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

The 14-Part Letter

In Washington, radio had already picked off a lengthy Japanese diplomatic message to its embassy there. The Purple Machines were wound up, and Magic-making cryptologists had soon decrypted thirteen pages. A fourteenth page was apparently to be sent later. Knox, Stimson, Stark, and Marshall had all thirteen pages by 6 December. None of that transcript implied immediacy, much less a coming Japanese move.

Page 14 was radioed to the Japanese Embassy very early in the morning of 7 December. Being a weekend, few personnel were available. A clerk unfamiliar with typewriters was ordered in to transcribe it. It was a very slow one- and two-finger typing process, but it had to be done as rapidly as possible; the Ambassador was under absolute orders to be certain that it and the prior pages were put together and delivered to Secretary of State Cordell Hull a half-hour before 1 p.m. -- 8 a.m. in Hawaii. In this fashion, there would be fair warning. The idea of a complete surprise attack had been raised during planning, but was out of the question. Both the architects of Japanese militarism and their foreign representatives were Samurai, and according to their ancient Bushido Code, even a Samurai assassin bent upon killing a victim in bed at home at night, however briefly must first wake him and throw him a sword. Additionally, they well knew the horrid psychological risk of a total surprise attack upon America.

But that fourteenth page had also been picked off the radio air simultaneously by U.S. intelligence and swiftly decrypted. That it followed the prior thirteen pages outlining intolerable and unresolveable national differences was clear: an "execute" message, it turned the whole into a declaration of war.

In Washington, Marshall, a fine Virginia horseman all his life, was as usual out riding in a park that Sunday morning, and could not be reached. At 10:30 a.m., Stark was informed and urged to immediately telephone Kimmel in Hawaii. Stark said no, he would first call Roosevelt -- whose White House telephone operator said the President was not yet available. Stark did nothing more. About the same time, Marshall phoned his office but refused to accept any messages left for him, saying he would come down there personally. On arrival he was handed the entire 14-part message. Instead of hearing out the urgent analysis, or first reading the crucial last page, he carefully read the entirety, then scribbled a dispatch to be sent all Army commands on the West Coast, Philippines, Panama, and Hawaii. He then read it to Stark, who offered to send it forthwith over the powerful Naval Radio system.

Marshall said no; he would use Army radio, with priority to MacArthur first. But static interfered with transmission. So an Army aide took the handwritten dispatch and gave it to Western Union, which took it down and telegraphed it as an ordinary overseas cable. At Honolulu, the slowly transmitted cable got no more priority than a doting mother's birthday greeting to her soldier son. Treated as any other very routine item; it was pidgeonholed for later delivery.

Moments before 8 a.m. Hawaii time, the vast Japanese carrier air armada began its attack upon Pearl Harbor and its installations, planes, and ships. Fiercely urgent radio word went out immediately. About this time the warning cable from Marshall was being delivered, and it messenger held up halfway there by the Pearl Harbor attack

In the Philippines, MacArthur, hearing of the Pearl Harbor attack, simply locked himself in his office for hours, though his air commander banged over and over again on his door, screaming for permission to fly his B-17s northward to scout out possible incoming Japanese, to bomb them if seen, and likely bomb Formosa as well. Meanwhile, just as had been the planes at Hawaii and for the same easily-guarded reason, the Army aircraft were closely grouped on their fields. That is where the Japanese found and bombed them nine hours later. MacArthur was yet in his headquarters, locked in. Around the same time Short finally got the cable transcript -- eight hours after it was decrypted.

In Washington, Hull was in his State Department office. The full transcript of the Japanese diplomatic message with its implied declaration of war had been completely read when the first radio reports of the Pearl Harbor attack were given him a few moments after 1 p.m. D.C. time. He sat and waited. Over in the Japanese Embassy, the solitary amateur typist was still pecking away, one key at a time. Shortly before 2 p.m. the arrival of Japanese emissaries Kurusu and Nomura was announced. Hull let them cool their heels few minutes before admitting them to his presence. They offered him their transcript of the Japanese declaration of war at 2:05 p.m., more than an hour after the attack had begun. A birthright member of the ever-polite Eastern Establishment and product of the very best of schools, a gentleman of impeccable manners and invariable calm, Hull's reaction to the two tailcoat-suited Japanese was one of pure, unadulterated, unlimited, roaring, white-faced anger.


The official fallout followed swiftly. King was relieved of his Atlantic Fleet command, brought into Washington, and given an interim title. Stark was relieved of being CNO, and assigned as the U.S. Navy's top representative to Great Britain and the Royal Navy. The moment he left, King took over. Kimmel and Short were both relieved, ordered home, and replaced. The American public was in a state of fervent overnight patriotism mixed with unmitigated fury at whomever was responsible besides the Japanese themselves. Congress had to act, and did.

The first official investigation began in days and was headed by none other than one of the nation's top jurists, Associate Justice Owen J. Roberts of the U.S. Supreme Court. Duly known as the Roberts Commission, it put Kimmel and Short immediately on the defence, for they were the top commanders at Pearl Harbor. The Commission moved with both alacrity and indifference to ordinary rules. It allowed no sworn testimony, no due process, no witnesses to be called by either man in their own defence, and no right for either to cross-examine other witnesses. In January of 1942, the Commission released carefully selected negative portions of its material to the press. Essentially, it blamed Kimmel and Short individually for the entire failure to defend Pearl Harbor and all the consequent damage and casualties there. Formal Army and Navy moves of inquiry were parallel; they pronounced the men guilty of Dereliction of Duty and Errors of Judgement, both charges extremely serious, but neither, as put, entitling either man to a general court-martial -- at which witnesses could be called and cross-examined, and a stern defence made, publicly if wished. Both men were swiftly reduced to their permanent ranks -- Kimmel to rear-admiral, Short to major-general -- and told they were through, and forthwith retired. All of this got considerable publicity. By this time, the furious public, had it been able to lay hands on them, very possibly would have lynched both from lampposts.

Not long after, MacArthur was ordered to Australia, and fled the Philippines in a PT boat. On arrival he sought for supreme Pacific command, but had to settle for command of the Southwest Pacific forces both miltary and naval, and award of a Medal of Honor -- doubtless the only time a losing commander who departed the scene ever got any valor award at all. Later, he was made a 5-star general. Turner was never mentioned, and wound up in other Navy positions by war's end. Marshall got a fifth star, retired from the Army postwar, and became Secretary of State and architect of the famed Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe. Stark retired postwar, as did King, who also got a fifth star.

In 1944, the Navy held a formal Court of Inquiry into it all, this time promising Kimmel due process. It exonerated him (and by analogy also his Army counterpart, Short), and severely criticised Stark. Fleet Admiral King, who had long been a good friend of Kimmel, rejected its findings, denied them any publication, and reinstated the Roberts Commission charges. Kimmel, saddened and mystified, got no explanation from King. That same year, Kimmel first learned of Purple and Magic.

In 1946, a Joint Congressional Committee held hearings on Pearl Harbor. Though Kimmel testified, every effort was made to divert any possible blame from Roosevelt or his Administration, and Kimmel again coult not cross-examine witnesses, call witnesses for himself, or post a true defence. Indeed, one Navy petty officer who actually took the "East Wind Rain" decrypt was warned by his commanding officer NOT to testify -- and didn't.

Various reports and investigations and stories official and unofficial have followed off and on ever since. Another began in 1995, and a Pentagon report admitted that Kimmel and Short did not get sent crucial messages, and that others should "share the blame." But it never said that the charges should be lifted from either man, or mention promoting them back to their higher former ranks, nor who in Washington or elsewhere might specifically hold part of the blame.

The intensity of the original search for scapegoats has been equalled by the persistence of those determined to restore the ranks and reputations of Kimmel and Short. In the former's case, he had three sons, lost one to combat in 1944, and the other two and their children carry on attempts to clear his name. Short's only son died, but his grandson carries on.

It is most unusual -- almost unique -- for top politicians of far-opposite views to agree on anything. But most recently, both Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts and one of that body's most liberal-leaning figures, and South Carolina's nonogenarian and deeply conservative Republican Senator Strom Thurmond -- both of whom well remember World War II -- are in total and loud formal agreement that complete posthumous restoration of their ranks and reputations not only should be made, but is publicly owed.

In October, 2000, Congress passed a Resolution clearing Kimmel and Short of any wrongdoing at Pearl Harbor, and allowed the President, in his capacity as Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces, to restore the lost ranks of both men. Former President Clinton did not sign it before leaving office. Kimmel's family, led by namesake Husband E. "Ned" Kimmel II of Davidsonville, Maryland, is still waiting for action.

Interestingly, key Pentagon officials yet argue that at bottom, the ultimate responsibility must always rest with the commander-on-site, and consistently refuse to consider restoration.

Of course, to do so would automatically raise embarrassing questions about Those Others.

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