Reflections on the Battle of Midway from the PACFLT Basement

Editor’s note: The following blog was written by Capt. Dale Rielage and first appeared on Station HYPO. Captain Rielage serves as Director for Intelligence and Information Operations for U.S. Pacific Fleet. He has served as 3rd Fleet N2, 7th Fleet Deputy N2, Senior Intelligence Officer for China at the Office of Naval Intelligence and Director of the Navy Asia Pacific Advisory Group. 

RochefortLayton

It is Midway season in Hawaii.

You would not know it from the weather. The pleasant warmth that marks our island remains unchanged from month to month…but each June, the various Information Warfare Commands on Oahu take lead in marking the anniversary of the battle. Over the span of a week, we have history talks, a gala on board USS MISSOURI, and, appropriately, a commemoration in the original Station HYPO spaces.  The Dungeon remains a secure space to this day, if for different reasons, and getting to visit is a rare opportunity. At the U.S. Pacific Fleet (PACFLT), we will hold a ceremony in front of the headquarters building, gathering around the flag pole that once held Fleet Admiral Nimitz’s flag.

At PACFLT, we are tied to these events not just by heritage but by place. The PACFLT Directorate of Intelligence and Information Operations (N2N39) occupies the same spaces in the same building as did our predecessors in World War II. Every day, I enter our secure office (an actual vault), passing panels which detail the events that unfolded within its top secret walls – the relentless pursuit to understand the adversary by those who came before us. Briefing the Commander today means walking past Nimitz’s desk, carefully arranged to display the same knickknacks he kept on it through the war.

We are also tied to our past by our mission. When I returned to Hawaii over a year ago, one of my shipmates referred to my new job as “the real Layton chair in intelligence” – a reference to the first Pacific Fleet intelligence officer, (then Lt. Commander) Eddie Layton. Indeed, the nature of the challenges in the Pacific has ensured that the team here has always remained focused on naval issues…in many ways, the same challenges the team here faced in World War II. It is natural to feel some kinship. For all the diverse functions and missions we perform, I tell my team at the core we answer five questions about naval activities in the region:

  • Where are they?
  • What are they doing?
  • What can they do?
  • What do they typically do?
  • What will they do in this case?

As one of my mentors would say, straightforward, but not simple.

In that context, a few months ago as we were discussing the way ahead for a cyber-related effort when one of my colleagues remarked “This is not 1942. We are not fighting Midway.”

True. On some days here, the air is thick with nostalgia. There are profound differences in the way we do business today from 74 years ago – new domains, new technologies, new organizational constructs.

Nonetheless, as an Information Warfare officer currently serving in the Pacific, I find the stories of the leaders and teams who made the success at Midway possible a rich source of example and challenges for today. Specifically:

This is a team sport. It is always interesting to see how various authors summarize the events around Midway. Eddie Layton or Joe Rochefort?: The question can be a bit of a Rorschach test within the Information Warfare Community. It is possible to write a history focused on one and never mention the other. The reality is that the Fleet – and victory at Midway – needed both. Rochefort led his team in the Dungeon, shifting HYPO from its focus on signals research to fleet operational support. Layton integrated these insights with Fleet decision makers. Practically, I doubt Layton would have had time to run HYPO or Rochefort would have had time to feed a fleet staff…at the least, there were not enough hours in the day for such a span of control.

People and personalities matter. It would be hard to conceive two officers better suited to support each other in this critical work than Rochefort and Layton. Having spent three years together in language study in Japan, they had bonded over common professional interests and become more than colleagues. One of the first additions after Rochefort arrived at HYPO was a direct secure phone line connecting their desks across the base.

Today as we endeavor to tie together what General McChrystal has called a “team of teams” to meet our dynamic environment, the need for deep trust and exhaustive coordination is more profound than ever. Many of us have Tandbergs on our desks…how many of the numbers in our address books are for an officer of a different designator?

Deep target expertise. A scan of the list of heroes in the Fleet and Combat Intelligence Unit in 1942 quickly reveals that the officers and men who drove the solution were deeply versed in their craft and their adversary. Both Layton and Rochefort had spent years studying Japan and thinking on the Japanese Fleet. Both had met the Japanese Combined Fleet Commander, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto. Their supporting cast had similarly invested time and effort in understanding their target. While there were a few generalists who made notable contributions (Jasper Holmes, for example), they supported the framework developed by the key experts.

Deep penetration of the customer. It is entirely possible to conceive an alternative history where the U.S. Navy had insight on the Japanese Fleet that the U.S. Pacific Fleet failed to exploit. Acting on HYPO’s hard won insights was still a tremendous risk which required not only trust in the information, but trust in the process and people. That trust had been built in a series of interactions that started before December 7th, made possible by the fact that the HYPO and Fleet intelligence teams were part of the Fleet. Layton was part of the fabric of the Headquarters. Rochefort could be summoned to talk directly to the Fleet Commander at critical moments. No amount of reach-back could have built that access or trust.

Commander as part of the process. No matter how good the intelligence, the “calculated risk” was the Fleet Commander’s to take. Getting to that point, Admiral Nimitz owned the intelligence in a way few commanders had. He understood the capability and limitations of the tools the team could bring to bear. In the end, he considered the evidence for “AF” being Midway – and once he embraced it, he considered it his call.

Humility and Selflessness. Few officers have been as poorly treated as Joe Rochefort. Within months of his success in the Midway campaign, he was reassigned to duties that took him outside of cryptology during several critical years of the War. Ironically, Rochefort had placed a sign near his desk in the Dungeon that read “We can accomplish anything…provided…no one cares who gets the credit.” When later given the challenge of placing a floating drydock into service, he excelled. When after the war, he had the chance to write a “tell-all” account of Midway, he declined, not wanting to embarrass the Navy.

He is a timeless and brilliant example of ‘service before self’…and a challenge to us as leaders. On most days, it’s fair to say we do care about who gets the credit. Stepping beyond that requires discipline.

It matters. Lastly, Midway stands as an example of the power of what we do for our Navy. Whether in the Pacific, in the Desert, in cyberspace or in DC, when we get the right team with the right expertise to offer the right insight to the right Commander, we can change how the story ends…and we do, every day.

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