Neptune’s Inferno
The U.S. Navy at Guadalcanal

By James D. Hornfischer. 516 pp.
Random House, 2011. $30.

In the cauldron of the 1942 Guadalcanal Campaign, the role of the U.S. Navy’s surface sailors is an epic saga of humiliating defeat, hard-won redemption, bloody triumph—and then another humiliating defeat. Fittingly, the author approaches his subject with the mind of a skilled historian and the heart of a lyrical poet. (Full disclosure: I know Hornfischer and read an early draft of the manuscript.)

The campaign’s strategic framework and the closely linked actions ashore and in the air are accorded their due, but the central story unfolds vividly on three levels: First, the technical and institutional preparation the U.S. Navy brought to Guadalcanal, including the design and performance of ships and their armament, and the emergence of radar and the preparation (or lack thereof) for night battle. Second, the tactile experience of naval combat, evoked largely through the senses of junior officers and blue jackets. Third, and at the book’s core, an examination of combat leadership via finely etched portraits of key senior officers, primarily task force commanders and their superiors.

This period comprises the most intensely concentrated surface ship combat in the U.S. Navy’s history, fought at even odds against a superbly skilled and ferociously motivated foe. Success came to leaders who mastered not just the technical aspects of weapons and sensors (“War is the craft of putting ordnance on target decisively”), but also the vital psychological dimension of preparing men to perform in combat.

So Hornfischer eschews fluffy personal anecdotes for telling specifics on the methods of key officers. He passes stern but warranted judgment on Admiral Robert L. Ghormley and Captain Howard D. Bode; appropriately makes heroes of Admiral Chester W. Nimitz and Rear Admirals Norman Scott and Willis A. Lee; and awards a mixed grade to William F. Halsey. Armed forces professionals can profit by this dissection of leadership.

But what truly astounds is the work’s Dante-esque descent from bland images of sleekly engineered nautical machines discharging weapons to viscerally disturbing depictions of what happens when projectiles and torpedoes hit a ship—and the men within. Individual vignettes of blasted, burned, shredded ships and crew members cascade over the reader. It is a tour de force of research and superlative storytelling.

There are a few errant brush strokes on this huge canvas. The sinking of Japanese destroyer Fubuki at the Battle of Cape Esperance passes oddly unmentioned. British battlecruiser Hood is inaccurately described as smaller than newer British battleships. A handful of editing missteps is sprinkled throughout. But these are niggling details compared to the book’s achievement. Historians and informed readers will undoubtedly disagree with some judgments here, which is to be expected from an account of such a complex campaign. Nevertheless, Neptune’s Inferno overtakes Hornfischer’s acclaimed The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors to become the masterwork on the long-neglected topic of World War II’s surface ship combat.