On 7 June 1942, The Chicago Tribune published an article entitled "Navy Had Word of Jap Plan to Strike at Sea." Identical articles, with different headlines, appeared the same day in the New York Daily News and Washington Times-Herald. At the time these newspapers comprised what was called the McCormick-Patterson empire.
For those readers under 30, the United States was at war with Japan; the Battle of Midway was still on; and the USS Yorktown (CV-5) was still afloat.
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), 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.
Back in Washington was Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox, a former publisher of The Chicago Daily News, who had no love for Colonel Robert R. McCormick, publisher of The Chicago Tribune. The wheels of law were set in motion, and on 7 August 1942, the U. S. Attorney General, Francis Biddle, announced that a Grand Jury would be convened in Chicago to investigate the facts of Johnston's article.
William D. Mitchell was chosen to head the government's legal staff. He was the first U. S. Solicitor General to become Attorney General, having been appointed to the former position in 1925 and the latter in 1929.
For five days, the editors of the three McCormick-Patterson newspapers and Stanley Johnston were called to testify.
In March 1959, this author was fortunate to meet the late 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, 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.
Rear Admiral Theodore S. Wilkinson, then Director of Naval Intelligence, used his influence and power to prevent any naval officer from appearing before the Grand Jury. Hence, the jury knew nothing about the breaking and using of a Japanese naval code. William D. Mitchell, therefore, had to tell the press on 20 August 1942 that "no violation of the Espionage Act had been disclosed."
On 31 August 1942, Representative Elmer J. Holland stated on the floor of the House of Representatives:
"A bill of indictment means a public trial, Mr. Speaker. A public trial means public testimony. And public testimony in a court of law, with skilled counsel representing the defendants, means that military secrets, however vital, must be revealed if they are relevant to the defense of those accused.
"It is public knowledge that the Tribune story, published also in the New York Daily News and the Washington Times-Herald, tipped off the Japanese high command that somehow our Navy had secured and broken the secret code of the Japanese Navy.
"That is a priceless advantage in war—to know your enemy's plans through your knowledge of his code.
"Three days after the Tribune story was published, the Japs changed their code."
We now know that whatever changes the Japanese made in their code JN-25-C were neither major nor severe, for we continued to read successive generations of that code to the end of the war.
Clayton Kirkpatrick, in the aforementioned article in The New York Times, wrote, "The Tribune has never wavered in its conviction that the controversial story violated no law and that publication was consistent with a newspaper's privileges under the First Amendment. Only a distortion of history could support the insinuations that the newspaper violated national interests."
One might well ask, "Where were the Japanese spies?" If there were any in the United States in the summer of 1942, they would not or did not read The Chicago Tribune, New York Daily News, Washington Times-Herald, or the Congressional Record!
At the end of the war, the Statute of Limitations had expired, and no further legal action was desirable or possible. However, I agree with the late Judge Thomas D. Thacher, Solicitor General 1930-1933, that if the Navy had seen fit to present evidence to the Chicago Grand Jury in August 1942 on the background of how we got Admiral Yamamoto's plan of operation, those responsible for the article would have been indicted for treason.