The Court of Inquiry: Admiral Edward Kalbfus; Admiral Orin G. Murfin, President;Vice Admiral Adolphus Andrews.
Today is December 7, a date so significant in American history almost every one—except recent high school graduates who never got that far in their pitiful history survey classes—immediately recognizes. Yes, it is “a date that shall live in infamy,” in the words of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the day when the Empire of Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, Hickam Field, and other naval and military installations in Hawaii.
I’m betting you know at least the rough details of that catastrophe, so this post is not going to detail them. If not, look it up.
I am going to take the opportunity to explore a kinship relationship, albeit a distant one, with a historical personage connected to the events. Actually, I also have a much closer connection, too. Lemuel Mills, my maternal grandfather, was a civilian construction worker on Ford Island who came under personal fire that Sunday morning. He shared the story in a letter to his daughter, my mother, Ruby Irene Mills Murfin. She was not pleased to hear from the nasty, drunken, abusive father who had abandoned her mother, to no one’s regret, years before. Even dodging Japanese bullets couldn’t make a hero out of the man so despised by his family that when he died in Arizona years later my Uncle Pearl Mills—no that isn’t a typo, that was his name—went all the way there from South Dakota just to make sure the bastard was dead and piss on his grave.
Anyway, my distant kinsman Admiral Orin Gould Murfin, is the one I want to write about today. Not that he was there that Sunday. The Admiral had recently retired stateside after serving from 1936 to late 1940 as Commander of the 14th Naval District, headquartered at Pearl Harbor. But in 1944 he was called out of retirement to become the President of the Navy Court of Inquiry of the attack. This is his story.
Murfin was born on April 13, 1876 at Hanging Rock, Ohio. His father was an engineer of the coal fired furnaces used in the iron and steel industries. By the age of four the family had relocated to Wellston, Ohio where his father was made superintendent of Superior Coal Plant #1.
The boy was such a bright and eager student that he obtained an appointment to the Naval Academy after completing his junior year of high school. He graduated from the Academy in 1897 and although he saw no action in the Spanish-American War advanced rapidly in the Navy. He was a full Lieutenant in 1902, very rapid advancement indeed.
By World War I Murfin was a Captain. He was decorated for his service as the commander of U.S. mine laying bases in Scotland. His greatest achievement was laying the Northern Mine Barrage--57,000 mines laid across the North Sea from the Orkney Islands off Scotland to the three mile limit off Bergen, Norway. The mine field effectively hemmed in the German fleet to home waters and cut off virtually all remaining maritime trade. His citation for the Navy Distinguished Service Medal cited “the pioneer work performed by Captain Murfin in the establishment of the bases and the development and administration of the industrial organization required.”
Those organizational and technical skills excelerated Murfin’s career even through the period of Naval Disarmament of the 1920’s. He was the final Captain of the venerable cruiser the USS Alabany (CL-23) and was named in 1929 Captain of the USS West Virginia, then the largest and newest of the Navy’s battleships.
In 1930 he made rear admiral and in 1931 was named Judge Advocate of the United States Navy. This shore assignment gave the newly minted Admiral experience in legal and administrative affairs that would be called on in the future.
But you can’t keep a blue water sailor ashore for long. After three years at a desk he was named Commander of the 3rd Division of the Battleship Fleet in the Atlantic.
As the Navy’s attention shifted to Asia and the Pacific so did Murfin’s career. After serving as President of the board of inquiry of the crash of the Navy Airship Macon into the Pacific in 1935, he was advanced to Commander-in-Chief of the Asiatic Fleet. During this assignment he gained public notice for conducting the search for missing aviatrix Amelia Earhardt. During this assignment, he was promoted to full four star Admiral.
Murfin’s final duty assignment was as Commander of the 14th District at Pearl Harbor. At first glance, this might seem a come down from a Fleet command. But it came as the Navy was increasingly alarmed by Japanese aggression and growing naval might and was beefing up its greatest naval base, Pearl Harbor. Admiral Murfin was expected to bring his noted administrative skills to upgrading and expanding the facilities, along with forward bases at Midway and Wake Islands while making plans to defend them from possible attack.
When he retired, those plans were well underway. I am sure the Admiral thought he had done everything in his considerable powers to carry out his duty.
How his heart must have sunk as, like most Americans, he heard the news of he attack on December 7 on the radio. Within days the scope of the disaster became clear—the destruction of much of the heart of the Pacific Fleet, including many of its great battleships, at their moorage or in dry dock. Only the fortunate fact that the Fleets’s two carriers were at sea averted total disaster.
The Admiral hoped to be recalled to active duty. It didn’t happen. But then in 1944 he was recalled to the Presidency of the Board on Inquiry. He was perfectly qualified by his experience as Judge Advocate and as President of the Macon Board of Inquiry, but the appointment raised eyebrows in and out of the Navy. He would be called to judge the performance of many close former comrades, some of whose careers he had personally mentored and who he had appointed to high positions as well as those of his superiors in Washington. And it was a fact that a good portion of the defense plans for Pearl Harbor had been drawn up under his watch, although they had been somewhat modified by the time of the attack.
No matter how you looked at it, the assignment was a hot potato. Inside the Navy and Army officer corps was a wide spread belief that the first official inquiry, hastily assembled at President Roosevelt’s direction by General George C. Marshall, was something of a kangaroo court aimed at scapegoating the on scene commanders, Admiral Husband Kimmel, of the Pacific Fleet, and Lieutenant General Walter C. Short, Army’s Hawaiian Department to protect higher-ups in Washington including General Marshal himself and Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Herald Stark.
On the other hand, pressure was growing in Congress for a more complete investigation.
Murfin’s Board of Inquiry wove a path in between. It was critical enough of high command to earn the wrath of both Marshall, who thought that it was too harsh on the high command and Secretary of the Navy James Forestall, who felt it was to lenient. But it still lay most of the blame on Kimmel and Short. Missing from the equation was the full knowledge of the extent to which Naval Intelligence had broken Japanese Naval codes and exactly what was known about enemy intentions and movements in Washington when. Most of the intelligence, which might have effected operational decisions, was denied to the commanders in the Pacific.
Today Admiral Murfin is most frequently noted by authors in the mini-industry that has sprung up around investigating Pearl Harbor. Ranging from crack-pot conspiracy nuts to serious historians, most have criticized Murfin and his investigation as being lax on Washington. Thus an extraordinary officer with an unblemished record enters history as a footnote and a failure.
The Admiral died October 22, 1956 at the age of 80.