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Denouement: 'Radio Intelligence' Vindicated

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

The most direct result of the Battle of Midway was to halt the tide of Japanese expansion. From the moment Yamamoto's ships steamed to the west in confusion and defeat, Japan was on the defensive, and would remain so throughout three grueling years of island combat. In the three months following Pearl Harbor, Japan had been an unstoppable juggernaut, seizing oil and rubber fields that her war machine so vitally needed in South Asia, throwing out a thousand-mile-deep defensive perimeter in half the time war planners had allotted for the task. Now, in a day, the Imperial Japanese Navy had suffered its first decisive defeat in three centuries, and Japan was in the entirely new position of trying to cling to what she had conquered, rather than looking to new conquests.

But Midway was also one of those moments that concentrate forces of history, that in one intense burst crystallize what might have otherwise taken years to coalesce from the fog of events. Midway decisively announced the end of the age of the battleship: The battleship's brawn was simply no match for the long reach of the carrier. Of even farther-reaching consequence, the American victory at Midway moved code breaking and signals intelligence from an arcane, little-understood, and usually unappreciated specialty to the very center of military operations. Even Nimitz, a rare example of a true intellectual among military commanders, had been doubtful about the value of "radio intelligence," as it was then known; if it had failed at Pearl Harbor, he reasoned, it did not make sense to place much faith in it. Layton had persuaded him otherwise, pointing out that JN-25 had not been cracked in time to warn of Pearl Harbor and that the Japanese Navy had maintained radio silence during the actual operation. But most commanders looked upon intelligence in general with suspicion, if not with the outright contempt that was the characteristic view that men of action of that era held for subtlety or innovation. There was certainly nothing subtle about the huge billboard that Halsey ordered erected on a hillside on one of the Solomon Islands. Visible to passing ships it bore a simple and crude admonition to his troops:

You will help to kill the yellow bastards
if you do your job well.

The way to win, in the view of such fighting admirals, was to fight -- and think about it later, if at all. The Battle of Midway was won through fighting, to be sure. Bravery, resourcefulness, and a not inconsiderable dose of luck all played their part. But the one indispensable element in the victory was the thinking, and nothing but thinking, that had cracked JN-25.

Three days after the battle ended, Rochefort told everyone at Station Hypo that he "didn't want to see them for three or four days." He expected everyone would just go home and catch some sleep. Instead the code breakers organized a house party on Diamond Head and got their boss up there; it wound up, Rochefort later recalled, as a "straight out-and-out drunken brawl" that lasted the entire three days. Rochefort said he was grateful for one thing: The party's organizers at least had had the sense to stay away from a hotel, which might have left them to the tender mercies of the shore patrol. Then everyone shook off their hangovers and went right back to twenty- and twenty-two-hour shifts to tackle the new code book and additives that the enemy had just introduced into JN-25.

The denouement of the Battle of Midway was not one of the U.S. Navy's finest hours. An outnumbered, outgunned, and battle-stricken force had just changed the course of history through a feat of code breaking and intelligence analysis that laid bare the enemies' intentions; scarcely ever had a military commander known so precisely what the opposing commander was planning and thinking. Nimitz was full of praise for Rochefort and his men. Nimitz enthusiastically forwarded to Admiral King in Washington a recommendation from the Fourteenth Naval District commandant that Rochefort be awarded the Distinguished Service Medal for his part in the victory. Rochefort, with a keener measure of Washington politics than his commander, strongly advised against it: It would only "make trouble." He was right. Redman was continuing his campaign to centralize control of all radio intelligence work under OP-20-G in Washington and Rochefort was continuing to resist; it was quickly degenerating into a fight over who deserved credit for breaking JN-25 and correctly anticipating the Japanese plans for Midway. The honors for breaking JN-25 were properly shared. Of the 110 vital messages broken in advance of Midway, 49 were read simultaneously by both stations, 26 by Hypo only, and 35 by Washington only. But when it came to drawing the correct conclusions from those messages, Hypo won hands down. Had Nimitz been swayed by Washington's analysis, the Japanese ambush would very likely have succeeded.

Yet Redman was now claiming sole credit for the victory at Midway, and in that atmosphere there was no way he could let an award for Rochefort go through without a fight. Just a few weeks after Midway, on June 20, Redman sent a memorandum to the Vice Chief of Naval Operations baldly asserting that "experience has indicated that units in combat areas cannot be relied upon to accomplish more than the business of merely reading enemy messages and performing routine work necessary to keep abreast of minor changes in the cryptographic systems involved." Simultaneously, Redman's older brother, Captain Joseph R. Redman, now Director of Naval Communications, was complaining that Station Hypo was, "by virtue of seniority, in the hands of an ex-Japanese language student" who was "not technically trained in Naval Communications." Rochefort should be replaced with "a senior officer trained in radio intelligence rather than one whose background is in Japanese language," he insisted. The Redman brothers' behind-the-scenes lobbying paid off two days later when Admiral King accepted the advice of his chief of staff and denied Rochefort a medal. The argument, as officially stated, was that Rochefort had "merely efficiently used the tools previously prepared for his use," which had a grain of truth, and that "equal credit is due" to Washington for "correct evaluation of enemy intentions," which was a whopper. King the next day sent "all U.S. Naval radio intelligence activities" a "well done," the naval equivalent of a pat on the head.

A year later, Commander John S. Holtwick, who had run the IBM machines at Station Hypo, called on Joseph Redman, now a rear admiral. In the course of conversation Redman casually remarked that Station Hypo had "missed the boat at the Battle of Midway," but Washington had saved the day. The lie took Holtwick's breath away -- especially since Redman had to know that Holtwick knew the opposite was true. That was the first real inkling the Hypo crew had of how completely Washington had stolen credit for the victory at Midway. Shortly before his death in 1985, Dyer wrote: "I have given a great deal of thought to the Rochefort affair, and I have been unwillingly forced to the conclusion that Rochefort committed one unforgivable sin. To certain individuals of small mind and overweening ambition, there is no greater insult than to be proved wrong." Two of the Station Hypo team, Dyer and Holmes, finally did receive the Distinguished Service Medal after the war. Rochefort finally did, too -- in 1985, nine years after his death.

The Redmans' argument in favor of centralization was not entirely phony. The loose organization of the Navy's intercept units made less sense in a day of secure radio links and rapid exchange of information than it had even a few years before. There was also a pressing need to avoid unnecessary duplication in the huge labor involved in breaking a new code, as well as a need to make sure that all relevant intelligence bearing on a given problem came to a central point for correlation. But centralization became a convenient club to beat Rochefort with, and the Redman brothers beat away unmercifully. Finally on September 15, Rochefort, with Nimitz's approval, sent a blistering memo insisting that he in effect was answerable only to Nimitz, and Washington should butt out. Payback came on October 22, 1942: Rochefort was summoned to the Navy Department for "temporary additional duty." When Nimitz protested, he was assured that Washington simply needed Rochefort's expert advice. Rochefort once again read the situation more accurately than his boss; he told everyone that he was not going to be coming back. A month later Nimitz received a letter, which had traveled via surface mail, informing him that Rochefort's "temporary" duty had become "permanent." Nimitz was furious, and for two weeks refused to speak to John Redman -- who, in an odd turn of events, had since been promoted to become Nimitz's fleet communications officer. But in the end there was nothing Nimitz could do about it.

Rochefort, meanwhile, proceeded to make "several mistakes in a great big hurry," as he himself put it. Worn out, suffering from bronchitis, and made more prickly than ever by the Redmans' attempt to steal the credit for his work, Rochefort said he would not accept any assignment in radio intelligence unless he was sent back to Honolulu as officer in charge. Failing that, he demanded combat duty. Cryptanalysts were forbidden to enter combat zones: they knew too much that they might give away if captured and tortured by the enemy. But Rochefort pulled every string he could think of and was offered command of a destroyer, only to turn it down because the ship was leaving at once from San Francisco and he had promised his wife they would visit their son at West Point that same weekend -- "a very stupid thing for me to have done," Rochefort later said. He ended up in command of a floating dry dock in San Francisco. He never worked on codes again.

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

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