Midway Mystery: Secrecy and a World War II Turning Point

June 7, 2017–Here’s a story that has everything–spies, lies, a turning point of World War II, journalists, secrecy, desperation, and right thinking. Seventy-five years ago today, this story appeared in the Sunday edition of the Chicago Tribune: “JAP FLEET SMASHED BY U.S.–2 CARRIERS SUNK AT MIDWAY.” The battle off Midway Island in the Central Pacific was the moment when Japan’s march that had started with Pearl Harbor was blunted. American naval forces were weaker than the Imperial Navy’s. U.S. technology, for once, was equal, not superior to the adversary’s, with some things better, some worse than the enemy’s. What the Americans had for an edge was intelligence–U.S. Navy codebreakers were able to read a series of messages in which the Japanese finalized their plans to invade Midway. Using this knowledge, Pacific Fleet commander Admiral Chester W. Nimitz planned an ambush to catch the Japanese.

At first it seemed the enemy couldn’t be stopped. But then clouds opened up beneath a strike group of U.S. dive bombers and four Imperial Navy aircraft carriers were right below them. Nimitz’s forces sank all four enemy carriers, at one blow reducing first-line Japanese aeronaval strength by two thirds. That was on June 4, 1942. Over the next couple of days the U.S. mopped up, inflicting more losses on the enemy. Then came June 7 and the Tribune article.

The scary thing about the newspaper story is that its details included identifications of the Japanese warships involved at Midway, including the exact aircraft carriers that had been sunk. This suggested whomever had written the story had had access to information from U.S. codebreakers–and, indeed, Admiral Nimitz had sent a dispatch a few days ahead of the battle warning his sailors of the enemy’s strength. The Navy Department went ballistic upon seeing the Tribune story. Intelligence officer Arthur H. McCollum was able to show that the news story not only had the same information but the same errors as were in the Nimitz message.

United States Fleet commander Admiral Ernest J. King, and Navy Secretary Frank Knox told the press a cover story for why the Americans had been off Midway to meet the enemy, and they handed the leak case over to Attorney General Francis Biddle. On August 7, 1942 Biddle convened a grand jury which listened to evidence for five days. By this time Navy communications experts had traced the Tribune story to one of the newspaper’s reporters, Stanley Johnston, who had been on the aircraft carrier Lexington when she was sunk at the Battle of the Coral Sea in May 1942, and had bunked with that ship’s executive officer as both survivors were returned to Pearl Harbor. It is believed that officer, Commander Morton T. Seligman, had shown Johnston the Nimitz message.

The grand jury considered criminal charges against journalist Johnston. In the 75 years from that day to this–despite repeated governmental outrage against media and journalists for revealing leaked information to the public–Stanley Johnston remains the only journalist to come this close to indictment. But here was the thing: the Navy had permitted him to go to sea and cover naval affairs without obliging Johnston to sign any agreement that required him to submit his writings for censorship. The other aspect of the case was that the U.S. government could not have prosecuted the case without revealing more information of how it was reading the Japanese naval codes. A prosecutor assigned to handle the case had recommended, as early as mid-July, that it not be pursued. A trial would only provide opportunities for the Japanese to discover their codes were compromised. On August 20, 1942 the Chicago Tribune published another story, this time with the news that legal investigations were being dropped.

Fast forward many years. In late 2014 historian Elliot Carlson joined with the Reporter’s Committee for Freedom of Information and other organizations, including the National Security Archive, to sue for release of the grand jury records from the Midway-Chicago Tribune case. Chief Judge Ruben Castillo of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois ruled in June 2015 that the records should be opened. The U.S. government appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. In September 1916 the circuit court issued an order to unseal the records. In mid-December the government’s window to attempt a further appeal of the decision closed and the records became public. Secrecy has finally ended for the deepest mystery of the Midway leak–there are at least three versions of how Stanley Johnston obtained access to the Nimitz dispatch. Now we’ll be able to see precisely what he said to the grand jury.