Sam Terry’s Kentucky
December 7, 1941 – Few Kentuckians know the name Admiral Husband E. Kimmel, yet he was associated with one of the most significant events in America’s 20th Century history in circumstances that unfortunately left him out of history for more than 75 years. On December 7, 1941, the Henderson native was commander-in-chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Kimmel had assumed command in February at which time he wrote that he felt an attack on Pearl Harbor was possible and that he was taking immediate practical steps to minimize damage inflicted.
Kimmel was reared, along with his six siblings, at 512 North Green Street in Henderson. At age 16, he graduated from Henderson High School and was the class valedictorian. Kimmel attended Centre College in Danville for one year before receiving an appointment to the United States Naval Academy in 1900.
On December 7, according to Edwin T. Layton, “Kimmel stood by the window of his office at the submarine base, his jaw set in stony anguish. As he watched the disaster across the harbor unfold with terrible fury, a spent .50 caliber machine gun bullet crashed through the glass. It brushed the admiral before it clanged to the floor. It cut his white jacket and raised a welt on his chest.” Kimmel remarked to his communications officer, “It would have been merciful had it killed me.”
A naval serviceman—who had been alongside Admiral Kimmel during the attack—recalled that as Kimmel watched the destruction of the fleet, he tore off his four-star shoulder boards, in apparent recognition of the impending end of his command. Ten days later, Kimmel was relieved of his command and stripped of two of his four stars. The Roberts Commission appointed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt determined that Kimmel and Army Lt. General Walter Short were guilty of errors of judgement and dereliction of duty. Forced into retirement, the two men are the only World War II flag officers not to be retired at their highest rank held during the war.
Historians now agree that U.S. forces would have suffered greater losses had Kimmel had forewarning of the Japanese attack. Admiral Chester Nimitz, who took over command after Kimmel was removed, concluded that “it was God’s mercy that our fleet was in Pearl Harbor on December 7.” It is probable that Kimmel would have attempted to intercept the Japanese bombers which would have placed U.S. ships in deep water and resulted in more casualties and the loss of more ships.
Since his death in 1968, Kimmel’s family has petitioned to have Kimmel’s four star rank re-instated. Presidents Nixon, Reagan, and Clinton all denied the request. In 1999, the U.S. Senate passed on a 52-47 vote, a resolution to exonerate Kimmel and Short and restore both men to full rank – the final two victims of Pearl Harbor. To date, no President has chosen to act on the resolution.
In the meantime, Kimmel’s Kentucky connection was never celebrated until his hometown honored his role in history in 2016. Just days before the 75th anniversary of Pearl Harbor, the Henderson War Memorial Foundation unveiled a life-size bronze statue of Kimmel on the riverfront that overlooks the Ohio River. Created by Louisville sculptor Raymond Graf, the statue stands at 5 feet and 10 inches and depicts Kimmel holding a pair of binoculars looking toward the water.