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“Stanley Johnston’s Blunder: The Reporter Who Spilled the Secret Behind the U.S. Navy Victory at Midway
,” by Elliot Carlson. Chicago Tribune war correspondent Stanley Johnston embarked in the aircraft carrier Lexington in May 1942, during the Battle of the Coral Sea. Johnston records the crew’s valiant effort to save the ship; he does more: he displays great courage, rescuing many endangered officers and men from the sea and earning the praise of Lexington’s senior officers (they recommend him for a medal). Then his story darkens. On board the rescue ship USS Barnett Johnston
is assigned to the cabin where decrypted messages from the Pacific Fleet commander, Admiral Chester Nimitz, are routinely, and carelessly, circulated. One such message reveals the fleet composition of Imperial Japanese forces advancing on Midway. Containing highly sensitive information obtained by Navy cryptanalysts, the dispatch is stamped Secret yet casually passed around to some of Lexington’s officers in the cabin while Johnston is present. Carlson’s book captures the outrage of U.S. Navy brass in Washington when they read the 7 June 1942 Chicago Tribune front-page headline, “NAVY HAD WORD OF JAP PLAN TO STRIKE AT SEA.” Admirals note that the information in the Tribune article parallels almost precisely the highly secret material in Nimitz’s dispatch. They fear Japanese commanders will discover the article, grasp that their code has been cracked, and quickly change it, thereby depriving the U.S. Navy of a priceless military asset. When Navy officials confirm that Johnston wrote the article after residing in the Barnett stateroom, they believe they understand the “leak.”
Drawing on seventy-five year-old grand jury testimony never before released, and obtained by Carlson after a two-year court fight with the Justice Department, the author takes readers inside the room where jurors convened by the Roosevelt administration consider charges that Johnston violated the Espionage Act. Jurors hear conflicting testimony from Navy officers while Johnston claims the story derived from his own knowledge of the Japanese navy. In addition to the grand jury testimony, Carlson uses FBI files, U.S. Navy records, archival materials from the Chicago Tribune, and Japanese sources, to bring to light the full story of Stanley Johnston.
Elliot Carlson traces his interest in the Pacific War to his first stop after graduate school, living in Hawaii and writing editorials for the Honolulu Advertiser. After winning a Congressional Fellowship that took him to Washington, Carlson began a journalistic career during which he worked as a staff writer for the Wall Street Journal and, later, as a free-lance correspondent in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, writing for such publications as the International Herald Tribune, Toronto Star, and National Observer. He served as editor of AARP’s monthly newspaper until 2004, when he resumed his interest in the Pacific War, starting work on a biography of Joe Rochefort. He began work on the Stanley Johnston story in 2012. He holds degrees from Stanford University (MA) and the University of Oregon (BS); he lives with his wife in Silver Spring, MD.
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