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Kimmel, Husband Edward (1882-1968)

Photograph of Husband Kimmel

Naval Historical Institute #82800

Husband Kimmel ("Kim" to his friends) was born at Henderson, Kentucky, and graduated from the Naval Academy in 1904 after failing to get an appointment to West Point. He served on several battleships, including Georgia during the world cruise of the Great White Fleet. He was wounded during the Vera Cruz expedition. He served as an aide to Assistant Secretary of the Navy and future President Franklin D. Roosevelt just prior to the First World War. During the war, Kimmel taught gunnery and served as squadron gunnery officer with the American squadron assigned to work with the British Grand Fleet. Between the wars, he attended the Naval War College, commanded destroyer squadrons and battleships, and was promoted to rank of rear admiral in November 1937. He then commanded cruiser formations until being selected over 46 more senior admirals to the position of Commander in Chief, U.S. Fleet (CINCUS).

Thus it was that Kimmel had the bad fortune to be in command of the fleet at Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941. It was perhaps inevitable that he would be relieved shortly after the Pearl Harbor disaster and called to answer before numerous investigative committees. Historians still argue over whether he deserved to be relieved and retired or was simply a scapegoat for the pervasive lack of American preparedness.

Amid the controversy, a few facts seem fairly clear. Kimmel was a good naval officer, aggressive and capable. His behavior following the attack on Pearl Harbor was that of a leader who was not easily rattled and sought to take the fight to the enemy. Many of his contemporaries felt that what happened to Kimmel could have happened as easily to any of them. Nimitz, his successor, was particularly outspoken in his opinion that Kimmel did not deserve to be treated so ignominiously. Kimmel did not get full intelligence from Washington, and he lacked sufficient aircraft to adequately patrol the area around Hawaii.

However, it is also clear that Kimmel had a pronounced "can’t happen here" attitude that affected his defense preparations. He was sent a message shortly before the attack that began with "This dispatch is to be considered a war warning." Rather than alert the fleet to imminent hostilities, he focused on the list of potential Japanese targets in the message, which happened not to include Hawaii, and concluded that Pearl Harbor was a secure base. On the other hand, Kimmel also began planning for early raids against the Marshall Islands to relieve the expected pressure on the Philippines, which under other circumstances might have been a very reasonable course of action.

Kimmel’s relief was unnecessarily abrupt and damaged the early war effort. Kimmel was organizing an aggressive relief expedition to Wake Island when he was ordered to turn command over to Pye, his battleship commander, until Nimitz could get to Hawaii. This interim change of command was certainly unnecessary. Pye, who as interim commander seemed concerned mostly with avoiding any more disasters, called off the relief expedition. Some historians believe that if Kimmel had been allowed to retain command until Nimitz arrived, the relief expedition would likely have resulted in a badly-needed American victory in the first month of war.

On 26 January 1942 a Board of Inquiry concluded that Kimmel was guilty of dereliction of duty. Further hearings continued through 1946, and while the findings against Kimmel were softened slightly, he never escaped official blame for the debacle at Pearl Harbor. Compelled to retire from the Navy, he put his considerable energy and talent to work at Frederic R. Harris Company, a New York shipbuilding firm, preparing floating dry dock blueprints. Harris later claimed that Kimmel's knowledge of battleships was of great value in designing the dry docks needed to support the great Central Pacific offensive.

Kimmel was known for his emphasis on efficiency and routine, but he also gained a reputation for honesty, courtesy, and charm while dealing with Congress as Navy budget officer in the 1930s. He was highly knowledgeable on naval history, strategy, and tactics but not particularly creative. Though capable of laughing at a joke, he lacked any real sense of humor. However, he was no hidebound traditionalist: He broke longstanding Navy tradition by moving his headquarters ashore from flagship Pennsylvania, which greatly improved communications security. He also understood the diminished role of battleships, writing on 26 May 1941 (Prange 1988):

In the Pacific, our potential enemy is far away and hard to get at ... and has a system of defense ... that requires landing operations, supported by sea forces, against organized land positions supported by land-based air. This is the hardest kind of opposition to overcome.... It also requires a preponderance of light force and carrier strength, in which we are woefully deficient in the pacific. Our present strength is in battleships — which come into play only after we have reduced the intervening organized positions....

Kimmel  won the loyalty of his staff and subordinates, whom he encouraged to speak freely and show initiative, but preferred a good book in his cabin to wardroom socializing. He had a temper, which when provoked led him to throw the nearest book at a bulkhead or to stamp on his hat. Eventually a junior officer stood by with a spare hat for him to stamp on on such occasions.

Service record

1882-5-14     

Born in Henderson, Kentucky
1904

Graduates from Naval Academy, standing 13th in a class of 62
1926
Captain

1933

Commander, BB New York
1934

Chief of staff, Battleships, Battle Force
1937-11
Rear admiral     

1938-7

Commander, Cruiser Division 7
1939

Commander, Cruisers, Battle Force
1941-2-1
Admiral
Commander, Pacific Fleet
1941-12-17
Rear admiral     
Relieved
1942-5-1

Retired
1968-5-14

Dies at Groton, Connecticut


References

Boatner (1996)

Dupuy et al. (1992)

Morison (1948)

Navy Historical Center (accessed 2007-11-20)

Prange (1981)



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