This coming Sunday marks the 62nd anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Until 9/11, the attack represented the worst intelligence failure in American history. At 2,488 killed in action, it was the highest single-day loss of American lives in the 20th century. Now 62 years on, the number of survivors is dwindling; by last count, the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association estimates about 6,500 still alive. But like other momentous events in American history, the attack on Pearl Harbor remains surrounded in controversy and mythology.
Conspiracy theorists still try to pin the blame on President Franklin D. Roosevelt for sacrificing the Pacific fleet in an attempt to draw the Japanese into war. Over the years, proponents of these theories have been able to produce precious little hard evidence of such a conspiracy. One key document to emerge in recent years suggestive of such a conspiracy was a 1940 memo that does speak of enticing Japan “to commit an overt act of war” against the United States. But the memo’s author was a mid-level naval intelligence officer working in the Far Eastern Section of the Office of Naval Intelligence. There is no evidence that his memo ever made its way to the Roosevelt White House; in fact, it seems never to have left ONI.
But there is another controversy that should have been put to rest long ago. That concerns history’s judgment of Admiral Husband E. Kimmel, Commander-in-Chief of the Pacific Fleet at the time of the Japanese attack. The Roberts Commission, formed in December 1941 to investigate the tragedy, pronounced Kimmel “derelict in his duty” and “solely responsible for the success of the Japanese attack.” Although ten subsequent official investigations or inquiries would exonerate Kimmel, the verdict of the Roberts Commission would continue to dog him throughout his life. Surviving family members recalled that he “came home a beaten man. Totally ashamed, his honor and reputation completely denigrated.”
But two years later, he would learn that the Navy Department in Washington had withheld information from him vital to the defense of Pearl. That revelation launched Kimmel on a lifelong crusade to clear his name and restore his honor. Surviving family members carried on the fight after Kimmel’s death in 1968. Over the years, as archives yielded ever more records from the period, the case against Kimmel was effectively demolished.
For example, no image has persisted longer than that of the fleet’s unreadiness to confront the Japanese attack. It was perpetuated by films like “From Here to Eternity” and books like Gordon Prange’s 1981 At Dawn We Slept. But recently uncovered U.S. Navy records show that image to be nothing more than a myth. In fact, according to Pearl Harbor historian Professor Michael Gannon, the fleet was a “beehive of activity” that morning. Kimmel had upgraded the fleet’s readiness beginning in mid-October and had ensured that his ships were prepared to “repel enemy aircraft.” The best testimony to Kimmel’s readiness came from the Japanese admiral who commanded the carrier-based air forces in the attack. In his after-action report, he wrote, “the enemy’s anti-aircraft fire reaction had been so prompt as virtually to nullify the advantage of surprise.” And Kimmel’s successor, Admiral Chester Nimitz, made no changes to Kimmel’s readiness orders despite being convinced that the Japanese would return for another attack.
In May 2000, the family thought that victory was within reach. The Congress unanimously adopted an amendment to the 2001 defense bill requesting the President advance Kimmel, and his Army counterpart Maj. General Walter Short, to their highest wartime ranks as authorized by the 1947 Officer Personnel Act. The 2000 congressional action required only that President Bill Clinton place Kimmel on the military’s retired list with the rank of admiral. No monetary benefit would accrue to the Kimmel family. But Clinton ignored the request during his last four months in office, although he found time to issue more than 140 pardons, including one for his drug-dealing brother.
The family had high hopes for the Bush administration. Inexplicably, the administration has continued to stonewall the family by claiming that “no new evidence has emerged to consider overturning decisions made more than 50 years.” That position defies logic and ignores the mountains of “new evidence” uncovered by historians like Professor Gannon. The action has been repeatedly endorsed by the likes of the VFW, the Retired Officers Association, and others. Most significantly, the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association endorsed the action more than 15 years ago. Isn’t it time that this miscarriage of justice be rectified?