The U.S. Navy at Guadalcanal
By James D. Hornfischer. 544 pp.
Bantam Books, 2011. $30.
Guadalcanal, that island of thick jungle and tall grass plunked down in the Southwest Pacific, was the scene of desperate fighting from early August through mid-October 1942 between Major General Alexander Vandegrift’s 1st Marine Division and units of the Seventeenth Army from the Japanese base at Rabaul. Yet as bloody as that clash was, the waters surrounding that island proved just as deadly, perhaps more so, for the U.S. warships supporting the Marines.
James Hornfischer’s Neptune’s Inferno is about that combat at sea, which cost the U.S. Navy so much in toil and blood. Hornfischer is best known for The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors, his 2004 book that provided a deck-plate-level view of the fighting off Samar in the Philippines—part of the massive Battle of Leyte Gulf in October 1944—when a handful of U.S. escort carriers and destroyers of Task Unit 77.4.3 fought off the approach of Japanese vice admiral Takeo Kurita’s powerful battleship and heavy cruiser force intent on destroying the American invasion forces in the Gulf. Although Hornfischer is not a trained naval historian, he has creatively depicted in both Tin Can Sailors and Inferno the experience of combat at sea for an individual sailor or officer.
During the bloody months off Guadalcanal, the U.S. Navy lost most of its five significant night actions. Untrained in fighting at night and initially unsure how to utilize the technological advantage of their ship-mounted surface-search radar, American admirals and their makeshift task groups suffered devastating losses. Most notably, during the first action, the Battle of Savo Island, which occurred little more than a day after the initial American landings on Guadalcanal, the navy lost the cruisers Astoria, Quincy, and Vincennes, as well as the Australian cruiser Canberra, to surface gunfire and the deadly Japanese Long Lance torpedoes. The destroyers of Vice Admiral Gunichi Mikawa’s heavy cruiser force, meanwhile, finished the battle almost unscathed.
Portions of the book are less successful than they could be. Hornfischer does not appear to have a clear understanding of some of the troubling command issues at Guadalcanal, particularly the supposed culpability of Vice Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher, who removed his aircraft carriers from their supporting positions, reducing the island’s initial defenses. Similarly, the discussion of the Battle of Tassafaronga at the end of November 1942 is surprisingly sketchy.
Still, the entertaining Neptune’s Inferno has much to interest the general reader, with plenty of the rich detail you’d expect from Hornfischer. Particularly noteworthy: his account of Rear Admiral Willis Lee’s night action in mid-November, when the 16-inch-gunned battleship Washington pummeled the battleship Kirishima into little more than a floating hulk.
Hornfischer also nicely captures the viewpoint of sailors such as Ensign George Weems, who was on board the destroyer McCalla at the Battle of Cape Esperance in October. As the American cruiser force fired on the Japanese at 2,500 to 3,500 yards, Weems recalls, “I felt a wildly exultant joy in watching us let them have so much at such murderous range.”
Jeffrey G. Barlow, a historian at the U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command who has written extensively about World War II, is the author of two books on the U.S. Navy during the early Cold War.