Bush skipping Pearl Harbor 60th anniversary, hope dim for exoneration of commanders

Thursday, December 6th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

HONOLULU (AP) _ President Bush's decision to skip ceremonies for the 60th anniversary of Pearl Harbor is viewed by some as a setback to those seeking exoneration for the U.S. commanders held accountable for the success of the Japanese attack.

The president is considering whether to restore full honor to the late Adm. Husband E. Kimmel and Gen. Walter C. Short, the officers in charge at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. A Pentagon commission is expected to make a recommendation in the matter.

At the 50th anniversary of the surprise attack, in which 2,390 people were killed, the first President Bush rejected the idea of restoring the Army and Navy commanders to the ranks they held before being demoted in the wake of the attack. President Clinton failed to act on the matter, even after an overwhelming vote of Congress supporting Kimmel and Short.

Bush was invited to Pearl Harbor this week but has decided to observe the anniversary aboard an aircraft carrier in Virginia.

Kimmel's son, Edward Kimmel, paid close attention to the president's decision about where he would be on Dec. 7.

``This is the last evidence that the government holds my father and General Short solely responsible for the disaster of Pearl Harbor, when all others involved went on and retired at their highest rank,'' Kimmel said.

Short died in 1949 and Kimmel died in 1968.

Historians have spent decades debating the officers' responsibility in the Pearl Harbor attack, with some saying the time has come to exonerate them.

``Justice cries out for this,'' said historian Michael Gannon, who believes Kimmel and Short were scapegoats, blindsided by officials in Washington who failed to relay critical information before the Japanese attack.

In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the heightened state of alert imposed upon Americans, the president ``might not be in the mood right now to exonerate people alleged not to have been alert,'' Gannon said in an interview.

In 2000, Congress put language into a defense bill urging the president to restore both officers to the highest rank they held during World War II.

The two officers were removed from their commands after the attack, declared to be in dereliction of duty for not preparing Pearl Harbor and forced to retire.

Both were pointedly left off a 1947 roster that restored other World War II officers to their higher wartime ranks. Kimmel had been a four-star admiral and Short a two-star general, but both were retired a notch lower.

In a long historical debate that still sparks strong emotions, some veterans and historians still believe the commanders must take responsibility for the destruction and death Japan's surprise attack caused.

``Kimmel and Short were two good men, fine officers. But I conclude they made mistakes in the days leading up to the attack and are, in part, responsible for what happened,'' said Col. Fred Borch III, U.S. Army judge advocate who participated in an investigation into the officers' conduct.

Gene Castagnetti, director of the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu, said Pearl Harbor veterans will be disappointed the president is not coming to speak on Friday.

Castagnetti, a former Marine, said he sees no reason for the president to further exonerate Kimmel and Short.

``Commanders are responsible for everything their men fail to do and can't delegate that accountability,'' he said.