A Hero of Midway Finally Got His Due

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From The Wall Street Journal:

Though he played a vital role in the U.S. victory over Japan in World War II, Navy Capt. Joseph Rochefort and his heroics long went unrecognized.

Rochefort, who died in 1976, was a mid-level intelligence officer whose small unit in Hawaii provided the analysis that led to the U.S. naval victory in the Battle of Midway—the turning point of the Pacific war.

Aspects of Rochefort’s story are notable even 60 years after Midway. In 1929 the Navy sent three young officers, including Rochefort, to Japan to spend three years becoming fluent in the Japanese language and culture. The foresight of the Navy to plan decades ahead for conflict with Japan is remarkable, and Rochefort’s immersion in the Japanese way of thinking was the foundation of his later success at Midway.

In 1941 Rochefort was sent to Station Hypo at Pearl Harbor to lead a team of code-breakers. By May 1942, Rochefort believed he had sufficient evidence from intercepted Japanese radio traffic to convince Adm. Chester Nimitz that two Japanese fleets of carriers and battleships led by Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto were at sea on their way to attack Midway Island. Nimitz was wary, and top Navy officers didn’t accept Rochefort’s judgment due to the scant radio-traffic data.

Rochefort and his team came up with a ploy to persuade their superiors: The U.S. base at Midway would send out a message to Navy-supply services that the Midway desalination system was failing and there was a dearth of drinking water on the island. The Japanese took the bait and immediately provided desalting materials to their landing forces, thus confirming that Midway was a target for invasion. Nimitz was convinced and Rochefort was vindicated.

After the battle, when Yamamoto learned of the loss of the four Japanese carriers, he abandoned his plans for the Midway invasion. The Japanese Navy was never able to replace those carriers, and the tide of the Pacific war had changed in favor of the U.S. just six months after the attack on Pearl Harbor. The surrender on the USS Missouri in September 1945 lay far ahead, but after Midway the U.S. victory was inevitable, as Nimitz confirmed after the war.

The intelligence that Rochefort’s small unit provided didn’t keep him from being transferred out of his unit and denied the Distinguished Service Medal that Nimitz insisted he deserved. The excuse given by the Navy was that medals were individual awards for those who serve in combat and not intended for back-office intelligence types who work in groups. Rochefort, who had enlisted in 1918 out of high school and didn’t attend the Naval Academy, went on to fill routine postings despite his heroic Midway coup.

He served the rest of his career with honor, without being awarded the Distinguished Service Medal he was clearly due. That was corrected by President Ronald Reagan in 1986, when Rochefort—44 years after Midway—was posthumously given the award. Sometimes history writes with a faint hand to permit correction.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

3 thoughts on “A Hero of Midway Finally Got His Due”

  1. Having reviewed relevant source documents as part of my officially assigned duties a few decades back, I question some of the (detail-level) descriptions in the OP. Three examples suffice:

    (1) The Navy didn’t have the foresight to send Rochefort to Japan all by itself. That particular program — which was not limited to Japan — was requested by the State Department upon signature to the Washington Treaty in 1922, and it only took a decade for the Navy to comply with the request. The point was to prepare potential Naval Attache personnel to help monitor Treaty compliance because State wasn’t confident its own Japanese-speaking personnel would “get” military culture well enough to avoid confusion or outright deception. (Frankly, by then it was almost too late.)

    (2) The OP doesn’t mention that Coral Sea was also fought because codes were broken with sufficient advance notice to station carriers there. This is fairly important, and the confidence that gave some elements of the USN command structure that the crypto activities were accurate and timely enough to rely upon laid a foundation to accept:

    (3) The much-sneakier cross-platform use of misinformation regarding the phantom water situation at “AF” — the confirmation was based not just upon desalination equipment (which would have been standard), but in baiting the Japanese planners into confirming the “coded” location in other messages in less-secure cryptosystems that were being routinely decrypted (by OP-20-G, which was not nearly as much of a “failure” as the USN hierarchy tried to paint it, especially regarding more REMF-related communications).

    None of which is to diminish Rochefort’s contributions, which have been worshipped at certain postwar agencies…

  2. PG, I fear that your editing has got a little confused here. Your “about six months after the US entered the war” which you have tied to the Pearl Harbour attack should presumably have been in your Midway paragraph? I also fear that you have got a bit confused about the identity and numbers of carriers at various actions, though your are right that all four Japanese carriers at Midway (all sunk of course) were part of the six that attacked at Pearl.

    There is another story lurking here that your extract from the Wall Street Journal does not mention. It seems that Rochefort was removed from his position despite his success and denied a well deserved honour mostly due to infighting within the USN’s cryptography services and the irrational hostility of Admiral King, whose dislike of Rochefort caused him to side with the unsuccessful OP-20-G group, so rewarding failure.

    King, of course, was an extremely able and experience officer but was noted for his extreme irascibility and a tendency to allow his feelings to adversely impact his decisions. Historians are divided in their judgement of him but few disagree with the daughter who said that “he is the most even-tempered person in the United States Navy. He is always in a rage”.

    • You’re right, Mike.

      I need to rewrite my commentary, but it’s too late for me to do it tonight so I’ll just pull it down.

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