May 19

Admiral Kimmel and the Attack

Friday, May 19, 2017 2:59 PM


Pacific Fleet Commander-in-Chief Admiral Husband Kimmel (U.S. Naval Institute Photo Archive)

Pacific Fleet Commander-in-Chief Admiral Husband Kimmel (U.S. Naval Institute Photo Archive)


Beginning in December 2016, I began writing a series of monthly (approximately) “H-Grams” that go to all active-duty and retired Navy flag officers, and the Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy, with the expectation that they would be disseminated further to fleet Sailors, and with the acceptance that they would make their way “into the wild.” I did this with the approval of the Chief of Naval Operations and Director, Navy Staff to support the Navy’s “Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority” which includes a sub-task to “Know Our History.”

My intent is to write them in a way to capture the imagination, stimulate discussion, and hopefully foster a desire for lifelong independent learning about naval history in the Fleet (as opposed to trying to cram something into an already overburdened fleet training curriculum). They are based on extensive reading and take into account the most recent scholarship. I do not consider them “scholarly,” but they are as accurate as I can possibly make them given the limited time I have available to write them. So, any errors are entirely mine.

The H-Grams usually focus on difficult command decisions and valor of Sailors, and occasionally historical technological developments; they are not intended to whitewash U.S. naval history, and as such, will occasionally discuss controversial topics. Therefore, they should be considered the personal assessment of the Director of Naval History, not the official position of the Department of the Navy or of the Naval History and Heritage Command.

Given that we are now in a period notable anniversaries—the centennial of World War I, 75th anniversary of World War II, and 50th of Vietnam—most H-grams will be related to those. They are also posted on the NNHC website in Director’s Corner.

The following is excerpted from my first H-gram, about the Pearl Harbor attack.


Pacific Fleet Commander-in-Chief Admiral Husband Kimmel and his predecessor, Admiral James Richardson, were well aware that Pearl Harbor was potentially vulnerable to air attack (contrary to popular lore). In at least four major fleet battle problems in the 1920’s and 1930’s (and numerous smaller exercises,) U.S. carriers had “attacked” Pearl Harbor and achieved surprise every time. Admiral Richardson was fired by President Roosevelt for vociferously arguing that putting the Pacific Fleet in Pearl Harbor was a provocation and a vulnerability rather than a deterrent to the Japanese, and it also lacked the support/supply infrastructure of the Pacific Fleet’s then home ports of San Pedro and Long Beach.

The Pacific Fleet had deployed to Hawaii as part of an exercise in 1940 and had been ordered by President Roosevelt to stay. (Imagine three carriers going out on RIMPAC and being directed to stay in Hawaii indefinitely, with no families or preparation and insufficient support infrastructure.) When Kimmel assumed command, he lobbied continuously and vigorously for more long-range reconnaissance, more air-defense capability, and even barrage balloons and torpedo nets. Almost none of what Kimmel requested was forthcoming, due to the higher priority of the Atlantic, or because the U.S. Navy didn’t have the capability yet.

The critical thing that Admiral Kimmel did not know (and no American knew) was that only at the 11th hour, in late October 1941, had the Japanese figured out, through extensive trial and error, a torpedo fin configuration that would enable torpedoes to be launched from aircraft in water as shallow as Pearl Harbor. Kimmel anticipated a bomb threat. Barring a lucky hit like the one on the Arizona, a bomb could damage a battleship, but wasn’t considered near as lethal as a torpedo. Kimmel also was not anticipating an attack of the scale of Pearl Harbor; the first time the Japanese ever launched a six-carrier strike was 7 December 1941, even they hadn’t practiced it.

Kimmel, along with everyone else in the U.S. Navy at the time, “mirror imaged” Japanese capability in believing their carriers would operate as ours, in single-carrier task groups. Many others woefully under-estimated Japanese capability, e.g. since our torpedoes couldn’t be dropped in such shallow water, how could the Japanese with their “inferior” technology possibly do it?

After the attack, the traditional American search for someone to blame (besides the Japanese) commenced in earnest. Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox arrived soon after the attack to investigate. The Army relieved General Walter Short first, and in the spirit of “jointness” the Navy followed suit with Kimmel on 17 December 1941. Kimmel expected to be relieved and revert to his “permanent rank” of two-star rear admiral. (It was fairly common for 3 and 4 stars to accept follow-on positions at 2-star rank. (RADM Claude Bloch, the Commander of the 14th Naval District (Hawaii) at the time of the attack, and who worked for both Kimmel and CNO Stark, had previously been the four-star Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Fleet in 1938-40.) Kimmel expected to be offered a follow-on job where he could contribute to the war, but that never happened and he eventually reluctantly resigned.

The Roberts Commission in 1942, which was the first of numerous investigations, was conducted with none of the rules of evidence or rights of the accused (e.g., right to review evidence against them, etc.) of a court martial, yet concluded that Kimmel and Short were guilty of “dereliction of duty,” resulting in a feeding frenzy by the press, public, and politicians. With no opportunity to appeal, Kimmel was accused of failure to conduct adequate long-range reconnaissance, despite the fact that because of acute shortages of aircraft, trained crews and especially spare parts, Kimmel could only sustain a fraction of the coverage required—and the weather would have almost certainly prevented discovery of the Japanese anyway, even if Kimmel had been prescient enough to launch his few aircraft to the north on that particular morning.

Kimmel repeatedly requested a court-martial in order to defend himself, but was denied. The primary reason was that a trial would have risked exposing the code-breaking effort that was considered (and really was) of paramount importance in winning the war. Another unstated reason is that a trial would have risked the reputations of many senior military and government officials in Washington, who were far more culpable of the failures that led to surprise at Pearl Harbor than Kimmel was.

If by this point you think that Admiral Kimmel was treated unfairly, you are in the company of Admirals Zumwalt, Stockdale, Crowe, Hayward, Turner, Holloway, McKee, Lawrence, and 28 other 3-4 stars who signed a petition in 1991 to posthumously promote Rear Admiral Kimmel to Admiral. So far it hasn’t happened.

Editor’s Note: For more about Pearl Harbor and Admiral Kimmel read “Plenty of Blame to Go Around.”

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