Lieutenant-General Walter C. Short and Pearl Harbor

By: Daniel Garcia

Many historians feel conflicted when discussing Lieutenant-General Walter C. Short. He was the man in charge of Pearl Harbor’s defense, and on December 7, 1941, his career abruptly ended as Japanese bombs fell from the sky. Before that day, Short had 40 years of service in the U.S. Army under his belt, so it’s not fair to judge him entirely by one event – even if it was a big one.

As we’ve seen with Kermit Tyler, there’s two sides to every story, and Short definitely has a story to tell. Learn more about this controversial figure and better understand Pearl Harbor.

Early life

Before coming to Pearl Harbor, Short had a long career in the military and had served his country well. A graduate of the University of Illinois, Short earned his commission in the U.S. Army in 1902. He fought in World War I as General Staff of the 1st Division as well as an assistant chief of staff for the 3rd Army.

After the war ended, Short was station at Fort Hamilton in New York for some time. General George Marshall later promoted him to the Hawaiian Command. In February 1941, he arrived in Hawaii, never imaging what would happen in the coming months. Up until that day in December, Short considered his career to be a complete success – especially because he was promoted in peace time.

Short’s actions at Pearl Harbor

As a lieutenant-general in charge of Pearl Harbor, Short believed his position was merely for training. He and Admiral Husband Kimmel – another one in charge at that time – didn’t believe the Japanese would ever attack Pearl Harbor so neither of them saw much use in radar technology. Short rarely encouraged his men to use any radar surveillance.

Sailors watch as the USS Shaw explodes

Short also ordered his airplanes at the Oahu airfields to be lined up from wingtip to wingtip – meaning they were all out on display. He never thought that the airplanes would be in danger of an air attack. He was more concerned about defense against sabotage from Japanese-Americans on the island.

Perhaps the biggest mistake Short and Kimmel made was ignoring a “war warning” that had been passed to them from the Pentagon. The message was received on November 27, 1941, and though both Short and Kimmel knew about it, they failed to take it seriously.

The aftermath

After Pearl Harbor was bombed, Short was replaced as commander at Pearl Harbor, and he and Kimmel retired from active duty,

But his role in the Pearl Harbor attack wouldn’t be resolved until many years later. For four years, Short fought though investigations to clear his name, and in 1945 and 1946, Short came before Congress to profess his innocence. He was accused of “dereliction of duty,” but there wasn’t enough evidence to convict him.

lieutenant general walterc short congress

Once the hearings were over, Short went quietly into retirement and worked for the Ford Motor Company. He passed away in 1949.

But Short’s story doesn’t quite end there. In 2000, the U.S. Senate revisited the case and passed a new resolution, which cleared Short and Kimmel of the charge of “dereliction of duty.” The Senate agreed that both men had carried out their duties “competently and professionally.”

Hindsight is 20-20, as they say. It’s easy to lay blame now, but the story of Pearl Harbor is more complex than that. Though Short could have done some things different, no one could have fully predicted the day that would live in infamy.


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