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Joe Rochefort's War: The Odyssey of the Codebreaker Who Outwitted Yamamoto at Midway Hardcover – October 15, 2011
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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. It's the day to day chronicle of Rochefort's life in the "dungeon" of Hypo, and especially of his interactions with those about him--his dedicated staff, his very close ties with Layton, his unusual chain of command in Hawaii's 14th Naval District, and especially the details of his escalating "war" with his self-serving superiors in Washington, who were appalled to find that they were wrong and Rochefort was right about Midway.
Although the subtitle might suggest that this book is mainly about Midway, there is far more to Rochefort's story than that. Fully a third of the book covers his life thereafter, and it's another compelling novelette. Repressed by his Washington bosses for showing them to be idiots regarding Midway, he is transferred out of ComInt to a backwater command, in charge of the construction of a new floating drydock, But he surprised everyone by diving into the job with zeal and getting it done in a manner that brought a sterling evaluation from his commander. That helped get him back into ComInt in Washington, where his innate language and cryptology skills once again were put to their proper use. That's not to say that everything was then perfect for him--the challenges of the Navy's bureaucracy and of some of its senior officers still made for a long, sad story not previously revealed.
The tale ends a few years after Rochefort's death with President Reagan awarding a posthumous Distinguished Service Medal to Rochefort, thanks to a campaign pressed by former Hypo analyst Rear Admiral Donald M. Showers. The DSM was initially recommended in 1942 by both Admiral Nimitz and the 14th Naval District commander, but Rochefort's enemies in Washington shot it down.
Joe Rochefort's War is a fine hardbound volume, one of the better offerings by Naval Institute Press. It begins with a foreword by Hypo vet Showers, which validates its importance. Its 467 pages are presented in 30 bite-sized chapters, making for an easy read. The book is enhanced by a good photo set plus a glossary and appendices that further expand the Rochefort and Midway stories. Very highly recommended.
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). For those currently serving who are watching organizational battles over missions and resources: you'll be glad to know that nothing has changed since WWII. Carlson also debunks some of the popular Rochefort myths perpetuated by other accounts of Midway (including Hal Holbrook's characterization in the 1976 movie "Midway").
Carlson walks a fine line between the rather dry and very arcane discussions of the cryptanalytic techniques that Rochefort's crew developed, and the personal and organizational influences that shaped Rochefort's career. Carlson also adds enough operational details about the Battle of Midway without re-creating what has already been documented in many other works.
While Rochefort is presented in a favorable light, "Joe Rochefort's War" is not a hagiography; some of the apparent unfairness in the way he was treated by some of his superiors is appropriately defined by Rochefort's emphasis on mission success over wardroom politics...which, like it are not, are a non-negotiable part of getting the orders you want and continuing to advance as a naval officer (even during wartime; wars end, but wardroom politics have a far longer shelf life!).
Equally as interesting as the events surrounding Midway are the details of Rochefort's unconventional ascent from enlisted man to commissioned officer, and his post-Midway naval and civilian pursuits.
This is a compelling tale of naval and intelligence successes and a remarkable leader at the intersection of his professional peak and world events, and Joe Rochefort was long overdue for this treatment. Travel through a naval career spanning three wars with Joseph Rochefort; you won't be sorry.
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Having read David Kahn's "The Code Breakers" and W.J.Read more