Friday, April 26, 2013

The Steam Engineering School and the Battle of Midway

By Scott Smith, Acquisitions and Collection Development Librarian

A bronze plaque on the Hudson Street side of the Lieb Building recognizes the structure’s being the site of the United States Navy Steam Engineering School. The school, designed to train Navy officers for World War I and staffed entirely with Stevens faculty, opened in 1918 and closed in 1919. 

Lieb Building was constructed by the Navy specifically to house the school and was sold to Stevens after the school closed.  Among the graduates of the Steam Engineering School was an officer who played a key role in the United States’ outwitting the Japanese navy in the World War II Battle of Midway. Joe Rochefort, who had joined the Navy straight out of high school
in 1917, enrolled in the Steam Engineering School at Stevens in 1918. Several years after his training there, Rochefort took a Navy cryptanalysis class. Subsequently, he joined the Navy intelligence department, where he learned Japanese and developed his cryptology skills.

When the U.S. entered World War II after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Rochefort was the Officer in Charge of the Hawaiian intelligence station. His team of analysts, working with British and Dutch codebreakers, helped crack the Japanese navy’s main fleet cipher. This intelligence work revealed plans for an upcoming attack; however, opinions differed concerning where it would take place: some thought the Aleutian Islands, others thought Papua New Guinea, still others thought the west coast of the United States. Rochefort was convinced that it was Midway Atoll.

One of Rochefort’s staff members had an idea to send an unencrypted message with the information that Midway was having troubles with its desalination equipment. As hoped, the Japanese navy intercepted the message, and when the U.S. Navy intercepted and decoded a Japanese message calling for an increase in desalination supplies, they knew that Midway was the target. Further work by Rochefort’s team determined the date of the attack as either June 4 or June 5, 1942. Japan had lost its advantage, and the ensuing U.S. victory at Midway cost Japan its naval supremacy in the Pacific for the remainder of the war.

Two books in the Stevens library tell the story of Midway and Joe Rochefort:

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