Saturday, May 12, 2012

Happy Birthday Joe Rochefort - Midway Legacy

by Bill Doughty
Today is the 112th anniversary of the birth of Joseph John Rochefort.  Tomorrow, May 13, 2012, is the 70th anniversary of Rochefort’s discovery of the Imperial Japanese Navy’s plan to attack Midway Atoll.
The Battle of Midway altered the course of World War II and saved Hawaii, Australia and perhaps the West Coast of the United States from further attacks by Japan.
With a reporter’s skills, Elliott Carlson shows the influence of one man on the outcome of Midway in “Joe Rochefort’s War: The Odyssey of the Codebreaker Who Outwitted Yamamoto at Midway.”
Carlson employs dogged research, personal interviews, presentation of facts and a resistance to speculate.  Thanks to his access to Rochefort’s family members and Navy archives he is able to paint a picture of the complicated man and the political intrigue that marked his naval career.
Rochefort is revealed as a “restless maverick” -- caustic, acerbic, sarcastic.  But he was also gifted with extraordinary memory, able to solve puzzles and synthesize complex shifting information.
These abilities proved indispensable in the Pacific War.  Rochefort implemented actionable intelligence in an independent, decentralized setting at Pearl Harbor’s Station Hypo -- predicting the future for Adm. Nimitz and Adm. King and allowing them to develop strategies to defeat the enemy.
Rochefort, the youngest of seven children, was born May 12, 1900 to Irish immigrant parents.  To put things into historical context: his father, Frank, was born in Dublin 160 years ago (1852), only forty years after the War of 1812 and nine years before the American Civil War.  One hundred years ago (1912), the Rochefort family moved from Dayton, Ohio to Los Angeles, where Joe would be recruited into the Navy.
With no college or even a high school diploma, Joe Rochefort joined the Navy in 1918.  His science and math abilities propelled him to the rank of ensign, and he served on training ships, tankers, a mine sweeper, and a destroyer.  He served aboard the cruisers USS New Orleans and USS Indianapolis, as he was recruited into the intelligence field, and on several battleships, including USS Maryland, USS California, USS Pennsylvania and USS Arizona.
Author Carlson shows how Rochefort was haunted by the attack on Pearl Harbor, Dec. 7, 1941.  Rochefort felt a sense of guilt for not being able to predict the attack.  But Pearl Harbor motivated him, as it did for the rest of the nation.
Rochefort redoubled his efforts to crack the JN-25(b) code, analyze radio transmissions and track the Imperial Japanese Navy.  Carlson provides just enough information about the art of codebreaking -- in an era of nascent computing and related technology -- to show how daunting the task was for Rochefort’s team: 50,000 possible meanings of 33,333 5-digit codes with an indeterminate, shifting beginning.
Despite the challenges, Rochefort correctly predicted the location of the Imperial Fleet in the western Pacific as early as January 1942.  He gave Nimitz information that proved correct in the Battle of the Coral Sea, setting the stage for Midway.
“Gains registered in cryptanalysis and codebreaking permitted Rochefort to practically look over Yamamoto’s shoulder as he moved his forces around the Pacific,” Carlson writes.
On May 13, 1942, Rochefort decrypted information that the IJN was focusing on areas near Midway and the Aleutians.  Rochefort analyzed the information and made a case for an impending attack on Midway, suspected as being “AF” in the Japanese code.  He presented his analysis on sheets of paper on plywood and wooden sawhorses; PowerPoint would not be available for decades.
With help from former submariner, engineer and University of Hawaii faculty member Jasper Holmes, who knew Midway’s infrastructure, Rochefort devised a ruse so the Japanese would reveal their plans.  Nimitz approved the plan, and a fake message was issued that Midway was running short of fresh water.  The IJN then sent out their own message about the water shortage in code, thus confirming that “AF,” “Affirm Fox,” was indeed Midway.
Scene on board USS Yorktown (CV-5) during Battle of Midway. (Navy photo) 
Nimitz carried out his own subterfuge, directing fake carrier transmissions in the Coral Sea and a bombing of Tulagi by PBYs that fooled the Japanese into thinking that U.S. aircraft carriers were still on location.
With intelligence, guts and luck the United States Navy defeated the Imperial Japanese Navy at Midway.
Carlson writes: “Eventually the Battle of Midway would be compared with Trafalgar, Jutland, and other major campaigns at sea that turned the tide of history.  The battle transformed the conflict between the United States and Japan.  Many agonizing years of combat loomed ahead, but after Midway the United States would remain on the offensive.  ‘Midway was the crucial battle of the Pacific War, the engagement that made everything else possible,’ Nimitz said after the war.”
Rochefort’s contributions continued despite political intrigue and infighting within the intelligence community and a resistance to innovation and free-thinking by some leaders and colleagues.
Rochefort tracked Japanese action in Guadalcanal, acoustic mines, oil supplies and access to sea lanes and even the Japanese view of the situation in Germany late in the war.  He had other challenging assignments, as well, including working on floating drydocks, but he soon retired on Jan. 1, 1947 at the rank of captain and at 46 years old, returning to the Navy briefly during the Korean War.
The attack of Dec. 7, 1941 brings inevitable comparisons to Sept. 11, 2001, and, though he does not make the comparisons himself, several jump out in Carlson’s book.  Among the biggest: a lack of imagination in predicting the attack and a failure for agencies to share information, what Carlson quotes as “fatal defects in the Army-Navy relationship.”
Interservice rivalry continued to challenge Rochefort when the Army’s 7th Air Force doubted Hypo’s information analysis and resisted the evidence that Midway would be a target in June 1942.
Another 9/11 comparison comes after the war when consipiracy theories abounded.  Groups targeted FDR, accusing former President Roosevelt of knowing about the attack on Oahu and allowing it to happen in order to push the country into WWII.
Carlson shows the lack of evidence for the conspiracy theories and gives credit to Rochefort for resisting political and peer pressure to fix blame.
Author Elliot Carlson speaks at the National WWII Museum.
Time and perspective, combined with evidence and good sources, are a strong combination, and Carlson wields a deft pen in describing the life and impact of Joe Rochefort and his role in winning the Battle of Midway.
The book is made even better with the inclusion of photos, including rare family pictures.  Among the more fascinating are photos of a young Rochefort in Tokyo, 1929-32, where he studied Japanese and gained an understanding of the culture.
“Joe Rochefort’s War” is a tour de force and a top ten read for the history of the Battle of Midway.


Wayne said...

Bravo! Well written Bill. You captured my attention to the very end. Thank you for sharing.
Malama Pono,

Larry Kelly said...

Fabulous book. Had just finished Ian Toll's "Pacific Crucible" and here comes "Joe Rochefort's War" in to the store. Elliott Carlson did a great job on such an important historical account. Gives the reader insight on how Joe Rochefort went about his business with an outcome of far reaching implications. If interested in learning more of what was happening and why in WWII, I recommend this book.

Anonymous said...

Maybe the USN could finally get around to naming a SHIP after him, considering his reward after Midway was being assigned to skipper a DRY DOCK!