By Tom Morrow
As in all tragic events, especially during war time, blame finds its way to someone’s doorstep, deserved or not. Such was the case for the two commanding officers in charge of the Navy and Army command forces at Pearl Harbor in December 1941.
On Feb. 18, 1941, Admiral Husband E. Kimmel, commander of the Pacific Fleet (CINCPACFLT), suspected something was going to happen and fired off the following message to the Chief of Naval Operations in Washington, D.C:
“I feel that a surprise attack (submarine, air, or combined) on Pearl Harbor is a possibility, and we are taking immediate practical steps to minimize the damage inflicted and to ensure that the attacking force will pay.”
Historical Naval records indicate Washington didn’t take Kimmel’s warning all that serious – or did they?
Some 10 months later, Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor occurred on Dec. 7, 1941, and resulted in the deaths of 2,403 Americans.
Edwin T. Layton related during the attack: Kimmel stood by the window of his office at the submarine base, his jaw set in stony anguish. As he watched the disaster across the harbor unfold with terrible fury, a spent .50 caliber machine gun bullet crashed through the glass. It brushed the admiral before it clanged to the floor. It cut his white jacket and raised a welt on his chest. “It would have been merciful had it killed me,” Kimmel murmured to his communications officer, Cmdr. Maurice “Germany” Curts.
Kimmel was relieved of his command 10 days after the attack. At the moment he was planning and executing retaliatory moves, including an effort to relieve and reinforce Wake Island that could have led to an early clash between American and Japanese carrier forces.
On Dec. 17, 1941, Gen. Walter Short was removed from command of the U.S. Army’s Hawaiian Department as a result of the Japanese attack on the Hawaiian Islands. Short was ordered back to Washington, D.C. by Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall.
In 1946, Short testified on his own behalf before Congress about the 1941 attack. Unlike some of his predecessors in Hawaii, Short was more concerned with sabotage from Japanese-Americans on Oahu. This led to Army planes parked outside of their hangars so they could be more easily guarded. However, this made them easy bombing targets and many were subsequently destroyed the morning of the attack.
In a 1964 interview Admiral Chester Nimitz, who took over as commander of the Pacific Fleet three weeks after the attack, concluded that “it was God’s mercy that our fleet was in Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7. If Kimmel had “had advance notice that the Japanese were coming, he most probably would have tried to intercept them. With the difference in speed between Kimmel’s battleships and the faster Japanese carriers, the former could not have come within rifle range of the enemy’s flattops. As a result, we would have lost many ships in deep water and also thousands more in lives.”
Robert Stinnett, a World War II U.S. Navy veteran makes the case that President Roosevelt wanted the Pearl Harbor attack to happen so public opinion would be aroused to support America’s entry into the war. Kimmel and Short, he argued, were deliberately kept ignorant. The President and others, he asserted, knew of Japan’s intent to attack Pearl Harbor and even the date and time. Kimmel, he argues, was given deceptive orders and denied resources such as access to MAGIC for the purpose of keeping him in the dark. But, most historians reject Stinnett’s thesis.
Admiral Kimmel died at Groton, Conn. on May 14, 1968. General Short retired from active duty on February 28, 1942, with the permanent rank of major general. After he retired from the Army, he headed the traffic department at a Ford Motor Company plant in Dallas, Texas. He retired in 1946 and died in 1949 in Dallas of chronic heart ailment.
On May 25, 1999, the United States Senate passed a non-binding resolution exonerating Kimmel and Short by a 52 to 47 vote. The resolution stated they had performed their duties “competently and professionally” and that the Japanese attacks were “not a result of dereliction of duty.”
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