Son fights for Pearl Harbor commander's reputation


Adm. Husband E. Kimmel was buried at the Naval Academy's small hillside cemetery on a spring day in 1968, before he could live down the role etched on his headstone: "Commander in Chief United States Fleet When Japan Attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941."

Two weeks after swarms of Japanese planes attacked his ships, Admiral Kimmel was forced to retire, blamed for America's humiliation. Now his son Tom Kimmel, 80, is hopeful that new evidence about the disaster will increase his chances of restoring his father's reputation.

"I think they're pretty damn good, myself," said the retired submariner, who has been rebuffed by the Reagan, Bush and Clinton administrations in his efforts to clear his father's name and restore his rank. "I don't know what they're afraid of."

One historian now says there is no basis for the most persistent charge against Admiral Kimmel, that he ignored warnings to patrol the skies north of Hawaii, the route the Japanese carrier task force took. A book, to be published next month, reports that military and civilian leaders in Washington failed to decode intercepted Japanese naval communications that would have alerted Admiral Kimmel.

Yet some experts on World War II still fault the admiral. His command was unprepared, said one. And another found he had been warned of impending hostilities and did not increase patrols or have his anti-aircraft guns poised for action.

Michael Gannon came to the admiral's defense in last month's issue of Proceedings, the magazine of the U.S. Naval Institute. There is no evidence that Admiral Kimmel was told by his staff about the northern routes, Mr. Gannon wrote after inspecting World War II records and reports.

The admiral's staff conceded the point in an official inquiry after the war, but historians mistakenly wrote that the admiral ignored their advice before the attack.

"I came to the conclusion that Admiral Kimmel had been unfairly singled out. They needed a scapegoat," Mr. Gannon said in an interview. He also pointed out that the admiral had barely one-fifth the number of patrol planes he needed for effective, 360-degree coverage around the islands.

In 1968, Adm. Carlisle A. H. Trost, former chief of naval operations, denied a request by Tom Kimmel and his brother, Edward, to promote their father posthumously from two-star rank to four stars, citing the northern sectors charge.

After the war, officers were allowed to retire at the highest rank they achieved, with the exception of Admiral Kimmel and the other Hawaiian commander, Army Lt. Gen. Walter C. Short, who were forced to retire at the rank they held the longest.

Admiral Trost now says his denial was "defective" and has called upon the Navy to reopen the case against the Pearl Harbor

commander. "I now believe that there was an injustice done to Admiral Kimmel," he wrote to Navy Secretary John H. Dalton in October.

A spokesman for Mr. Dalton said the letter is being reviewed.

Meanwhile, World War II historian John Costello charges in his latest book, "Days of Infamy," that Admiral Kimmel was left "weak and exposed to a Japanese attack by a secret deal between President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill that diverted planes and supplies from Pearl Harbor to the Philippines."

And naval historian Edward L. Beach agrees that the commanders in Hawaii were kept in the dark about the Japanese plans by intelligence experts in Washington who intercepted thousands of Japanese naval messages, but never decoded them.

That turned out to be a serious miscalculation, Mr. Beach writes in his book "Scapegoats: A Defense of Kimmel and Short at Pearl Harbor," which will be published next month. When the messages were decoded just after the war, 188 were found to include vital intelligence clues to the attack on Pearl Harbor.

The Hawaiian commanders, he said, "were out of the loop, didn't get any information."

Shouldering blame

Others say Admiral Kimmel must shoulder the blame because he was responsible for the command's readiness.

"The command was totally unready," said Ronald H. Spector, author of "The Eagle Against the Sun: The American War with Japan."

Mr. Spector, a former director of Naval History who recommended that Admiral Trost not promote Admiral Kimmel, conceded that Mr. Gannon may be right about the northern sectors, but argued that he "does not address any of the other questions."

Paul Stillwell, director of history at the Naval Institute, agrees that the Hawaiian commanders made mistakes at Pearl Harbor, but he also said he believes they should be restored to full rank. Higher-ups in Washington also were at fault, he said, and they had the benefit of code intercepts unavailable to Hawaii.

While nearly everyone at the time believed war with Japan was imminent, most thought an invasion would come to the west, perhaps in the Philippines. Adm. Richmond Kelly Turner, the head of Office of Navy War Plans, even thought the Japanese first would attack the Soviets at Vladivostok.

"By heaping the sins of many on a few," Mr. Stillwell said, "the public desire for an explanation could be satisfied while leaving others untouched."

A year after the attack, Admiral Kimmel was retired and working for the Frederick R. Harris Engineering Co., a company that built dry-docks for the Navy. His son, then a lieutenant junior grade serving on submarines, said his father was "terribly disappointed in the way the Navy had treated him."

In 1944, a Navy Court of Inquiry exonerated Admiral Kimmel, only to have its decision reversed by Adm. Ernest J. King, chief of naval operations, who said Admiral Kimmel erred by ignoring the northern routes.

Admiral King later acknowledged to Admiral Kimmel that he had not read the court's record.

"It became necessary to shift the blame," Admiral Kimmel wrote in a memo after the meeting.

In November 1945, a joint congressional committee faulted Admiral Kimmel and General Short for not conducting air reconnaissance and not maintaining a high enough state of readiness. The committee also cited top civilian and military leaders for not sharing captured intelligence with the commanders.

"After he got through with that he figured there wasn't more he could do," said Tom Kimmel, whose Annapolis study is crammed with pictures of the subs and ships he commanded and a sepia-toned portrait of his father. "I think he was beaten down by all this."

But the problems for Admiral Kimmel didn't end there.

After the war, the Navy pressured Harris to fire Admiral Kimmel, threatening to rescind its contract to help rebuild Guam. "In view of that, Kimmel voluntarily resigned," Charles Rugg, Admiral Kimmel's lawyer, wrote in a December 1946 letter to Adm. Harry E. Yarnell, the former commander-in-chief of the Asiatic fleet.

Admiral Kimmel never did find other work. "They blackballed him," Tom Kimmel said.

Second thoughts

In 1947, a retired Admiral King began to have second thoughts and asked that Admiral Kimmel be vindicated, but was rejected.

With their father's death in 1968, Tom and Edward Kimmel took up the struggle to clear his name and that of General Short.

Calls for the posthumous promotions also came from 35 retired admirals, including Arleigh E. Burke, Stansfield Turner and Elmo Zumwalt Jr., the Naval Academy Alumni Association and the Pearl Harbor Survivors' Association. General Short's son, Dean, retired Army colonel, also worked to restore his father's image before he died several years ago.

The Bush Administration rejected the Kimmel brothers, as has the Clinton Administration. In September, Defense Secretary William J. Perry wrote to Edward Kimmel that he "could not conclude" that the admiral "has been treated unjustly or advocate a revision of the Navy's records," He cited the numerous inquiries after the war and review by government leaders to the present.

But author John Costello said another government inquiry should be opened based on the new evidence. "If we don't put the record straight, we're not doing history a service and, we're not doing the Navy a service and we're not doing the truth a service," he said.

The historians say the Navy, like any bureaucratic and conservative organization, is slow to move and may not want to resurrect a painful, and potentially embarrassing, chapter in its history. Privately, Navy offi

cials say chances for rehabilitation are slim because so many of the Pearl Harbor principals are dead.

Tom Kimmel said he will continue to fight for his father's reputation, drafting letters on his computer, calling friends, keeping up the pressure.

Though success may not come, the brothers saw to it that in one place their father was restored to full rank. On his headstone, it reads in bold letters: "Husband Edward Kimmel, Admiral, United States Navy."

"It doesn't say rear admiral," said Tom Kimmel. "Damn right, I saw to that."

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