Spilling the Secret – Captain Morton T. Seligman, U.S. Navy (Retired), U.S. Naval Academy Class of 1919

By Captain Lawrence B. Brennan, U.S. Navy (Retired) (Editor’s Note: a version of this article first appeared in the January 2013 issue of the Universal Ship Cancellation Society Log. Article is copyrighted by the author, all rights reserved.)

“The game may not be worth the candle.”
Special Prosecutor William D. Mitchell, former Attorney General of the United States

Seligman NH 45782

LT Morton T. Seligman in a 1920’s photo. NHHC image NH 45782.

Six months into the Second World War, a 46 year old aviator commander had just earned his second Navy Cross for heroic service as executive officer of the largest aircraft carrier in the fleet during the first battle between opposing carrier forces. USS Lexington (CV 2) was sunk at the battle of Coral Sea on 8 May 1942, but when her XO, Commander Morton T. Seligman, U. S. Navy, disembarked at San Diego from USS Barnett (AP 11) on 2 June 1942, his career would be in shambles. Seligman was most fortunate that he was not court martialed for treason or unlawful disclosure of classified material.

The most dangerous wartime leak of sensitive intelligence was traced directly to Seligman during his return to the United States. The publication of the results of code breaking by the U.S. Navy threatened one of the most valuable secrets that allowed the Allies to defeat Japan. Instead of being tried by court martial, Commander Seligman permanently was denied any chance for promotion and forced to retire in 1944. A career that could have led to command of a fast carrier and ultimately to stars floundered in the Pacific waters as he was returned to the West Coast.[1. For example, Admiral J. J. Clark, U.S. Navy (Retired) was USNA 1917. He commanded an escort carrier and USS Yorktown (CV 10) before being selected for flag. He retired as a Tombstone Admiral. Seligman was only two years junior.]

There are three public versions of how a Chicago Tribune reporter, Stanley Johnston[2. Queen of the Flattops was one of the first of the Pacific War histories, written by Chicago journalist Stanley Johnston about his time on USS Lexington (CV-2) before and during its sinking. It was first published later that year.], obtained access to highly classified messages providing the Japanese order of battle and U.S. Naval Intelligence estimates of the Japanese battle plans. Most historians now accept the view advanced by the Special Prosecutor, Navy, and the “official story” that Johnston and Seligman were returned together to the West Coast in USS Barnett in May and early June 1942 and that Seligman intentionally – or not – gave Johnston access to decoded Navy messages which became the basis for the story Johnston drafted and which was published by the Chicago Tribune on 7 June 1942, immediately after the Battle of Midway.

The second version is contained in Miracle at Midway.[3. Prange, Gordon W., David M. Goldstein, and Katherine V. Dillon, Miracle at Midway (New York:  McGraw Hill Book Company, 1982), p. 367.] That version states that an unnamed naval officer provided documents to Johnston after the Battle of Coral Sea. The “naval officer unwisely showed Johnston Nimitz’s dispatch giving the intelligence estimate of the Japanese destination and composition of forces.”[4. Ibid.] The sole source cited by Prange et al. was the biography Nimitz.[5. Potter, E.B., Nimitz (Annapolis:  Naval Institute Press, 1976.)  p. 103.]  Potter observed that the message from CinCPac was received on board USS Chester (CA 27) which he contends was transporting Admiral Fitch, his staff, and some of Lexington’s survivors including the Commanding Officer, Captain Frederick C. (“Ted” Sherman) and his executive officer, Commander Morton T. Seligman along with Johnston. Potter contends that, Seligman violated security regulations by showing the CinCPac dispatch, with the Yamamoto plan, to Johnston, with whom he had become friendly.”[6. Ibid.]

Finally, one source, which receives little recognition, despite a single but well-known source, states that Johnston claimed that he was transported from the sinking Lexington in USS New Orleans (CA 32) to Pearl Harbor and that on board the cruiser he gained access to the classified messages which he memorized. This is contained in an account written by a physician and published in the U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings nearly 35 years ago. The sole source for this version of Johnston’s coup of a lifetime was the hearsay statements of the principal civilian aide and counsel to the Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox in 1942, Adlai E. Stevenson. Stevenson was the grandson of a vice president of the United States, a future governor of Illinois, twice an unsuccessful Democratic candidate for president (1952 and 1956), and a future U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Stevenson’s version is the paraphrased account published more than 35 years after the events and nearly 20 years after his conversation with the author, based on Johnston’s account of his own grand jury testimony in the summer of 1942.

Application of traditional legal processes regarding hearsay and weight of evidence, the potential biases of “witnesses”, and other credibility tests plus reliance on primary sources may help address the obvious conflicts between these two versions of the truth.

Morton T. Seligman was born in Salt Lake City on 1 July 1895 and was a member of the Naval Academy Class of 1919. He died at the Naval Hospital Balboa (San Diego) while living in retirement at Coronado, California at age 71 on 9 July 1967. His active naval career spanned two world wars and about 25 years. He would live in retirement for another quarter of a century, mostly while the egregious nature of his misconduct was shielded from public view by security considerations. In fact, his death would virtually coincide with the publication of Walter Lord’s Incredible Victory, the first major work addressing the importance of code breaking in the U.S. victory at Midway.

Seligman was appointed to the U.S. Naval Academy from Utah, arriving for his first day on 13 June 1914, at age 18 years, 11 months. He was related to a future governor of New Mexico [7. Seligman, Arthur (1871-1933) — of Santa Fe, Santa Fe County, N.M. Born June 14, 1871. Democrat. Delegate to Democratic National Convention from New Mexico, 1916 (member, Committee to Notify Presidential Nominee), 1932 (alternate); Governor of New Mexico, 1931-33; died in office September 25, 1933 (age 62 years, 103 days). Interment at Fairview Cemetery, Santa Fe, N.M.  Perhaps one could attempt to draw a connection between Governor Seligman’s involvement in FDR’s nomination and election in 1932 and FDR’s leniency with Commander Seligman a decade later.  That is beyond the scope of this monograph.], and the envelope cover accompanying this article is addressed to a relative in Santa Fe, New Mexico in 1929.

The Seligman family were early pioneers of the Southwest. Soon after the capture of the southwest from Mexico, in 1856 Bernard Seligman, Governor Arthur Seligman’s father, joined the Seligman Brothers Company, a wholesale and retail dry goods mercantile established in 1852 by S. Seligman and Charles P. Cleaver. It delivered merchandise from Kansas City across the Old Santa Fe trail using wagons drawn by oxen, mules, and horses.  From Santa Fe the company distributed products within a 100 mile radius of the territorial capital and they handled most of the banking and financial transactions in the Southwest.

Lieutenant (Junior Grade) Seligman commanded USS SC 272 which was engaged in minesweeping of the North Sea Barrage after the end of hostilities. His first Navy Cross citation read:

The President of the United States of America takes pleasure in presenting the Navy Cross to Lieutenant, Junior Grade Morton Tinslar Seligman (NSN: 0-34590), United States Navy, for exceptionally meritorious and distinguished service in the line of his profession as Commanding Officer of the U.S.S. C-272, engaged in the important and hazardous duty of sweeping for and removing the mines of the North Sea Barrage.[8. “Valor Awards for Morton Tinslar Seligman,” Military Times, militarytimes.com/citations-medals-awards/recipient.php?recipientid=10339.]

Subsequently, Seligman began his career as a naval aviator. The photo below is an airmail cover postmarked with USS Saratoga’s Type 8 postmark sent by Lieutenant Seligman to a relative in Santa Fe, New Mexico in 1929.

Seligman envelope

Airmail cover postmarked 2 February 1929 with USS SARATOGA’s Type 8 Cancel. Airmail stamp is Scott C11 of 1928. Collection of Captain Lawrence Brennan.


Later, as a Lieutenant Commander, Seligman commanded the Tophatters,[9. The Tophatters have enjoyed 15 incarnations:

Air Detachment, Pacific Fleet Established : Sep 1919
Redesignated VT-5, an element of AirDet, PacFlt : 15 Jun 1920
VT-5 Redesignated VP-4-1 : 07 Sep 1921
VP-4-1 Redesignated VF-4 : 23 Sep 1921
VF-4 Redesignated VF-1 : 01 Jul 1922
VF-1 Redesignated VF-1B : 01 Jul 1927
VF-1B Redesignated VB-2B : 01 Jul 1934
VB-2B Redesignated VB-3 : 01 Jul 1937
VB-3 Redesignated VB-4 : 01 Jul 1939
VB-4 Redesignated VS-41 : 15 Mar 1941
VS-41 Redesignated VB-41 : 01 Mar 1943
VB-41 Redesignated VB-4 : 04 Aug 1943
VB-4 Redesignated VA-1A : 15 Nov 1946
VA-1A Redesignated VA-14 : 02 Aug 1948
VA-14 Redesignated VF-14 : 15 Dec 1949] then VF-1B, as the 14th CO between the summer of 1933 and the summer of 1934. He served in a line of pre-war luminaries including Mustin, Ofstie, Bogan (twice), Radford, Sherman (his immediate predecessor), Wiltsie, and John G. Crommelin.

In 1940 Commander Seligman was the technical advisor to a Hollywood movie. Thereafter, Seligman was assigned as Lexington’s executive officer prior to World War II.  He served in combat from 7 December 1941 until she was sunk.

Lexington NH 51382

USS LEXINGTON (CV 2) burning and sinking after her crew abandoned ship during the Battle of Coral Sea, 8 May 1942. NHHC image NH 51382


Despite Commander Seligman’s difficulties with improper disclosure of classified information he was awarded a second Navy Cross by a General Order contained in Command in Chief Pacific letter Serial 2828 dated 29 June 1942. The award was presented at a ceremony on 15 September 1942. The citation read:

The President of the United States of America takes pleasure in presenting a Gold Star in lieu of a Second Award of the Navy Cross to Commander Morton Tinslar Seligman (NSN: 0-34590), United States Navy, for extraordinary heroism and distinguished service in the line of this profession as Executive Officer of the Aircraft Carrier U.S.S. Lexington (CV 2), in action on 7 and 8 May 1942, during the Battle of the Coral Sea. During and after that battle Commander Seligman directed the damage control and fire fighting parties, inspecting and visiting all critical parts of the ship. He personally assisted in removing all the wounded in many places. His distinguished leadership and timely decisions contributed greatly to the success of our forces and was largely responsible for the small loss of life that occurred when the ship was abandoned. Commander Seligman’s conduct throughout was in keeping with the highest traditions of the Navy of the United States.[10. “Valor Awards for Morton Tinslar Seligman,” Military Times, militarytimes.com/citations-medals-awards/recipient.php?recipientid=10339.]

Based upon contemporary standards and practices, the lack of formal punishment imposed on Commander Seligman is surprising. Contrast what happened to Seligman for this wartime leak with the serious punishment imposed upon modern spies absent declarations of war and direct combat – the Walker Ring, Pollard, Ames, et al. True, Seligman’s leak was to the media but the newspapers promptly published the information for all to see. This was a different era, gentlemen did not publicly embarrass each others, Secretaries of the Navy and CNOs were not obsessed with “piling on” officers at the premature ends of their careers, and presidential promises were worth the word of the command-in-chief. Most importantly, everyone in Navy – including Seligman – were united in the desire to avoid any leak of the actual secret regarding penetration of the Japanese naval codes. So, Seligman was not prosecuted, the civilians were not threatened with court-martial, and not even a flag mast was conducted to “award” a nominal fine and a punitive letter to Seligman.

Imagine the poor OPNAV staff officer in charge of punitive letters for Admiral King tasked with drafting a punitive letter for Commander Seligman – how to write what could not be put on paper and about a subject he was probably not cleared to know. That captain would know only the proper letterhead (OPNAV or CINCUS), the “from, to, subject, and reference” lines.

Seligman served nearly two more years on active duty. He knew too much and could not be sent back to sea. Those in the know knew why he was ashore but for others the sight of an aviator commander with a gold star on his Navy Cross after a CV XO tour must have been confusing.

The motive for Seligman’s misconduct remains unclear although it is improbable that he intended to convey the existence of the code breaking capabilities to the Japanese. More likely, he wished to help a reporter he viewed as a friend and expected was bound not to disclose secret information. This incident suggests that access to information based on code breaking, and thus general knowledge of those capabilities, was widespread in the fleet.

But contrast Seligman’s misconduct with the pre-meditated heroism of Captain John P. Cromwell, U. S. Navy [USNA 1920, one year junior to Seligman] who, on board USS Sculpin (SS 191) on 19 November 1943, chose to die with a sinking submarine rather than risk being captured and forced to disclose his knowledge of the code breaking secret. His posthumous Medal of Honor citation reads:

For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty as Commander of Submarine Coordinated Attack Group with Flag in the USS Sculpin, during the 9th war patrol of the vessel in enemy controlled waters off Truk Island 19 November 1943. Undertaking this patrol prior to launching our first large scale offensive in the Pacific, Captain Cromwell, alone of the entire task group, possessed secret intelligence information of our submarine strategy and tactics, scheduled fleet movements and specific attack plans. Constantly vigilant and precise in carrying out his secret orders, he moved his underseas flotilla inexorably forward despite savage opposition and established a line of submarines to southeastward of the main Japanese stronghold in Truk. Cool and undaunted as the submarine, rocked and battered by Japanese depth charges, sustained terrific battle damage and sank to an excessive depth, he authorized the Sculpin to surface and engage the enemy in a gunfight, thereby providing the crew an opportunity to abandon ship. Determined to sacrifice himself rather than risk capture and subsequent danger of revealing plans under Japanese torture or use of drugs, he stoically remained aboard the mortally wounded vessel as she plunged to her death. Preserving the security of his mission at the cost of his own life, he had served his country as he had served the Navy, with deep integrity and an uncompromising devotion to duty. His great moral courage in the face of certain death adds new luster to the traditions of the U.S. Naval Service. He gallantly gave his life for his country.[11. USS Nautilus, Submarine Heroes, www.ussnautilus.org/undersea/cromwell.html]

Seligman was the “sole exception” to Fleet Admiral King’s religious practice of refraining from interfering with selection boards. [12. Buell, Thomas B. Master of Seapower (Boston:  Little, Brown & Co., 1980) U.S. Naval Institute Classics of Naval Literature ed. 1995, p. 328.] He earned that personal badge by being, in King’s words, the source of “a leak which that may involve very serious consequences. It compromises a vital and secret source of information … The military consequences are so obvious that I do not need to dwell on them … any disclosure will give aid and comfort to the enemy.” Seligman’s leak to reporter Stanley Johnston, an Australian who was on board Lexington and most likely was Seligman’s roommate in Barnett, led to articles published in the Washington Times-Herald and subsequently the Chicago Tribune which disclosed that the United States Navy knew the details of the Imperial Japanese Navy battle plan and order of battle prior to the opening salvos. Neither article disclosed directly that the U.S. had broken the Japanese code. That direct statement would be delayed a month until Naval Reserve Lieutenant Commander Walter Winchell, publicly connected the last dots in the New York Daily Mirror. Nevertheless, Navy Secretary Frank Knox, the former publisher of Chicago’s Daily News, “squared off” against the Tribune publisher, Colonel Robert R. McCormick. King sent a personal letter to McCormick rebuking the Colonel’s claim that he had compromised nothing of value to the enemy. Knox referred the matter to the Attorney General, Francis Biddle, and a special prosecutor was named. Ultimately, no prosecutions were conducted and the code breaking secret was preserved somehow. King’s biographer, Thomas Buell simply stated that “neither McCormick nor Johnston came to trial because the Navy refused, for obvious reasons, to produce the relevant evidence. As for Seligman, King cast about for an appropriate punishment. With the concurrence of Roosevelt and Knox, King arranged that Seligman would never be promoted to captain, and he retired from active duty in 1944.” [13. Ibid., pp. 203-04.]

Despite the decision by Admiral King, the Secretary of the Navy, and President Roosevelt to prevent Seligman from becoming a captain, this article properly reflects his retired title. Following the practice that existed until 1958, a Tombstone promotion was given to Commander Seligman upon his retirement by virtue of his combat service resulting in a significant personal award for combat valor. When Seligman acted as the technical advisor to the 1945 World War II movie, “Bell for Adano” he was listed in the credits as “Captain Morton T. Seligman, U.S. Navy (Retired). “ He continued to use the title of Captain, to park in Captain’s spaces at the Officers’ Club, the hospital, exchange, and commissary, and even in his obituary.

There is, however, more to the story.

One published account of Johnston’s access to the highly classified documents was based upon the aged hearsay version provided in 1959 by Adlai Stevenson[14. According to Wikipedia:  “In 1940, Colonel Frank Knox, newly appointed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt as Secretary of the Navy, offered Stevenson a position as Principal Attorney and special assistant. In this capacity, Stevenson wrote speeches, represented Secretary Knox and the Navy on committees, toured the various theaters of war, and handled many administrative duties. Since Knox was largely a figurehead, there were few major roles for Stevenson, After Knox died in April 1944, Stevenson returned to Chicago where he attempted to purchase Knox’s controlling interest in the Chicago Daily News, but his syndicate was outbid by another party.”  Perhaps Stevenson had personal motives for advancing the Johnston version in 1959, a before year he unsuccessfully sought the Democratic presidential nomination for a third time.] to the author of that article, Grant Sanger, M. D., published in 1977 in the U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings entitled, “Freedom of the Press or Treason?” Doctor Sanger wrote:

An investigation revealed that the article was written by a Tribune correspondent, Stanley Johnston, and filed from Honolulu. There had been a serious error when, some months before, he had not been asked to sign accreditation papers as a war correspondent attached to the Navy. This freed him from submitting for censorship everything he wrote.

It was fairly obvious to those who read the article carefully that a Japanese naval code had been broken. (U. S. Naval Intelligence called it JN-25-C.)

All of this is not new, but 35 years later at least three different authors have asked, and at the same time have told us, how Stanley Johnston did it!

On 9 July 1971, on the “Op-Ed” page of The New York Times, Clayton Kirkpatrick, editor of The Chicago Tribune, wrote that Johnston’s “remarkably accurate deductions,” from recent experiences in the Battle of the Coral Sea (3-6 May 1942) [sic], enabled him to tell readers in great detail the complex Japanese plan of attack on the Aleutians and Midway Island! Also, he returned to Chicago to write the story!

Then-Commander Edwin T. Layton, senior intelligence officer for the Pacific Fleet in 1942, placed Stanley Johnston in USS Saratoga (CV-3) which was just emerging from the San Diego repair yard and was rushing to help in action at Midway. In a U. S. Naval Institute “Oral History,” Rear Admiral Layton relates that someone posted on the wardroom bulletin board a dispatch from Admiral Nimitz which revealed Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto’s operation plan for the attacks on the Aleutians and Midway Island. It was there Stanley Johnston acquired his information!

Philip Knightley, in his book, The First Casualty (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975), finds Stanley Johnston in a naval transport en route to California. Somehow he put all the pieces together while the Battle of Midway was in progress after his arrival in Chicago.

So much for revisionist historians![15. Grant Sanger, M.D., “Freedom of the Press or Treason”, U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, Vol. 103/9/895.  See also, www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/1977-09/freedom-press-or-treason. Coincidentally, Doctor Sanger was the son of Margaret Sanger who was the founder of the Margaret Sanger Clinic and International Planned Parenthood Federation.]

Unfortunately, Doctor Sanger’s facts are as wrong as are those of the three authors who he correctly criticizes.  First, Kirpatrick simply was in error when he suggested that Johnston had simply, but amazingly and incredibly, deduced his article from his experience at the Battle of Coral Sea in May 1942. To understand the Japanese employment of carrier groups and amphibious forces in a most general way might be credible but to seriously suggest that Johnston was able to reach the level of detail that was published is incredible. Second, Admiral Layton simply was wrong when he placed Johnston on board Saratoga, the sunken Lexington’s sister ship, which had completed repairs on the West Coast and was “racing to Hawaii” to arrive just too late to participate in the Battle of Midway. Perhaps the passage of years, confusion, and weakening of memory contributed to Admiral Layton’s clearly erroneous memory. Finally, Knightley correctly noted that Johnston was en route to the West Coast in a U.S. Navy transport but failed to account for how he was able to send his story to his editors in Chicago to complete their rewrite in time for the Sunday, 7 June 1942 deadline. Knightley is close to factual truth but he is incomplete in his account.

But even if Doctor Sanger were correct that all three authors were wrong, and they were, this would not compel the conclusion that Johnston’s account and Stevenson’s recollection were correct.

The crux of the Johnston grand jury testimony version was based on Doctor Sanger’s March 1959 meeting with Adlai Stevenson.

I asked him what he knew of the Stanley Johnston article since he had been a special assistant to Secretary Knox from 1941 to 1944. Stevenson said that Stanley Johnston told the Grand Jury that when he abandoned the mortally wounded USS Lexington (CV-2) in the Coral Sea, on 4 May 1942 [N.B. the correct date was 8 May 1942], he was picked up by a motor whaleboat from the USS New Orleans (CA-32), along with 580 others. After dropping the survivors in Noumea, the New Orleans proceeded to Pearl Harbor, where she arrived on 26 May 1942. Being a war correspondent, Johnston had free run of the ship and was not deposited in Noumea.

One day while going to the bridge, he passed through the captain’s cabin, where an open message lay on the desk. Johnston told the Grand Jury he did not touch the message, but memorized its content. This was the basis for his article. [16. Ibid.]

Presumably, Stevenson had access to the confidential grand jury transcript or a synopsis of Johnston’s testimony. Certainly, he would have received reports from the Department of Justice and the Special Prosecutor. Perhaps, Johnston was interviewed by Stevenson and others at Navy including Vice Admiral Wilson and repeated for them what he had told the grand jury. In any event, there are grains of truth in this account. New Orleans was involved in the rescue and transport of Lexington survivors to Noumea before proceeding to Pearl Harbor then returning to sea for the Battle of Midway. But other sources, primarily the contemporaneous interviews of Lexington survivors on the West Coast in early June 1942 – particularly Lieutenant Commander Dixon, suggest that Johnston was on board Barnett along with Seligman. Of course, the ships’ manifests should be the best evidence.

If Seligman and Johnston were separated at the time of the loss of Lexington then Seligman could not have been the source of Johnston’s illegal access to the classified messages and then Seligman and his reputation would have been the innocent victims of the most egregious railroading in naval history. But there is no record of complaint by Seligman or any supporters. Seligman was dead a decade before Doctor Sanger’s article was published and most of the principals also were long gone before the details of the code breaking were published in Walter Lord’s seminal Incredible Victory in 1967.

If Johnston’s account were true he would have had to “illegally” entered the sea cabin of New Orlean’s commanding officer and read the classified messages (which were improperly left in the open, a serious security breach). But even more troubling is the claim that Johnston memorized the messages. No matter how strong and well-trained his memory may have been it is a stretch to assume that he could memorize and differentiate the names of Japanese ships which were confusingly translated into English.

Johnston was a talented writer. He published an account of his time in Lexington entitled Queen of the Flattops. He also published newspaper articles about the Battle of Coral Sea. According to the New York Times, “Stanley Johnston, war correspondent for The Chicago Tribune, was aboard the Lexington at the time of the attack” and described Lieutenant Commander Robert Dixon’s report of the first sinking of the aircraft carrier in combat, IJS Shoho, “All the tension on the carrier exploded the moment we heard Comdr. Dixon’s voice come in strong and clear: ‘Scratch one flattop! Dixon to carrier: Scratch one flattop.’”

In sum, the account of Johnston’s Grand Jury testimony advanced by Mr. Stevenson is improbable and self-serving.

The generally accepted version of events is reflected in the action and public position of the Department of the Navy, presumably based on its investigations and the report of the Special Prosecutor. This version is best reflected in the masterful work of John Prados, Combined Fleet Decoded (hereinafter “Combined Fleet Decoded”)[17. John Prados, Combined Fleet Decoded (hereinafter “Combined Fleet Decoded”).  See generally.  pp.  341-43.] and in UNITED STATES CRYPTOLOGIC HISTORY, Series IV, World War II, Volume 5, A Priceless Advantage:  U.S. Navy Communications Intelligence and the Battles of Coral Sea, Midway, and the Aleutians, pp. 66-70 (hereinafter “Priceless Advantage”) by Frederick D. Parker. [18. CENTER FOR CRYPTOLOGIC HISTORY NATIONAL SECURITY AGENCY 1993. See generally pp. 66-70. (hereafter “Priceless Advantage”). Reproduced with the express permission of the Director, National Security Agency. On line as a pdf document at www.nsa.gov/about/_files/cryptologic…/priceless_advantage.pdf and also on line unofficially transcribed as a word document at www.centuryinter.net/midway/priceless/]

King and the OPNAV staff had an imperative mission to explain away the coincidence of the three carriers off Midway prior to the appearance of the Japanese fleet. Yamamoto had expected to lure the U.S. fleet out to defend Pearl Harbor but after 4 June he had to realize that the U.S. carriers were pre-positioned to the northeast of Midway. That crucial issue was overtaken by the Sunday edition’s front page articles in the Chicago Tribune and Washington Times-Herald which reported the Japanese order of battle and the fact that the United States knew that the attack on Alaska was a feint and the capture of Midway was the crucial attack.

As stated in Priceless Advantage:

On 7 June 1942, five days after Johnston’s arrival in San Diego and one day after CINCPAC’s POA Communiqué #3 appeared announcing “a momentous U.S. victory,” Johnston’s story of U.S. foreknowledge of Japanese forces and their plans appeared in the Chicago Tribune and other newspapers in Washington and New York. The headlines that introduced the story on page 4A in the Washington Times Herald for 7 June 1942 revealed without a doubt that the author had been privy to secret material concerning Japanese intentions and strategy: “U.S. KNEW ALL ABOUT JAP FLEET. GUESSED THERE WOULD BE A FEINT AT ONE BASE, REAL ATTACK AT ANOTHER.”[19. Priceless Advantage, pp. 68-69.]

According to Prados, that afternoon, “Admiral King gave a news conference in Washington at which he supplied a different version for why American carrier should be off Midway awaiting the Japanese. Then King went off the record to complain of the compromise secrets. The newspaper, its publisher (a vocal opponent of the Roosevelt administration) and the author of the report were threatened with legal action.”[20. Combined Fleet Decoded p. 341-42.]

The immediate focus in the halls of power was to investigate and control the damage posed by these two articles – a far greater threat to the crucial secret than the fact that the Nimitz had ambushed the Japanese fleets. Again, according to Prados, the scene at Navy that Sunday was not one of celebratory glee over the victory at Midway but focused rage.

Commander Arthur H. McCollum, ONI, Far East intelligence maven … encountered the flap in full progress. “The place was shaking,” he recalled … Wondering how these emergencies all came on Sunday, McCollum went to see “Savvy” Cooke, a senior aide to naval commander in chief, King who practically accused him of  giving the story to the Tribune. The two argued until McCollum heatedly asked for a chance to compare the news stories with data and ONI files. Cooke allowed him to do so.

Commander McCollum went back to the Far East Division and got out his files, which contains notes copied from Nimitz’s warning to his admirals of Japanese plans and strengths before Midway. McCollum immediately noticed that the Tribune story not only had the same information as the Nimitz dispatch, but also identical errors in communication garbling. McCollum went up the hall to Rear Admiral Wilkinson, director of naval intelligence …   Ping Wilkinson walked straight toward Ernie King’s office with McCollum chasing him … Admiral King predictably exploded, but his own communication officer, Carl Holden, was able to show that all five formal copies of Nimitz’s dispatch were properly accounted for. No one at the Navy Department had talked to any Chicago Tribune reporter. The leak had occurred elsewhere.”[21. Ibid, pp. 342-43.]

Priceless Advantage states:

On 17 May 1942, the survivors of the Lexington were en route to San Diego and San Francisco aboard the USS Barnett and the USS Elliot. (One account said that Admiral Fitch and Captain Sherman were aboard the transport [sic] Chester [N. B. actually a heavy cruiser [CA 27]).  Anticipating their arrival in the United States, CINCPAC sent the following message to Admiral Fletcher, CTF 17, with information copies to COMINCH and the Commandants of the 11th and 12th Naval Districts:

It is imperative that all survivors Coral Sea action being returned Mainland be instructed that they are to refrain from any mention of the action upon their arrival west coast port. Com11 is requested berth transports where debarkation can be conducted without contact with newsmen. All personnel will probably require reoutfitting. There will be no publicity regarding this matter until Navy Department release. Barnett and Elliot will stop at San Diego to discharge excess personnel en route San Francisco.

Despite these precautions by CINCPAC, events aboard the Barnett resulted in even more damaging revelations than those CINCPAC had hoped to prevent. …

On 8 June 1942, COMINCH sent the following message to CINCPAC:

Contents of your 311221 May were published almost verbatim in several newspapers yesterday. Article originated with correspondent Stanley Johnson [sic] embarked on [USS] Barnett until June 2d. While your despatch was addressed Task Force Commanders it was sent in channel available to nearly all ships which emphasizes need of care in using channels para. Cominch investigating on Barnett and at San Diego.[22. Priceless Advantage, pp. 66-67.]

CINCPAC’s message of 311221 May contained Admiral Nimitz’s final appreciation of the Japanese order of battle prior to Midway which Nimitz sent to the commanders of Task Forces 16 and 17, Spruance and Fletcher, respectively. The message was passed in communications channels available to other ships. Contrary to normal practices, which expected communicators to ignore traffic not addressed to their ship or commander, it was probably decoded by communications officers from the Lexington en route home from the loss of their ship at Coral Sea, who were acting as watch standers aboard the transport USS Barnett (AP 11). Perhaps the nature of the message, the identity of the sender, and the use of the flag officers’ code “encouraged” the officers in Barnett to break and read the message.[23. Ibid, pp. 68.]

NSA is simply wrong when it states that the info addees did not read the mail. “Information addresses” were analogous “ccs”, namely those to whom the messages sent not for action [those were addressees] but for information. Apparently the Fox system was open to be copied by all ships and units to whom the messages were not addressed. During World War II the Fox transmissions implicitly encouraged the copying and reading of many messages not addressed to a particular ship. This may have been a wide spread problem as best illustrated by Seventh Fleet’s “misreading” of a prep message sent by Commander, Third Fleet during the Battle of Leyte Gulf. Admiral Halsey sent a message to his fleet advising of his intention to form Task Force 34 centered on his fast battleships under Vice Admiral Willis A. Lee, U.S. Navy. Third Fleet never formed TF 34 and the fast battleships, with Halsey embarked in his flagship, USS New Jersey (BB 62) steamed north with the carriers towards the IJN’s decoy force of carriers. Contrary to Seventh Fleet’s expectation, there were no heavy Third Fleet units guarding the entrance to Leyte Gulf. This reading of messages not addressed to ships, squadrons, and even fleet commanders nearly led to the destruction of the Seventh Fleet’s invasion and support forces, and it led to the infamous padded message from CINCPAC to Third Fleet, “Where is TASK FORCE THIRTY FOUR RR The world wonders.”

Following the publication of the articles, King immediately convened several formal investigations, which collected evidence and statements from witnesses. The investigators probed into the circumstances on board Barnett, which carried Seligman, and Johnston, and in Chicago at the headquarters of the Chicago Tribune. On 8 June, a meeting with Johnston and his colleagues was held in Washington between naval officials, led by Vice Admiral Russell Wilson. “[D]uring this meeting, as noted by the special prosecutor … Johnston may have contradicted himself (Admiral Wilson was to say that Johnston ‘confessed’) and admitted seeing a list of Japanese vessels.”[24. Ibid, pp. 69.]

Even before these investigations were concluded, on 9 June, indictments were sought for the principal employees of the Chicago Tribune. By 11 June, four days after the leak was published, all of the principals had been interviewed; those in Barnett were repeatedly interviewed, and sworn to secrecy. On 7 July 1942 a Chicago Federal Grand Jury returned indictments but, previously, by 20 June it was apparent that Admiral King regretted urging the indictments. Lieutenant Commander Robert E. Dixon, Commanding Officer VS TWO, Lexington’s Scout-Bomber squadron, told the FBI that he had seen Johnston taking extensive notes from the bulletin.[25. See Robert Mason, “Eyewitness,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, June 1982, pp. 40-45.]

On 14 July, the Special Prosecutor transmitted his “Report on the Chicago Tribune Case” to the Attorney General and Secretary of the Navy. He concluded that national effort would be best served by not prosecuting the case. The three grounds for recommending against prosecution of the case did not include safeguarding of communications intelligence. His trilogy of salient points concerning the merits of the government’s case were related to the personal behavior of the principals: “1) Johnston said (on 8 June) that he got the information from a paper he found on his desk; 2) Two officers testified seeing Seligman working at a table in his quarters and that before him was a ‘writing on Navy paper’ giving a list of Jap vessels divided into a ‘striking force, support force, etc.’; 3) If, as appears likely, some officer left a copy of that dispatch lying around, it may fairly be said there was as much carelessness on the ship as the Tribune was guilty of, and the Jury may think so.”[26. Mitchell Report.]

Seligman 80-G-20057

CDR Morton T. Seligman in June 1942. National Archives image 80-G-20057.

Damage control rightfully was the mantra of OP-20-G which sought a plausible cover story. OP-20-G urged safeguards to prevent the loss of a vital advantage. King’s reiteration of his restrictions on distribution on 20 June implied that reason prevailed.

Questions concerning the appropriate applications of communications intelligence during wartime continued to arise. A new paragraph was inserted in the “Code of Wartime Practices for the American Press” by the secretaries of war and navy and sent to the director of censorship for implementation.

According to the NSA history the end of the crisis was prompted by a 15 August 1942 letter from the British Admiralty delegation in Washington to Admiral King, “expressing concern that the Hearst newspaper revelations posed a danger to special intelligence methods, that a trial would further compromise this source, and that ‘preservation of this invaluable weapon outweighs almost any other consideration.’ King’s reply reassured the British that the U.S. Navy would not do anything to increase the harm already inflicted by the original news story. 184 Five days later, the Chicago Daily Tribune carried the front page story, ‘U.S. Jury Clears Tribune.’ This story signaled the end of the grand jury investigation…”[27. Priceless Advantage, pp. 68-69.]

Prados concluded, “but the real case against the reporter Johnston was not strong, especially once ONI expert McCollum got Wilkinson to recognize that no prosecution could be successful without divulging detail of OP-20-G’s codebreaking success. McCollum made the same argument to Savvy Cooke.  Plans for prosecution evaporated.”[28. Combined Fleet Decoded, pp. 342.]

The Japanese apparently never benefited from this searing public controversy. According to Prados:

The Japanese had no easy means of ascertaining what is written in the Chicago Tribune.  There were no known agents in the United States.  The diplomatic corps, including naval attaches, was sequestered at a resort in Hot Springs, West Virginia and had all American news sources they wanted.  But at this precise moment, they were beginning to move to New York for repatriation and access was cut off during the period of transit.  Publication programs ran by embassies in South America were curtailed because the Japanese in a number of these countries were also being sequestered and repatriated, and while at the same time, the Chicago Tribune was not The New York Times and was not watched acidulously for intelligence.[29. Ibid, pp. 342-43.]

The media interest in the story behind the story apparently continued to summer until mid-August. The Chicago Sun observed, “In other words, being on the horns of a dilemma, the Tribune finds the horn of fakery less sharp than the horn of espionage.”[30. Priceless Advantage, pp. 68.] Time magazine wrote “The Press: Navy v. Tribune” in its 17 August 1942 edition, immediately prior to the end of the attempts to prosecute Johnston:

The Chicago Tribune was in the hottest spot in many a year. A Federal grand jury in Chicago this week begins to investigate a Government charge that the Tribune, in a story on the Battle of Midway, published information that might be useful to the enemy.

Newsmen in Washington had known about the case for weeks (but had been requested not to report it). The Tribune’s story—date-lined “Washington” and published on June 7—declared that the Navy had known about the Japanese plans for the attack on Midway. It backed up the assertion by giving detailed disposition of the Japanese fleet in three attacking forces.

Obviously the Tribune gave away no secret in letting the Japs know the disposition of their own fleet. Just what secret had been given away, the Government did not say, even though scores of people in Washington had a good idea what it was. Last week the Tribune published a nine-column defense of itself which revealed some of the testimony brought out earlier at a Navy investigation: the Washington date line on the story was phony. It originated in Chicago and was credited to Stanley Johnston, a garrulous, black-mustachioed, Australian-born opportunist who had served in the Australian Army in World War I, knocked around Europe and the Orient for 20 years, worked for the Tribune’s London bureau. He came to the U.S. after the fall of France, married a former showgirl (whom he had met in Paris), and became a U.S. citizen. Johnston had recently returned from the Pacific where he had happened to be the only correspondent on the Lexington, and was able to take pictures of her as she sank in the Coral Sea. His stories of the battle, whipped into shape by a rewrite man, installed him as a McCormick favorite.  …

As the Tribune pointed out last week, Stanley Johnston had been recommended for a citation for bravery in the Battle of the Coral Sea, and Managing Editor Maloney had been a U.S. flyer in World War I, serving in Eddie Rickenbacker’s squadron in France. At worst it looked as if they had committed a blunder in failing to take into account what such a story might reveal.  …

Colonel McCormick, as always, reacted vigorously. The Tribune unfurled the U.S. flag (in color) on page one.   …

It looked very much as if Publisher McCormick might make the public believe that he was being persecuted unless the Government, would loosen up enough to tell what real damage the Tribune story had done.[31. “The Press: Navy v. Tribune,” Time, August 17, 1942. See Also, Peter Duffy, “KEEPING SECRETS:  How censorship has (and hasn’t) changed since World War II” Columbia Journalism Review, September 30, 2010.  www.cjr.org/essay/keeping_secrets.php?page=all.]

Prados noted the long-term political impact of the incident:

The Chicago Tribune affair continued to reverberate down the corridors long after the events of Midway.  It was a factor in 1944, when secret adversaries went to Republican presidential contender Governor Thomas E. Dewey with a letter from General George Marshall to dissuade the politician from making any use of what he knew about code breaking at Pearl Harbor. The Marshall-Dewey correspondence referred explicitly to both Coral Sea and Midway and argued that the United States still used knowledge of Japanese activities gained from codebreaking. Inside the Navy, a portion of the secret history (completed in April 1943) of code breaking in the American-Japanese naval war argued that the Japanese changed all their codes after Midway and the consequence of the Chicago Tribune affair.[32. Combined Fleet Decoded, pp. 342.]

A scene in the 1980 science fiction movie The Final Countdown was eerily similar to an imagined exchange between Johnston and Seligman on board Barnett. In The Final Countdown version, the CAG EIGHT character, CDR Faraday, played by James Farentino raises the personal privacy issue when he discovers the civilian efficiency expert Martin Lasky, played by Martin Sheen, has entered CAG’s stateroom via their common head. CAG is writing a paper about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and of course the movie transports USS Nimitz (CVN 68) from 1980 back to 6 December 1941 with the opportunity to pre-empt the attack and destroy the Imperial Japanese Fleet.  When discovered, Lasky, the brazen civilian intruder is openly reading CAG’s notes and reviewing the widely published IJN aerial photograph of the torpedo attack on battleship row.  Perhaps the scene, in the movie produced by the Kirk Douglas family’s company and staring the famous patriarch as CO of Nimitz, was coincidental or could it have been based on the Johnston-Seligman scenario.

Today, the story of the Chicago Tribune publication of these stories is used by academics, the media, law students, and even the armed and naval forces as an example of how to cope with critical issues in conflict between First Amendment rights and national security [33. www.pbs.org/thewar/downloads/censorship.pdf] Perhaps the better alternative would be Admiral King’s method of having regular off the record discussions with the press, with or without alcohol, and telling them his plans for future operations and then swearing them to secrecy. I am not sure Admiral Fox Fallon or General Stanley McChrystal would agree with King but after their disastrous encounters with the media they both were forced to retire as four stars and enjoyed retirement ceremonies and they too received end of tour awards.

Captain Lawrence B. Brennan, JAGC, U.S. Navy (Ret.) is an admiralty lawyer who has tried many major maritime casualty cases for the government and private parties. His emphasis is on collisions, strandings, fires, explosions, and environmental disasters, particularly oil spills.


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