Friends of Padre Steve’s World,
Johhn F. Kennedy noted that “Victory has a hundred fathers, but defeat is an orphan.”
This week many people, especially those in the Navy, will be remembering the Battle of Midway on its 78th anniversary. One of its one hundred fathers was not appreciated or honored in the way he deserved, Commander Joe Rochefort.
The victory at Midway would not have happened without the exceptional intelligence gathering and code breaking by the cryptologists of Combat Intelligence Unit – Station Hypo – at Pearl Harbor under the command of Commander Joseph Rochefort. He and his small yet skillful team cracked the Japanese Naval code in time for Admiral Chester Nimitz to make the correct decision as to where to send his tiny carrier task forces to oppose the massive Japanese Combined Fleet under the Command of Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto.
Though Rochefort’s unit was based at Pearl Harbor and under the Administration of the 14th Naval District it was actually fell under the operational control Commander Laurence F. Safford, chief of Security Intelligence of Naval Communications in Washington. He and Rochefort were old friends. This was not surprising because the Code Breakers, as the were called, or cryptanalysts which, existed in the nether world between Communications and Intelligence. Gordon Prange wrote in his book Miracle at Midway:
“To excel in this work required a particular type of mentality, combining a well-above-average IQ, verging on the genius in mathematics, with an infinite capacity for painstaking detail. He should have genuine enthusiasm for the work, yet maintain a scholarly detachment. He must be without ambition as the world generally understands the term, for his chances of pinning a star on his shoulder were roughly those of being elected President of the United States. Awards or decorations very rarely came his way…The cryptanalyst never moved out of his specialty, so over the years these unique, dedicated men of similar aims and tastes came to know each other well. Each service developed a compact group of experts working together with mellow, anonymous perfection.”
Rochefort had such a team at Station Hypo were such a team. Working at Pearl Harbor they passed their analysis directly to Admiral Nimitz’s Fleet Intelligence Officer, Captain Edwin Layton who passed it directly to Nimitz. Rochefort provided a daily situation report to Nimitz and Washington which includes an analysis of all radio traffic from Japanese Fleet Units. Rochefort’s team relied on highly experienced enlisted Chiefs and Petty Officer Radiomen to listen in on Japanese signals, and they had in modern terminology had “hacked” the JN25, the Japanese Naval Code Which included over 45,000 grouping of five digit numbers, which their operators could change as needed. Yet without any code breaking machine or computer Rochefort’s team was able to read every fourth or fifth grouping in every message, and his radio operators could even recognize individual Japanese radio operators by their rhythm of tapping on the key of their radio teletype pads. Their skilled and accurate forecasting of Japanese intentions gained the complete trust of Nimitz, while Washington remained skeptical. Prange wrote:
“But Nimitz was “a thinking leader, a real intellectual,” who comprehended the intelligence mentality. Having come to appreciate the value of the work, he insisted that Rochefort have complete freedom to carry on his essential if off-beat activity. “You are supposed to tell us what the Japanese are going to do,” he told Rochefort, “and I will then decide whether it is good or bad and act accordingly.”
Rochefort’s team provided Nimitz with information that three Japanese task forces, the occupation force, the Kiddo Butai, and the main body of the Japanese Fleet would attack Midway, down to the timing of the attack. To determine if Midway was the actual target a false message was directed to be sent by Midway to indicate that Midway’s water distilling plant had failed. When the Japanese notified the high command and fleet that their target was “short of water” it convinced Nimitz and the commanders of Task Force 16, Rear Admiral Raymond Spruance, and Task Force 17, Rear Admiral Frank “Jack” Fletcher that Midway was the target of the Japanese operation and they planned accordingly in their deployment to meet the Japanese.
Hiryu Burning and Sinking
Rochefort’s efforts were opposed by the key officers in the Office of Naval Intelligence, who refused to believe that Midway was the target of the Japanese force. In spite of their opposition, Nimitz was highly confident of Rochefort’s analysis. When all was said and done the U.S. Navy had defeated the Japanese, sinking four of the six aircraft carriers of the First Carrier Strike Force – Kido Butai that had attacked Pearl Harbor. In a matter of minutes three of the four, the Akagi, Kaga, and Soryu were hit by the dive bombers of the USS Enterprise and USS Yorktown. A few hours later the fourth carrier, Hiryu was blasted by at least six bombs and mortally wounded, but before she was fatally damaged her aircraft had crippled the Yorktown. the next day the heavy cruiser Mikuma was sunk, and her sister ship Mogami so heavily damaged that she was out of action for a year. The loss of the carriers, and so many of their extremely skilled pilots and aircrews ripped the heart out of Japan’s premier naval striking force. Combined with their aircrew losses at the Battle of Coral Sea their losses crippled their ability to fight the Americans for the rest of the war.
Historian Walter Lord wrote:
“Against overwhelming odds, with the most meager resources, and often at fearful self-sacrifice, a few determined men reversed the course of the war in the Pacific. Japan would never again take the offensive. Yet the margin was thin—so narrow that almost any man there could say with pride that he personally helped turn the tide at Midway. It was indeed, as General Marshall said in Washington, “the closest squeak and the greatest victory.”
One of those men was Joseph Rochefort. Admiral Nimitz credited Rochefort for breaking the codes and setting the stage for the victory, and recommended him for the Distinguished Service Medal, however, Rochefort’s rivals in Washington D.C. ensured that the award was turned down in order to claim the success for themselves.
As an act of retribution they effectively removed Rochefort from further participation in the war at what he did the best, cryptanalysis. They had him reassigned to command a floating dry dock in San Francisco by the Department of the Navy as a way to punish him, and effectively end his career. Rochefort retired as a Captain after the war, and his contribution to the victory at Midway remained unrecognized by the Navy. Admiral Nimitz again recommended him for the award of the Distinguished Service Medal in 1958 and again it was turned down, but Rochefort’s supporters continued to work to right the injustice.
In 1983 Rear Admiral Donald Showers who had worked for Rochefort in 1942 again recommended the award to Secretary of the Navy John Lehman who approved it. Unfortunately Rochefort was no longer alive to receive it, he had died in 1976.
Today Rochefort’s service to the Navy and nation is remembered with the annual Captain Joseph Rochefort Information Warfare (IW) Officer Distinguished Leadership Award which is awarded to annually recognize the superior career achievement of one Information Warfare Officer for leadership, teamwork, operational contributions and adherence to the principle by which he served, “We can accomplish anything provided no one cares who gets the credit.”
Today, the high tech Information Warfare professionals have their own community, officer and enlisted, and work seamlessly with Naval Intelligence, Operations, and Communications professionals. Their importance is recognized and relied upon. That is in large part due to Joe Rochefort and his team at Station Hypo.
Have a great day and please don’t forget men and women who embody the spirit, intellect, and integrity of Joseph Rochefort, for today, and especially not in the military it is a rare commodity.