Joe Rochefort's War; Elliot Carlson; 2011; Navel Institute Press; 456 pgs; notes, appendices, index, glossary, bibliography
Joe Rochefort won WWII.
OK, that is a bit of hyperbole, but if any one man deserves that tag line, he is it. He actually fought two wars: one against the Japanese and one against the Navy. He won both, but beating the Navy would have to wait until after his death. He lead the Hypo (a code word) sigint (signals intelligence) group from a basement in Honolulu. His team cracked the code just enough to allow Rochefort to predict with uncanny accuracy the time and place of the attack on Midway. The Japanese lost four fleet (meaning big) carriers (Kaga, Hiryu, Soryu, and Akagi) to the American's one (Yorktown). If the Americans had lost that battle, resources otherwise marked for Europe would have been routed to the Pacific. The war might have been extended by many months. One could even imagine the US dropping the A-Bomb on its originally planned target, Berlin.
Joe Rochefort was a Navy man through and through. He wanted, more than anything, a sea command. He never really got one. Instead, as mentioned, he was assigned to sigint. He has spend some years in Japan learning the language and that, combined with his decoding experience and quick mind made him a good fit.
There have been big two movies about Midway. The early one staring Charleton Heston is tolerable, but the latest one is much better historically. If you have seen the latter, you already know a good bit of the story.
The new group started off badly. Sigint was not up to speed and they missed the attack on Pearl Harbor entirely, and so did everyone else, but the error would haunt Rochefort. Midway was sigint's revenge. The group was struggling with JN25(c), the Japanese code system. They were able to break the code and win the day, but not without drama.
Joe had one albatross which he could not shake… he was a "maverick". A maverick was an officer who has had come up through the ranks but was not a graduate of Annapolis. Many, if not most, Navy officers were snobs and bigots in that respect. Three officers stand out in this regard. Wegner and the Redmans Sr. and Jr.. They wrote derogatory reports about Rochefort through Navy back-channels. Nimitz would discover this late in the game and he was furious.
Early on , before much of the Japanese message traffic could be decoded, what little data they had came from Traffic Analysis (TA) of ship movements. This did not yield much and Pearl Harbor was the result.
It was interesting to read about the "IBM machines" that proved to be very helpful. The machines were essentially programmable punch card sorters. Sorting was one of the early targets of computing.
When the hammer fell on Honolulu, the Americans could intercept radio traffic but they could not tell what direction it was coming from. They could only say that the source was either at one bearing, or that bearing +180 degrees. In other words, their equipment was primitive even for the time, and it lacked direction finding capabilities.
Six aircraft carriers attacked Pearly Harbor. Luckily, the US aircraft carriers were at sea. Equally lucky was that the Japanese did not hit Pearl's huge stockpile of oil.
After Pearl, the Navy went on a witch hunt and largely blamed Admiral Kimmel. He would face years of criticism before taking his own life. Nimitz took over the Pacific Theater. Rochefort did not escape criticism from the likes of the Redmans.
The good news for Rochefort was the increasing presence of sigint in war.
The next major battle of the Pacific war was Coral Sea. The battle was a draw, but the Japanese were, for the first time, halted. The next engagement would be Midway where the Japanese would face defeat for the first time.
Rochefort and his team had identified Midway as the next target. The JIN's (Japanese Imperial Navy) code for Midway was AF. Washington (the Redmans again) disagreed. Famously, the US suckered the Japanese into tipping their hand on AF. They sent a message "in the clear" that Midway's fresh water condenser was broken. The Japanese noted that AFs water condenser was down. This was Rochefort's second error… he made Washington look stupid. But he was right. The Americans used Rochefort's uncanny predictions to sink all four of the Midway bound carriers. Nimitz famously remarked that Rochefort was only off by five minutes, five miles and five degrees. The rat bastard Redmans later tried to argue that the only reason Rochefort succeeded was because of work that they had previously done. That was BS but they kept at it. When Rochefort was put up for the Distinguished Service Medal (DSM), they nixed it, arguing in part that he did nothing himself, only his people did! By that logic, no officer would ever receive a medal.
Rochefort was also able to provide key information relating to the next major contest: Guadalcanal.
Rochefort would die before he was finally awarded the DSM (the highest military honor the US gives) by Ronald Reagan.
This book was a long read, but I never lost interest. It is the story of a naval battle that would rank up there with Jutland and Trafalgar.
Lee Moller is a life-long skeptic and atheist and the author of The God Con.