Michigan War Studies Review
Reviews, surveys, original essays, and commentary in the field of military studies.
16 May 2012
Review by Jonathan D. Beard, New York City
Joe Rochefort's War: The Odyssey of the Codebreaker Who Outwitted Yamamoto at Midway
By Elliot Carlson
Annapolis: Naval Inst. Press, 2011. Pp. xvi, 572. ISBN 978–1–61251–060–6.
Descriptors: Volume 2012, 20th Century, World War II, Naval Warfare, Intelligence Print Version

This excellent book fills a gap in the history of military intelligence in World War II. Joe Rochefort was not "the man who won the battle of Midway," but of all those involved, from dive bomber pilots to admirals, his contribution was perhaps the most important. Journalist Elliot Carlson calls Rochefort a "crypto-linguist-analyst"; he was also the head of Station Hypo, the radio intelligence unit at Pearl Harbor that monitored Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) communications, helped break Japanese codes, and provided information and advice to the commanders of the US Pacific Fleet.

Rochefort's story is also rather tragic, for just months after his triumph—informing Adm. Chester W. Nimitz almost exactly when and from where Adm. Chuichi Nagumo's carrier force would attack Midway Island[1]—he found himself exiled from intelligence and supervising the construction of a floating dry dock. Both these stories—how Rochefort divined Japanese plans to attack Midway and how officers in Washington, out of jealousy or a desire for control, pushed him out of Hypo—have been told before. But Carlson is the first to use all the sources, from oral histories and personal reminiscences to Navy records, journal articles, and recent books, in a coherent, scholarly narrative of Rochefort's entire career.

Joe Rochefort's War is primarily the story of Pearl Harbor, Midway, and Rochefort's downfall, bookended by short biographical sections on the codebreaker's family and early career as well as his life after leaving the Navy. These biographical parts are thin, because Rochefort was a private person, did not write about his wartime work, and left few personal papers. Although Carlson has been thorough, having interviewed both Rochefort's daughter and his granddaughter, we learn little of the man's civilian life.

The book picks up momentum once Rochefort joins the Navy, at age seventeen, near the end of World War I. Thanks to his intelligence and hard work, and some luck, he was commissioned as an officer—specifically, a "mustang" or non-Naval Academy graduate. This would handicap him for the rest of his career. A more serious problem, however, was his inability to respect rank and obey Navy protocol. Consistently outspoken, he made it clear to his superiors whenever he believed they were being stupid or merely wrong.

In 1925, having served on several ships, Rochefort made his first critical move: showing an interest in cryptanalysis, he moved to Washington to work with codes and ciphers. A second step came in 1929 when he was selected to spend three years in Japan learning the language. A valuable combination of skills defined his career: though he never became one of those experts who could independently break codes, he certainly understood them, and he could read Japanese.

By 1941, Rochefort was running Station Hypo, a counterpart to similar stations in the Philippines and Washington. Here he experienced a failure that haunted him the rest of his life: unable to read the IJN codes, American intelligence relied on traffic analysis, monitoring who sent what type of messages to whom, to track the Japanese fleet. By the end of November, Rochefort had "lost" the six aircraft carriers that would soon attack Pearl Harbor. He did inform commander of the Pacific Fleet, Adm. Husband Kimmel, that the IJN was on a war footing and about to attack. But the fact that the Kido Butai, or mobile force, was a mere 230 miles from Oahu came as a complete shock to Rochefort. The impact of this failure and his unwillingness to respect rank were in evidence three weeks later, after Nimitz had been sent to replace Kimmel:

Admiral Nimitz caught Rochefort on a bad day, clearly fatigued. Even after the kido butai had slipped away, and the threat of another Japanese attack had faded, he had continued to put in long hours. That wasn't all. Along with everybody else at Pearl, he had been badly shaken by the events of 7 December. But Rochefort felt especially chagrined because, as he put it, an intelligence officer's first job was to tell his superior today what the Japanese Imperial Navy was going to do tomorrow. "I feel that we failed in our job," Rochefort said later. "I personally felt very responsible for that." Driven by a gnawing sense of guilt, he threw himself even more fervently into his work.
      Perhaps because of Rochefort's sour mood, his first meeting with the Pacific Fleet's new commander didn't go well. Whatever Nimitz expected when Commandant Bloch led him down the basement's darkened staircase into the large, smoke-filled room, he probably didn't think he'd be brushed off by the officer in charge. Rochefort was busy. He was absorbed in a Japanese navy message, recently intercepted and partially decrypted. He was trying to translate it. He didn't have time for anyone, not even Admiral Nimitz. (211)

Carlson next describes the two carrier battles that halted Japan's offensive—Coral Sea and Midway—through Hypo's eyes. Shortly after the US Navy won the Battle of Midway, thanks in great part to Hypo, Rochefort found himself out of a job. The story of his removal, largely engineered by John and Joseph Redman in Washington, has been told before, by Edwin Layton, but Carlson does a much better job.[2] He dispassionately shows what the Redman brothers did and why, while duly noting Rochefort's own frequent mistakes. Although he does not reverse Layton's verdict on the Redmans' shabby treatment of Rochefort, his research exposes several mistakes and exaggerations in Layton's account. Remarkably, Rochefort ended the war working for Joseph Redman in Washington in a productive and apparently mutually satisfying arrangement.

Carlson leaves several important items to the end of his book. An Epilogue covers the rancorous dispute over whether Rochefort deserved the Distinguished Service Medal for his performance at Hypo during Midway. His many personal problems worked against him in 1942, and the medal was not awarded until 1986, after Rochefort and most the men who had sought either to give or to deny him the award had died.

Three other controversial topics are relegated to appendices: how the Japanese naval code JN-25 actually worked and was broken; the significance of the victory at Midway for the course of the war; the radio silence that enabled Kido Butai to elude Hypo, and everyone else, on its way to Pearl Harbor. The book is also equipped with sixteen pages of well-chosen black-and-white photographs; seventy pages of notes; a glossary of acronyms, place names, and technical terms; and an index. Craig L. Symonds's Battle of Midway[3] includes a brief account of the work done at Hypo and its impact on American tactics. However, readers interested in a detailed discussion that highlights Rochefort's own contribution and his subsequent career should read Joe Rochefort's War.

[1] Rochefort and Edwin Layton told Nimitz about a week in advance that the Japanese would come close enough to Midway to be spotted by search planes on 4 June, that they would approach from the northwest on bearing 325, that they would be sighted about 175 miles from Midway at 0600 hours. At 0530 on 4 June, a PBY pilot found the carriers bearing 320 degrees 180 miles from Midway. At 0552, another PBY pilot sent this message: "many planes headed Midway, bearing 310 degrees, distance 150 miles." This was the attack. Essentially, the intel officers had perfectly predicted the direction that the Japanese would approach from and when they would be spotted by American search planes. These two pieces of information allowed the US task force to position itself to attack without being discovered.

[2] See "And I Was There": Pearl Harbor and Midway—Breaking the Secrets (1985; rpt. Annapolis: Naval Inst Pr, 2006). Rear Admiral Layton's book suffers from many drawbacks. It had to be completed from his manuscript and notes after his death by R. Pinaeu and J. Costello. Moreover, Layton was an angry and vengeful witness. Finally, Carlson, twenty-five years on, had access to more information.

[3] NY: Oxford U Pr, 2011.

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