Morton Tinslar Seligman:  A Heroic Career Ending in Accusations and Controversy, Part II

As I wrote last time, my cousin Morton Tinslar Seligman was a naval hero, both in wartime and in peacetime.  He served in World War I, clearing mines from the North Sea and earning a Navy Cross for his efforts.  He risked his life in an attempt to rescue two Navy pilots who were killed in a plane crash during peace time.  He again risked his life during the Battle of the Coral Sea in May, 1942, serving as executive officer of the USS Lexington and being among the last two to leave the ship when it was destroyed by the Japanese. For his efforts, he was again recognized by the Navy and was awarded a Gold Star in lieu of a second Navy Cross.

According to various reports, he also suffered severe injuries in the course of the Coral Sea battle as the Lexington exploded around him.[1]  Stanley Johnston, who would later play a critical role in the events that damaged Seligman’s career, was a reporter who had been aboard the Lexington with him during the battle.  According to an article in the Albuquerque Journal on June 18, 1942, Johnston had written in the Chicago Tribune that Commander Seligman had several times been “blown through open doors and out of scuttle holes like a cork out of a bottle.” (“Commander Morton Seligman of Santa Fe, Lexington Hero,” Albuquerque Journal (June 18, 1942), p. 1.)[2]

English: The Aircraft Carrier USS Lexington on...

English: The Aircraft Carrier USS Lexington on fire during the Battle of Coral Sea, Public domain photo from history.navy.mil (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After the Lexington sank, Commander Seligman was assigned to two different ships.  First, he was on the USS Astoria as of May 13, 1942. [3]  As of May 16, 1942, he was assigned to the USS Barnett, [4] a ship that also carried the war correspondent for the Chicago Tribune Stanley Johnston, the same reporter who had described Commander Seligman’s heroism aboard the Lexington.[5]  These facts are not disputed and can be seen from the documents depicted below:

Morton Seligman on the USS Barnett National Archives at College Park; College Park, Maryland, United States; Muster Rolls of U.S. Navy Ships, Stations, and Other Naval Activities, 01/01/1939 - 01/01/1949; Record Group: 24, Records of the Bureau of Naval Personnel, 1798 - 2007; Series ARC ID: 594996; Series MLR Number: A1 135

Morton Seligman on the USS Barnett
National Archives at College Park; College Park, Maryland, United States; Muster Rolls of U.S. Navy Ships, Stations, and Other Naval Activities, 01/01/1939 – 01/01/1949; Record Group: 24, Records of the Bureau of Naval Personnel, 1798 – 2007; Series ARC ID: 594996; Series MLR Number: A1 135

Stanley Johnston on the USS Barnett

Stanley Johnston on the USS Barnett

At some point before June 7, Stanley Johnston obtained information revealing that the Navy had been able to decrypt Japanese code and learn the location of various Japanese ships.  Breaking the code had helped the US Navy during the Battle of the Coral Sea, but more importantly, would help during the Battle of Midway, which took place during the first week of June, 1942, one month after the Battle of the Coral Sea.

The Battle of Midway is considered to be one of the most significant battles of World War II and a turning point in the war against the Japanese.  According to the official Naval History and Heritage website, “The Battle of Midway, fought over and near the tiny U.S. mid-Pacific base at Midway atoll, represents the strategic high water mark of Japan’s Pacific Ocean war. Prior to this action, Japan possessed general navalsuperiority over the United States and could usually choose where and when to attack. After Midway, the two opposing fleets were essentially equals, and the United States soon took the offensive.”  One of the key factors leading to the United States’ success in this battle was the Navy’s ability to read Japanese coded communications and learn their strategy and ship locations.[6]


English: PACIFIC OCEAN (May 2, 2011) In commem...

English: PACIFIC OCEAN (May 2, 2011) In commemoration of the Battle of Midway, fought June 4-7, 1942. The U.S. Navy effectively destroyed Japan’s naval strength by sinking four of its aircraft carriers. It is considered one of the most important naval battles of World War II. Sailors assigned to the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz (CVN 68) created posters for a Battle of Midway Remembrance Dinner. (U.S. Navy photo illustration/Released) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

After the Battle of Midway was successfully concluded, Stanley Johnston wrote a first page article for the Chicago Tribune, describing the victory and alluding, albeit somewhat indirectly, to the fact that the Navy had been able to break Japanese coded communications to learn the locations and identity of the Japanese ships.  The Navy and President Roosevelt himself were livid about the fact that the newspaper had revealed this government secret, and an investigation was conducted to bring a legal action based on the 1917 Espionage Act against Johnston, a Tribune editor, and the Tribune itself.  Just as the grand jury was to begin proceedings, however, the Navy decided that it did not want to pursue the matter if doing so would result in more disclosures that would jeopardize the war effort.  Without the critical testimony of Navy witnesses regarding the impact of the disclosure on the US war effort, the case before the grand jury was weakened, and ultimately the grand jury failed to issue an indictment against the Tribune or its employees.[7]

One key question raised during the investigation and afterwards by journalists and naval historians was the question of how Johnston had obtained the information about the Japanese ships and about the code-breaking in the first place.  Many concluded that Commander Seligman had been the source of the information. At least one writer suggested that Seligman had intentionally leaked the information to Johnston; others just concluded that Seligman, whether intentionally or not, had provided Johnston with access to the information.  Whatever their view of his state of mind, the majority of sources concluded that Seligman, whether directly or indirectly, was the key source of Johnston’s information about the code-breaking that revealed the names and locations of the Japanese ships. [8]

USS Barnett

USS Barnett

The most recent and most comprehensive and scholarly analysis of how Johnston obtained the information is in the 2014 article by two Ohio University professors, Michael Sweeney and Patrick Washburn, “ ‘Aint Justice Wonderful’– The Chicago Tribune’s Battle of Midway Story and the Government’s Attempt at an Espionage Act Indictment in 1942,” Journalism & Communication Monograph (2014).  I was very fortunate to be able to obtain a copy of this article from Professor Sweeney and will do my best to summarize their findings regarding Morton Seligman’s role in this matter.  I am not attempting to review all the writings on this issue, but the Sweeney and Patrick article itself summarizes much of the literature and cites to all the important sources, both primary and secondary, and I am largely relying on it though I have read some of the other sources as well.

First, some background: Stanley Johnston, the Tribune’s war correspondent, was “the only journalist at the Battle of the Coral Sea….No American journalist was at the crucial Battle of Midway in the following month.” Sweeney and Washburn, p. 18.  The Navy required any reporter in the war zone to be accredited, which included signing an agreement requiring the reporter to conform to the security regulations regarding what could and what could not be revealed to the public and what had to pass through Navy censors before publication.  Although Johnston did not sign such an agreement because he shipped out on the USS Lexington before he had a chance, no one disputes that he was aware of these restrictions and agreed to follow them. Ibid., p. 21.

As stated above, Seligman was on the Barnett as of May 16, 1942, along with Johnston, and the ship arrived in San Diego on June 2, 1942.  A few days later Johnston was back in Chicago at the Tribune and was there to report on the Battle of Midway, which took place between June 4 and June 7, 1942.  Ibid., p. 22-26.  On June 6, Johnston wrote an article that identified which Japanese ships had been destroyed during the battle, information that was not publicly available according to the Navy, and known by no more than ten men in the Navy.  The Navy became immediately suspicious about Johnston’s knowledge of these facts.  In addition, the headline to the story (apparently written by someone other than Johnston) suggested that the Navy had obtained advance notice of the Japanese battle plans, saying “Navy Had Word of Jap Plan to Strike at Sea.”  The Navy also realized that the Tribune had not submitted the article to the Navy for clearance before publication. Ibid., 27-28.[9]

Chicago Trbune June 7, 1942

Chicago Tribune June 7, 1942

An internal investigation by the Navy led to the discovery that Johnston’s article was strikingly similar to a coded dispatch that Admiral Nimitz had sent to the Navy’s Pacific fleet outlining Japan’s plan to attack Midway and the list of Japanese ships that would be involved in that attack.  Ibid., p. 29.  On June 8, Johnston met with the Navy and was interrogated about his sources.  Johnston insisted that he had learned these facts while on the Lexington and the Barnett just by overhearing conversations among the crew. He denied ever seeing the Nimitz dispatch or any written list of Japanese ships.  After the first meeting, however, Johnston changed his story when he next was questioned by the Navy, claiming that he had found a writing with the list of Japanese ships and had copied it.  He explained why he had not initially admitted this by saying he had not wanted to get any of the brave servicemen aboard the ship into any trouble.  Ibid., pp. 33-34.

Meanwhile, the commanding officer of the Barnett, W.B. Phillips, reported to the Navy that one of the Lexington commanders on the ship told the Barnett’s communications officer that he had been authorized to show decoded messages to Johnston.  Phillips said the Lexington officers had thought that these disclosures were permissible since Johnston had been a witness to the Coral Sea battle and was already familiar with naval operations as a result.  Ibid., pp. 34-35.  The specific officer or officers were apparently not named by Phillips.

The Navy’s investigation was followed by an investigation by the Justice Department and the FBI, as directed by President Roosevelt.  Johnston was interviewed again, this time by William D. Mitchell, Attorney General under Hoover who was appointed by the Attorney General, Nicholas Biddle, to lead the prosecution of the case.  Johnston again insisted that he had obtained the information from conversations on board the ship.  Ibid., p. 45.  He downplayed the importance of the written list of ships that he had mentioned in his second interview with the Navy a month earlier.  Mitchell asked him to explain the striking similarity between his report and the Nimitz dispatch, and Johnston said he had no idea how that happened and denied seeing any secret dispatch.  Mitchell was unpersuaded and believed that Johnston must have seen the Nimitz dispatch.  Ibid., pp.  45-48.

William_D._Mitchell_cph.3b30394

William D. Mitchell, former US Attorney General

In a July 14, 1942 memorandum to the Attorney General and the Secretary of the Navy, Mitchell wrote that two officers, who remain unnamed, saw Commander Morton Seligman working at a table in the quarters he shared with Johnson, writing down a list of the Japanese ships.  The Mitchell memorandum then noted that Seligman stated that he did not remember making such a list, but that he might have done so.  Ibid., p. 48.  This is the first mention of Seligman in the Sweeney and Washburn article, and it suggests that Seligman was questioned by Mitchell sometime on or before July 14, 1942, but nothing more specific is provided in the text or in the footnotes about that interview or about the two unnamed officers.  Thus, by mid-July, Morton Seligman had become a key part of the government’s investigation.

In the third part of the story, I will address more specifically what Sweeney and Washburn found out about my cousin Morton Seligman’s role in this matter of state secrecy versus freedom of the press.

 

 

[1]    Michael S. Sweeney and Patrick S. Washburn, “Aint Justice Wonderful” The Chicago Tribune’s Battle of Midway Story and the Government’s Attempt at an Espionage Act Indictment in 1942”, Journalism & Communication Monograph“(2014), at 53-55;

[2] Other newspapers also carried the story.  E.g., “Morton Seligman Emerged as Hero of Last Hours of Lexington,” Clovis News-Journal, June 18, 1942, p.1.

[3] National Archives at College Park; College Park, Maryland, United States; Muster Rolls of U.S. Navy Ships, Stations, and Other Naval Activities, 01/01/1939 – 01/01/1949; Record Group: 24, Records of the Bureau of Naval Personnel, 1798 – 2007; Series ARC ID: 594996; Series MLR Number: A1 135

[4] Ancestry.com. U.S. World War II Navy Muster Rolls, 1938-1949 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2011.

Original data: Muster Rolls of U.S. Navy Ships, Stations, and Other Naval Activities, 01/01/1939-01/01/1949; A-1 Entry 135, 10230 rolls, ARC ID: 594996. Records of the Bureau of Naval Personnel, Record Group Number 24. National Archives at College Park, College Park, MD.  National Archives at College Park; College Park, Maryland, United States; Muster Rolls of U.S. Navy Ships, Stations, and Other Naval Activities, 01/01/1939 – 01/01/1949; Record Group: 24, Records of the Bureau of Naval Personnel, 1798 – 2007; Series ARC ID: 594996; Series MLR Number: A1 135.

[5] National Archives at College Park; College Park, Maryland, United States; Muster Rolls of U.S. Navy Ships, Stations, and Other Naval Activities, 01/01/1939 – 01/01/1949; Record Group: 24, Records of the Bureau of Naval Personnel, 1798 – 2007; Series ARC ID: 594996; Series MLR Number: A1 135.  One source claims that Johnston had even been with Seligman aboard the Lexington and assisting him during those last critical moments before the ship sank in the Coral Sea. “Editorial: The Battle of Midway—A Secrets Storm,” Chicago Tribune, August 11, 2013, at http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2013-08-11/opinion/ct-edit-midway-20130811_1_tribune-tower-secrets-u-s-navy ;

[6] “Battle of Midway, 4-7 June 1942: Overview and Special Image Selection,” at http://www.history.navy.mil/photos/events/wwii-pac/midway/midway.htm ; Battle of Midway from Wikipedia at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Midway .  See also  “Midway:  The Story that Never Ends,” by Thomas B. Allen (June 2007) at http://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/2007-06/midway-story-never-ends

[7]  Michael S. Sweeney and Patrick S. Washburn, “Aint Justice Wonderful” The Chicago Tribune’s Battle of Midway Story and the Government’s Attempt at an Espionage Act Indictment in 1942”, Journalism & Communication Monograph“(2014), at 65-71.  See also “Midway:  The Story that Never Ends,” by Thomas B. Allen (June 2007) at http://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/2007-06/midway-story-never-ends (“fearing disclosure of code-breaking secrets in an espionage trial, the Department of Justice quietly closed the case.”).   Allen also wrote that the impact of disclosing this information was substantial:  “Pearl Harbor code breakers believed that the damage had already been done. A key code, Japanese Fleet General-Purpose System, was changed on 15 August, only two months after an earlier change. Other alterations were made in “virtually all Japanese codes and ciphers,” and it took cryptanalysts nearly four months of around-the-clock work to crack the new version and once again penetrate the Japanese navy’s operational radio traffic.” Ibid., citing and quoting from Edwin T. Layton, USN (Ret.), with Captain Roger Pineau, USNR (Ret.), and John Costello, And I Was There: Pearl Harbor and Midway—Breaking the Secrets (New York: William Morrow and Co., 1985), p. 453.

 

Much has been written about the aftermath of the Tribune’s publication of Johnston’s article and the reporting of government secrets.  In fact, the issue has taken on new relevance in recent times after Edward Snowden’s disclosures of the NSA’s surveillance activities and the publication of those disclosures by the press.  It is far beyond the scope of this blog to try and describe that aspect of the matter; my focus is on the alleged role that my cousin Morton Seligman had in the matter and its effect on him and his career.  For an excellent analysis of the other issues as raised by the case, see Sweeney and Washburn, op. cit.

[8] See, e.g., Carey Shenkman, “70 Years Later, Still Playing Politics with the Freedom of the Press, June 18, 2014, at   http://www.huffingtonpost.com/carey-shenkman/freedom-of-the-press_b_5503196.html ; “Editorial: The Battle of Midway—A Secrets Storm,” Chicago Tribune, August 11, 2013 at  http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2013-08-11/opinion/ct-edit-midway-20130811_1_tribune-tower-secrets-u-s-navy ; Grant Sanger, MD, “Freedom of the Press or Treason?,” Proceedings Magazine, September, 1977 at   http://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/1977-09/freedom-press-or-treason ; “Midway:  The Story that Never Ends,” by Thomas B. Allen (June 2007) at http://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/2007-06/midway-story-never-ends ; “Stemming the Tide of Japanese Expansion,” at http://www.microworks.net/pacific/intelligence/stemming_tide.htm .  The author with the harshest view of Seligman is Capt. Lawrence B. Brennan, U.S. Navy (Ret’d), whose anger undermines any sense of objectivity to his conclusions.  Brennan, “Spilling the Secret—Morton T. Seligman, U.S. Navy (Retired), U.S. Naval Academy Class of 1919,” Naval Historical Foundation, February 28, 2013, at http://www.navyhistory.org/2013/02/spilling-the-secret-captain-morton-seligman/#fn-9595-2 .  The most recent scholarship on this issue is found in the 2014 monograph of Professors Michael Sweeny and Patrick Washburn, cited and discussed above in note 7 and in the text.

[9] The failure to submit the story for clearance was an important element in the investigation and case against the Tribune, but is beyond the scope of my interest here.  For more on that, I recommend reading the full article by Sweeney and Washburn.

8 thoughts on “Morton Tinslar Seligman:  A Heroic Career Ending in Accusations and Controversy, Part II

  1. Great post Amy, an enjoyable read. He is someone you should be proud off.
    My apologies for accidently unfollowing you, not sure how I did that. But I followed you back again.

    Like

  2. Pingback: Morton Tinslar Seligman 1895-1967: A Hero’s Life Subject to Ongoing Questions « Brotmanblog: A Family Journey

    • Hi Nick, Thanks so much for your comment. I did read that article while researching Morton Seligman. Would you be willing to share your article with me—hopefully, in English—when you are done? I’d really appreciate it. Thanks!

      Like

  3. Pingback: Two Who Got Away « Brotmanblog: A Family Journey

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