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Codebreaker who saved the U.S. Pacific fleet

by Anthony Fensom

JOE ROCHEFORT’S WAR: The Odyssey Of The Codebreaker Who Outwitted Yamamoto At Midway, By Elliot Carlson. Naval Institute, 2011, 616 Pp., $36.95 (hardcover)

Spying on other nations has long been part of the global power game, but it has not always been considered proper diplomatic practice.

“Gentlemen do not read each other’s mail,” former U.S. Secretary of State Henry L. Stimson declared, having decided in 1929 to shut the first U.S. peacetime cryptanalytic organization, the Cipher Bureau.

Yet, despite Stimson’s views, U.S. intelligence gathering continued, and with the outbreak of World War II the major powers became fully engaged in the silent war of codebreaking.

Written by U.S. journalist Elliot Carlson, Joe Rochefort’s War is the story of Navy Captain Joseph J. Rochefort, a pioneer of U.S. cryptology whose contribution to his nation’s war effort was largely unappreciated until shortly before his death.

Carlson’s first book, this extensively researched biography for the U.S. Naval Institute lifts the lid on the secretive world of eavesdropping, reflecting on a time when such work was generally disparaged as a “crackpot endeavor” only for “odd characters”.

No idealized hagiography, Carlson succeeds in painting the picture of a brilliant but outspoken maverick, whose biggest fault with his critics lay in proving them wrong.

Tall, softly spoken but with a quiet brand of authority and irreverence, Rochefort became a hybrid “crypto-linguist-analyst” who rose through the ranks despite not being part of the “Annapolis club” of Naval Academy officers.

A high school dropout who enlisted at the age of 17, Rochefort developed a passion for the navy that saw him win high praise from superiors in a number of roles, from operations to communications. Despite his preference for naval duty, he was made an apprentice codebreaker in 1925 after showing promise in crossword puzzles and bridge.

A three-year stint in Japan learning the language prior to the war aided his intelligence skills, and in 1941 he was placed in charge of “Station Hypo” at Pearl Harbor with the task of breaking Japanese naval communications from their cold basement “Dungeon”.

Ironically, Rochefort’s first efforts could be considered a failure, as his team and the U.S. intelligence community were condemned for failing to predict the surprise December 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

Japanese intelligence efforts, including false radio broadcasts, succeeded in obscuring the long voyage of Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto’s fleet across the Pacific to Hawaii.

Fortunately for Rochefort, his career survived the event and shortly afterwards, his team of crack codebreakers achieved “the single most valuable intelligence contribution of the Pacific War” by uncovering Japanese plans for the Battle of Midway.

Despite fierce debate within the navy over Rochefort’s forecasts — some analysts predicted an attack on the United States or Siberia — ultimately he managed to persuade his superiors of their accuracy, including Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz.

As a consequence of Rochefort’s discovery, Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto’s fleet ran into an ambush at Midway Atoll from which the Imperial Japanese Navy never recovered.

“If ever there was a battle involving tens of thousands of men in which victory was attributable to one man … this one was attributable to Joseph J. Rochefort,” former U.S. President Ronald Reagan said in posthumously awarding Rochefort a Distinguished Service Medal (DSM) in 1986.

The length of time taken for Rochefort to achieve such recognition reflected his career post-Midway. Perhaps due to his lack of tact with his superiors and impatience with Washington politics, he was removed from his post months after his biggest success and his claim for a DSM was initially rejected.

Rochefort saw out the war in other areas, successfully launching the U.S. floating dry-dock ship and later assisting with intelligence efforts on Japanese resources.

Uncovered by Hollywood in 1976 in the movie “Midway,” Rochefort died the same year after finally gaining some public recognition. While the debate continues over Pearl Harbor, Carlson shows there were numerous warnings of an impending attack had the U.S. intelligence effort been better focused.

Poor communication between the army and navy, a presumption that Japan would “act rationally” and general lack of preparedness all contributed to the defeat that haunted Rochefort and his colleagues.

The book could also prove a worthy study for modern intelligence experts, given the furor over such failures as Iraq’s presumed weapons of mass destruction. Rochefort believed that “an intelligence officer … should do his job without reference to the policies of his superiors. Otherwise, he ran the risk of falling into the trap of advocacy or worse, cheerleading,” writes Carlson.

There is always danger in works written well after the death of the main protagonist, but Carlson shows a general journalistic flair for objectivity in discussing Rochefort’s critics as well as friends.

While ultimately battles depend on those in the field, Rochefort’s achievements should prove inspirational to those whose wars are conducted with the pen rather than the sword.