Joseph Rochefort

Joseph Rochefort – The Forgotten Hero of the Battle of Midway

Joseph John Rochefort, the man whose decoding of the Japanese codebook led to the American victory at the Battle of Midway, had enemies other than the Empire of Japan. His feats at cryptanalysis were phenomenal, but not universally appreciated, particularly by the codebreakers in Washington, D.C.  Naval jealousy and internal machinations would rob Joseph Rochefort of the honor that was due to him for his brilliant work in predicting where the Japanese fleet would strike after Pearl Harbor.

Joseph Rochefort
Joseph Rochefort

Rochefort, who had not gone to the Naval Academy, was an outsider from the beginning of his naval career. He was still in high school when he enlisted in the Navy in 1918 with the goal of being a naval aviator. He claimed to have been born in 1898 so that he would seem old enough for a military career, and didn’t even have a high school diploma when he was commissioned as an ensign after graduating from the Navy’s Steam Engineering School at Stevens Institute of Technology.

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He wasn’t looking for a career in codebreaking. He served as a staff officer for senior admirals and and enjoyed doing crossword puzzles. Years later, when Commander Chester C. Jersey was posted to Navy Headquarters in Washington, D.C., he remembered Rochefort’s affinity for crossword puzzles. It was 1925 and the Navy was looking for people who could work with codes. The newly created codebreaking outfit of the Navy, OP-20-G, at that time consisted of one man, Lieutenant Laurance F. Stafford, today credited as the father of U.S. Navy cryptology, who had been assigned to develop new codes for the Navy. Rochefort showed up and Safford conducted a six-month cryptanalyis course: Safford provided him with cryptograms to solve and Rochefort solved them. But when Stafford was assigned to sea duty the following year, Rochefort, just twenty-five years old, was the officer in charge of a staff of two.

Laurance F. Stafford
Laurance F. Stafford

By June 1941, Rochefort was at Pearl Harbor. By this time, the codebreaking unit had more people and, more relevance. The Japanese didn’t know that their code had been broken years before when a previous American Director of Naval Intelligence used a secret naval intelligence slush fund to finance break-ins during the early 1920s at the Japanese consulate in New York City. The Japanese Navy’s code book was furtively photographed and, over the years, translated. By the time he was sent to Station HYPO at Pearl Harbor, Rochefort had the codebook. But he didn’t have the additive tables, which the Japanese frequently changed. Rochefort’s assignment was to create an accurate additive table using the raw messages that went out over the airwaves by the Japanese Navy.

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, was a devastating blow to the Navy, but it also galvanized the nation and its military forces into the war effort. Restoration began immediately on the naval fleet. But in order to defeat the Japanese and their intention of becoming the dominant naval power in the Pacific, the Navy knew that codebreaking was a crucial priority. Fortunately, in Joseph Rochefort, they had a codebreaker who worked tirelessly to decipher the messages of the Japanese.

Joseph Rochefort and his crew had been given the order to begin the decryption of JN-25, the central Japanese communications system. As it turned out, breaking the Japanese code would prove easier than addressing the friction between Station HYPO at Pearl Harbor and OP-20-G in Washington, D.C.  Captain Edwin Layton was the Pacific Fleet’s intelligence officer. But, because OP-20-G had given Rochefort the assignment and was more or less overseeing the network of the intercept stations, there was a turf war between Rochefort and Washington, D.C. The D.C. office wanted central control over all of the radio intelligence units.

Edwin T. Layton
Edwin T. Layton

Rochefort, who was not always as tactful as might have been politic, believed that he answered solely to Admiral Nimitz, who had been named commander of the Pacific Fleet. Layton had a great deal of respect for Rochefort’s factual reports and hard work; he, like Rochefort, was fluent in Japanese and Layton knew how much work was going into the messages that were being translated. In fact, of the five hundred to one thousand messages per day that were being deciphered, Rochefort was personally translating more than one hundred of them. Layton trusted Rochefort’s translation and his assessment, so when Rochefort called Layton on May 14, 1942, to say that he had translated part of a message which included the words “invasion force”, Layton knew it was legitimate.  But the message also include an unknown reference, AF, indicating a location. But where was AF? Rochefort was convinced that the location was Midway.

Nimitz agreed with Rochefort’s analysis and ordered three aircraft carriers to return from the South Pacific.  Midway was covertly warned of the threat. The Seventh Air Force at Hawaii was placed on alert, its B-17 bombers loaded with bombs ready to strike enemy ships.

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Commander John Redman, who commanded OP-20-G, refused to believe that Midway was the next Japanese target, disputing Rochefort’s assertion that AF was Midway. OP-20-G said the target was more likely to be the Hawaiian Islands but thought that the real target was the American West Coast and everything else was merely a decoy.

But Nimitz had complete confidence in Rochefort’s analysis. If Rochefort was wrong, Nimitz’s career would be imperiled. Rochefort devised a plan that would confirm that Midway was the target. The radio operators at Midway were instructed, via undersea cable, to send an uncoded message that the island’s distillation plant, which was responsible for the desalination of the island’s water supply, had broken down. Two days after the message was sent, the Japanese reported that the AF Air Unit needed to be resupplied with fresh water.

The Navy intercept unit in Australia informed Washington that AF was now confirmed to be Midway. Rochefort spent the night before Nimitz’s May 27, 1942 staff meeting reviewing all the messages. He showed up at the meeting to let them know that HYPO had broken the final piece of the JN-25 puzzle; he had a message dated for May 26 ordering the destroyer escorts for the Japanese troopships to arrive at Midway on June 6. Another decoded message said that the air attacks would begin northwest of the island several days before.

Rochefort’s reports came in the nick of time. On May 27, both the code books and the additive tables were changed and radio silence was imposed by the Japanese, denying American codebreakers access. Fortunately, Nimitz had his cues, knowing where and when the Japanese would strike.

Isoroku Yamamoto
Isoroku Yamamoto

Nimitz was not a codebreaker, but he had an instinct for the future of naval warfare and he held the radical view that carriers, and not battleships, would lead to victory. Instead of relying on the few battleships that had survived the attack on Pearl Harbor, he focused on the ability of the carriers to deliver hit-and-run attacks against the enemy. Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the mastermind of the December 7 ambush, had an elaborate plan for the Midway attack.

Nimitz had a simpler approach: get there first and surprise the Japanese. The tactics worked. As British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, formerly First Lord of the Admiralty, put it, “The annals of war at sea present no more intense, heart-shaking shock…the qualities of the United States Navy and Air Force and the American race shone forth in splendour“.

After the victory, Station HYPO celebrated for what Rochefort described as a “drunken brawl” for three days. The codebreakers then returned to work to decode JN-25’s new codebook and additives. They had done splendid work that had resulted in a gamechanging victory at sea. But Washington was not so charitable in its response. Rochefort was resisting Redman’s crusade to place all the radio intelligence under the control of OP-20-G in Washington, D.C. Although both HYPO and OP-20-G had been vigorously involved in the codebreaking, it was HYPO which had performed the analysis that had led to victory. As author Stephen Budiansky points out in his book Battle Of Wits: The Complete Story Of Codebreaking In World War II, if Nimitz had followed Washington’s direction, the Japanese would have had a much greater chance of winning at Midway.

When Nimitz told Joseph Rochefort that he wanted to nominate him for a Navy Distinguished Service Medal for the role he played in the victory, Rochefort was not encouraging. It would only make trouble, he told Nimitz.

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John Redman claimed that Midway was solely the achievement of OP-20-G. Because of that, he could not, would not accede to Nimitz’s intentions of awarding the Distinguished Service Award to Rochefort. Redman’s brother Joseph Redman was the Director of Naval Communications and he took exception to the fact that, in his words, Station HYPO was under the command of someone who was not technically trained in naval communications.

Instead of Rochefort, Captain Redman said, HYPO should be commanded by a senior officer who was trained in radio intelligence. The Redman brothers were effective in their behind-the-scenes efforts and Rochefort did not receive a medal because he had only used the tools that had been provided. It was Washington, not HYPO, the Redmans asserted, that had evaluated the intentions of the Japanese.

Over his desk, Rochefort had a sign which read We can accomplish anything provided no one cares who gets the credit. But no one could have expected that Washington would so completely steal credit from those who deserved it.

The battle for centralization of the radio intelligence units continued. Nimitz authorized his embattled codebreaker to send a memo that Rochefort answered only to Nimitz, not to Washington. A month after he sent the memo, Rochefort was ordered to the Navy Department for temporary additional duty that quickly became permanent. Nimitz was enraged at John Redman, who at this time was now the fleet communications officer for Nimitz.  The excuse was that Rochefort’s advice was needed, but Rochefort was no fool. He had told Nimitz that he would not be allowed to return to HYPO.

Rochefort never again worked in coding. At the end of his career, he was placed in command of the San Francisco floating dry dock ABSD-2. Rochefort died in 1976, but the battle to reward him for his work did not end with his death, and Secretary of the Navy John Lehman, responding to renewed efforts to honor the codebreaker who helped to win the Battle of Midway, supported those efforts. Joseph John Rochefort received the Navy Distinguished Service Medal almost a decade after his death, on November 17, 1985.

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2 thoughts on “Joseph Rochefort – The Forgotten Hero of the Battle of Midway”

  1. Fantastic, succinct, but yet comprehensive article, Paula!!! As I write this it is Tuesday, November 5, 2019, and I am nervously awaiting the release of the movie “Midway” on November 8. I say “nervously” because when I scanned the list of characters and actors shown in the trailer, I could not find either Rochefort’s name nor Brennan Brown’s, the actor who plays him. This worries me that Hollywood will yet again depict Rochefort wrongly (or at least insufficiently) as it did in the abominable 1976 version with Hal Holbrook. I just finished reading “Joe Rochefort’s War” by Elliot Carlson. I now wish someone would write a screenplay similar to the huge hit “The Imitation Game,” which would show Rochefort as the deserving American counterpart to the brilliant and eccentric British code breaker Allen Turry at Bletchley Park, played by the actor Benedict Cumberbach. HEY HOLLYWOOD SCREEN WRITERS! ARE ANYONE OF YOU READING THIS?

  2. Great article, sadly human egos almost always get in the way of progress. LCDR Rochefort excellent work was hi-jacked by a couple of brothers who cared nothing about a superior code breaker. LCDR Rochefort selfless devotion to his duty is a shining example of what men can do when their ego is kept in-check.

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