| Book Reviews Index |
The Battle of Midway Roundtable
BOOK REVIEWS, page 7
CONTENTS ON THIS PAGE
1. Joe Rochefort’s War
2. The Battle of Midway (Symonds)
3. Pacific Crucible
(All reviews written by the Roundtable editor except as otherwise noted.)
* * * * *
1. Joe Rochefort’s War
by Elliot Carlson
Subtitle: The Odyssey of the Codebreaker Who Outwitted Yamamoto at Midway
Published 2011, Naval Institute Press
(Posted 12 October 2011)
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, the details of its successes and failures, 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.
Roundtable member 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 introduction to the world of ComInt in 1925, 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 and his team were able to read the Japanese navy’s radio code, dubbed JN-25, and thus had prior knowledge of the Pearl Harbor attack. But less known is how close the U.S. came to making the myth at least partially true. While Hypo had not been assigned the task of breaking JN-25 before the war, the decision was nevertheless made in July 1941 to provide them with the known decrypted JN-25 code groups, for possible future use. However, Washington delayed in getting the data to Hawaii—it didn’t show up until a week after the attack! It’s a stretch to
believe that the limited intel that then existed would have revealed Pearl Harbor as a Japanese target, but there were clear indications that something was being planned well east of Japan that involved multiple aircraft carriers. As Layton put it, “the course of history could have been changed.“
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 amazingly dedicated and capable 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 the blinders-on superiors in Washington, who would surely have missed the boat at Midway absent Rochefort’s fortitude in pressing on with what he knew to be the truth.
Rochefort’s success with regard to Midway is now generally known. The book tells that story fully, but to a degree and with details not previously seen. As an example, the famous “Midway has no water” ruse has already been shown as a ploy against Washington more than Tokyo, but Carlson reveals that the officer in the dungeon who came up with the scheme is not the one named in other histories. In his otherwise excellent book on Hypo, Jasper Holmes credited the idea to Japanese language officer Joseph Finnegan, but Carlson reveals that Holmes himself actually originated the suggestion, and that he was simply being modest in his book.
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 the remainder of his wartime career and his life thereafter, and it’s another compelling novelette. Quashed by his Washington bosses for showing them to be a pack of dunces with regard to Midway, he is banished to what appeared a career-ending backwater command, in charge of the construction of a new floating drydock in California. But he surprised everyone by diving into the task with zeal and getting the job done in a manner that got him a sterling evaluation from his commander. That, in part at least, led to his return to the ComInt arena 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 rosy in those years—the challenges of the Navy’s bureaucracy and of some of its senior officers still made for a continuing saga that hasn’t previously seen the full light of day.
The story ends a few years after Rochefort’s death, and it’s a chapter that is generally unknown outside of the Battle of Midway Roundtable. Former Hypo analyst Rear Admiral Donald “Mac” Showers initiated a campaign in the 1980s to have Rochefort awarded an appropriate medal for his accomplishments at Midway—recommended in 1942 by both Nimitz and the 14th Naval District commander, but torpedoed in Washington. It was no easy task, as the Defense Department had generally cut off further WW2 awards long before. But Showers persevered and the story ends happily with President Reagan presenting a posthumous Distinguished Service Medal to Rochefort’s family in 1986.
Joe Rochefort’s War is a fine hardbound volume, one of the better offerings by Naval Institute Press. It begins with a foreword by Showers, the presence of which is an endorsement of the book’s validity and 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 and a glossary (where you might want to place a bookmark), plus four appendices that expand the Rochefort and Midway stories in a manner that has become familiar on the Roundtable.
This is the Rochefort story that most of us have wanted to see for a very long time. Very highly recommended.
* * * * *
2. The Battle of Midway
by Craig L. Symonds
Published 2011, Oxford University Press
(Posted 11 October 2011)
When our Roundtable web site was initially created nearly ten years ago, one of its first elements was the
, listing books, movies, and videos rated by our members as the best (or worst) on the subject of the BOM. The top choice among books was and has been A Glorious Page In Our History, by Robert Cressman and a team of coauthors.
There may be a new candidate.
Roundtable member Craig Symond’s recently published treatment of the battle may very well be the BOM book that we’ve all been waiting for—the one that tells the entire Midway story with all of the latter-day research and revelations that have enhanced or sometimes changed our understandings of the event, even after the publication of Glorious Page in 1990. There are two good reasons for that. One, Symonds is an acclaimed professor emeritus from the U.S. Naval Academy, with over a dozen books on American naval and military history in print. But equally important if not more so, he relied very heavily on the Roundtable for input to his manuscript. The groundwork laid by the likes of Lundstrom, Parshall-Tully, Weisheit, Cressman, Horan, Tillman, Mrazek, and Isom, plus the
invaluable ongoing discourse among our BOM vets is all there. If No Right to Win is the Roundtable’s book about its vets, The Battle of Midway might be considered the Roundtable’s book about the battle itself.
But as you might expect from an author of this caliber, Symonds reached far beyond the Roundtable for research. Primary sources include material in the National Archives and from the Naval War College, the Naval History and Heritage Command, and of course the Naval Academy. The references include the author’s interviews with and oral histories by some of Midway’s key participants, including Joseph Rochefort, Edwin Layton, Richard Best, John “Jimmie” Thach, Bert Earnest, Dusty Kleiss, and Mac Showers. While an impressive source list like that can also be found in other BOM books, Symonds has managed to couple them with an account of the battle that overcomes the criticisms commonly leveled at some of the less successful Midway authors. His book is a dual dose of thorough research and expert composition that should propel it toward the top of any critical listing of works on the BOM.
As for the ranking on our “Library” page, I’ve placed it at the top, supplanting Glorious Page as number one, but with a catch. Glorious Page remains a prime choice as the best single-volume account of the BOM. Symonds’ new book is a step beyond that for the reasons indicated above, but its focus is understandably the U.S. side of the battle. The other side, as everyone here has known for years, is best told by Parshall and Tully’s Shattered Sword. For that reason, I tend to think that the best and most thoroughly comprehensive reference on the BOM one can now find is the two-volume set: The Battle of Midway and Shattered Sword. If one were to read and absorb those two in sequence, he could count himself
among the best informed among all with an interest in the BOM at any level.
Here’s a YouTube video narrated by Symonds that provides a very good overview of the battle and the material covered in his book: click here
* * * * *
3. Pacific Crucible
by Ian W. Toll
Published 2011, W. W. Norton Co.
(Posted 20 November 2011)
Roundtable member Ian Toll’s first foray into naval history was his highly acclaimed Six Frigates, which told the story of the founding to the U.S. Navy and its triumphs and tribulations from the Revolution through the War of 1812. His latest work, Pacific Crucible is a major leap both in time and in scope—the full history of the opening months of World War II in the Pacific.
I had the pleasure of receiving an early draft of the manuscript for the purpose of offering editing suggestions; a task I’ve done for several authors who are familiar on the Roundtable. I expected to spend a great deal of time red-penning various passages for either composition or factual review, which is very normal for the preliminary version of any manuscript, even from the best of authors. However, it was different this time. I had very little to do but enjoy what I was reading. Toll is a true master of this particular craft. His composition skills are exceeded by no author for whom I’ve provided editing services, nor are the quality and the level of his research.
“Pacific Crucible” opens with an expansive prologue that some readers might find a bit too long – it looks a lot more like a major chapter. In fact, it is. The prologue is Toll’s setup for the entire Pacific War, going back to the 19th century for a detailed review and analysis of decades of history that ultimately turned December 7th into a day of infamy. Digesting the prologue will give the reader a solid grounding for all that follows. Without its thoroughness, the book would start to look like a lot of others that begin with little more than bombs falling on Pearl Harbor.
There are 12 reasonably-sized chapters that cover every element of the war though the Battle of Midway, and again, the level of detail and the refreshing modern analysis that Toll brings to each is superb. It’s arguably the new standard for Pearl Harbor to Midway. For anyone looking for a meticulously accurate all-inclusive history of the opening months of the Pacific War, look no further.
For those curious as to why Toll’s fine effort ceases with the end of the Battle of Midway, be assured that it doesn’t. This is but the first volume of what will probably be a trilogy that takes its subject into Tokyo Bay and beyond. Stay tuned.
* * * * *
by Barrett Tillman
Published 2012, Simon & Schuster
(Posted 1 May 2012)
Roundtable member and prolific military author Barrett Tillman’s latest work is Enterprise, a new comprehensive history of CV-6. I can highly recommend it to all of our members, in part because of what has become the norm on the Roundtable: the author is himself one of our long-term members, he’s very well versed on the latter-day revelations regarding Midway and the other battles early in the war, and he relied heavily on help in crafting the book from our Midway vets as well as some of our participating author-historians. As we have seen with other recent works by similarly situated writers (notably the new offerings by Alan Zimm, Craig Symonds, and Elliot Carlson), the result is a very fine book that should take its place among any collection of important BOM references.
Of course, there is far more to the CV-6 story than Midway, although Tillman covers its role there with thoroughness. The book starts with a surprise and a real grabber: Enterprise is being towed to the scrap yard in 1958, an ignoble end to “the most honored man-o’-war in her nation’s history.” It’s a poignant beginning, quite the opposite of what you’d expect: maybe something like the beginning of its illustrious, gallant career in 1938.
Illustrious and gallant it was, as everyone here knows. The Navy recognized 41 major campaigns or battles in the Pacific War, and Enterprise was there for just under half of them, well beyond the number claimed by any other vessel of any class. Its service spanned nearly the entire war, from the first futile sorties looking for enemy carriers on 7 December 1941 to the last few weeks before V-J day when a Kamikaze sent it to the repair yard for the last time. It narrowly dodged death two and possibly three times in 1942 alone, and for a time represented the Pacific Fleet’s entire carrier force actively engaged against the enemy.
If you are familiar with Tillman’s other military history books, you know that they are written to maintain page-turning interest from cover to cover. That characteristic occasionally draws a critical review, mainly from scholars who think a book like this should be an exhaustively detailed chronicle of every conceivable fact about the ship, every last sortie however mundane, and every last person of minor significance who ever stepped aboard. Such works exist, so there’s no reason for Tillman or anyone else to do the same thing all over—instead, Enterprise reads like a good novel, except when you’re done you’ve read real history as fascinating as it gets. As a bonus, the book has an exceptionally good photo set, including some rare ones from the author’s personal collection.
As good as Tillman’s manuscript is, I winced a little upon examining the published book. Alas, an author can write whatever he wants on the pages inside, but it’s the publisher who decides what goes on the jacket—if the author doesn’t agree, that’s too bad. If you’re like me and think the title and subtitle of this book are a little lame for such a dramatic story, Tillman is with you—they are not his choice. Then, there’s the write-up inside the jacket—not bad, except for the glaring error of saying that planes from the Enterprise alone accounted for only two of the four Japanese carriers sunk at Midway. A miscue like that probably wouldn’t jump out at anyone not affiliated with the Roundtable, but here we are.
But as the old saying goes, don’t judge the book by its cover. Since you’ve had enough interest in this review to read it all the way to the end, I’m betting that you’ll find Enterprise to be a five-star addition to your BOM and Pacific War bookshelf.
Return to Top