Joe Rochefort's War
Contributor: C. Peter Chen
Review Date: 18 Aug 2012
Full Title: Joe Rochefort's War: The Odyssey of the Codebreaker Who Outwitted Yamamoto at Midway
In a service bound by tradition, an officer like Joseph Rochefort stuck out. He did not attend the United States Naval Academy, cared little about politics, and at the eve of the Pacific War worked at one of those oddball offices doing some oddball work that his fellow officers thought was inconsequential. Because of war time secrecy, it would not be for many years before he and his team's successes at breaking the Japanese Navy's operational code, including a significant contribution to the US victory at Midway, became known to the public. The story about the mock message of Midway running out of fresh water had since become a popular tale, but strangely enough, there had been no comprehensive biography of Rochefort that I had come across, thus when I picked up Elliott Carlson's Joe Rochefort's War, I had very high expectations for the book.
My expectations were met. And then some.
The book was extremely well researched, not only from the respect of Rochefort's career in intelligence work, but extending to his upbringing and his pre-US Navy days. From the day he decided to try to transfer into the regular navy, he regularly impressed his superiors; Carlson carefully documented his wits that led him to the field of cryptanalysis and his personal interest in the Japanese language that led him to become one of the very few officers fluent in the language. As the war loomed near for the Americans, the author carefully reconstructed, with precise dates (and often clearly noting whether it was on the Japanese side or the American side of the International Date Line), the intelligence gathered in the days leading up to the Pearl Harbor raid, with analysis of the various intercepted messages that worked for or against the American anticipation for the attack. The Battle of Midway was to be Rochefort and his team's finest moment. Again with extreme depth, Carlson took me through how the team came to the conclusion of the strength, the target, and the date of the Japanese offensive, all the while trying to fend off political attacks that largely centered around the bureaucratic in-fighting between the Office of Naval Communications and Office of Naval Intelligence. To wrap up the book, Carlson dove into the efforts by first Jasper Holmes and then Donald Showers, both of whom at one time served under Rochefort, fought for the posthumously awarded Distinguished Service Medal that the US Navy would eventually approve in 1985. Carlson successfully portrayed Rochefort as a human being, and upon completing the book I felt I had known him for some time. The only reservation I had about the book was that I detected some hints of hero-worshipping that were not uncommon in biographies; this of course did not diminish the value of this book, and only made me wish that there would be others who might be interested in offering different perspectives.
I had reviewed this book in its audio book format. Danny Campbell was superb as a reader, perhaps drawing on his talents as an actor to enrich his narration. My only complaint about his work was, usual for me, the pronunciation of foreign words. His Japanese was awkward, particularly with the port city of Yokosuka; it was amusing to see that when reading the book Campbell did not pick up on the anecdote Carlson told of Edwin Layton poking fun at his superiors for mispronouncing this famously difficult name.
It had been a short while since I had read a biography as outstanding as Joe Rochefort's War. Needless to say, I would highly recommend it, either in print or in audio book format.
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Chiang Kaishek, 31 Jul 1937