Son fights for Pearl Harbor commander's reputation

January 02, 1995|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,Sun Staff Writer

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.

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