Today in 1968, retired US Navy Admiral Husband Edward Kimmel died in Groton, Connecticut. Kimmel gained notoriety for his role as the Commander of the Pacific Fleet at the time of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941. Today, the Kimmel family continues to fight for an accurate public accounting of his actions before and during that fateful day.
Kimmel was born in Henderson, Kentucky on February 26, 1882. He graduated from the US Naval Academy in 1904 and began a career that would span more than four decades. He served aboard several battleships, including service in the Atlantic during the First World War. He later commanded two destroyer divisions and the battleship USS New York. He had the honor of serving as an aide to the Assistant Secretary of Navy in 1915; that assistant secretary's name was Franklin Roosevelt.
Kimmel was promoted to the rank of Rear Admiral in 1937 and four years later, in February, 1941, he was given command of the Pacific Fleet. He gained a temporary promotion to the four stars of a full Admiral as the position demanded. He relieved Admiral James Richardson, whom President Roosevelt had fired due to the Admiral's opposition to moving the Pacific Fleet from California to Hawaii in the summer of 1940. Richardson believed that this move placed the fleet at undue risk. Pearl Harbor, he argued, did not have the facilities to fully support such an influx of ships. Furthermore, Richardson believed that Pearl Harbor could not be adequately defended against an air attack. His willingness to state his opinion as an experienced naval officer cost him his career. Admiral Kimmel understood the deficiencies of Pearl Harbor itself and the poor condition of the local defense. The War Department allocated 180 B-17 Flying Fortresses to the Hawaiian Department for long-range reconnaissance and anti-shipping functions, but they were slow in coming; by December, 1941, only 12 had arrived. Two weeks before the attack, the Chief of Naval Operations informed the Navy command in Hawaii that there were no additional planes available. Admiral Kimmel and his Army counterpart, Lt. General Walter Short, knew that an air attack on Pearl Harbor would be devastating, but their areas of responsibility were obviously not high on the priority list at the War Department.
On November 27, 1941, the Chief of Naval Operations sent Kimmel and other commanders in the Pacific the now-famous "war warning" message, in which he stated that negotiations with Japan were breaking down and that an offensive push by the Japanese military was expected within the next few days. This message is often cited as proof that Kimmel knew of an impending attack but did little to prepare for it. However, a closer look at the wording of the message shows that no one in the Navy Department expected an attack at Pearl Harbor; instead, the Japanese were expected to move against the Philippines (which they did) or other targets in the Southwest Pacific.
Admiral Kimmel assumed, as any commander would, that any intelligence information related to his command would be forwarded to him as soon as it was made available. This was not the case. While the US Navy had been reading most of the Japanese radio intercepts for months before Pearl Harbor, several vital messages were withheld from Kimmel for reasons which are still unknown. He was not told, for example, that in September, 1941, Tokyo had ordered its consul general in Honolulu to make a detailed report of the ships present in Pearl Harbor as well as their movements. After November 15, he was ordered to make such a report twice a week. This would have told Kimmel exactly what he needed to know: that the Japanese were certainly planning to hit Pearl Harbor. Information of this type would have allowed the Admiral to order the entire Pacific Fleet to sea from where it could have better defended against an air attack. As it was, the only capital ships at sea on the morning of December 7, 1941 were the Fleet's aircraft carriers.
The attack on Pearl Harbor was an unmitigated success for the Japanese Imperial Navy. The Pacific Fleet lost four battleships, three cruisers, three destroyers and two auxiliary ships along with nearly 200 aircraft; over 2400 Americans, both military and civilian, lost their lives. Admiral Kimmel was relieved of his command ten days after the attack. He reverted back to his permanent rank of Rear Admiral (contrary to popular myth, he was not demoted as a punishment) and was allowed to retire. His son, Manning, died during the war when the submarine he commanded struck a Japanese mine.
Kimmel spent the rest of his life defending his actions during the months leading up to the attack on Pearl Harbor. The Navy eventually pinned him with most of the blame for the outcome of the attack, a sting from which he never recovered. During the attack, a spent bullet hit Kimmel but bounced off harmlessly. Later in his life, he said that he wished it had killed him.