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CAMPAIGN 2000

Congress May Get to Heal Long-Felt WWII Wounds

Military: Bill to restore ranks of two blamed for Pearl Harbor part of larger effort to honor generation.

September 06, 2000|RICHARD SIMON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Almost six decades after the bombing of Pearl Harbor that propelled America into World War II, Congress is poised to recommend the posthumous promotions of the commanding officers who shouldered the official blame for the attack's success.

The move is part of a strong push underway on Capitol Hill to reward the sacrifices of the World War II generation and right some perceived wrongs. These efforts are spurred in part by the dwindling number of the era's veterans--of 16 million who served, fewer than 6 million remain alive.

Awaiting action as lawmakers reconvene this week after their summer recess are more than a dozen war-related measures. They range from paying $20,000 to each veteran forced into slave labor by the Japanese after the fall of Bataan and Corregidor to creating a Rosie the Riveter historic park honoring efforts on the home front.

The Pearl Harbor bill would clear the commanders of culpability for failing to have the naval base better prepared for the Japanese attack that brought the United States into the war.

It asserts that Adm. Husband E. Kimmel and Gen. Walter C. Short "were not provided necessary and critical intelligence that . . . would have alerted them to prepare for the attack." The measure asks President Clinton to honor the commanders by restoring their highest wartime ranks--four stars for Kimmel and three stars for Short. Both officers retired with two stars.

The congressional recommendation has rekindled old passions and a decades-old controversy. "Government should not be in the business of rewriting history," said Ronald H. Spector, a history professor at George Washington University who contends that Kimmel and Short bear some responsibility for what happened at Pearl Harbor.

But supporters say that Kimmel and Short are the only two eligible officers from World War II who were not allowed to retain their wartime ranks.

Officers' Families Push for Bill's Passage

The measure--contained in a large bill related to Defense Department activities--includes no financial benefit. But it long has been sought by supporters of Kimmel and Short, including the late admiral's lone surviving son, Edward R. "Ned" Kimmel.

"I don't think the Pearl Harbor disaster was brought about by any inaction or negligence . . . on the part of my father," said Kimmel, 79, a retired Delaware attorney.

Sen. William V. Roth Jr. (R-Del.) narrowly won Senate approval last year for including the measure in the Defense Department bill. But it was dropped from the final legislation during negotiations with the House.

This year, the measure is considered virtually certain to pass once negotiators from both chambers meet in coming weeks to draw up the final bill.

"At last, we have an excellent opportunity to correct a serious wrong from World War II," Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) said in supporting the measure in June. Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C) has called Kimmel and Short the "two final victims of Pearl Harbor."

Kimmel and Short were relieved of command shortly after the Pearl Harbor attack. U.S. losses included more than 2,400 dead, 18 warships sunk or severely damaged and 188 aircraft destroyed.

In 1942, a presidential commission accused the commanders of "dereliction of duty" for failing to anticipate the attack. Subsequent investigations did not find any dereliction on their part but some of the inquiries declared that the two commanders made errors in judgment.

Both officers retired from the service in 1942. Short died in 1949. Kimmel fought to clear his name until his death in 1968.

"You couldn't talk to him for five minutes before he'd get on the subject of Pearl Harbor," said the younger Kimmel.

In 1995, Kimmel won Pentagon review of his father's case. It concluded that responsibility for Pearl Harbor should not fall solely on the two commanders but "should be broadly shared." But it did not provide for the advancement in rank sought by the families.

Kimmel and Short backers, including some historians and retired Navy officers, have contended that Washington-based officials made the commanders scapegoats to cover their own failure to anticipate the Japanese attack.

But Robert Love, a history professor at the U.S. Naval Academy, called the legislation "preposterous" and said that it has "nothing to do with serious history." He added: "It's a settled issue."

Some historians say that Kimmel and Short should have ordered more reconnaissance flights that might have detected the Japanese. "The intelligence available to Adm. Kimmel and Gen. Short was sufficient to justify a higher level of vigilance than they chose to maintain," according to the 1995 Pentagon report.

Spector, the George Washington University professor who is a former Navy director of naval history, said: "There is such a thing as command responsibility. On that basis, they were not treated unfairly."

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