Pentagon refuses to clear Pearl Harbor commanders Families had asked for restoration of rank, exoneration

January 04, 1996|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Rejecting the pleas of families and supporters, the Pentagon yesterday refused to clear the names and restore the ranks of the two senior U.S. military commanders at Pearl Harbor during the 1941 Japanese raid.

A Pentagon report said Rear Adm. Husband E. Kimmel and Maj. Gen. Walter C. Short were not solely to blame for the disaster, which cost 2,403 American lives, and had "suffered greatly."

"They lost men for whom they were responsible," the report said. "They felt too much of the blame was placed on them. Their children and grandchildren continue to be haunted by it all. For all this, there can be sadness. But there can be no official remedy."

The author of the 50-page report, Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel Edwin Dorn, said blame for the disaster "should be broadly shared" by the commanders in Hawaii, who failed to respond appropriately to warnings, and the top brass in Washington, who failed to provide full intelligence to the officers in Pearl Harbor.

But this did not "absolve" the two of their "accountability," the report said.

The families maintain that the two commanders were scapegoats for a disaster they were unable to prevent or counter and that they became victims of an official smear campaign. Mr. Dorn rejected both claims.

Thomas Kimmel of Annapolis, a retired Navy captain and Admiral Kimmel's son, said yesterday: "My first reaction is, they finally admitted they didn't send the proper messages to Pearl Harbor. That comes in right clearly, doesn't it?

"I also think it comes in loud and clear that Kimmel and Short were not the only ones to be blamed by a long shot. We don't

feel satisfied, but we feel we made some progress, and I think we will be at it again."

Noting that he and his 75-year-old brother had 20 children, the 81-year-old captain said: "I guess it's finished as far as I am concerned, but not as far as they are concerned. There are a lot of grandchildren interested in this."

Sen. Strom Thurmond, the South Carolina Republican and chairman of the Armed Services Committee, who asked the Pentagon to review the actions of the officers, said: "I am certain that as historians and scholars study the events and circumstances surrounding the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the good names of these two men will be restored."

At the time of the attack, Admiral Kimmel was a four-star admiral commanding the Pacific Fleet. General Short was a three-star lieutenant general commanding the Army in Hawaii.

Mr. Dorn denied the families' requests that the two officers, who were reduced to two-star rank after Pearl Harbor, should be restored posthumously to their pre-attack ranks.

Analyzing the events that preceded the Dec. 7 attack, he said: "The run-up to Pearl Harbor was fraught with miscommunications, oversights and lack of follow-up."

Admiral Kimmel and General Short were sent warnings on Nov. 27, 1941, that negotiations with the Japanese had stalled and an invasion might occur. The Philippines, Thailand's Kra Peninsula and Borneo -- not Hawaii -- were listed as likely targets.

Admiral Kimmel was ordered to execute "a defensive deployment," but what this meant was not clear. The admiral took the order to mean he should continue sending planes and submarines to patrol around Wake and Midway islands, and search for Japanese submarines outside Pearl Harbor.

No one in the office of the chief of naval operations in Washington took issue with those tactics, said Mr. Dorn, adding that deployment could have meant sending the ships out of port to safety at sea.

"Instead," said Mr. Dorn, "he kept his ships in port, but pointed their bows toward the entrance so that they could leave quickly if the need arose."

The U.S. military lost eight battleships, 10 other vessels and more than 100 aircraft in the raid.

General Short was ordered to undertake "reconnaissance and other measures" but not to alarm the local civilian population. In fact, reconnaissance was a Navy function, and the general assumed the message was misworded and the Navy was carrying out the flights.

The two commanders did not talk about their professional domains. This prevented Admiral Kimmel from telling General Short that U.S. forces had lost track of a Japanese carrier group.

Officials in Washington failed to inform the two commanders that they had broken a Japanese code and knew that Japanese agents in Hawaii had been instructed to report the precise location of the fleet in Pearl Harbor.

Admiral Kimmel and General Short were relieved of their commands and found to have made "errors of judgment."

Mr. Dorn concurred: "The intelligence available to Admiral VTC Kimmel and General Short was sufficient to justify a higher level of vigilance than they chose to maintain.

"Different choices might not have discovered the carrier armada and might not have prevented the attack, but different choices -- a different allocation of resources -- could have reduced the magnitude of the disaster," he said.

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