The 'Codebreaker' Who Made Midway Victory Possible A turning point in World War II came in June 1942, when the U.S. surprised and defeated the Japanese in the Battle of Midway. That victory was possible, in large part, because of the work of a little-known naval codebreaker named Joe Rochefort. Elliot Carlson tells his story in Joe Rochefort's War.
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The 'Codebreaker' Who Made Midway Victory Possible

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The 'Codebreaker' Who Made Midway Victory Possible

The 'Codebreaker' Who Made Midway Victory Possible

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Seventy years ago today, Lieutenant Commander Joe Rochefort raced to his office in the basement of the naval headquarters at Pearl Harbor as smoke rose from the wreckage along Battleship Row. The man in charge of the Pacific Fleet's radio intelligence unit would feel responsible for the debacle for the rest of his life. The complete surprise achieved by the Japanese navy that Sunday morning represents a colossal failure of intelligence that continues to reverberate to this day.

Just six months later, Commander Rochefort and his men provided precise information on the next Japanese offensive against the Hawaiian Islands. Intelligence admiral - intelligence that Admiral Chester Nimitz used to set a trap which could have been another disaster if Rochefort was wrong. He worked closely with Eddie Layton, the admiral's intelligence officer.

REAR ADMIRAL EDDIE LAYTON: Admiral Nimitz had asked me to give an estimate of when the attack would take place, by whom and where. And I had said, well, I expect the carrier task force to attack the morning of 4 June on bearing 325 from Midway at 0600 with four carriers and their cruisers and so forth. So I was - he sent for me. He said, you know, Layton, you were five miles, five degrees and five minutes off.

CONAN: That day, American planes caught the Japanese by surprise, sank four aircraft carriers and won the decisive battle in the Pacific. Elliot Carlson joins us here in studio 3A. His new book is called "Joe Rochefort's War: The Odyssey of the Codebreaker Who Outwitted Yamamoto at Midway." And thanks very much for coming in today.

ELLIOT CARLSON: Thank you for having me.

CONAN: And we have to go back to Pearl Harbor and how much he did feel desolate about what happened that day. How much of the responsibility was his?

CARLSON: Well, actually, none, but he felt he had let Kimmel down.

CONAN: Admiral Husband Kimmel.

CARLSON: Admiral Husband Kimmel who was the commander in chief of the Pacific Fleet. And the fact of the matter is you can't track ships that do not emit signals. And the Japanese striking force that left the Kure Isles on November 25th emitted no signals. Rochefort was not asleep at the switch. He was watching the situation in the South China Sea where a totally different Japanese force was assembling to move down to Malaya, Singapore and points south, Borneo and so forth.

And he informed Washington and Kimmel about what he saw there, and that's where he thought the Japanese would put their main strike. And he had every reason to think so. There had been no clues that the - no radio signal clues that the Japanese carriers had moved out of the Inland Sea.

CONAN: And indeed, there was a problem which would crop up even more seriously later in the war. There was a division of resources, the people who ran naval intelligence and naval communications in Washington were battling each other and assigning different tasks to different units. The unit at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii was called Station HYPO, but they were not tasked to break the Japanese naval code, which was JN25B.

CARLSON: Correct. There were divisions of labor and conflicts between Office of Naval Intelligence, which actually had nothing to do with code breaking, and Naval Communications, which ran code breaking. And then, there were divisions of conflicts within communications. So it was sort of like today. In fact, reading this book, it kind of reminded me of 9/11 in some ways, that things never change bureaucratically. You still have these turf battles. But the job to break JN25 had been assigned to the Philippines, Station CAST in Manila.

And some of the work was also being done in Washington on a research basis but not reading current traffic. By December 7th, JN25 consisted of 50,000 code groups. And by December 7th, about 2,000 had been compromised, by no means enough to read any messages.

CONAN: After December 7th, 1941, Station HYPO, Joe Rochefort's unit, was assigned to take part in the attack on JN25B. This was the most accomplished and best intelligence radio intelligence unit in the Pacific, indeed, anywhere in the world at that time, probably.

CARLSON: Right. Three days later, they finally got around it, giving this job to Rochefort and his 10 code breakers. Before that, they working on a code that - it was almost out of use. It's called the Flag Officers Code. It would emit sometimes two or three messages a day, which was ludicrous. You can't break anything. Before you get is two intercepts. But that's what their job was until December 10.

CONAN: Because you depend volumes and repetition.

CARLSON: Exactly. Exactly.

CONAN: Saying, oh, this makes - exactly relates to that.

CARLSON: Right. Right.

CONAN: Though they started to attack JN25B, and started to have some success, but again, bureaucracy raises its head. The people from Manila, of course, have to retreat. As Corregidor is under attack...


CONAN: ...they reestablished in Australia as Belconnen.


CONAN: And the operators in Washington, the big cheeses, known as Station NEGAT, they're saying, wait a minute. We're supposed to be coordinating all this stuff.

CARLSON: Well, there's been a transformation in the leadership of communications in intelligence after Pearl Harbor. King swept out...

CONAN: Admiral King, the commander in chief.

CARLSON: Adm. King who was commander in chief of the entire Navy swept out the most knowledgeable people who were running decrypt office. He felt as though they had discredit themselves by Pearl Harbor, and you had to bring in new people. But the new people that were brought in were not code breakers. They were people who were - who had some clout in the bureaucratic network, but were - and they were friends of people who knew King. But they were not code breakers. So he didn't have the background that Rochefort have. And also, they had a totally different idea of who ought to run things at Pearl Harbor. They wanted to centralize intelligence in Washington. And they view Rochefort and his operation as a remote field station that should just feed data to Washington. And Washington would do the thinking. And Rochefort didn't see it that way.

CONAN: We're talking with Elliot Carlson, a journalist and historian. The author, most recently, "Joe Rochefort's War: The Odyssey of the Codebreaker Who Outwitted Yamamoto at Midway." And 800-989-8255. Email: Paul's on the line, calling us from Augusta, Georgia.

PAUL: Hello, Neal.

CONAN: Hi, Paul. Go ahead, please.

PAUL: I'd just like to tell you a quick story. I had some personal involvement, not specifically in the actual breaking of the code. But 30 years later, I was a young airman stationed at Fort Meade Maryland at the National Security Agency. And I was getting out of the service. And the director at that time was Admiral Noel Gayler, who was personally involved in the battles in Midway and Coral Sea, as a Navy aviator. And what he wanted to do in June 1972 was have a 30-year remembrance of the battles and what took place and the cryptologic effort behind them, specifically Joe Rochefort and company at Pearl Harbor, primarily.

PAUL: So I was lucky enough to get on this small team, and we walked around the agency - the National Security Agency - and interviewed people that had actually been there, both at Op-20-G in Washington and at Pearl Harbor in the tunnel in Hawaii. And they have some fascinating stories.

CONAN: I bet they did. What can you tell us - well, what can you tell us?

PAUL: Well, much of what I actually researched at that time was classified, and I think it still is. But, you know, the classic story of the AF is short of water was the thing that broke the whole thing wide open and convinced the Navy brass at Pearl Harbor to actually commit the rest of the fleet to the Coral Sea and defeat the Japanese armada.

CONAN: Well, here's a clip from a movie - if anybody knows who Joe Rochefort is for the most part, they know it from the movie "Midway," which, of course, starred Henry Fonda as Admiral Nimitz and I think it was Hal Holbrook, of course, starred - well, had a supporting role as Joe Rochefort. Here, he's talking about what Paul was talking about, the plan about AF.


HAL HOLBROOK: (As Joe Rochefort) I know it's thin.

HENRY FONDA: (As Admiral Nimitz) Thin? Damn near invisible.

HOLBROOK: (As Joe Rochefort) But I figured out a way to confirm it, Sir. Now, if you have this flown to Midway. It's a fake message, Admiral, reporting that Midway's freshwater condenser's broken down. It should be transmitted in the clear, so there can't be any question about Japanese operators getting every word of it.

FONDA: (As Admiral Nimitz) Instruct Midway to include that in their housekeeping traffic tomorrow.


CONAN: And, of course, the signal was sent. The Japanese picked it up and replied in their code, again, AF is short of fresh water. Thereby, confirming that AF was Midway. But, Elliot Carlson, that wasn't really what convinced people.

CARLSON: Well, actually, Nimitz was already convinced, but he was - he bought the AF as Midway as early as May 16, which was several days before the water ruse. And contrary to what many think, Admiral King was onboard with Nimitz at that time. But they were holdouts in Washington, who Rochefort worried might still change King's mind and maybe even Nimitz's. And these holdouts were Redman brothers who ran Op-20-G and communications. And they were giving memos to King constantly, that it's not going to be Midway that's going to be hit. It's going to be Hawaii or the South Pacific, or even the West Coast.

So this is one of the oddities, is that King seemed to be comfortable with Nimitz's assessment. But Nimitz then told Layton and Layton told King, told Rochefort, just to be on the safe side, you better come up with something better because the Army doesn't believe it. And your own bosses in Washington don't believe it. So you just - just to protect this all the way around, come up with something new. And Jasper Holmes, on Rochefort's staff, told him about the water condensers on Midway.

And, in fact, when they got the message about the water ruse - I mean, when they got the confirmation, Rochefort didn't even report it to Washington. He felt that Washington would be self-serving. They won't believe it from me. So he let Manila - he let the Philippines - I'm sorry. He let Australia report it. And he thought it may be more believable coming from Belconnen than coming from HYPO.

CONAN: We're talking - Paul, by the way, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate the story.

PAUL: Thank you.

CONAN: Elliot Carlson is the author of "Joe Rochefort's War: The Odyssey of the Codebreaker Who Outwitted Yamamoto at Midway." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

But I also wanted to ask about that characterization of Joe Rochefort as the eccentric, walking around in a smoking jacket and slippers.

CARLSON: The people who knew Rochefort just hated that characterization. They said it was totally false, that Rochefort was not the loudmouth, wisecracking, cigar-chomping, sloppy guy who wandered around Pearl Harbor in a smoking jacket. Rochefort, in fact, was a total aristocratic, quiet, soft-spoken guy who did have a very acerbic wit, a withering sense of humor that he would direct at those who were his adversaries. But he wasn't the loudmouth redneck we see Hal Holbrook play. And they resented that characterization very strongly, that it didn't do him justice. He was, in fact, a very different kind of gentleman.

CONAN: He was, however, brilliantly correct about the Battle of Midway. He also provided critical information about the previous Battle of the Coral Sea, provided the first break into what became the Guadalcanal campaign when he found that Japanese forces were about to build an airfield on Guadalcanal. Yet, within a couple of months after the Battle of Midway, Joe Rochefort is forced out at HYPO, at Pearl Harbor, and sidelined for the rest of war.

CARLSON: That's right. And that's - it goes back to what we were saying earlier about bureaucratic turf wars. When Rochefort put in place the water ruse you just talked about, he didn't tell Washington he was going to do that. He did that on his own. And this was more indication to Washington that Rochefort was a loose cannon, somebody who was not going to play ball with them. Their view was is that, you, Joe Rochefort, you work for us and not 20-G. So when you want to do something like that, you ask us for permission. And if you have a finding that you think is important, you tell us and we'll tell Nimitz. And Rochefort did not see it that way. He was one of the pioneers of what's called axable(ph) intelligence, that you diminish the layers of bureaucracy that you go through when you have an estimate, and go directly to the commander in chief. And Rochefort insisted that I'm going to report to Nimitz, no matter what. And so he broke all the rules of Op-20-G.

CONAN: And paid for it.

CARLSON: And paid for it.

CONAN: For his efforts at Midway, the men in his unit were all recommended - many of them recommended for medals. He was recommended for the second highest medal in the Navy at that time, the Distinguished Service Medal.

CARLSON: Correct.

CONAN: And it was denied.

CARLSON: King turned it down on the recommendation of his staff. His staff was made up of people who knew Rochefort and actually despised him for all kinds of different reason.

CONAN: Because he did not suffer fools gladly.

CARLSON: He did not suffer fools lightly. And the chief of staff for King was a guy named Russell Wilson, who Rochefort encountered on the Battleship Pennsylvania many years earlier. And Rochefort thought he was a stuffed shirt, and he conveyed this to him in various ways. Now, Rochefort friends warned him that, you can't talk to people that way. These people are going to be pretty important some day, and they turned to be pretty important some day.

And so Russell Wilson recommended against the medal, along with the influence of the Redman brothers, who were Rochefort's immediate bosses, who felt as though Rochefort had ignored them and gone around their backs, made them look bad, and they were jealous. So all these factors played in to Rochefort being ousted. And King tended to trust his immediate advisers. King, actually, was amazingly confident. He's - but he was - he followed the advice of his advisers.

CONAN: Joe Rochefort then stayed in the Navy through the war and helped in the floating dry dock program, which sounds unglamorous and might be, but was very important, nevertheless. He retired from the Navy afterwards, after he failed again another promotion. Yet, after his death, he finally got the DSM.

CARLSON: Correct. You see, it was the result of a - almost a 20-year or 30-year campaign that started shortly after World War II had ended. It was began by one of his intelligence officers and picked up in 1980s by Admiral D. "Mac" Showers, who worked for the CIA guy, Casey. Actually, he had a lot of clout. And also, he was a colleague of Lehman's, Secretary of the Navy. So Showers brought the muscle after this project that resulted in Rochefort getting the DSM 10 years after his death.

CONAN: Elliot Carlson tell - tells the story of all of that and its role in the Second World War in "Joe Rochefort's War: The Odyssey of the Codebreaker Who Outwitted Yamamoto at Midway." He was kind enough to join us here in Studio 3A. Thanks very much.

CARLSON: Well, thank you for having me.

CONAN: Tomorrow, we'll talk about Europe's struggles to balance sovereignty and stability, as the EU looks out for way out of its financial crisis. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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