Pearl Harbor blame disputed

Families hope Bush will clear names of disgraced officers

May 29, 2001|By SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE

SAN FRANCISCO - The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor almost 60 years ago, but the controversy over those who were blamed for the Dec. 7, 1941, disaster still burns bright.

A much-disputed congressional recommendation on President Bush's desk could rewrite the story of that dark day in U.S. history, which is the subject of the latest big Hollywood production.

The bombing did more than kill 2,388 Americans, wound 1,178 and sink or heavily damage 21 ships. It also plunged the United States into World War II and wrecked the careers and reputations of Navy Rear Adm. Husband E. Kimmel and Army Maj. Gen. Walter C. Short, the top U.S. commanders in Hawaii that day.

By Dec. 16, 1941, they had been stripped of their commands. A quickly convened court of inquiry in 1942 accused them of dereliction of duty. They were forced into retirement and stripped of the higher temporary ranks they had held when the attack came.

For decades, their families have been campaigning tirelessly to clear their names, saying the blame for Pearl Harbor should be shared by many in the military command structure, starting with President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his advisers in Washington.

The families also say official investigations starting in 1944 exonerated the two men but that they were never restored to full honors.

Detractors of Kimmel and Short say the two officers ignored repeated warnings from Washington that a Japanese attack was possible. They also say the effort to clear the men's names is part of a dangerous revisionist trend and lends credence to conspiracy theories that Roosevelt and others in Washington knew of the impending attack but did nothing because they wanted the United States to enter World War II.

Many of those who were on the scene support the two top officers' redemption. The Pearl Harbor Survivors Association is for it.

"I think the president should act, based on all the information we've heard over the years," said Mal Middlesworth of Upland, Calif., who edits the association's newsletter, the Pearl Harbor-Gram.

"They're always looking for a fall guy. Obviously they weren't prepared," said Middlesworth, who was a young Marine aboard the San Francisco at the time of the attack. "But who was?

"President Roosevelt had a tough time getting money for the military, and I remember when I arrived at Pearl Harbor in October 1941 that there wasn't any real feeling that there was an imminent attack."

Over the years, supporters of the officers have gained backing, and last year Congress passed a resolution urging the president to restore them to their highest ranks. That would posthumously make Kimmel a four-star admiral and Short a three-star general.

"The scapegoating of Admiral Kimmel and General Short was one of the great injustices that occurred within our own ranks during World War II," Sen. William V. Roth Jr., a Delaware Republican, said in 1999 as he introduced his ultimately successful recommendation tucked into a defense spending bill.

"They were unfairly and publicly charged with dereliction of duty and blamed as singularly responsible for the success of that attack," Roth said. "In short, as we all know today, they were scapegoated."

Roth's co-sponsors spanned the political spectrum from Sen. Strom Thurmond, a South Carolina Republican, on the right to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, on the left.

President Bill Clinton didn't act on the recommendation to promote the two men before he left office, so the matter rests with Bush.

White House spokesman Ken Lisaius said the new administration was unaware of the congressional request until media interest surrounding the new movie brought inquiries. Only now is the administration beginning to study the issue.

Critics of the posthumous honors advise Bush to ignore Congress' recommendation.

"They were guilty as hell," said Stanley Weintraub, history professor emeritus at Pennsylvania State University.His book, "Long Day's Journey Into War: Pearl Harbor and a World at War," has just been reissued.

"It's true they weren't the only ones unprepared, but the buck has to stop somewhere, and they were the top commanders on the scene," Weintraub said.

Kimmel and Short had "oodles of warnings, Kimmel in particular," Weintraub said. These included a "War Warning" that Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall sent to all Pacific commands Nov. 27, 1941, and extensive intelligence reports.

Weintraub said Short and Kimmel continued the relaxed ways of the prewar military. The two had made a golf date for 8 a.m. Dec. 7. The attack began at 7:53 a.m., Weintraub said.

"You would think they would have at least manned their anti-aircraft guns, but they didn't," he said. "They literally locked up the ammunition on the weekends." When the Japanese attacked, he said, the soldiers and sailors had to break into arsenals with axes.

Weintraub said posthumous honors for Kimmel and Short could feed conspiracy theories about the attack. He said his research had failed to find any evidence of such a conspiracy, but other authors over the years have charged that Roosevelt purposely withheld information from military commanders in the Pacific because he wanted to get the nation into the war.

"All these conspiracy theories are nonsense," Weintraub said. "They just sell books."

Survivor Julius A. Finnern of Menomonee Falls, Wis., said, "I'm in favor of totally exonerating them. I just don't believe they were provided sufficient information beforehand.

"There's a lot of blame to go around," said Finnern, the survivor group's former national secretary, who was a sailor on the destroyer USS Monaghan, which rammed and depth-charged a Japanese submarine during the attack.

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