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A Final Struggle over the Pearl Harbor Attack

Sixty-three years ago today, Americans were shocked out of their normal routine by news that a Japanese force had attacked the U.S. military base at Pearl Harbor, destroying 18 ships and nearly 200 aircraft.

More than 2,400 Americans died that day, as many at the base were as surprised by the Sunday morning attack as were those on the mainland. Eyewitnesses recall hearing over loudspeakers that the aerial attack was not part of a drill.

In the days following, Americans demanded to know who was responsible for leaving the Pacific fleet so vulnerable. For even though the United States was at peace, war was spreading from continent to continent.

Within weeks of the attack, a commission appointed by President Franklin Roosevelt accused Lt. Gen. Walter Short and Adm. Husband Kimmel, the Army and Navy commanders in Hawaii, of being derelict in their duties, giving them sole responsibility for the catastrophe. As NPR's John Ydstie reports, the family of one of those men has spent the past 60 years trying to clear his name.

Retired lawyer Ned Kimmel, Adm. Kimmel's only surviving son, says the scapegoating of his father was "outrageous." Now he's working to restore his father's four-star status and remove a stain on his service record.

The effort stems from a day in 1944, when Capt. Laurence Safford, the Navy's former chief code breaker, said Washington officials had withheld from Adm. Kimmel secret information gleaned from decoded Japanese messages hinting at a Pearl Harbor attack.

The information, codenamed "Magic," included transmissions between Tokyo and its Washington embassy during late 1941. The messages detailed rising tensions with the United States over Japan's ambitions. It also included reports from the Japanese consul in Honolulu on the locations of naval vessels in Pearl Harbor.

While top Army and Navy officers in Washington saw the reports, they were reluctant to share the information — due in part to a desire to keep secret the fact that the United States had broken Japan's code. Warnings had been issued that a Japanese attack on U.S. targets was imminent — but many expected it would come not at Pearl Harbor but in the Philippines.

Daniel Martinez, chief Park Service historian at the USS Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor, has written about the controversy. He says that although Kimmel and Short could have done more, many U.S. leaders miscalculated the Japanese, both militarily and politically.

For his part, Ned Kimmel's most recent success was a congressional amendment describing the actions of Kimmel and Short as professional and competent. It urges President Bush to restore them to their highest World War II rank.

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John Ydstie has covered the economy, Wall Street, and the Federal Reserve at NPR for nearly three decades. Over the years, NPR has also employed Ydstie's reporting skills to cover major stories like the aftermath of Sept. 11, Hurricane Katrina, the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal, and the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. He was a lead reporter in NPR's coverage of the global financial crisis and the Great Recession, as well as the network's coverage of President Trump's economic policies. Ydstie has also been a guest host on the NPR news programs Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition. Ydstie stepped back from full-time reporting in late 2018, but plans to continue to contribute to NPR through part-time assignments and work on special projects.