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Midway

A Man with a Mission

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

Rochefort, blaming himself for not foreseeing the Pearl Harbor attack, reacted characteristically, driving himself and his men without mercy. Summoned to the Dungeon on December 7 by an 8:00 A.M. telephone call from his deputy Lieutenant Commander Thomas Dyer had gone outside to see what all the commotion was and had "caught on fast," he later recalled, when he saw a torpedo bomber three hundred yards away emblazoned with the rising sun insignia -- Rochefort rushed to the headquarters he would scarcely leave for the next six months. "I can offer a lot of excuses," he would later say, "but we failed in our job. An intelligence officer has one job, one task, one mission -- to tell his commander, his superior, today what the Japanese are going to do tomorrow." He was determined not to be caught flat-footed again.

On December 1 Station Hypo had completed its hasty move from the second floor of the Administration Building to the Dungeon. This was partly for security -- the basement was sealed off from the rest of the building, with a single steel door at each end leading directly to the outside -- and partly to accommodate a growing staff, which had doubled from twenty-three in June to forty-seven in December. Dyer had managed to get funding to rent a few precious IBM machines back in 1938, but the sensitive equipment had to be kept air-conditioned in tropical Hawaii and that was one detail that apparently got lost in the rush to move to a war footing. When the code breakers took up residence in the Dungeon everyone began hacking and coughing constantly. This went on for two months; finally when Rochefort was able to spare someone for a moment he sent a man to check out the air-conditioning system and see if there was something wrong with it. The man came back shortly and reported he had found the trouble: There was no air-conditioning system. When the air-conditioner finally was installed it tended to function erratically and Rochefort took to belting a smoking jacket over his uniform to ward off the chill when it was running full blast.

The smoking jacket became part of the Rochefort legend, as did the pair of carpet slippers he wore to ease his sore feet from standing on a hard concrete floor twenty or twenty-two hours a day. But those who knew him said this painted a false image. He was a tall, thin, pale, and driven man, but he was no eccentric. His quiet doggedness inspired a loyalty that his men never forgot: A half-century later Forrest E. Webb, who ran IBM machines at Station Hypo, would say simply, "Rochefort was my ideal of an ideal man. He never raised his voice, but he knew that what he said was law and everybody believed it. He made sure people knew what they were doing and left them to it." He was a man with a mission.

But they all joked about being crazy. Dyer hung a sign above his desk that read, "You don't have to be crazy to work here -- but it helps." He also kept a bucket of pep pills on his desk and every so often reached in, scooped up a handful, and popped them into his mouth. Dyer would often go for forty-eight hours at a stretch. The Dungeon itself was a large open area, about sixty by a hundred feet. The IBM machines were consuming three million punch cards a month and churning out huge stacks of printouts that were kept in boxes or just piled on the floor. There was no time to file or index anything; that led to more jokes about the crazy code breakers. Someone would run across a code group in one message that would ring a vague bell; he would mention it to the others and someone else would immediately reach down halfway into a stack of printouts and pull out a message from a month before.

Hypo was five thousand miles closer to the Japanese fleet than Washington was; it also had its own intercept station for picking up the Japanese radio traffic, just thirty miles away at Heeia. There was no sitting around waiting for the post office to deliver parcels of intercepted traffic, though there was still an absurd lack of the most basic and obvious conveniences of the communications age. No teletype circuit or radio linked Pearl Harbor and Heeia; a jeep, or sometimes a motorcycle or even a bicycle, was dispatched to pick up the intercepts.

The two years of lagging struggle against AN-1, which was now officially known as JN-25, had not been in vain. Although OP-20-G had never managed to catch up with the latest changes in the code book and additive tables, the code breakers by this time thoroughly understood the principles involved. It was just a matter of manpower, and with America mobilizing for war the manpower problem was being addressed swiftly. When Safford had tapped Rochefort for the command of Hypo in June 1941 he promised him first dibs on any officers who had had Japanese language training. After Pearl Harbor, Rochefort took anyone he could get. He cut a deal with the local personnel officer: As new drafts flooded in from the West Coast they would be lined up with their service records and Rochefort would take anyone who looked promising. The personnel office didn't know what to do with the ship's band from the crippled battleship California, left without a job by the Japanese torpedoes; Rochefort said, "I'll take them." The musicians were immediately put to work running the IBM machines. Some would wind up spending the rest of their careers in cryptanalysis.

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

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