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Midway

Joseph J. Rochefort

Converted for the Web from "Battle Of Wits: The Complete Story Of Codebreaking In World War II" by Stephen Budiansky

Four thousand miles to the east, Midway had become an obsession to another man during that winter and spring of 1942, a man as anonymous as Yamamoto was famous. Commander Joseph J. Rochefort came by his anonymity as much by the nature of his personality as by the necessity of his vocation. Above his desk hung a notice that read: "We can accomplish anything provided no one cares who gets the credit." He would later have reason to question the wisdom of that principle. But putting in twenty-hour shifts in a windowless basement was not a calling that appealed to the glory seekers in the United States Navy anyway. "The Dungeon," they called their cheerless command post in the basement of the administration building at Fourteenth Naval District Headquarters at Pearl Harbor; its more formal name was Station Hypo.

Rochefort had enlisted in the Navy in 1918 with vague dreams of becoming a naval aviator. Nothing but the oddest of chances determined that 1942 would find him in charge of breaking JN-25, the Japanese Fleet General Purpose Code -- the code that carried the operational orders of the Combined Fleet, the code that would, in short, tell where Japan was going to strike next.

Rochefort was driven but unflamboyant, a conventional career sailor who had pursued a conventional career path: sea duty, engineering school, ensign's commission, more sea duty. Rising from the enlisted ranks, he was an outsider to the elite fraternity of officers who had graduated from the Naval Academy. The coincidence that deflected him out of the ordinary course of duty occurred while he was serving aboard the battleship Arizona in 1925. The ship's executive officer, Commander Chester C. Jersey, liked crossword puzzles. Rochefort did too. Jersey remembered that fact when he was posted to Navy Department headquarters in Washington later that year. The Navy needed someone to work on codes, and Jersey recommended Rochefort. The informality of it all would seem fantastic by the standards of the huge and bureaucratic postwar Navy. But in 1925, the Navy's cryptanalytic staff consisted of a grand total of one person, and administrative matters throughout the service were frequently settled through personal contact and word of mouth.

Lieutenant Laurance F. Safford, the Navy's one-man code breaking bureau, had not set out to be a cryptanalyst, either. In 1924 he was assigned the task of developing new codes for the Navy. No one in the Navy was paying much attention to foreign countries' codes at the time, and they certainly weren't trying to break them. But Safford figured that to make a good code he ought to first see what other navies were doing. And so the "research desk" was born in Room 1621 of the old Navy Department Building on the Mall in Washington.

When Rochefort showed up for duty in October 1925, Safford put him through a six-month course in cryptanalysis that basically consisted of tossing him cryptograms to try to solve. When Safford was called to sea duty in February 1926, the "course" ended, and Rochefort, more or less by default, found himself officer in charge of the research desk. Under him was one cryptanalyst and one assistant with "no particular abilities." That was it.

Copyright © 2000 by Stephen Budiansky. All rights reserved. Converted for the Web with the permission of Simon & Schuster.

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