'Pearl Harbor Betrayed': A day of government infamy?

September 30, 2001|By Tom Bowman | By Tom Bowman,Sun Staff

Pearl Harbor Betrayed: The True Story of a Man and a Nation Under Attack, by Michael V. Gannon. Henry Holt and Co. 339 pages. $27.50.

One of the lingering debates about the Second World War centers on the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Were the two U.S. commanders derelict in their duty or were they scapegoats for a pattern of ineptitude in Washington?

Michael Gannon, a naval historian, places the blame on Washington in the title of his new book, and he offers solid proof that the commanders, Adm. Husband E. Kimmel and Army Lt. Gen. Walter C. Short, were treated shabbily. With a prosecutor's zeal, Gannon unveils the pathetic missteps and boldfaced lies of the top military commanders -- including Gen. George C. Marshall, the Army chief of staff -- which led to a lack of readiness by U.S. forces on Dec. 7, 1941. It is a must read for any student of World War II.

Gannon focuses on Kimmel, a crusty U.S. Naval Academy graduate, who was in command of all U.S. forces in the Pacific and is the man "under attack."

Washington failed Kimmel in two crucial ways: It did not give him the required aircraft to search for and counter a Japanese attack. And it did not provide the intelligence information that clearly showed Japan was about to start a war, with Pearl Harbor and other U.S. bases as a starting point.

Earlier in 1941, the admiral was promised an additional 100 planes, though they went to Great Britain instead. As a result, a long-range aerial reconnaissance could not be ordered as a routine procedure.

Even more disturbing, Kimmel was not provided with the U.S. decryptions of Japanese coded message traffic, which showed clearly revealed warlike intentions. It was Marshall who didn't even want the "gist" of the sensitive "Magic" decrypts sent to commanders. And while Kimmel received some paraphrases of the information, that all stopped after July 1941, Gannon writes, because of bungling by top Navy officials. Some mistakenly believed that Kimmel had been receiving briefings on the decrypts.

So subsequent crucial information never reached Pearl Harbor. In September, top Japanese officials ordered their consulate in Hawaii to provide the exact locations of U.S. ships at Pearl Harbor.

Similar Japanese requests for ship information also went out to Japanese diplomats in Seattle, Panama and Manila, although the greatest number of messages originated from Honolulu. Only Honolulu was asked to divide harbor waters into sectors, an apparent "grid" pattern to guide bombers.

And on Dec. 6, 1941, the Japanese consulate in Honolulu reported details of defenses at Pearl, concluding "there is considerable opportunity left to take advantage for a surprise attack ..."

That final document may have "altered history," Gannon writes, had it reached Kimmel in time. Even the "obtuse" Washington officials who could not figure out the importance of a grid pattern, the author sarcastically notes, "could hardly have missed the overt meaning of 'surprise attack.'"

Years later, Kimmel said he was "almost sick" when learned of the vital information contained in the decrypts.

Over the years, Kimmel's critics have said that he could at least have mounted some reconnaissance planes, particularly to the north. But his relatively few planes and the lack of visibility during the cloudy December weather would not have changed events, Gannon writes.

Still, the author does not completely find Kimmel faultless. Gannon says that another reconnaissance effort from the age of sail may have been used: picket boats, specifically submarines, old destroyers and sampans, the flat-bottomed diesel powered skiffs used by Hawaiian fishermen and based 12 miles from Pearl Harbor. Some of these vessels could have offered the "practical potential" of seeing a Japanese carrier on the horizon.

Kimmel was urged to undertake this type of surface search as early as February 1941 by top Navy officials in Washington, though the admiral later offered the "laconic" explanation that it would have been "entirely impracticable."

After the attack, Kimmel and Short were relieved of their commands and retired at the reduced ranks of rear admiral and major general. A Navy Board of Inquiry exonerated Kimmel, pointing to his lack of planes and intelligence information. Adm. Ernest J. King, the chief of naval operations, who said that Kimmel erred by not providing better surveillance, overturned that conclusion. In retirement, King changed his mind.

Gannon writes at the end that he leaves it up to the reader to draw conclusions, ending with the words "truth is the daughter of time." But his work will give added weight to those who want both Kimmel and Short posthumously promoted to the higher ranks they held while at Pearl Harbor.

Tom Bowman, who writes about military affairs for The Sun, also covered the U.S. Naval Academy, where he interviewed several World War II naval officers and wrote about efforts to exonerate Kimmel and Short. A newspaper reporter since 1980, Bowman holds a master's degree in American studies from Boston College.

Michael Pakenham's column will return on Oct. 14.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.