Military, lawmakers seek to clear names of disgraced Pearl Harbor commanders

Clinton asked to intervene in continuing dispute over blame for unpreparedness

November 24, 1999|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

WASHINGTON -- Nearly 58 years after Japanese raiders caught U.S. forces by surprise at Pearl Harbor, a dispute over blame for the disaster is still raging.

Now, President Clinton is being asked to intervene.

Seven retired senior officers, backed by a majority of the Senate, want Clinton to excuse Pearl Harbor's top commanders for the base's unpreparedness and posthumously promote them.

"The time is long overdue to correct this gross injustice," the retired officers, including four past chiefs of naval operations and a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote Clinton last month.

Other officers and many war historians insist the late Adm. Husband Kimmel and Army Gen. Walter Short were justifiably relieved of their commands, accused of dereliction of duty and stripped of two stars each. These critics reject claims that the two were made scapegoats by officials in Washington, who said they failed to take adequate precautions.

"There is no reason or rationale to promote them," asserted Norman Polmar, a naval historian, in a telephone interview.

Edward "Ned" Kimmel, 77, Kimmel's only surviving son, has waged a 12-year battle to clear his father's name. He said the fundamental issue is one of fairness.

"I don't think there is anything more important than to rectify injustices, no matter when they have occurred," he said

The culpability of Kimmel, who was based in Hawaii as the Navy's second-highest officer and commander in chief of the U.S. fleet, and Short, the top Army general on the island, has been argued for years in books, articles and studies.

Their base at Pearl Harbor was just stirring when the first of about 350 Japanese airplanes attacked at 8 a.m. local time on Dec. 7, 1941. Twenty-one American ships were sunk, beached or damaged; more than 300 planes were destroyed or damaged; and 2,395 Americans were killed. The Japanese lost 29 aircraft.

Kimmel and Short were relieved of their posts, reverting to their permanent two-star ranks from the temporary four-star grades that had come with their Pearl Harbor commands. Six weeks later, a panel known as the Roberts Commission accused them of "dereliction of duty" and being "solely responsible" for the Japanese attack's success.

Neither was ever formally charged, but their careers and reputations were ruined.

There have been 10 official reviews since 1941. The last review, conducted by the Pentagon in 1995, held Kimmel and Short accountable for Pearl Harbor's unpreparedness but concluded, "responsibility should be broadly shared."

At its core, the dispute is over whether Kimmel and Short were sufficiently forewarned of a possible Japanese attack and took appropriate precautions.

A key point of contention is a Nov. 27, 1941, "war warning" issued by Washington to all military commanders as tensions rose with Japan. Supporters say the Nov. 27 warning was confusing and concluded that Japan would hit U.S. bases in the Western Pacific, not Hawaii.

Most critically, they point out that Washington withheld crucial intelligence from Kimmel and Short, including decoded intercepts of Japanese diplomatic cables indicating that Pearl Harbor would be attacked.

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