Admiral Kimmel: The Scapegoat of Pearl Harbor – The Man Who Opened the Door for the Japanese Attack

 
 
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There have been few American military disasters that could ever rival what took place on December 7, 1941. The United States would see over 2400 killed, hundreds of aircraft destroyed, and the near entirety of the Pacific Fleet ravaged.

If you are the Japanese commander in charge of such an attack, it is the type of action that makes a legend of the man. But if you were the American commander in charge, it makes you the goat of the century. Admiral Husband E Kimmel was the Commander-in-Chief of the US Pacific Fleet in 1941 and would bear the brunt of the blame for America’s lack of preparedness.

During the attack, a .50 caliber bullet crashed through his window and grazed his uniform across the chest. It is reported that Adm. Kimmel stated to his communications officer at the time, “It would have been merciful had it killed me” as he watched helplessly as the disaster unfolded.

A Qualified Officer

Admiral Kimmel was born in Kentucky in 1882 and was a graduate of the United States Naval Academy in 1904. For almost 4 decades afterward, this man would serve with competence and distinction as an officer in the United States Navy.

After all, there is a reason why this man was chosen in 1941 to command the Pacific Fleet at a time when tensions with the Japanese were high. But when the ending bookmark on your career is the disaster at Pearl Harbor, people tend to forget about the rest.

In February 1941, Adm. Kimmel took over for Adm. James Richardson as the Commander-in-Chief of the US Pacific Fleet. Just the prior year, the base for the fleet had been moved from San Diego to Pearl Harbor in order to be more responsive to any aggressive action by the Japanese.

Photograph of Battleship Row taken from a Japanese plane at the beginning of the attack. The explosion in the center is a torpedo strike on USS West Virginia. Two attacking Japanese planes can be seen: one over USS Neosho and one over the Naval Yard.
Photograph of Battleship Row taken from a Japanese plane at the beginning of the attack. The explosion in the center is a torpedo strike on USS West Virginia. Two attacking Japanese planes can be seen: one over USS Neosho and one over the Naval Yard.

 

Adm. Kimmel had written in early 1941 that he believed a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor was a possibility, and he was taking all the practical steps necessary to minimize the damage and ensure such an attack would be costly for the Japanese. However, the defense of Hawaii was not his alone as Lieut. Gen. Walter Short was the military commander responsible for the defense of military installations in Hawaii.

General Short (left) and Admiral Kimmel (right) in Hawaii via commons.wikimedia.org
General Short (left) and Admiral Kimmel (right) in Hawaii.

And while both men would pay a heavy price for the failure of Pearl Harbor, the images of sinking and burning ships at Pearl Harbor are the iconic ones that people would remember. As a result, Adm. Kimmel more often would shoulder the blame for the attack.

But blaming Adm. Kimmel or General Short for the disaster at Pearl Harbor is not as simple as it seems. Without a doubt as the senior commanders in charge, they should have been held accountable for what took place. But historians have long debated whether or not any of the famed Admirals or Generals of World War II could have produced a different result given the scenario.

Scapegoat for a significant loss

Owen Roberts, an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court who led two Roberts Commissions.
Owen Roberts, an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court who led two Roberts Commissions.

After the attack, Admiral Kimmel was hard at work planning retaliatory actions to engage the Japanese at sea when he was relieved of his command just 10 days after Pearl Harbor.  The Roberts Commission was appointed by the President to investigate the attack and in January of 1942 had concluded that both Admiral Kimmel and General Short had been guilty of poor judgment and dereliction of duty.

Kimmel was reduced in rank to a Rear Admiral and just as the greatest war the world had ever seen was ramping up, this 40-year career sailor retired in 1942.

 

Japanese Zeroes taking off for the attack on Pearl Harbor via commons.wikimedia.org
Japanese Zeroes taking off for the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Admiral Kimmel would defend his reputation and placed the blame for the failure squarely on Washington. Intercepted Japanese cables that suggested an attack was imminent were in the hands of officials in Washington and not shared with Kimmel or Short.

He claims that if he had the information that was irrefutably present, he would not have been taken by surprise and forces would have been on alert rather than waking up on a sleepy Sunday morning.  The revelation of the intercepted and decoded Japanese cables would lead some to believe that President Roosevelt and others in Washington were willing to invite the attack in order to facilitate America’s entry into the war.

The claim is that they believed if Kimmel had advanced warning, the fleet would not be present leading the Japanese to call off the attack.  And while Kimmel wouldn’t make such a claim, he did believe he was the scapegoat for incompetence within the higher military command.

Captain Homer N. Wallin (center) supervises salvage operations aboard USS California, early 1942.
Captain Homer N. Wallin (center) supervises salvage operations aboard USS California, early 1942.

But critics of Kimmel would point to tactical failures on his behalf that ensured the attack was a such a decisive victory for the Japanese and had very little to do with whether or not he knew it was coming.  Kimmel believed the greatest threat to the fleet was sabotage which led the Battleships being closely moored together in port.

In addition, Kimmel failed to order long-range air patrols when intelligence lost track of Japanese carriers. He had a poor working relationship with General Short which led to miscommunication about the island’s readiness for an attack.  Whether or not there was intelligence available shouldn’t have prevented Admiral Kimmel from taking action well within his power for a proper defensive footing.

The Final Word

As much as we might like it, there is simply no definitive answer as to whether different leadership could have produced a different result on December 7th, 1941.  Admiral Chester Nimitz would state in a 1964 interview that it was actually a blessing that Kimmel had no advance warning.

Nimitz believed if Kimmel were aware of the impending attack, he would have taken the fleet to sea in order to intercept the Japanese fleet ending in an even worse disaster for the Americans.  The fleet would have fared poorly against the Japanese carriers and Nimitz believed they would never have gotten within shooting range leading to the sinking of the fleet in deep water and at a cost of perhaps 10,000 more lives.

As it stood, 6 Battleships were able to be raised from the harbor leading to a much quicker turnaround for the ravaged American fleet.

And while historians might not be able to make up their minds about Kimmel, his family never gave up the cause to clear his name.  Investigations spirited by his family in recent decades concluded that other high-ranking officers were also responsible leading the United States Senate to pass a non-binding resolution in 1999 that exonerates both Admiral Kimmel and General Short calling for their ranks to be posthumously restored.

The vote for that resolution was 52-47 indicative of the equal divide in the greater historical community on exactly how much blame should be placed on Admiral Kimmel.

Perhaps Admiral Kimmel is the man responsible for one of the worst disasters in American military history, or perhaps he was just the man to get the unluckiest promotion of all time.