kimmel would have needed at least four hours' warning to have his fleet at general quarters at the time of the attack, he had to know almost exactly the time of the Japanese strike.
It is universal naval wisdom that crews cannot be kept at general quarters for more than 12 hours before their fighting ability begins to deteriorate. With crews at battle stations for 24 hours without sleep, they become largely ineffective. So, for any warning to be effective, it had to be accurate to within four to 24 hours prior to the actual time of the first enemy strike.
Kimmel had been told that U.S. intelligence had developed the capability to break the Japanese codes, and he had been assured that his superiors at the seat of government could be depended on to advise him when the Japanese planned to attack.
Kimmel never received a warning of the Dec. 7 attack. He did receive a War Warning message sent by the
Chief of Naval Operations on Nov. 27, but the message was vaguely worded, capable of several interpretations and even misleading. Nowhere in the message was there any suggestion of a Japanese move toward Hawaii.
It is patently dear that there were no alternative plans Kimmel could have made before the attack, or actions taken that would-have ensured a higher degree of readiness. Consequently, there could be no dereliction of duty by him. There was no way the United States could have altered the outcome at Pearl Harbor.
Americans have every right—in fact, a responsibility—to exact accountability from their military commanders. On the other hand, our concept of justice is that every citizen (even admirals) be accorded a fair trial, and that only those found guilty through a legal process be punished. For Adm. Kimmel, this is a judgment that Americans have yet to make.
The writer is chairman of the U. S. Naval Historical Foundation. A retired Navy admiral, he has served as chief of naval operations.
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