For more than sixty years, much of the blame for the December 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor tragedy, has rested on the shoulder boards of Admiral Husband E. Kimmel, the Commander-in-Chief of U.S. naval forces in the Pacific at the time of the attack. Kimmel was relieved of duty ten days after the attack; subsequently, the first investigation of the tragedy, conducted by the Roberts Commission, declared that Kimmel had been “derelict in his duty,” and “solely responsible for the success of the Japanese attack.”
When President Franklin D. Roosevelt released the findings of the Commission to the press, Admiral Kimmel became fixed in the public eye as the main culprit for the Pearl Harbor disaster. He received death threats, including one from a U.S. Congressman. Although the Roberts Commission was later determined to have been little more than a kangaroo court, the damage to Kimmel’s professional and personal reputation had already been done. He retired in 1942 at the reduced rank of Rear Admiral.
Unlike his Army counterpart in Hawaii, Lieutenant General Walter Short, Kimmel spent the rest of his life trying to clear his name. In truth, by agreement with the Navy, it had been Short and the Army that were responsible for the defense of Pearl Harbor. But Short withdrew from public life after his retirement and subsequently died in 1949. Kimmel, however, would carry on the fight to clear his reputation until his death in 1968. His sons and grandson then carried on the battle and finally achieved a victory of sorts in 2001. Retired FBI Special Agent Thomas K. Kimmel, the admiral’s grandson, presented the case for Admiral Kimmel at a recent Accuracy in Media luncheon.
Author Michael Gannon, in Pearl Harbor Betrayed: The True Story of a Man and a Nation under Attack, wrote that Kimmel had compiled an impeccable service record in his march through the ranks up to 1941. Kimmel had jumped thirty-one more senior officers when he was appointed to be Commander in Chief of the Pacific Fleet, the second most important command in the U.S. Navy. The selection carried with it the temporary rank of Admiral; at that time, Kimmel was a Rear Admiral. Then Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall wrote at the time that Kimmel “was outstanding in his qualifications for command, and that this was the opinion of the entire Navy.”
Admiral Kimmel assumed command of U.S. naval forces in the Pacific on February 1, 1941. Gannon writes that almost the first thing Kimmel read after assuming command was a copy of a telegram from U.S. Ambassador to Japan Joseph C. Grew to the State Department. The telegram told of a rumor then circulating in Tokyo that in the event of a diplomatic rupture between the U.S. and Japan, Japanese forces would make a surprise attack on the fleet at Pearl Harbor.
Accompanying that telegram, however, was an assessment by the Washington-based Division of Naval Intelligence dismissing the threat inherent in the telegram. “The Division of Naval Intelligence places no credence in these rumors. Furthermore, based on known data regarding the present disposition and employment of Japanese naval and army forces, no move against Pearl Harbor appears imminent or planned for in the foreseeable future.”
This conclusion, which was never changed, would be the first in a long series of faulty assessments and poor judgments provided Admiral Kimmel by his fellow officers back in Washington.
From that point on, the Navy Department seemed to forget about a potential Japanese threat to Pearl Harbor and focused almost exclusively on Japanese threats to the south. At the same time, Secretary of State Cordell Hull had placed increasingly severe restrictions on exports to Japan as punishment for her aggression in China. Kimmel was never informed about the State Department’s November 26, 1941 ultimatum to Japan, and its known effect on Japan’s decision for war.
Kimmel had assumed command of the U.S. Pacific Fleet as both Japan and the United States were experiencing a growing sense of inevitability about the coming conflict. Admiral Kimmel immediately set out to make sure that Washington was providing him with all information that would enable him to take appropriate alert measures. Michael Gannon says that on four separate occasions, Kimmel asked Admiral Harold (Betty) Stark, then Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) in Washington, to provide him all “secret information” relevant to the safety, security, and mission of his forces.
Admiral Kimmel was particularly concerned about the “paucity” of intelligence information flowing to Pearl Harbor from Washington. He repeatedly sought to clarify lines of authority and responsibility for the provision of intelligence to his command. And he was repeatedly assured that the Washington-based Office of Naval Intelligence was “fully aware of its responsibility” to supply Pearl Harbor with adequate intelligence information. Kimmel even appealed to Admiral Stark in person during a visit to Washington in June1941, and was once again assured that all necessary information was flowing to his command in the Pacific. But it wasn’t.
Kimmel would not learn until several years after the attack on Pearl Harbor that he was not on distribution for the most significant intelligence information then possessed by the U.S. government. He did not know that in 1940 U.S. government cryptanalysts had managed to break Japanese diplomatic codes and ciphers, known as the “Purple” code. The product of the diplomatic and spy decrypts was labeled “Magic.” Magic enabled a select and limited number of government and military officials to “read” Tokyo’s instructions to its diplomats, often in advance of meetings with their American counterparts. Senior U.S. military officials were extremely concerned about the protection of this invaluable source and sought to limit its distribution to a select few.
As later reconstructed, the Magic products contained vital intelligence that should have alerted Washington-area consumers to the threat to Pearl Harbor. These messages included the so-called “bomb plot” message, and 68 spy messages about ships-in-harbor.
The Japanese consulate in Honolulu had been instructed to collect specific information on the naval harbor and nearby aircraft installations. The harbor was divided into a sort of “invisible grid,” and ship movements and airfield activities were to be monitored according to their placement in the grid. Later, the instructions were more precise and focused local spies on the berths and anchorages of major warships in port. The Japanese consulate in Honolulu was the only diplomatic outpost to receive such specific tasking from Tokyo. Kimmel received none of this information.
In early December, the Honolulu consulate was also tasked to collect information on observation balloons over the harbor and whether anti-torpedo nets were protecting ships in the harbor. The consulate’s response included an observation that there was “considerable opportunity left to take advantage for a surprise attack.”
Beginning on November 30, 1941, Magic revealed that Japanese embassies were receiving instructions to destroy ciphers, codes and secret documents. On December 6, the well-known “fourteen part message” to Japanese diplomats in Washington was intercepted in English. The message conveyed Japan’s rejection of the Hull 10-point ultimatum of November 26, 1941. When President Roosevelt was shown the December 6 message, he is reported to have said, “This means war.” Equally important, however, is the so-called “one o’clock message.” This followed delivery of the fourteen-part message and specified the precise time in Washington, 1:00 p.m. EST, December 7, 1941 when Japanese diplomats were to deliver their message to the U.S. government. That was 7:30 Pearl Harbor time; the Japanese attack began about twenty-five minutes later.
At a minimum, Kimmel should have been warned that the Japanese were collecting targeting intelligence on military installations in Hawaii and particularly on the Pacific Fleet based there; he could have learned of the intended method of the Japanese attack (the use of air-dropped torpedoes); and, he could have been alerted to the intended time of the attack. None of this information was forwarded to Admiral Kimmel at Pearl.
At the AIM luncheon, Thomas Kimmel told of another intelligence indicator that could have warned of an attack on Pearl Harbor. A German spy had been tasked to collect information on anti-torpedo nets in use at Pearl Harbor, apparently for use by the Japanese in their planning for the use of airdropped torpedoes in their attack.
However, the spy, Dusko Popov, was a double agent working for British intelligence. He gave them a copy of the questionnaire he had been given by the Germans; British intelligence passed it on to the FBI. The existence of this questionnaire was concealed until 1983, when it was finally declassified.
Thomas Kimmel said that the FBI turned over the questionnaire to the Office of Naval Intelligence, but we still don’t know what ONI did with it. In a 1988 book, former Director of Central Intelligence William Casey accused FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover of withholding the Popov questionnaire from U.S. intelligence services and attributed blame for the Pearl Harbor disaster to Hoover’s failure to give the questionnaire to the head of the OSS, Colonel William Donovan.
Clearly, Admiral Kimmel was right to be concerned that Washington had been withholding information from him and General Short at Pearl Harbor. Long after the Roberts Commission had finished its work and pronounced Kimmel “derelict” in his duty and “solely responsible for the success of the Japanese attack,” Kimmel finally learned of the existence of the Magic decrypts. In July 1944, over two years after Admiral Kimmel had retired, the Navy was ordered by Congress to grant him a court of inquiry in which he would finally have rights similar to a defendant in a court martial. Naval Captain Laurance Safford, who had been involved in Navy cryptanalysis in 1941, visited him at his home in February 1944. Thomas Kimmel says that Safford had been angry at Admiral Kimmel’s poor defense before the Roberts Commission and intended to upbraid him about his failure to heed the warnings provided by Magic-until he found out that Kimmel had not been given any Magic! To both men’s astonishment, it was at this meeting that Admiral Kimmel first learned of the decrypts of the Japanese diplomatic and espionage codes. Kimmel’s attorney, Ed Hanify, used this information to draft the legislation that Congress passed that forced the Navy to grant Kimmel his day in court.
With the help of two Navy lawyers, Kimmel finally gained access to the Magic information available in Washington prior to the Pearl Harbor attack. What he found stunned both him and his former subordinates. Gannon writes that the Admiral told Gordon Prange in 1963, “This information made me almost sick.” Kimmel’s intelligence officer, Captain Edward Layton said that he was “astonished and outraged” when he learned of the decrypts. General Short characterized the bomb plot decrypt as the “bombing plan for Pearl Harbor.”
Admiral Kimmel would later say that “knowledge of these intercepted Japanese dispatches would have radically changed the estimate of the situation made by me and my staff [and] afforded an opportunity to ambush the striking force as it ventured to Hawaii.” After the war, he would conclude, “The Pacific Fleet deserved a fighting chance.” It didn’t get that chance because of the failure of the Navy Department in Washington to supply Admiral Kimmel with critical intelligence.
Kimmel’s grandson rejects various theories offered to explain this stunning failure. In fact, Washington provided three code-breaking devices to the United Kingdom and installed one in the Philippines to decode intercepted Japanese communications. It for-warded Magic traffic regularly to General Douglas MacArthur in Manila. Gannon’s account in Pearl Harbor Betrayed, which Kimmel’s grandson endorses, blames the Navy Department bureaucracy for the failure to provide Magic to Admiral Kimmel. The key figure in this debacle was Captain Kelly Turner, then Director of War Plans at the Navy Department in Washington. In the post-attack investigation, Admiral Stark said that Turner had assured him that Pearl Harbor was equipped with Magic and that Pearl was also on distribution for the Magic product from Washington.
Stark claimed he had asked Turner on “two or three occasions” whether Kimmel had such a capability and was assured that he did. When the question was put to Turner, he claimed that Admiral Leigh Noyes, then Director of Naval Communications, told him that Kimmel was getting the Magic products. But when Noyes was questioned, he denied that he had ever made such a statement to Turner. “I would never have made the statement that all ciphers could be translated at Pearl Harbor.” In 1961, Gannon writes that the official U.S. naval historian Samuel Eliot Morrison would conclude that Turner was most at fault for the Pearl Harbor disaster since he was “more careless or stupid” than any other officers at the time. But Gannon also wonders why Stark didn’t simply ask Kimmel directly whether he was getting the Magic decrypts.
That testimony would seem to have exonerated Admiral Kimmel. And of the ten investigations into the Pearl Harbor attack during his lifetime, only one made the dereliction of duty allegation against him. The Roberts Commission, headed by an associate Supreme Court Justice, formed in late 1941, published this along with no finding of fault against Washington civilians or military officials in early 1942. President Roosevelt promptly released the findings to the public and henceforth Kimmel and Short would become the public scapegoats for the disaster.
But the findings of the Roberts Commission were not upheld in any of the subsequent investigations conducted in 1944 or 1945. A Naval Court of Inquiry, meeting in 1944, held former CNO Admiral Stark responsible for not providing all necessary intelligence information to Kimmel. It also completely exonerated Admiral Kimmel of any charge of dereliction of duty, found that he committed no errors of judgment based on information that he was given, approved of all of his force dispositions, and said that Admiral Kimmel did everything possible under the circumstances. But the serving CNO at the time, Admiral Ernest J. King, without reading its report, overturned its findings and once again charged Kimmel with dereliction of duty. He persuaded then Secretary of Navy James V. Forrestal to agree with his conclusions.
The U.S. Congress launched another investigation in September 1945. It authorized a Joint Congressional Committee to investigate the attack and fix blame. When it wrapped up its proceedings in 1946, it concluded that there had been no dereliction of duty on the part of Kimmel or Short, although it did charge them with “errors of judgment.” This time, however, the inquiry found that both Admiral Stark and General Marshall should also share in the blame.
In 1961, Admiral Raymond Spruance, the hero of the Battle of Midway, wrote: “I have always felt that Kimmel and Short were held responsible for Pearl Harbor in order that the American people might have no reason to lose confidence in their Government in Washington. This was probably justifiable under the circumstances at the time, but it does not justify forever damning these two officers.” Reviews of the conduct of the Roberts Commission found that there had in fact been “irregularities” in its conduct.
After the war, a member of the Army’s Pearl Harbor Board recorded his recollections of that Board’s work. In these recollections, Major General H.D. Russell wrote about “Washington’s successful effort to conceal the story” behind the Pearl Harbor attack. He alleged that Admiral Stark and General Marshall had destroyed critical Magic intercepts for fear of public exposure of their own derelictions. He is particularly critical of Marshall. He writes that Marshall’s dereliction was equal to or greater than those of Short. And that Marshall “saved his own reputation by destroying Short’s.”
He wrapped up his recollections by concluding that the “conduct of those in high places, after the attack, was dishonest and inexcusable.”
In 1947, Congress passed the Officer Personnel Act by which senior officers could be advanced to their highest wartime rank. Kimmel and Short are the only two flag and general officers who have not been restored to their wartime ranks.
After years of effort, in 2000 Congress requested that the President advance both Rear Admiral Kimmel and General Short to their highest grade on the Navy and Army retirement lists. In the floor debate, Kimmel and Short both were said to have had “excellent and unassailable” records of service prior to Pearl Harbor.
Congress agreed that neither was provided the necessary and critical intelligence then available in Washington. The Pearl Harbor Survivors Association, and a host of others have also endorsed this recommendation.
Sadly, President George W. Bush has yet to act on Congress’s recommendation. The Kimmel family has received a letter from Andrew W. Card, the President’s Chief of Staff. Card wrote the family that the President has not acted on the recommendation because no “new, or extraordinary” evidence has emerged to overturn the decision of fifty years ago. But Thomas Kimmel was able to show at least a dozen new and significant items of evidence that clearly shows Admiral Kimmel was unjustly accused and unfairly slandered.