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by Neil Stephenson
(Buy this at Amazon)
The Emperor's Codes
by Michael Smith
(Buy this at Amazon)

Monday, February 4, 2003

Identifying a Character in "Cryptonomicon"

If you've read Neil Stephenson's grand, sprawling, gargantuan novel, you know that there are some real people in the story - Alan Turing, for example. There are also characters based more or less loosely on real people. This note identifies one of them, and gives a bit of the history of the man, one who played a significant part in the history of World War II that runs through the novel.

Even if you haven't read it - and if you haven't, the connection here won't mean much - I think you'll be fascinated by his story, and by the glimpse into a little-known aspect of World War II: how U. S. Navy cryptologists broke a Japanese naval code, and in the process, helped turn the tide of the war in the Pacific.

Let's start by picking up the thread in Cryptonomicon where he first appears. There are actually two threads that come together here: the first is one of the main characters, L. P. Waterhouse. He is a naive young man who turns out to be a mathematical genius, and who enlists in the Navy at the beginning of World War II. We first see our subject in the book through his eyes, and he provides a few of the details that tie this all together.

When he took the Navy intelligence test, Waterhouse saw such interesting possibilities in one of the questions that he made a significant advance in an obscure area of math, one that led to his getting a paper published in a European journal. But because he didn't finish the rest of the test, the Navy concluded that he must be pretty dim. They assigned him to a Navy band unit. (Present and former Naval people will probably recognize this sort of thing. It happens now and again in the military.)

A short time later, he's on deck, at Pearl Harbor, on a sunny Sunday morning in 1941, in the band, practicing, playing the glockenspiel. (I think Stephenson just liked the sound of that word.)

After the attack, the need for navy bandsmen had somewhat dwindled, and the need for clerks, typists and filers had appreciably increased. Waterhouse and his fellow bandsmen found themselves transferred to a new unit.

It is here that he met the object of our interest, the second thread in this story. This second thread is the man loosely based on an actual Navy Commander. Here's how L. P. Waterhouse first sees him, in Cryptonomicon:

"...he sees that the officer (if he even is an officer) is out of uniform. Way out of uniform. He's wearing a bathrobe and smoking a pipe. The bathrobe is extrordinarily worn... The thing hasn't been laundered in a long time, but boy has it seen some use. The elbows are worn out and the bottom of the right sleeve is ashy grey and slippery with graphite from being dragged back and forth, tens of thousands of times, across sheets of paper dense with number-two pencil work.
Some other fellow ... introduces bathrobe man as Commander Schoen..."

Stephenson, "Cryptonomicon", p. 67

Those are our two threads: a sailor pulled out of a band unit into a codes and signals unit, and the Commander of that unit, who wears a bathrobe and slippers, smokes a pipe, and looks a little disheveled.

The Commander could be a product of Stephenon's wild imagination, but he isn't. At least, not entirely.

People who have studied the history of U. S. Naval cryptography would probably recognize "Commander Schoen" as an exaggeration of Commander Joe Rochefort, USN. (Apparently Rochefort appears "in several disguises" throughout the book, but this is the only one I've found so far.) For the rest of us, though - and I found this story only recently - here are the details about the real-life inspiration for the character.

There's a fine book by Michael Smith, The Emperor's Codes: The Breaking of Japan's Secret Ciphers, from which we can pull out the thread that is Rochefort. In a way, his story is an example of the adage that "no good deed goes unpunished" (another thing that may strike a familiar chord with present and former Naval personnel).

Smith picks up the story of Cmdr Rochefort. He was born in Dayton, OH, in 1898. He enlisted in the navy in 1918 and was later commissioned as an officer. In 1925, he was head of the US Navy cryptologic section. He took over the Pearl Harbor crypto unit in June 1941.

There's a photo of Cmdr Rochefort in the center section of the book. The photo is credited to the NSA. The NSA has a "Hall of Honor", paying tribute to the pioneers and heroes of American cryptology. The Hall is subtitled "These Were the Giants". Cmdr Rochefort's page is here.

"...for...3 months Rochefort rarely left the office. He slept there, ate there, kept going by US Navy-issue amphetamines, and even when working was invariably seen wearing a silk smoking jacket and slippers."

[Rochefort] said

"I ... put in 20 or 22 hours per day ... for about 48 hours at a stretch... I started to wear a smoking jacket over the uniform... it [kept] me warm... it had pockets where I could keep my pouch and pipe. Then my feet got sore from the concrete floor... So I started wearing slippers because the shoes hurt my feet."

Smith, pp108-109

One more detail:

"So urgent was the need for reinforcements, Rochefort recalled having to recruit navy bandsmen to operate his punched-card machines..."

Smith, p123

So there's our man: Cmdr Joseph J. Rochefort, USN. Smoking jacket, pipe, and slippers. Recruited navy bandsmen - like Waterhouse - into his crypto unit.

What happened next?

For the next few years, Rochefort's unit intercepted and decoded thousands of Japanese navy messages. Perhaps the high point of the unit was in June of 1942, just before the Battle of Midway.

Rochefort was sure, based on the messages he processed, that the Japaese fleet would attack at Midway. The admirals in Washington were convinced that it would be somewhere else, either Alaska, Hawaii, or even the West Coast. He managed to convince Admiral Nimitz, who sent the fleet to Midway. The Pacific Fleet won that decisive battle, one of the most important of the war. The admirals in Washington were sore losers, particularly the Redmon brothers:

"Safford had been replaced as head of OP-20-G [The Naval Cryptography division, of which Rochefort's unit was a part] ... by Cmdr John Redman, brother of Director of Naval Communications, Rear Admiral Joseph Redman. The Redman brothers were determined to ensure that communications experts were in charge of naval codebreaking. John Redman also appears to have resented being made to feel foolish by Rochefort over the Midway disagreement. Word began to spread within the naval hierarchy ... that the naval intelligence center in Hawaii was not working well and Rochefort was to blame. The esoteric codebreaker with a penchant for wearing a silk smoking jacket over his uniform was never likely to go over well with the tub-thumping Redman brothers. ... John Redman complained to his superiors that the Hawaii codebreaking operation was in the hands of a man who was merely "an ex-Japanese-language student".

Rochefort was replaced and sent back to San Francisco where he was put in charge of a new dry dock. Philip Jacobsen wrote, "What a waste of priceless talent for a political payback. Nimitz's recommendation for the Distinguished Service Medal was twice denied, but given to political cronies of the Redmans in Washington."

Smith, pp143-4

"The Pearl Harbor codebreaking operation that Rochefort put in place was one of the most efficient operating anywhere,... the breaking of Yamamoto's operational orders prior to the Battle of Midway was a truly spectacular success.

Rochefort, who retired from the navy in 1953, never did receive the Distinguished Service Medal that Admiral Nimitz had recommended him for in the wake of Midway, but it was belatedly awarded to him posthumously in 1986.

Smith, p227

He died in 1976. According to the NSA site, the award was the President's National Defense Service Medal, the highest military award during peacetime.

Starting points for further exploration

There are, of course, thousands of references and books about the subjects of cryptography and war. These few are the ones I came across in searching out this story. I'll add more later.

Philip H. Jacobsen, LCDR, USN, (Ret.) has an excellent site, (The Codebreakers). The section about Cmdr Rochefort is here.

Lord, Walter, "Incredible Victory" (Classics of War)
I haven't read this one, but the reviews on amazon are all very positive.

There is an association of US Navy cryptologic veterans, which has a journal, "Cryptolog, the Journal of the US Naval Cryptologic Veterans Association"
Smith got a lot of his information from this site. Click on their link "Fetaures" to read a set of naval interviews with Rochefort, done in 1969.

posted by Mike 10:45