Flame & Blame at Pearl Harbor The Responsibility Question
by Frank Pierce Young

Command Changes Made

In February of 1941, King was made Commander-in-Chief Atlantic Fleet. Kimmel already had been made Commander-in-Chief of the Pacific Fleet and Short designated to command the Army Department of Hawaii. Up to the ranks of rear-admiral or major-general, the rank is entree to position. But above those levels, position predetermines the rank. Thus, upon assignment, King and Kimmel necessarily became full admirals, and Short a lieutenant-general.

Kimmel and Short got along well, and after their initial walk-rounds and examination of their command and security problems, began to meet frequently. Kimmel soon requested many more planes; he wanted 280 aircraft. He had only 49, most were obsolescent or worn out, and some were inoperable for lack of parts. Instead, that summer many ships of his Pacific Fleet were detailed to Atlantic Fleet duty, costing Kimmel about 25 percent of his warship force. The Navy Department compounded this by transferring many men as well to the Atlantic Fleet to man new ships coming out, and Kimmel never got all the B-17 bombers he was supposed to receive -- all went to MacArthur in the Philippines, or to Britain, or to the Soviet Union. Kimmel repeatedly wrote begging letters to Stark, but was ignored.

Meanwhile, back in Washington, another flag officer had been pushing himself upward. As Chief of War Plans at the Navy Department, Rear-Admiral Richmond Kelly Turner got bits of Magic intercepts as copies-to via Naval Communications, which ran the extensive Navy Radio system. Turner wanted more, persuaded Stark to make him Chief of Communications and Naval Intelligence, and got it. That positional move put him in charge of Purple and its Magic intercepts. It was Turner who personally decided to send the remaining eighth Purple Machine to Churchill, giving him three -- instead of one to Kimmel.

At Pearl Harbor, Kimmel and Short kept on conferring, regularly exercised defensively with what they had in order to execute orders from Washington, and sent back evaluation reports. When never advised or corrected, both had to assume that their actions were seen as correct and sufficient. But both remained worried. Kimmel's intelligence chief at Pearl Harbor, Rear-Admiral Edwin Layton, was privy to Magic, but sworn to secrecy about it. His mode was to provide Kimmel with selected snippets of Magic intercept data out of context and without revealing its source. This maintained his secrecy vow, but put the Navy Department, which had exacted that secrecy pledge, in direct violation of one of the cardinal rules of intelligence: a local commander can only react to information in the context of his immediate known situation.

Increasingly concerned, Kimmel kept asking Washington for full copies of everything. Stark responded in long, rambling, handwritten letters, assuring he would indeed send everything, but in fact included only further bits of unattributed Magic information. Such letters took numerous days, even weeks, for delivery. Then, in June, a report of a Magic "leak" caused a wholesale Washington clampdown on security, and Stark then stopped sending Kimmel even bits of Magic. This clampdown extended even to Roosevelt himself. In this period a total of 43 crucial Magic intercepts were involved, including the "Bomb Plot" message of 9 October, in which Tokyo asked for ship data at Pearl Harbor, and the infamous "Winds Message" of 28 November, advising breaking of diplomatic relations with the U.S. by sending the code phrase "East Wind Rain".

Kimmel nonetheless heard of the "East Wind Rain" message -- not from Washington, but from his friend Admiral Thomas Hart, commanding the small and mostly obsolescent Asiatic Fleet far away to the east. Kimmel thus did not give that intercept any Hawaiian significance. Another "East Wind Rain" message went out of Tokyo on 3 December, but Kimmel never learned of it, much less got a copy -- though fourteen copies were made.

Meantime, only a few days before on 27 November, a "War Warning" was sent out of Washington, but indicated that any attack would fall probably on the Philippines and in the Southwest Pacific region -- 5,000 miles east of Pearl Harbor. This warning did not go to Pearl Harbor, but to MacArthur. It was logical; the Rainbow war plans had always predicated a Japanese attack upon the Philippines. None considered Pearl Harbor, despite a long Japanese history of surprise attacks, proof that Pearl Harbor was vulnerable by air during a fleet exercise, despite the known grown of Imperial Navy carrier forces, despite the successful British naval air attack upon the great Italian naval base of Taranto.

Carriers Carry Airplanes -- Elsewhere

On the same day, Kimmel got an order to send both his carriers, one battleship, and appropriate cruisers and destroyers, on a cargo mission to Wake and Midway Islands, to take them defensive aircraft and to cover the pending arrival there of forty-eight new B-17 bombers headed toward the Philippines for MacArthur.

As of 3 December, Kimmel was still unaware of Magic as such, and had only a hint about Purple. His Fleet Secretary, privy to its existence but also sworn to secrecy, told Kimmel only that Purple was the code name for a Japanese crypto machine -- never that the U.S. Navy had them.

The ever-heightening tension of probable impending war prompted Kimmel and Short to take various further security measures. Among the worries was the presence on Hawaii of a large ethnic Japanese population. Powerfully aggravated by knowledge of the notorious use of pro-Nazi "Fifth Column" activists in the nations swept up by Hitler in Europe, and by old mainland American prejudices about orientals generally and now the Japanese in particular, the worry was likely spying and sabotage. Base entry and exit security was firmly stiffened. Also, on the main airfields planes were ordered to be parked closely together, that they might more easily and tightly be guarded. Anti-torpedo nets were considered around the ships, but the thought dismissed; the Pearl Harbor mooring areas were wide but relatively shallow, and all experience demonstrated that any aerial torpedo attack was impossible -- the "fish" would dive upon hitting the water, and by the time their mechanisms could control depth, they would be deep in the mud.

The night of 6 December in Hawaii was otherwise pretty much business-as-usual. Excepting duty men, most soldiers and sailors had Saturday night off, and as usual they headed into town to drink, look for girls, and otherwise make merry. This included most officers, whose clubs were lively. For the Navy's people, it carried a special caveat: off-duty officers might take the whole night off, but most sailors had only "Cinderella liberty". Nicknamed after the poor girl of the fairy tale who had to keep one eye on the clock while dancing with the prince, it meant that they too had to return by midnight. For this reason, at least three-fourths of them were already aboard their ships when dawn broke, but very few officers.

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