Hero or Goat?

He might have been the hero of Midway, one of many, perhaps, but potentially the first among them, the one who made all the others possible. Commander Joseph Rochefort led the Station Hypo team of cryptanalysts,  linguists, communications experts, and IBM-machine card punchers who partly discovered, partly intuited Japanese naval intentions in June 1942, turning the tide on Japanese advancement and putting Allied forces on equal footing with their enemy in the Pacific. Rochefort gave full credit to his staff, whom he called the greatest cryptanalytic team in history, but his staff gave the greatest credit to him.

Captain Thomas Dyer went as far as to say Rochefort was “almost solely responsible for producing the intelligence, which resulted in the Battle of Midway.” He located his commander’s strength in seeing the big picture, in weaving fragmented intelligence into a coherent operational narrative. Rochefort combined uncanny intuition with extraordinary powers of analysis and memory of details. It was his  according to Lieutenant Commander Jasper Holmes named his “qualities of leadership” as the key to their unit’s success at Midway.

Following the action, Rear Admiral David Bagley, Commandant of the 14th Naval District at Pearl Harbor, recommended Rochefort for the Distinguished Service Medal. Privately, Rochefort demurred. “I advised against doing anything like this, because it’s going to make trouble.” A cryptanalyst at heart, he shunned the exposure of daylight, let alone of the spotlight. Even within the shadowy world of the intelligence community, Rochefort knew the attention would be unwelcome. He was aware that he had stepped on toes, specifically those of Rear Admirals John Redman and Joseph Wenger.

Rear Admiral Joseph N. Wenger played a leading role in the development of both the Naval Security Group Command and the National Security Agency, and was one of the most influential figures in American cryptologic history. He was a pioneer in the development of machines for use in cryptanalysis, and was among the first to recognize the need for centralization within the naval Communications Intelligence (COMINT) establishment. More than anyone else, he was responsible for establishing a Navy-wide cryptologic organization. [NSA/CSS Hall of Honor]

So reads the opening paragraph of Wenger’s NSA Hall of Honor inductee page, and an impressive summation of a career it is. Adding weight to the praise is the fact of his close affiliation with William Friedman, America’s greatest cryptanalyst and “the man who broke Purple.” The two met in the 1920s and became fast friends.

But what is one to make of Wenger’s association with John Redman? According to Rochefort biographer Elliot Carlson, he brought radio expertise to his position as Director of Naval Communication but almost no intelligence experience.  Redman, according to Carlson, was “a gifted self-promoter, blending likeability and competitiveness with an aptitude for winning the support of influential officers….” [Carlson 217] As it turned out, he was a real snake-in-the-grass for the likes of Joe Rochefort. So why did Wenger align himself with Redman in an effort to bring down Rochefort.

The answer is evident in the Hall of Honor accolades printed above. It says Wenger was “among the first to recognize the need for centralization within the naval Communications Intelligence (COMINT) establishment.” Rochefort was an obvious impediment to advancing that goal. As Dyer put it, Rochefort “shot himself in the foot” by giving the message to Washington “to send us more men and leave us alone.” Wenger himself used similar words: “The attitude [at Pearl] was ‘give us what we need and let us alone, CINCPAC is running the war. You are too far away to control.'” Oddly, perhaps, it’s easy to see that both could have been right. Under Wenger and Redman in Washington, OP-20-G seemed to do everything in its power to undercut Rochefort and his team as they worked to defend the Pacific fleet against the Japanese offensive at Midway. Redman even objected to their “unapproved” water evaporator deception which had clinched Hypo’s Midway hypothesis. Redman appears to have been more concerned with being right than with defeating an enemy in a global, existential struggle. Rochefort was right to defend his office from collateral damage in a petty turf war.

Yet Wenger was probably not incorrect about the need to centralize, rationalize, streamline COMINT operations. Nor that Hypo Station in Pearl Harbor could not see the big picture of a two-front/two-ocean war. Only a centralized authority in Washington could “comprehend more clearly the global nature of the conflict,” he wrote in retrospect. Wenger’s fingerprints are all over the structure and organization of post-war intelligence in the United States, whereas Rochefort left nothing enduring behind. As intelligence historian Robert Hanyok wrote, “You don’t see his imprint” anywhere.

Except, of course, that in allowing victory at Midway, he enabled ultimate victory in the war and a Pax Americana that lasted almost fifty years. Rochefort didn’t get his Distinguished Service Medal during the war or even during  his lifetime. But Ronald Reagan did bestow it on him, posthumously, in 1986. He was inducted into the NSA Hall of Honor in 2000, five years before his nemesis, Joseph Wenger. Wenger may not have been the villain that he is in the context of the Joe Rochefort story. On the other hand, one imagines a more adept leader would be able to further his centralizing agenda while also taking full advantage of one of his strongest, if independent-minded officers, Joe Rochefort.


Carlson, Elliot. Joe Rocheforte’s War: The Odyssey of the Codebreaker Who Outwitted Yamamoto at Midway, Annapolis, Naval Institute Press, 2011.

Clark, Ronald. The Man Who Broke Purple: The Life of Colonel William F. Friedman, Who Deciphered the Japanese Code in World War II. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1977.

Layton, Rear  Admiral Edwin T. Layton (with Pineau and Costello), And I Was There: Pearl Harbor and Midway–Breaking the Secrets. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1985.

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