Sons wage campaign to clear the name of Admiral Kimmel

December 03, 1991|By Kristin Huckshorn | Kristin Huckshorn,Knight-Ridder

ANNAPOLIS — REMEMBERING PEARL Harbor hurts sometimes. Just as two men with long memories and an abiding belief in old-fashioned values.

"You know, it is about family honor, really," says Thomas K. Kimmel Sr., 77. He sits beneath a black-and-white photograph of his late father, taken when Husband E. Kimmel was a four-star admiral commanding the U.S. and Pacific Fleets.

"It is about our effort to restore our father's professional reputation, to say nothing of our family honor," says Tom's brother, Ned, now 70.

As this country prepares to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor, the sons of Husband Kimmel campaign daily to clear their father of blame for one of the most humiliating and controversial moments in U.S. military history.

Last month, Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney rejected the sons' request to posthumously restore full rank to Kimmel, who died a rear admiral in 1968 at age 86. Now, they hold out a small hope that President Bush will acknowledge their father when he speaks at ceremonies in Hawaii on Dec. 7.

"I still hope the administration might do something out there," Tom says. "But I'm not sure that it's going to happen at all." He sits in the office of his Annapolis home thumbing through a sheaf of papers -- copies of petitions and letters sent to important men in Washington. He says: "We're pretty much at our wits' end."

But Tom and Ned Kimmel are not the type of men who cut and run. Their grandfather fought for the North and the South in the Civil War. Their mother's brother was Adm. Thomas Kincaid, who commanded U.S. naval forces at the Battle of Midway and Guadalcanal. Both Tom and Ned served with the Navy in the Pacific during World War II. They lost an older brother, Manning, in that same ocean in that same war.

"We're certainly not people to run away from a fight," Tom says.

The Kimmel family picked a doozy of a battle this time. After all, Pearl Harbor remains one of this country's enduring mysteries -- fodder for endless books and debate. Many historians now believe Franklin D. Roosevelt made Kimmel a scapegoat following the traumatic attack that thrust the United States into World War II.

"This is a marvelous American family and they've been mistreated," says John Toland, who won the Pulitzer Prize for "The Rising Sun" and investigated Pearl Harbor in "Infamy." "It's a cruelty."

A number of recent analyses of the attack tend to absolve Kimmel. Among them:

* Roosevelt knew the Japanese plan but let them attack because he wanted an excuse to go to war.

* British Prime Minister Winston Churchill knew Japan would attack and didn't tell Roosevelt because he wanted the United States in the war.

* Roosevelt and his military advisers in Washington failed to tell Kimmel and other commanding officers at Pearl Harbor about decoded messages that signaled Japan's intention to attack somewhere on Dec. 7.

Ten days after the attack, Kimmel and Walter C. Short, the Army chief on Oahu, were relieved of command -- standard military procedure following a defeat. But they also were forced to retire at lower ranks in February 1942 and not allowed to redeem themselves during the war.

"Relieving them was proper," says Paul Stillwell, director of oral history at the Naval Institute in Annapolis. "What was reprehensible was to make them scapegoats."

Throughout the war, the press pilloried both men. In Congress, Rep. John D. Dingell of Michigan demanded Kimmel be court martialed. People wrote suggesting he kill himself. A Naval Court of Inquiry cleared Kimmel in 1944 but his reputation already had been destroyed. "He was an outcast," says Ned, a retired attorney who lives in Wilmington, Del.

Short died in 1949 -- brokenhearted, according to Tom. Husband Kimmel, however, spent the rest of his life trying to clear his name. "You couldn't talk to him for three minutes without Pearl Harbor coming up," Tom says. Agrees Ned: "He was obsessed."

The sons took up their father's campaign in earnest five years ago, after the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association passed a resolution asking the Defense Department to restore Kimmel's rank. Other groups followed with similar resolutions, including the Veterans of Foreign Wars and Naval Academy Alumni.

Last month, 32 retired admirals, including two former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Thomas H. Moorer and William J. Crowe Jr., joined the chorus, writing Bush, who is himself a World War II veteran. Five senators wrote as well.

"I know it doesn't sound like much to the average person, but to a military man, this is very important," Moorer says. "He should have four stars on his tombstone."

In August, a Navy bureaucrat wrote the Kimmels telling them that Cheney had rejected their request. Neither Defense Department nor White House officials would explain why the request was denied.

Now, with the 50th anniversary looming, the Kimmels wonder if the battle is lost. Tom intends to go to Pearl Harbor next week to thanksupporters. Says Ned: "If we don't make it, we'll regroup, but it will be hard to get the momentum up again."

Still, another generation seems ready to fight for the family name.

Among the most outspoken is Tom's son, Thomas Kimmel Jr., an FBI agent in Philadelphia who also graduated from the Naval Academy. "I am proud that my family has anything to do with Pearl Harbor," says Thomas Kimmel Jr., 48. "I have never felt any dishonor about being a Kimmel! I am not hat-in-hand about this at all!" Thomas Kimmel Sr., 77, of Annapolis is fighting to restore his father's reputation after Adm. Husband Kimmel was made

the ''scapegoat'' for Pearl Harbor.

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