Son fighting to restore reputation of father tainted by Pearl Harbor Admiral was blamed for being unprepared

December 07, 1997|By Neal Thompson | Neal Thompson,SUN STAFF

WILMINGTON, Del. -- Edward Kimmel sits in his den -- he calls it his "war room" -- surrounded by paintings of battleships, World War II posters, oceanographic charts and volume after volume on Pearl Harbor. Here, he wages the skirmishes of his decade-old war with history.

Fifty-six years ago today, Kimmel's father was commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet when Japanese bombs rained on Pearl Harbor. He later was accused of being ill-prepared for the attack, which killed more than 2,400 people.

Forced to retire, demoted from a four-star to a two-star admiral, Husband E. Kimmel also blamed himself for the disaster -- until he learned, in 1944, that senior naval and government officials might have known of the impending attack, but never warned him. "He changed from a very dejected, downtrodden man into a fighting tiger," Edward Kimmel said.

Husband Kimmel spent the next 24 years fighting to be exonerated and restored to the rank of four-star admiral, but he died without success, leaving his sons to carry on his fight.

One of his three sons, Tom, a retired admiral, died this year at age 82 after dedicating the later years of his life almost exclusively to his father's plight. The eldest son, Manning, died in 1944 while commanding a submarine off the Philippine coast.

Now Edward, 72, the youngest, is continuing the fight. And the man known as "Ned" has gathered what he considers powerful new ammunition.

Suspicions about Roosevelt

Based on information in recent books and articles, and a forthcoming book by a writer in Illinois, Kimmel believes President Franklin D. Roosevelt and other top officials knew the Japanese intended to attack Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, but did nothing to warn Admiral Kimmel or his counterpart in the Army, Gen. Walter C. Short, who was also demoted.

Two books published in 1995, recent historical papers and articles, and a book by Gregory Douglas due out early next year indicate that U.S. officials had prior knowledge of the attack from decoded Japanese messages.

Douglas writes that Germany intercepted a Nov. 26, 1941, radio-telephone message from British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to Roosevelt, warning of the Japanese attack.

An archivist in Washington has questioned the authenticity of Douglas' documentation, but even if the author's findings are true, Ned Kimmel's problem is that absolving his father would require the U.S. government to acknowledge that Roosevelt let the Pearl Harbor attack happen.

Douglas agreed that his information might not help Kimmel. "Governments do not ever admit to mistakes," he said. "It isn't the truth that matters; it's perception."

David C. Richardson, a retired three-star admiral and former NATO intelligence officer who wrote an article this year criticizing a 1995 Department of Defense inquiry into the Kimmel family's request, also thinks Roosevelt knew about Pearl Harbor in advance. But he thinks it is unlikely that history will be revised at the expense of one of the most beloved presidents.

"To be for the Kimmels is to be against Roosevelt," he said. "That, I think, has been the biggest block to this whole thing."

So the odds remain stacked against Ned Kimmel, and he knows it. Even though the government recently softened its stance and maintains that blame for Pearl Harbor must be "broadly shared," Presidents Reagan, Bush and Clinton have denied Kimmel family requests to posthumously restore their father's rank and exonerate him.

Another rejection

Late last month, Kimmel got more bad news: Defense Secretary William S. Cohen denied the most recent call for exoneration of Husband Kimmel, who Cohen said remains "accountable" for his actions 56 years ago.

"Absent significant new information, I do not believe it appropriate to order another review of this matter," Cohen wrote in a letter to Sen. Strom Thurmond, a South Carolina Republican who, as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, had asked that Kimmel be exonerated.

Ned Kimmel says the latest setback and his brother's death won't deter him. "That's probably why I've lived as long as I have -- to fight the damned thing to the very end," Kimmel said.

That's also why he's turned his office into a "war room" and his retirement into a battle. His weapons are two computers and printers, two address books, overstuffed file cabinets, a fax machine, a telephone and many stamps.

Despite two artificial hips, weak eyesight and shaky hands, the retired lawyer moves about the room working one weapon and then the next. His mission is to clear the name of a man who died in 1968, at age 86, still being blamed for Pearl Harbor.

On Dec. 7, 1941, Ned Kimmel was studying in his room at Princeton University when a fellow student rushed in with news of the unfolding disaster in Hawaii. Kimmel caught the next train to Los Angeles.

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