Elliot Carlson is a longtime journalist who has worked as a reporter, editor and staff writer for such newspapers and magazines as the Honolulu Advertiser, the Wall Street Journal and Newsweek. A graduate of the University of Oregon and Stanford University.
After the declassification of World War II's communications intelligence (ComInt) history in the 1980s, a few excellent books emerged that revealed the scope of the effort and the names of some of the principals involved, such as CINCPAC intel chief Edwin Layton and the officer in charge of Pearl Harbor's ComInt unit ("Station Hypo"), Commander Joseph Rochefort. Layton's story was well told in his wartime biography, "And I Was There," but until now little has been known about Rochefort beyond the basics of his time at Hypo. It turns out that his personal story is as dramatic as that of any familiar name from the Battle of Midway.
Elliot Carlson's new book tells that story in superb fashion, and we quickly learn that its title is a metaphor for Rochefort's entire life, not just his WW2 experience. The first several chapters are a novelette themselves, describing the rigors of his early life, his rocky path to a Naval Reserve commission, his close call with a court martial aboard his first ship, his posting as naval liaison and language student in Tokyo, and the tribulations of his seagoing assignments throughout the 1930s.
But Rochefort's "war" really begins with his posting as the officer in charge of Hypo in June 1941. The book joins others in debunking the excessively popular myth that Rochefort could read the Japanese navy's radio code, dubbed JN-25, and thus had prior knowledge of the Pearl Harbor attack. But the book isn't just a copy of the now-known history of ComInt in the war.Read more ›
Here's the rare book, lucidly written and meticulously documented, that is capable of engrossing both the general reader and the naval historian. Joe Rochefort was prickly man, stubborn and tactless at times when silence might have served him better. But he was also brillant at what he did, which was nothing less than breaking the Japanese naval code. The work of Rochefort and his team was absolutely central to the stunning American victory at Midway. Ironically and unfairly, Rochefort found himself effectively demoted within months of his greatest triumph, the victim of enemies he had made within the U.S. Navy. It would take decades before this complicated, gifted man was fully vindicated, and, sadly, the ultimate recognition of his service to the nation would come only after his death. Elliot Carlson tells Rochefort's story with flair and in detail. One could say that this book reads like a spy novel, and, indeed, it can serve as an introduction to the arcane arts of spycraft and codebreaking. But in a sense it is better than a novel: this actually happened.
Those already familiar with the Battle of Midway probably know the basics: it was the first major US victory in the Pacific, crucial to both American morale and to turning back the Japanese advances in that theater. Those with this awareness probably also remember that the successes of US Navy codebreakers against the Japanese navy's principal operational code (JN-25), and the value these added in the allowing Nimitz to defeat Yamamoto in blue-water engagement centered on Midway Island in early June, 1942. To be sure, it was the fighting spirit, shiphandling and airmanship of the Pacific Fleet that ultimately won the battle. But it was the intelligence successes against JN-25 that allowed Nimitz to have his forces in the right place at the right time, thus realizing Joe Rochefort's vision of combat intelligence.
In "Joe Rochefort's War", Elliot Carlson presents a wonderfully researched and engagingly narrated history of the events that led Joe Rochefort to the basement spaces at Pearl Harbor that would mine Japanese communications treasure for Nimitz. In doing so, Carlson does a masterful job of illuminating many of the organizational and cultural clashes present in the WWII navy (some of which would still be around when my service began more than 30 years later). Carlson pulls no punches in describing the the politics of the officer corps --especially the mid-20th century gap between Academy and non-Academy educated officers-- and the lack of regard "operational" officers held for intelligence (especially intelligence as unproven as the kind Rochefort was delivering...which was virtually the only intelligence available to fleet decision makers at the time).Read more ›
I have read a lot of books over the years about intelligence and code breaking in World War II, but none of the volumes I have read ever left me with the feeling of having a clear picture of the process and history of that important aspect of the war. Now, however, having read Joe Rochefort's War, by Elliot Carlson, I feel like I now have a clearer picture and a better understanding. I don't want to say he has filled in all the blanks, but for me he certainly filled in a lot of them. One topic that Carlson touched upon but didn't elaborate on was the subject of Japanese efforts to break U.S. codes. As he pointed out briefly, the Japanese had some success in this area; and perhaps given the focus of his book, Japanese code breakers should be the subject of another effort. In addition, Carlson also made mention of spies for Japan; not only Japanese citizens, but also Americans, some of whom were in the U.S. military. Again, this is perhaps the subject for another study, but one that would add to what Carlson has done in his excellent study of Joe Rochefort and his band of code breakers, Japanese linguists and radio traffic analysts--definitely five stars.
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