Neptune’s Inferno: The US Navy at Guadalcanal – Book Review
Neptune’s Inferno: The U.S. Navy at Guadalcanal by James D. Hornfischer, Bantam Books, 2011. 516 pages, 103 illustrations, 8 maps, 11 tables and diagrams. $30.00.
Guadalcanal, as most historians know, was the scene of a bloody, six-month struggle by the Marines – and later, the Army – to take a trio of islands in the Pacific’s Solomon chain. The hard-fought contest cost the lives of nearly thirty thousand men as two desperate, disease-ridden armies clawed at each other among the dugouts, pillboxes and artillery positions of Guadalcanal.
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James D. Hornfischer’s Neptune’s Inferno: The U.S. Navy at Guadalcanal brings to vivid life an even bigger story many know surprisingly little about: the naval battles that, in the end, decided the outcome of the Guadalcanal campaign. Conceived by Admiral Ernest J. King, the Navy’s critical fight to push back the Rising Sun spawned seven titanic naval battles. Five of these were classic ship-to-ship gun engagements, while two were Midway-style aircraft attacks. Several were waged at night, desperate battles in which fighting sea captains felt their way through the inky Pacific darkness, registering hits only by telltale orange plumes and quivering blips on fire control radar consoles.
While many assume Midway to be the turning point in the Pacific War, Neptune’s Inferno shows the Imperial Japanese Navy was, in size and firepower, still an equal match for the United States fleet even after that fabled victory. Midway had momentarily parried Japanese expansion toward Hawaii, but a Japanese airfield being constructed on the tiny island of Guadalcanal threatened to cut American ties to Australia and give the Japanese ample means to expand their conquests to the south. The American high command, recognizing the importance of this obscure Solomon outpost, thus took the extraordinary step of breaking its “Germany first” agreement with the British to allow King to field an all-Navy offensive in the direction of Guadalcanal.
Unlike most of the Pacific’s land campaigns, on the waves off Guadalcanal Japan gave as good as it took, and the butcher’s bill for both sides was high. Each opposing navy lost two dozen major warships, and U.S. losses in aircraft, 436, were exceeded by only four airplanes on the Japanese side. The American killed-in-action toll at sea was over five thousand (compared to 1,592 KIA deaths among the Army and Marines), while the Japanese Navy lost around four thousand airmen, sailors, and officers.
Neptune’s Inferno begins by taking the reader on a swift trip from Washington, D.C. to task force assembly points for Operation WATCHTOWER, the amphibious invasion of the island. From there, Hornfischer plunges into the naval action like a falling 15-inch shell. He follows Task Force 61 into “the Slot,” the central battleground of the Solomons, then carries his readers through the battles of Savo Island (four Allied cruisers sunk), the Eastern Solomons (the carrier Enterprise damaged, one Japanese light carrier sunk), Cape Esperance (one Japanese cruiser and three destroyers sunk), Santa Cruz (carrier Hornet sunk, carrier Enterprise damaged, and one U.S. battleship, two cruisers, and three destroyers damaged), the Guadalcanal night battles (one U.S. cruiser and seven destroyers sunk, two Japanese battleships and three destroyers sunk), and Tassafaronga (one U.S. cruiser and one Japanese destroyer sunk).
At sea, admirals command and sailors fight. While Hornfischer’s clear description of high-level strategy acquaints the reader with legendary flag officers like Admirals King, Chester Nimitz, and Robert Ghormley, he also introduces the reader to the men who did the work of firing shell after shell into the enemy’s steel viscera – men such as Beaverhead Thomas, a turret officer of the Boise whose last words to his gun crew, after a Japanese shell had smashed his turret were, “The fuze hasn’t gone off yet. I can still hear it spluttering.” Men like Ford Richardson, a sailor aboard the destroyer Farenholt who fished sailors out of shark-infested seas. And the five Sullivan brothers of the cruiser Juneau, whose eldest brother, George, remarked with tragic prescience before shipping out, “If the worst comes to worst, why we’ll all have gone down together.”
Neptune’s Inferno is not Hornfischer’s first dive into the blood-stained waters of the Pacific. In his award-winning book Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors, Hornfischer vividly describes the U.S. Navy’s upset victory in the Battle of Savo. In Ship of Ghosts, he tells of the sinking of the U.S.S. Houston – the “Galloping Ghost of the Java Coast” – and a brutal struggle for survival as her captured crew were forced to build the Burma Railway and the famed “Bridge on the River Kwai.” In Neptune’s Inferno, Hornfischer proves his mastery of the “big gun” battle by taking complex fleet actions and distilling them into a compelling, understandable narrative. The rich text – augmented by over one hundred illustrations and maps – makes this book one of the precious few that will hold equal appeal to the serious researcher and the general reader.
Neptune’s Inferno is what every great history book aspires to be: a rollicking great adventure story built on a foundation of tight, precise research. If a reader picks up only one book on the Pacific War this year, Neptune’s Inferno is the one to read.
Jonathan W. Jordan is a contributor to Armchair General and the author of the upcoming book Brothers Rivals Victors: Eisenhower, Patton, Bradley, and the Partnership that Drove the Allied Conquest in Europe, the story of the personal relationship behind three of the war’s greatest American generals. Brothers Rivals Victors, published by Penguin Books’ NAL Caliber, will be released in April 2011. He is also the author of the award-winning book Lone Star Navy: Texas, the Fight for the Gulf of Mexico, and the Shaping of the American West.