By late summer of 1942, the American and Japanese navies already had exchanged fearsome blows. Yet, as James D. Hornfischer explains in his brilliant new book, “Neptune’s Inferno: The U.S. Navy at Guadalcanal,” both sides were climbing a learning curve, grappling with the new “expeditionary” war-fighting environment that “featured tight interdependence among warriors of the air, land, and sea.” Their carriers had clashed, but they had yet to square off in a major engagement between traditional surface combatants.
The victories won by American pilots at Midway and Marines on Guadalcanal are long-heralded high points of our wartime heritage. With this magnificent history, Mr. Hornfischer convincingly demonstrates that the 1942 naval battles around Guadalcanal deserve similar recognition. His rich and skillful account gives us a profound appreciation for what was - properly understood - the pivotal naval campaign of the war in the Pacific.
The struggle for control of the vital seaways around the Solomon Islands comprised an intensive and incredibly destructive series of naval engagements. Each side lost 24 major warships and about 440 aircraft. More than 5,000 Americans were killed at sea, more than three times the number who lost their lives in the related ground actions on Guadalcanal and nearby islands.
As Mr. Hornfischer explains, in June 1942, the stunning victory at Midway had put the U.S. Navy “in position, for the first time, to carry the fight to the enemy.” In early July, a radio transmission was received from a “coast watcher” on Guadalcanal reporting that the Japanese had arrived on the island and were building an airstrip.
This could not be ignored. An airstrip on Guadalcanal would “enable Japanese planes to threaten the sea-lanes to Australia, whose protection was long one of the Navy’s core missions.” Soon “streams of combat vessels” were bound for the South Pacific. Those committed to action around Guadalcanal were mostly cruisers and destroyers. Aircraft carriers and battleships played lesser roles, owing to reluctance to place the former at risk and to fuel shortages that precluded full participation by the latter.
The American offensive into the Solomons was undertaken amid a swirl of political currents. The United States had agreed to a “Germany first” strategy with its British allies. Major resource commitments to the Pacific campaign raised concerns that the offensive in North Africa would be shortchanged. Further, the military branches and commanders involved had their competing views and approaches.
Mr. Hornfischer provides a fascinating account of both American and Japanese commanders and their interactions before, during and after the campaign. For example, he describes vividly the acrimony between Adm. Frank (“Black Jack”) Fletcher and Adm. Richmond Kelly Turner, who commanded the carrier and amphibious task forces, respectively. In Japanese strategy sessions, Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto “felt that Guadalcanal had little strategic value” unless it enabled the Imperial Navy to draw the Americans into a “decisive battle.”
Suffering from “victory disease,” the Japanese army commanders “were confident they could recapture Guadalcanal at their leisure and disdained cooperation with the Navy.”
For its part, the U.S. Navy had to overcome “xenophobic professional chauvinism” and “learn how to fight.” There was much to learn.
Mr. Hornfischer introduces us to the demanding curriculum: the practical problems associated with amphibious landing and resupply operations; the use of radar in combat; the catastrophic risks posed by flammables such as the fuel for the cruisers’ float planes; the lethality of surprise; the crucial loss of time when a ship goes to “general quarters or battle stations,” with “precious, perhaps decisive minutes” spent “scrambling, not fighting” and the vital importance of preparation for night combat.
Others have chronicled major military engagements, seeking to convey a sense of the confusion and carnage of battle. None, in my view, has done so better than Mr. Hornfischer. His ability to draw together multiple sources - official histories and reports, ships’ logs and other contemporaneous records, memoirs of commanders and men on the line, interviews and letters - into a compelling narrative of naval combat is simply superb. He captures men and ships in action at an intimate level and simultaneously gives us a broader view that puts the events in perspective.
“Neptune’s Inferno” takes us through the devastating loss at Savo Island to the victory at Cape Esperance - each “a rout by a battle-ready cruiser force over a complacent one” - and on to the Battle of Santa Cruz, the costly November night actions, and the Battle of Tassafaronga. While even Adm. Yamamoto feared that “American victory was inevitable, the outcome was not foreordained by advantages in industry and war production.”
In the school of the Solomons campaign, the tuition was dear, but the U.S. Navy grew into its mission and took the measure of its foe. The path to victory at sea was plotted at Guadalcanal.
This book is excellent. In my classroom for citizens, I’d call it required reading.