The Accountability of Admiral Husband E. Kimmel

March 18, 2017

As you learn more about the history of the United States, you often find yourself hearing different versions of how major events unfolded. The attack on Pearl Harbor is no exception, especially since the soldiers who fought there are growing older and passing on, leaving fewer people behind to right the incorrect versions of history.

When it comes to the involvement of Admiral Husband E. Kimmel, there are at least two different versions of his part in the December 7th 1941 attack. One version paints him as a negligent commander, while the other relieves him of any blame, focusing the question of “how did it happen” on the US government at the time.

To understand where truth gives way to myth, it’s best to know both sides of the story.

Kimmel Drops the Ball

On the morning of the Pearl Harbor attack, just after the first explosion rocked the coast of Oahu and smoke billowed from the USS Arizona, Admiral Husband E. Kimmel watched through the window of his office at a submarine base near the harbor. Like everyone, he was stunned with disbelief. Considering the actions taken against him after the attack, his shock begins to seem doubtful. A man in his position must have known that Pearl Harbor was subject to a Japanese attack.

While planning the retaliatory strike against the Japanese, Kimmel received a crushing blow after the Roberts Commission—appointed by President Roosevelt—looked into the events leading up to the attack and found Kimmel and Army Lieutenant General Walter Short guilty of dereliction of duty and poor judgment. According to his critics, the admiral had a 10-day notice to initiate defensive tactics, and it was his unwillingness to act—believing domestic sabotage was a bigger threat—that made the success of the sneak attack a possibility. They also point to Kimmel’s failure to order patrols to assess the positioning of Japanese aircraft carriers that military intelligence had lost track of.

Kimmel Was a Scapegoat

Capt. Connie Frizzell and retired Cryptologic Technician Collection Master Chief John Gustafson look on as Vice Adm. H. Denby Starling reads a hand-written letter by former Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Pacific Fleet Adm. Husband E. Kimmel.

On the other end of the spectrum is sympathy for Kimmel and those, including his family, who feel he was in no position to have made any difference. In fact, many historians argue that, had Kimmel deployed battleships to intercept the incoming Japanese fleet, the slower speed of the American vessels would have led to a deadly battle at sea, ending with even more losses than were suffered at Pearl Harbor.

Kimmel’s supporters believe that he was a scapegoat for the truly negligent party—the United States government. Kimmel believed that he acted in the most appropriate manner he could with the limited information he had. To him, an attack on Wake or Midway Island seemed more likely.

Through many decades of requests, Kimmel’s family—who supported his actions—sought to reinstate the former Admiral’s four-star status. Finally in 2000, the US Senate voted to exonerate him for his allegedly neglectful actions at Pearl Harbor.

Stories like that of Admiral Husband E. Kimmel are recounted at the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument at Pearl Harbor, embedded in the exhibits and memorials within the harbor.

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