Despite the fact that the Battle of Midway took place upon the largest ocean on the planet, it was freshwater rather than saltwater that brought about the United States’ best chance for victory in the Pacific Theater. RADM Edwin Thomas Layton shared this remarkable story in an oral history interview with the Nimitz Education and Research Center.
“The Navy’s radio intelligence unit at Pearl Harbor under the then LtCdr Joseph J. Rochefort had the duty of furnishing radio intelligence support to Admiral Nimitz. As his fleet intelligence officer, I was the liaison with Joe Rochefort for the radio intelligence matters. Joe Rochefort was the Navy’s top code breaking expert; he was also an old friend and former shipmate of mine. We had also studied Japanese together in Tokyo from 1929 to 1932 so our liaison was close and uninhibited, carried on day and night by a special telephone,” RADM Layton began. “We discussed and reviewed the radio intelligence obtained by his unit from intercepted Japanese naval radio messages, 99% of which was in code. The position of naval units obtained by his radio direction finding network, and any bits and pieces of Japanese messages obtained by the then initial breaks into the main Japanese naval code. I reported all these matters of radio intelligence to Admiral Nimitz on a continuous basis.”
Beginning in early May 1942, Layton began decoding Japanese messages that stated there would soon be a large operation at AF.
“Joe and I both believed the initials AF stood for Midway, from his previous using fragmentary messages concerning American air patrols in the general Hawaiian area, but we couldn’t prove that AF was Midway. Since AF was to be invaded by Japanese occupation force in a forthcoming campaign, Admiral Nimitz naturally wanted to know positively and beyond doubt what place AF represented.
Since we had no proof, Joe and I agreed we should entice the enemy by radio deception to furnish such proof, if possible. He suggested that Midway be ordered to send a fake urgent plain language message reporting a serious casualty to its freshwater system. We knew Japanese radio intelligence would intercept it and pass it along. We hoped that in the enemy’s handling or processing of that report, we would find a solution to our problem.”
Layton took the plan to Admiral Nimitz who approved it and sent orders to forces at Midway to execute the plan immediately.
“It worked! About 20 May, Joe’s unit broke a 19 May message from Tokyo Naval Intelligence stating that, ‘The American’s air unit on AF reported on the 18th having fresh water for only two weeks and requested an immediate supply.’ You can imagine Admiral Nimitz’s delight when I showed him the above decrypted translated message proven beyond a doubt that AF was in fact Midway and allowed him to prepare his warm reception for those visitors in early June.”
That “warm reception” resulted in Japan’s loosing over 3,000 men, four carriers, one cruiser, and hundreds of aircraft.
Although there were many other factors that lead to this important victory, RADM Edwin Thomas Layton’s deceptive story of freshwater problems in the Pacific was a major factor in turning the tide of the war.