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‘Honor is above life itself': A family's journey for Pearl Harbor redemption

Americans recently commemorated the 75th anniversary of Pearl Harbor. For one family, the fighting is still not over. 

“Forgiveness does not change the past, but it does enlarge the future.”—Paul Boese

December 7, 2016 was about commemorating the 75th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese Empire that thrust the United States into World War II.

We remembered and mourned the 2,403 Americans who were killed.

We saluted those 1,178 who were wounded.

We honored those who cared for the injured and fought back against the attackers.

For one family, this year’s anniversary was just another reminder of how much pain and bitterness the words ‘Pearl Harbor' bring.

“A date which will live in infamy”

The moment the first Japanese bomb was dropped and the first torpedo hit the water just before 8:00 a.m. at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the career of Admiral Husband E. Kimmel in the Navy was effectively over.

Rear Admiral Husband E. Kimmel, in a good mood on hearing that he was to be appointed Navy commander of the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor, Oahu, Hawaii, on January 18, 1941. Kimmel would be relieved of duty after the Japanese attack on December 7.

Kimmel was CINCPAC, or Commander-in-Chief Pacific Fleet. 18 of his ships were either sunk, or heavily damaged. The Pacific Fleet was essentially in ruins, with the exception of its aircraft carriers, which fortunately were not in the harbor that morning.

Our armed forces were caught completely by surprise. Someone had to be punished, so it was Kimmel and his Army counterpart in Hawaii, Lt. General Walter C. Short. Both were relieved of their respective commands just days after the attack.

From an outside perspective, it seems like an open-and-shut case. Relations between the United States and Japan had been moving towards war for weeks. Kimmel and Short had both been notified that the Japanese could strike somewhere in the Pacific prior to December 7th. And yet, both the Army and the Navy were not prepared for the attack.

In early 1942, Kimmel and Short were charged with dereliction of duty by The Roberts Commission, appointed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. They were unceremoniously ushered into retirement and sat out the war on the sidelines.

But their days of fighting battles were not nearly over.

“You are of no use to yourself or the American People”

While the men he used to command took the fight to the Japanese, Kimmel spent his war years working for a military contractor. Yet the aftermath of Pearl Harbor never left him.

He received death threats, including a package in the mail that contained a loaded revolver and a note telling Kimmel to shoot himself. The chairman of the House Military Affairs Committee essentially demanded that Kimmel and Short be executed.

A retired circuit court judge wrote Admiral Kimmel that “you are of no use to yourself or the American people” and should kill himself.

The questions from investigators never stopped either. Kimmel would defend himself in the face of eight other investigations.

In 1946, a Joint Congressional Committee on the Investigation of the Pearl Harbor attack found that although the Hawaiian commanders had made errors in judgment, they in fact were not derelict in their duty. A U.S. Navy Court of Inquiry had drawn a similar conclusion.

Circa 1946: Adm. Husband E. Kimmel at Pearl Harbor Hearing. (Photo by George Skadding/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

It seemed that the reputations of Kimmel and Short were redeemable.

Then in 1947, that all changed. The Officer Personnel Act was approved so that any officer of the Armed Forces who served as a senior commander during World War II, could have his retirement rank reflect the highest grade held when on active duty.

On December 7, 1941, Kimmel was a four-star admiral, Short was a three-star general. Once they were swept out of the Armed Forces, Kimmel was pushed back to Rear Admiral (two stars) and Short down to Major General (two stars).

When the Officer Personnel Act took effect, EVERY officer eligible had their ranks restored to their highest grade. Everyone except Husband Kimmel and Walter Short.

And there is where our story really begins.

“The Final Two Victims of Pearl Harbor”

Since the end of World War II, the family of Admiral Kimmel has never stopped trying to salvage his reputation.
They’ve used all of the “political clout we can muster,” grandson Manning Kimmel told me.

Manning Kimmel stands next to photographs of his family, including his grandfather, Admiral Husband E. Kimmel.

In 1990, the Pearl Harbor Survivor Association voted in favor of posthumously elevating Kimmel and Short’s rankings back to what they were prior to the attack.

A group of 36 admirals petitioned President George H.W. Bush a year later, asking for the rank restoration. Bush’s military assistant wrote Kimmel’s sons that to do so “would do no honor to the Admiral and might very well tear the tapestry that time and history have so thoughtfully woven.”

In 1995, the Pentagon’s Dorn Report made three key points which seemed to help the cause of Kimmel and Short. For the first time, there was an admission that key intelligence had been withheld from the Hawaiian commanders prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor. They also concluded that no individual or individuals should have held sole responsibility for the attack. The blame should have been broadly shared.

It looked for an instant that perhaps the family’s years of persistence would pay off when in 1999, the United States Senate passed a non-binding resolution exonerating Kimmel and Short. One of the sponsors was then-Delaware Senator Joe Biden.

Senator Strom Thurmond called Kimmel and Short the “final two victims of Pearl Harbor.”

The resolution was attached to the National Defense Authorization Act, which was signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 2000. Yet nothing was done about the Kimmel and Short rankings.

“Honestly, I don’t think anyone who’s been in the Oval Office since 2000 is aware of the resolution,” says Manning Kimmel. “I think it’s buried by the Navy Department deep within the bowels of the Pentagon.”

The Kimmel family gave their full cooperation to authors Robbyn Swan and Anthony Summers in a new book, “A Matter of Honor.” They also participated in the History Channel documentary, “Pearl Harbor: The Truth.”

The book reaches several conclusions about Kimmel and Short: officers in Washington, not the commanders in Hawaii, should have borne the lion’s share of the blame for the surprise at Pearl Harbor. Throughout 1941, Navy headquarters had failed to meet Kimmel’s repeated requests for more reconnaissance planes and crew, which might have made it possible to spot the Japanese strike force as it approached Hawaii.

Worse, Washington had failed to pass along intelligence pointing to Pearl Harbor as a likely target—denying Kimmel key data that could have alerted him to Tokyo’s plans. Hesitation and incompetence in the final hours before the attack—not least by Adm. Harold Stark, the chief of naval operations—meant that a last-minute warning didn’t reach Kimmel until eight hours after the attack began.

“Research shows that Stark lied under oath,” says Kimmel.

Perhaps the recent 75th anniversary of Pearl Harbor might finally spur the White House and the Department of Defense to right the wrong given to Kimmel.

“We are gratified by the response we’ve gotten from the publicity of the book,” says Manning Kimmel.
But has it gotten the traction necessary?

“My cousin and I still haven’t gotten a phone call from the White House or the Pentagon. But they know we’re out here,” Kimmel told me.

In “A Matter of Honor” Tom Kimmel Jr. says of his grandfather, “What I am virtually certain would be Admiral Kimmel’s attitude toward what we are trying to do is that he himself would not give a hoot about the rank matter. He would, though, encourage to the skies our effort to get the full Pearl Harbor story to the public.”

So why should we ‘give a hoot’ now about the rank of Admiral Kimmel?

“Because,” Manning Kimmel told me, “to a military man, honor is above life itself.”