Joseph Rochefort

Joseph John Rochefort (May 12, 1900[1] – July 20, 1976) was an American naval officer and cryptanalyst. He was a major figure in the United States Navy's cryptographic and intelligence operations from 1925 to 1946, particularly in the Battle of Midway. His contributions and those of his team were pivotal to victory in the Pacific War.

Joseph Rochefort
Born(1900-05-12)May 12, 1900
Dayton, Ohio
DiedJuly 20, 1976(1976-07-20) (aged 76)
Torrance, California
AllegianceUnited States
Service/branchUnited States Navy
Years of service1918–1947
Commands heldStation Hypo
Battles/warsWorld War II
Korean War
AwardsNavy Distinguished Service Medal
Legion of Merit
Presidential Medal of Freedom

Early career

Rochefort was born in Dayton, Ohio.[2] In 1917, he joined the United States Navy while still in high school in Los Angeles, without obtaining a diploma.[3] He enlisted in the Navy in 1918, lying that he was born in 1898 so as to appear almost 21 and eligible for the service. This adjustment lasted his entire career.[4] He was commissioned as an ensign after a 14 June 1919 graduation from the US Navy's Steam Engineering School at Stevens Institute of Technology,[5] and later in 1919 became engineering officer of the tanker USS Cuyama.[6]

A fellow officer observed that Rochefort had a penchant for solving crossword puzzles and adept skills at playing the advanced card game auction bridge and recommended him for a Navy cryptanalysis class in Washington, D.C.[6]

Rochefort's tours ashore included cryptanalytic training under Captain Laurance Safford as his assistant,[6] and work with the master codebreaker Agnes Meyer Driscoll in 1924.[7]

He then served a stint as second chief of the Division of Naval Communications' newly created cryptanalytic organization, OP-20-G, from 1926 to 1929; training in the Japanese language from 1929 to 1932; and a two-year intelligence assignment in the Eleventh Naval District, San Diego, from 1936 to 1938. Until 1941, Rochefort spent nine years in cryptologic or intelligence-related assignments and fourteen years at sea with the U.S. Fleet in positions of increasing responsibility.

World War II

Pearl Harbor

In early 1941, Laurance Safford, again chief of OP-20-G in Washington, sent Rochefort to Hawaii to become officer in charge of Station Hypo ("H" for Hawaii in the Navy's phonetic alphabet at the time) in Pearl Harbor as Rochefort was an expert Japanese linguist and trained cryptanalyst.

Rochefort handpicked many of HYPO's staff, and by the time of Pearl Harbor, had gotten many of the Navy's best cryptanalysts, traffic analysts, and linguists, including Joseph Finnegan. Rochefort's team was assigned to break the Japanese Navy's most secure cypher system, the Flag Officers Code,[8] while Navy cryptographers at Station CAST (Cavite in the Philippines) and OP-20-G in Washington (NEGAT, "N" for Navy Department) concentrated on the main fleet cipher, JN-25.[9]

Rochefort had a close working relationship with Edwin T. Layton, whom he first met on the voyage to Tokyo where both men were sent to learn Japanese at the Navy's request. In 1941, Layton was the chief intelligence officer for Admiral Husband E. Kimmel, Commander in Chief, Pacific Fleet (CINCPAC). Both he and Rochefort were denied access to decrypts of diplomatic messages sent in Purple, the highest level diplomatic cypher, in the months before the Japanese attack, on the orders of the director of the War Plans Division, Richmond K. Turner.[10]

Battle of Midway

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Navy cryptographers, with assistance from both British cryptographers at the Far East Combined Bureau (in Singapore; later Colombo, Kenya, Colombo), and Dutch cryptographers (in the Dutch East Indies), combined to break enough JN-25 traffic to provide useful intelligence reports and assessments regarding Japanese force disposition and intentions in early 1942. Rochefort would often go for days without emerging from his bunker, where he and his staff spent 12 hours a day, or even longer, working to decode Japanese radio traffic. He often wore slippers and a bathrobe with his khaki uniform and sometimes went days without bathing.

Station HYPO maintained the coming Japanese attack would be in the Central Pacific, and convinced Admiral Chester W. Nimitz (who replaced Kimmel). OP-20-G (with support from Station CAST) insisted it would be elsewhere in the Pacific, probably the Aleutian Islands.[11] possibly Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea, or even the west coast of the United States.[12] OP-20-G, which had been restructured (Safford having been replaced by Commander John Redman, a communications officer untrained in cryptanalysis) agreed the attack was scheduled for mid-June, not late May or early June, as Rochefort maintained. Redman also said that Rochefort was being "un-cooperative", and should concentrate on additive recovery. Admiral Ernest King, Nimitz's superior in Washington, was persuaded by OP-20-G. Rochefort believed an unknown codegroup, AF, referred to Midway.[13][14]

One of the Station HYPO staff, Jasper Holmes, had the idea of faking a failure of the water supply on Midway Island. He suggested using an unencrypted emergency warning in the hope of provoking a Japanese response, thus establishing whether Midway was a target. Rochefort took the idea to Layton, who put it to Nimitz. Nimitz approved, and the garrison commander was told by submarine cable to immediately radio in "plain-language" an emergency request for water as an explosion in the water desalination system meant that they had only enough water for two weeks. An apparently "follow-up" report was to be made in one of the strip-cipher code systems that the Japanese were known to have captured on Wake. As the plan was to convince Washington, Rochefort tactfully let Fleet Radio Unit, Melbourne (FRUMEL) notify the main objects of the deception (Washington) of the Japanese message by reporting a message from the AF Air Unit saying that they had only enough water for two weeks: "This will confirm identity of AF". Rochefort then sent a reminder on Friday. [15]

The Japanese took the bait. Within hours they broadcast instructions to load additional water desalination equipment, confirming Rochefort's analysis.[16] Layton notes the instructions also "produced an unexpected bonus". They revealed the assault was to come before mid-June.

Washington still was not convinced, however,[17] as to the date of the attack. The date-time data in Japanese naval messages was "superenciphered," or encrypted even before it was encoded in JN-25. HYPO made their all-out effort to crack this by searching the stacks of printouts and punched cards for five-digit number sequences. After finding low-grade codes, the team set about to unravel the cipher itself. Layton credits Lieutenant Joseph Finnegan for discovering "the method that the Japanese had used to lock up their date-time groups."[18] An intercept of 26 May with orders for two destroyer groups escorting invasion transports was analyzed with this table and "really clinched the pivotal date of the operation" as either 4 or 5 June.

During May 1942, Rochefort and his group decrypted, translated, reviewed, analyzed, and reported as many as 140 messages per day. During the week before Nimitz issued his final orders, "decrypts were being processed at the rate of five hundred to a thousand a day."[19]

When Nimitz recommended Rochefort for a Navy Distinguished Service Medal, Rochefort said that it would only "make trouble".[20] Other sources suggest Rochefort received no official recognition during his lifetime because he was made a scapegoat for the embarrassment of OP-20-G. Redman (whose brother was the influential Rear Admiral Joseph Redman) complained about the operation of the Hawaii station; as a result, Rochefort was reassigned from cryptanalysis to command the floating dry dock ABSD-2 at San Francisco.[21][22] Rochefort never served at sea again.[23] The fact that Rochefort received no higher recognition at the time is considered by some to have been an outrage.[24] However, he was decorated with the Legion of Merit at the end of the War.[25]

Rochefort headed the Pacific Strategic Intelligence Group in Washington after the war. He died in Torrance, California, aged 76.[26]


In 1985, Rochefort was posthumously awarded the Navy Distinguished Service Medal. In 1986, he was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 2000, he was inducted into the National Security Agency, Central Security Service Hall of Fame.


On 6 January 2012, the CAPT Joseph J. Rochefort Building was dedicated at the NSA facility within a Joint Base Pearl Harbor Hickam Annex, Hawaii.[27]


In the 1976 movie Midway with Charlton Heston and Henry Fonda, Rochefort was portrayed by Hal Holbrook. Rochefort died a month after the movie premiered. In 2019 film Midway, he was portrayed by actor Brennan Brown.


  1. "Social Security Death Index Search" 10 April 2010
  2. "California Death Records" note: lists year of birth 1901 10 April 2010
  3. Carlson, Elliot (2013). Joe Rochefort's War (Reprint ed.). Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press. p. 574. ISBN 978-1591141617.
  4. Carlson, p.37.
  5. Carlson, p.39.
  6. Stinnett, Robert B. (2001). Day of Deceit: The Truth about FDR and Pearl Harbor. New York, New York: Simon and Schuster. p. 61. ISBN 978-0-7432-0129-2.
  7. Stinnett. pp.74–76.
  8. Holmes, W. J. Double-Edged Secrets
  9. Holmes; Blair, Silent Victory (Bantam, 1976). They succeeded in making limited breaks by October 1940 and December 1941.
  10. Layton, Edwin T., Admiral, USN, Ret., with Pineau, Roger, Captain USNR, Ret., and Costello, John, And I Was There: Pearl Harbor and Midway – Breaking the Secrets (New York, 1985), p.115.
  11. Lundstrom, First South Pacific Campaign, p.155.
  12. Layton, Pineau, and Costello, And I Was There: Pearl Harbor and Midway – Breaking the Secrets, p.421.
  13. Layton, Pineau, and Costello, pp.412–4.
  14. Holmes, Double-Edged Secrets.
  15. Layton, Pineau, and Costello, pp.421–2.
  16. Cressman et al., A Glorious Page in Our History, p.34; Holmes, Double-Edged Secrets.
  17. Layton, Pineau, and Costello, p. 421
  18. Layton, Pineau, and Costello, pp.427–8.
  19. Layton, Pineau, and Costello, pp.422.
  20. Budiansky, Stephen (2000). Battle of Wits: The Complete Story of Codebreaking in World War II. New York, New York: Simon and Schuster. p. 22. ISBN 978-0-684-85932-3.; Holmes, Double-Edged Secrets.
  21. Smith, Michael (2000). The Emperor's Codes. Bantam Press. p. 144. ISBN 0-593-04781-8.; Holmes, Double-Edged Secrets.
  22. Carlson, p. 560.
  23. Holmes, Double-Edged Secrets.
  24. Holmes, Double-Edged Secrets, p.117
  25. "Valor awards for Joseph J. Rochefort". Militarytimes Websites. Retrieved 4 April 2017.
  26. "California Death Records" 10 April 2010
  27. NSA Public and Media Affairs. "NSA/CSS Unveils New Hawaii Center". National Security Agency. Retrieved 29 June 2012.
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