Plenty of Blame to Go Around

By Paul Stillwell

Within two weeks, Kimmel was relieved of command and reverted to his permanent rank of rear admiral. Many individuals have played the role of Monday-morning quarterback since 7 December 1941, offering alternatives to the actions that Admiral Kimmel took—and did not take—as the Japanese bore down on Hawaii that Sunday morning. The goal here is to focus less on what could have happened and more on what actually did.

Kimmel to CinC Pacific Fleet

In the spring of 1940 President Franklin D. Roosevelt directed that the ships of the Battle Force remain in Hawaiian waters rather than return to their normal West Coast bases after the conclusion of that year’s Fleet Problem. The President’s rationale was that having the U.S. warships poised to strike would deter Japanese aggression in Asia.

U.S. Fleet Commander-in-Chief Admiral James O. Richardson challenged the President’s action, arguing that the fleet would be better served by returning to the West Coast, where support facilities for war preparation were far superior. As a result of such bluntness, the President fired Richardson and replaced him with Rear Admiral Kimmel on 1 February 1941. Kimmel was promoted to four-star rank, jumping over nearly 50 more senior officers when he took command of what then became the U.S. Pacific Fleet. Perhaps his service with Roosevelt more than 25 years earlier was a factor in his selection.

Despite the fate of his predecessor, Kimmel nevertheless repeatedly asked the Navy Department for more support than he received. He had already lost a number of warships that were transferred to beef up the Atlantic Fleet when German U-boats threatened Britain-bound convoys. Kimmel balked successfully when asked about a proposal that would send still more ships to the Atlantic.

Between February and December, Kimmel exercised the fleet with the same vigor he had displayed in previous tours. The ships operated in task forces of mixed types rather than sticking to the sterile target-practice routine. The fleet was in the process of developing fast carrier task force doctrine, although the battleship still had primacy. Kimmel’s mandate was to prepare the fleet to execute the existing war plan against Japan, based on the premise that the Japanese would seize the Philippine Islands and other territories in the Far East. The Pacific Fleet would then steam westward, expecting to engage in a fleet action against the Japanese, perhaps in the vicinity of the Marshall Islands.

As 1941 progressed, the United States and Japan moved ever closer to war. To put pressure on Japan because of its continuing war against China, the President instituted economic sanctions that cut off oil and scrap metal exports to Japan and froze its assets in this country. Japan’s bellicose government felt compelled to seize territory in The East Indies and elsewhere in Asia as a means of ensuring a source of oil and other resources. As the world now well knows, Japan planned to protect its invasion southward by knocking out the U.S. warships based at Pearl Harbor.

During this time, Kimmel was in frequent correspondence with Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Harold Stark in Washington. The memoir Admiral Kimmel’s Story (Chicago: H. Regnery Co., 1955) describes much of that exchange. Top Navy officials in the capital warned Kimmel a number of times to be prepared for war. The most strident message came in late November, beginning with the words, “This dispatch is to be considered a war warning.” What Kimmel did not know—because he did not have the type of decoding machines supplied to Washington, Britain, and the Philippines—was the extent to which the U.S. government was reading Japanese diplomatic messages.

On Saturday, 6 December, with indicators suggesting that war with Japan was imminent, Kimmel asked his fleet staff officers if anything else should be done than what already had been carried out. They concluded there was nothing else that could be done. Even then, for instance, the carriers Lexington (CV-2) and Enterprise (CV?6) were returning from the delivery of combat aircraft to outlying islands.

In Washington, immediately after the attack, President Roosevelt and the secretaries of War and the Navy were putting together an investigating team. Known as the Roberts Commission, it comprised two retired Navy admirals, two Army generals, and Supreme Court Justice Owen Roberts. It was, in essence, a kangaroo court, placing blame for the Pearl Harbor surprise squarely on the two major commanders, Admiral Kimmel and Army Lieutenant General Walter Short. In fact, the powers that be in Washington had been no more prescient than Kimmel in foreseeing an attack, and they had the advantage of the code intercepts that indicated war would begin soon.

It suited the political leadership in Washington, particularly the President, to place all blame for the disaster on the heads of the commanders in Hawaii. That offered the public a pat explanation—essentially that the officers on the spot had been caught unaware. Once they were replaced, the nation could get on with the war effort.

An obvious term fits that situation—scapegoating. Both Kimmel and Short retired in disgrace, and Kimmel was vilified. One piece of scathing correspondence even suggested he should kill himself and thus atone for all the deaths he had permitted on 7 December. The treatment was both unfair and shameful.

Kimmel’s relief was justified, in part because it has long been standard in the Navy system to hold the man on the spot responsible and in part because the command needed someone who would not be burdened with trying to justify previous actions. But there was plenty of blame to go around. Kimmel’s mistake was the same as the one made by the leaders in Washington. Neither he nor they expected the Japanese to do something so bold, thus violating a fundamental principle of strategy—judging an enemy in terms of presumed intentions rather than capabilities. The Japanese were obviously capable of striking Pearl Harbor. The U.S. high command simply did not believe they would. Among those were Admiral Stark, Army Chief of Staff General George Marshall, Rear Admiral Richmond Kelly Turner, the Navy’s chief of war plans, and Rear Admiral Theodore Wilkinson, director of naval intelligence.

Conspiracy Theory?

Several revisionists have advanced a conspiracy theory, arguing that the leaders in Washington knew the Japanese would strike Pearl and deliberately withheld that intelligence from Kimmel. But if there had been a conspiracy, how could the conspirators afford not to include Kimmel in it? In his own book, Kimmel provided repeated examples of the information he should have received from Washington but did not. The book, however, never charged those in Washington with having foreknowledge of an attack.

Also in his book, Kimmel put forth several alternative scenarios. He wrote that no man could know with certainty what he would have done in those circumstances, but he provided his best guesses concerning the actions he would have taken if he had been given various amounts of advance warning. What he did not offer in the memoir was an explanation of what he would have done if he and his staff had allowed for the possibility of the attack on Pearl Harbor. It is likely that their actions would have been different from what they were in fact. This, of course, gets into that business of Monday morning quarterbacking. Kimmel’s adherents argue that his options were limited because of the shortage of patrol planes, antiaircraft guns, fighter planes, radar, and so forth. All those things were true, but it was still likely that he could have had the fleet in a higher state of alert than it was.

Kimmel had received so many warnings throughout 1941 that he had probably become a bit jaded by December. On one hand, he was supposed to prepare the fleet to go out and operate offensively; on the other, he was not supposed to be provocative where the Japanese were concerned. There were so many conflicting factors that one can understand his mind-set, although one can also visualize a circumstance in which another commander—reading the same tea leaves—would have had more defensive precautions in place. Ultimately it came down to the Navy system for the man on the spot—if things turn out well, he gets a medal; if they go badly, he gets relieved.

Kimmel went off to retirement and saw the war from the sidelines. He was never given an opportunity to redeem his reputation. Stark, who failed to telephone Kimmel on the morning of 7 December—after learning of an intercepted Japanese 14-part diplomatic message—was sent to London to command U.S. naval forces in Europe. Turner, who had the idea that the Japanese might strike the Soviet Union, demonstrated his genius for amphibious warfare in the island-hopping campaign toward Japan. Wilkinson also became a respected amphibious commander. Marshall remained as Army Chief of Staff. Roosevelt was still President. And what became of Army General Douglas MacArthur? His forces in the Philippines were also caught by surprise, even though he had the benefit of knowing that the Japanese had struck Pearl earlier. But he was considered too important to be dumped and was able to play a substantial role in the war against Japan.

‘Monumental Unfairness’

The whole story smacks of monumental unfairness. Other proceedings followed, notably a Navy court of inquiry in 1944. For the most part, Kimmel had not been accorded the standard protection for an accused American—a day in court. The court of inquiry was the one exception, because counsel represented Kimmel, and standard judicial procedures were followed. The court exonerated him of the charge of dereliction of duty. But Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Ernest King overturned that finding, writing that Kimmel was not considered capable of holding a position of responsibility requiring the exercise of superior judgment. Interestingly, King repudiated that decision a few years later after giving the issue more thought.

The failures of those in Washington did not absolve the fleet commander-in-chief. But to heap the entire blame on Kimmel for failing to be the lone prophet in the Navy is preposterous. He was much more sinned against than he was a sinner. A few weeks after the attack, the admiral’s son, Edward, then a university student, visited Hanson Baldwin, military correspondent of The New York Times. He asked plaintively, “Do you think my father is really as guilty as everybody says he is?” Baldwin answered that proving his innocence was indeed quite a burden to be put on a young man.

Edward had two older brothers. Manning was killed in 1944 with the loss of the submarine he was commanding, the USS Robalo (SS-273). Thomas, also a submariner, eventually retired as a captain. As a junior naval officer, Edward served sea duty during the war. For years, up until their deaths, Thomas and Edward campaigned vigorously for the restoration of their father’s four-star rank. Subsequently, Edward’s and Thomas’s sons in turn have kept the effort going to this day on behalf of their grandfather.

One result of their efforts was a review of the situation in the mid-1990s by Under Secretary of Defense Edwin Dorn. It concluded that responsibility for the damage at Pearl Harbor should not fall on only Kimmel and Short; blame was spread more broadly. The report did not exonerate the two officers, nor did it recommend restoration of their ranks. Long before that finding, one family member did take a symbolic action. Admiral Kimmel died in 1968 and was buried in a corner of the Naval Academy cemetery. Near the end of his own life, son Tom told this author: “His tombstone has four stars on it. I made sure we got that right.”

Mr. Stillwell served as a shipboard officer in Vietnam War combat. Later he was on the U.S. Naval Institute staff from 1974 to 2004. He was a senior editor of Proceedings, editor-in-chief of Naval History, editor of the annual Naval Review, and director of the Institute’s oral history program. Two of his Naval Institute Press books are particularly relevant to this topic: Air Raid: Pearl Harbor! Recollections of a Day of Infamy (1981) and Battleship Arizona: An Illustrated History (1991).

From the Great White Fleet to the Pacific Fleet

Admiral Husband E. Kimmel graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1904 and served at sea in battleships, cruisers, and destroyers. As a junior officer he was on board the battleship Georgia (BB-15) during the cruise of the Great White Fleet from 1907 to 1909. In 1915 he served for a time as aide to Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt, had staff duty during World War I, and several command and staff assignments thereafter. As did many of his contemporaries, he specialized in ordnance and gunnery. He commanded the battleship New York (BB?34), a division of heavy cruisers, and the light cruisers of the U.S. Fleet’s Battle Force.

Vice Admiral John McCrea, who served in destroyers with Kimmel in the Asiatic Fleet in the mid-1920s, remembered of him: “No one worked harder at being a good naval officer.” Others shared the same sentiment. Whether speaking of a single ship or an entire fleet, the officers and men of the ships Kimmel commanded were well schooled in the many facets of war at sea.



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