Appointed to the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland in 1900, Kimmel graduated with honors in 1904. Over his career he served on several battleships, commanded two destroyer divisions, a destroyer squadron, and the battleship USS New York.
In World War I he served as Chief Gunnery Officer on the staff of Admiral Hugh Rodman.
In 1937 he was promoted to the flag rank of Rear Admiral. In February, 1941, Kimmel was promoted over 31 other senior naval officers to become Commander-in-Chief of the United States Navy Pacific Fleet.
Kimmel was in command at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii when the Japanese launched a surprise attack which brought the U.S. into World War II.
Seeking to place blame, Admiral Kimmel and his U.S. Army counterpart, General Walter Short, were the convenient scapegoats for politicians and superior officers in Washington, DC who had withheld critical information about Japanese intentions from them. Kimmel retired as Rear Admiral in 1942. In 1999, the United States Senate exonerated Kimmel and Short from sole responsibility for the Pearl Harbor tragedy.