A Final Struggle over the Pearl Harbor Attack

Adm. Husband Kimmel

hide captionAdm. Husband Kimmel, commander of the U.S. Pacific fleet, in 1941 at his Pearl Harbor headquarters

U.S. Naval Historical Center
Dispatch from Adm. Kimmel i i

hide captionA Dec. 7, 1941, dispatch from Adm. Kimmel states: "Air raid on Pearl Harbor. This is not a drill."

Library of Congress
Dispatch from Adm. Kimmel

A Dec. 7, 1941, dispatch from Adm. Kimmel states: "Air raid on Pearl Harbor. This is not a drill."

Library of Congress
President Roosevelt signs the declaration of war against Japan.

hide captionPresident Franklin D. Roosevelt signs the declaration of war against Japan in December 1941.

Library of Congress

Listen: Listen to FDR's 'Day of Infamy' Remarks

Listen: FDR's Full Speech to Congress Declaring War Against Japan

A Japanese Navy 'Zero' fighter takes off

hide captionA Japanese Navy "Zero" fighter takes off from the aircraft carrier Akagi, on its way to attack Pearl Harbor.

National Archives

Sixty-three years ago today, Americans were shocked out of their normal routine by news that a Japanese force had attacked the U.S. military base at Pearl Harbor, destroying 18 ships and nearly 200 aircraft.

More than 2,400 Americans died that day, as many at the base were as surprised by the Sunday morning attack as were those on the mainland. Eyewitnesses recall hearing over loudspeakers that the aerial attack was not part of a drill.

Pearl Harbor's Lessons

The 9/11 Commission's final report drew parallels with Pearl Harbor:

Imagination is not a gift usually associated with bureaucracies. For example, before Pearl Harbor the U.S. government had excellent intelligence that a Japanese attack was coming, especially after peace talks stalemated at the end of November 1941. These were days, one historian notes, of "excruciating uncertainty." The most likely targets were judged to be in Southeast Asia. An attack was coming, "but officials were at a loss to know where the blow would fall or what more might be done to prevent it." In retrospect, available intercepts pointed to Japanese examination of Hawaii as a possible target. But, another historian observes, "in the face of a clear warning, alert measures bowed to routine."

In the days following, Americans demanded to know who was responsible for leaving the Pacific fleet so vulnerable. For even though the United States was at peace, war was spreading from continent to continent.

Within weeks of the attack, a commission appointed by President Franklin Roosevelt accused Lt. Gen. Walter Short and Adm. Husband Kimmel, the Army and Navy commanders in Hawaii, of being derelict in their duties, giving them sole responsibility for the catastrophe. As NPR's John Ydstie reports, the family of one of those men has spent the past 60 years trying to clear his name.

Retired lawyer Ned Kimmel, Adm. Kimmel's only surviving son, says the scapegoating of his father was "outrageous." Now he's working to restore his father's four-star status and remove a stain on his service record.

The effort stems from a day in 1944, when Capt. Laurence Safford, the Navy's former chief code breaker, said Washington officials had withheld from Adm. Kimmel secret information gleaned from decoded Japanese messages hinting at a Pearl Harbor attack.

The information, codenamed "Magic," included transmissions between Tokyo and its Washington embassy during late 1941. The messages detailed rising tensions with the United States over Japan's ambitions. It also included reports from the Japanese consul in Honolulu on the locations of naval vessels in Pearl Harbor.

While top Army and Navy officers in Washington saw the reports, they were reluctant to share the information — due in part to a desire to keep secret the fact that the United States had broken Japan's code. Warnings had been issued that a Japanese attack on U.S. targets was imminent — but many expected it would come not at Pearl Harbor but in the Philippines.

Daniel Martinez, chief Park Service historian at the USS Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor, has written about the controversy. He says that although Kimmel and Short could have done more, many U.S. leaders miscalculated the Japanese, both militarily and politically.

For his part, Ned Kimmel's most recent success was a congressional amendment describing the actions of Kimmel and Short as professional and competent. It urges President Bush to restore them to their highest World War II rank.

A Pearl Harbor Timeline

Pearl Harbor scene i i

hide captionSailors in a motor launch rescue a survivor from the water alongside the sunken USS West Virginia.

National Archives
Pearl Harbor scene

Sailors in a motor launch rescue a survivor from the water alongside the sunken USS West Virginia.

National Archives

Suggested Reading

  • Pearl Harbor Betrayed by Michael Gannon, Published by Henry Holt
  • Defenseless: Command Failure at Pearl Harbor by John W. Lambert and Norman Polmar, MBI Publishing Co.
  • Scapegoats: A Defense of Kimmel and Short at Pearl Harbor by Edward L. Beach, USN retired, Naval Institute Press
  • Remember Pearl Harbor by Thomas B. Allen. National Geographic Society

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