The Pearl Harbor probe (11-13-44)

The Pittsburgh Press (November 13, 1944)

Background of news –
The Pearl Harbor probe

By Bertram Benedict

The Navy Department will make public within two weeks part, at least, of the report made Oct. 20 by a board of inquiry on the Pearl Harbor disaster.

Congress, after reconvening tomorrow, probably will not do anything about extending the time for Pearl Harbor courts-martial until hitherto secret findings of the Army and Navy on the disaster have been disclosed. Originally the period for such courts-martial would have expired on Dec. 7, 1943, under a two-year statute of limitations.

Last year, Congress extended the period to June 7, 1944. On June 7, 1944, Congress extended it to Dec. 7, 1944, one month after the 1944 elections. The Senate agreed to this date without a record vote. The House agreed by vote of 213–141, with all but one Democrat in the affirmative, and the Republicans in the negative by 139–42.

Congress probably has no power to order courts-martial, which are up to the executive branch of the government. If the reports now on file in the War and Navy Departments from their boards of inquiry on Pearl Harbor recommend against courts-martial of Adm. Kimmel and Gen. Short, the two men may never be tried. Or other Pearl Harbor officers may be court-martialed.

Knox investigated first

Several days after the disaster at Pearl Harbor, the late Secretary of the Navy, Frank Knox, flew to Hawaii to investigate. On Dec. 15, 1941, he stated that Army and Navy forces there had been “not on the alert against the surprise attack.” On Dec. 16, President Roosevelt announced that a special commission, headed by Associate Justice Roberts of the Supreme Court, would make an inquiry and report on whether there had been “derelictions of duty or errors of judgment” at Pearl Harbor.

The Roberts Commission reported on Jan. 24, 1942. It found that the commanding officers at Hawaii and their chief subordinates had considered the danger of an air attack “practically nil.” Although they had conferred frequently on other matters, particularly sabotage, they had not conferred on the messages sent them from Washington warning against a Japanese attack.

On Feb. 7, 1942, Adm. Kimmel and Gen. Short asked for retirement, and their requests were granted. On Feb. 28, 1942, Washington announced that they would be court-martialed; later, that the courts-martial would be postponed.

In its resolution of June 7, 1944, Congress directed the Secretaries of War and the Navy to investigate the circumstances at Pearl Harbor at once, and to initiate court-martial proceedings at their discretion. The Army and Navy boards of inquiry thus authorized were set up on July 14; they filed their reports on Oct. 20 last.

Previous cases recalled

In 1848, Gen. John C. Frémont was found guilty of mutiny and disobedience of orders; but public opinion was on his side, and he became the Republican Party’s first nominee for the Presidency, in 1856.

In the Civil War, Gen. Fitz John Porter was held responsible by court-martial for the Union defeat at the Second Battle of Manassas.

In 1898, Cdre. Winfield Scott Schley assumed command at the Battle of Santiago Bay when his superior officer, W. T. Sampson, was absent at a conference with Gen. Shafter. The Navy Department deplored Schley’s conduct before and during the battle, and President McKinley submitted to the Senate a list advancing Sampson eight points in rank, Schley six points; the Senate refused to approve the promotions.

In 1901, Schley finally asked for a court of inquiry. It delivered findings adverse to Schley, but public opinion was inclined to agree with Mr. Dooley that Schley was condemned for winning the battle the wrong way instead of losing it the right way.

Public opinion was also on the side of the late “Billy” Mitchell, trenchant advocate of airpower, who was found guilty by court-martial in 1925 of conduct “to the prejudice of good order and military discipline.”