Sunday, October 13, 2013

Fueling 'Neptune's Inferno' at Guadalcanal

Review by Bill Doughty

The Guadalcanal Campaign, the “most sustained and vicious fight of the Pacific” was the birth of expeditionary warfare.  In what was considered a rematch of the Battle of Midway but without battleships and fought much farther from home, the U.S. Navy confronted an equally matched enemy, dealt with fuel challenges, faced fear and uncertainty, and fought like hell.

Told in chronological order from the summer of 1942 into the winter of 1943 and recounted minute by minute during combat, “Neptune’s Inferno” by James D. Hornfischer recreates the Guadalcanal Campaign at sea, where the Navy suffered more than twice the number of casualties at sea than the Army or Marine Corps endured on land.

Hornfischer creates short descriptive introductions of key players.  Some examples:

Nimitz: “The kind and trusting leader.”
King: “The bully.”
MacArthur: “Messianic commander of the Southwest Pacific.”
Fletcher: “Cautious, uninformed and uniformable.”
Mikawa: “A sea dog of the old school.”
Ghormley: “had a knack for going where the action was.”
Bode: “Insulting and intimidating when he was not entirely aloof.”
Scott: “He was a warrior; he always wanted his sword in the fight.”

Subtitled, “The U.S. Navy at Guadalcanal,” Hornfischer’s “Neptune’s Inferno,” rising from Ironbottom Sound, reminds readers of the author’s “Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors.”  Neptune brings characters, combat and calamaties of night warfare to light, with the surface Navy in sharp relief.

“The carriers and their pilots were proven winners.  American submariners were emerging as world-beaters.  The surface Navy -- the battleships, cruisers, and destroyers of the traditional black-shoe fleet -- would have their day.  At Guadalcanal as ever, it was the most expendable members of the deep-sea combat fleet, the destroyers, that made first contact with the enemy and carried the fight to him.  While Norman Scott was getting his legs under him as commander of Task Force 64, he destroyer Navy was called to turn its guns in support of their ground-pounding brethren ashore.”

Several times throughout the book Hornfischer describes “the geometry of the fight” as ships attempted surprise, control, and maneuvers such as “crossing of the T.”  Often, confusion reigned instead.  “A clear recognition of who was friend and who was foe had been the first casualty of battle,” he writes.

Fuel was a huge challenge.  It was at the heart of Rear Adm. Fletcher’s controversial and cautious approach with his aircraft carriers, an approach that frustrated Marine commanders like Gen. Vandegrift.  Worried about refueling, Fletcher removed air support from land-based troops when he withdrew his three carriers.

Even though they were closer to their controlled territories, the Japanese faced similar constraints and concern that hamstrung their strategies.  “A shortage of fuel at Rabaul forced them to be sparing and selective in the use of their major warships.”  The fight for Henderson Field was a critical battle for what the airstrip represented for fuel and other logistics.

Hornfischer reminds us of “Teddy Roosevelt’s Great White Fleet” that visited Tokyo in 1908 and prompted a hardening of attitudes and competition between the two navies after its visit.  “The fact that the Great White Fleet had nearly stranded itself at sea for lack of fuel was long forgotten by the time its journey became the emblem of romantic naval adventure.” 

Fuel became a weapon too when cruisers went into air-sea battle, with threats coming from an unexpected source: onboard aviation.

“The Achilles’ heel of a cruiser in battle was the highly flammable realm of her shipboard aviation division.  In modern navies, cruisers carried catapult-launched floatplanes for reconnaissance and gunfire spotting.  The traditionalists bemoaned the oil stains the aircraft left on their ships’ polished teak.  Untended planes could do far worse under fire.  They made their hosts into tinderboxes ... The hangars were fuses to countless other flammables: paint, paper, furniture, and exposed crates of ready-service ammunition in nearby gun mounts.  Steel and wire and cork and glass -- all of it burned readily.  The heat of the fires was sometimes intense enough to ignite paint on bulkheads two compartments away.  The burning paint ferried flames through the compartments...”

Hornfischer’s explosive descriptions and “emotional truth” storytelling help us understand the risks, daring, chaos, heroic actions and victories of the Guadalcanal Campaign.  Key to victory, according to Nimitz, was training, training and more training.

The book has dozens of great photos and maps, including of the Battle of Savo Island, Battle of Cape Esperance, and Battle of Tassafaronga.

Hornfischer wraps his narrative in a greater tragedy of young men killed before they could reach their full potential. “Neptune’s Inferno” will help us and future generations remember their sacrifice.  Today the United States Navy celebrates 238 years of service.  The revamp of the Navy Reading Program was unveiled by CNO Adm. Jon Greenert a year ago for the Navy birthday.  "Neptune's Inferno" is on the essential "Operate Forward" list.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Decisive Action: ‘Gravity’ & ‘Captain Phillips’

by Bill Doughty

Two movies this month offer thrill rides and edge-of-the-seat action: “Gravity” and “Captain Phillips.” Directors Alfonso CuarĂ³n and Paul Greengrass and actors Sandra Bullock and Tom Hanks, respectively, will be up for top awards by the end of the year.  Supporting performances by George Clooney and Barkhad Abdi will likely be up for awards, too.

“Gravity” takes special effects to a new level, but the story and life-and-death performance by Bullock are grounded in humanity.  The whole world is an audience to the drama.  Some themes: cooperation in space, importance of STEM, faith in oneself, innovation, training, courage, rebirth from grief, and appreciation for the gift of life.  

The film brings out the stark challenges and deep desire to explore space and understand the universe.

Tom Hanks congratulates James Lovell on being
awarded the Lincoln Leadership Prize in 2010.
Coincidentally, this past week the U.S. Naval Institute held its 2013 annual history conference, “Past, Present, and Future of Human Space Flight,” with Capt. James A. Lovell, USN (Ret.), Capt. Robert L. Crippen, USN (Ret.), Col. Robert Cabana, USMC (Ret.) and Capt. Ken Ham, USN.  (Lovell, captain of the famed Apollo 13 mission, was portrayed by Tom Hanks in a movie about that mission.)

Ham, chair of the Aerospace Engineering Department at the Naval Academy, said he and astronauts and other aviators were influenced by the movie, “Top Gun.”  Ham commented, “When I look up into the sky at the moon, it’s epic. When I look at Mars, it’s epic. It seems to me to be completely obvious that we need to go there, and I think if we decide to do it, the American people will support it.”

There are similarities in the appeal of space and call of the sea.

“Captain Phillips,” based on the book “A Captain’s Duty” by Phillips with Stephan Talty, shows how uncompromising resolve, creative negotiation and decisive action can work against hostage-taking extortion and intimidation.  The U.S. Navy stands for freedom of commerce on the seas, and “Captain Phillips,” shows -- through blood, sweat and tears -- how that freedom is protected.  Once again, Navy SEALs are on the forefront but so are surface forces, naval aviation and hospital corpsmen.  The movie closely follows action described in the book, with an eye on accuracy.  Greengrass says he wanted the movie to seem like a documentary, and it does.

[ Coincidentally, today Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel announced targeted operations by U.S. servicemembers against terrorists in Africa.  “These operations in Libya and Somalia send a strong message to the world that the United States will spare no effort to hold terrorists accountable, no matter where they hide or how long they evade justice. We will continue to maintain relentless pressure on terrorist groups that threaten our people or our interests, and we will conduct direct action against them, if necessary, that is consistent with our laws and our values.” ]

Barkhad Abdi as "Muse."
Building cooperative partnerships, providing humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, and enforcing international fishing laws with the U.S. Coast Guard are missions of the Navy as reflected in the Maritime Strategy and as touched on in “Captain Phillips.”  The Maersk Alabama ship was carrying relief supplies to Africa.  The pirates from Somalia claimed they were fishermen driven to piracy because of overfishing.  Their attack, however, was based on a flawed strategy from a position of weakness.

How can we preserve quality of life on the planet and protect natural resources?  How can we resolve conflict and uphold constitutional democracy?  How can we overcome fear and find the will to survive under the worst circumstances?  These are some of the questions prompted by these two movies.  On a practical level, “How did they film that?” is another question that comes to mind, especially during “Gravity.”  Amazing.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Tom Clancy Gone?

by Bill Doughty

More than 20 years ago Martin Greenberg edited “The Tom Clancy Companion."   Like many Americans I thought about the iconic Clancy this week after his obituaries were published: Tom Clancy, author of “The Hunt for Red October,” “Red Storm Rising,” “Patriot Games,” “Clear and Present Danger” and other now-classic techno-thrillers, dead at 66.

Tom Clancy loved the Navy, and the feeling was mutual.

With an introduction by his writing partner and family friend Larry Bond, this easy read is presented in four parts: an essay by Marc A. Cerasini on “The Birth of the Techno-Thriller,” an interview with the author by Greenberg, a series of essays by Clancy, and “A Tom Clancy Concordance,” an encyclopedic compilation by Roland J. Green.  The concordance includes an entry for USS Reuben James (DDG-57), central to “Red Storm Rising.”

The interview with Clancy shows the author’s strong feeling on the mission, capabilities and power of the Navy as well as the long-lasting international impact of democracy and freedom.

 “What will happen, what must happen, very simply is that democracy is going to spread itself across the world.  And the reason democracy is going to spread itself across the world is that it works.  Over the past 200 years, representative democracy and the free-enterprise system have proven to be extraordinarily effective at giving people the things they want -- justice and prosperity.”

Read Clancy’s interview and essays and learn, among other things, his views on Reagan, Ricin, Napoleon, Apple computers, stealth technology, Bush Sr., Iran and Iraq, science and technology, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Baltimore, God and science fiction writers, including Joe Haldeman, Edgar Allen Poe and Jules Verne.


“Dinosaurs” discusses the outdated, outmoded weapons systems from previous wars and calls for extending former President Reagan’s “Zero Option” for theater nuclear forces and “an international agreement to bring intercontinental-ballistic weapons down to as close to zero as we can,” in Clancy’s words.

Clancy's essay “Before Anyone Gets Carried Away” eviscerates Oliver Stone’s movie about JFK and gives a logical and forceful view about Kennedy assassination conspiracy theories.  “But I Like to Shoot” gives the author’s views on responsible gun ownership and gun control, while “Funeral” celebrates the death of communism.  Revised in 2005, "Companion" expanded the concordance and retained the original essays.

“Getting Our Money’s Worth” showcases the British Royal Navy and prevention of war through strength, commitment and expertise.  It seems to presage CNO Adm. Greenert’s “Warfighting First” tenet:
“The military needs to restore the warrior ethic.  A warrior is someone who kills his fellow man for a living, and wants to be good at it.  Not all officers are or can be warriors, but only those who are deserve to command at any level.  The military must change its programs to identify them, to nurture them, to select only the best from their ranks, and then to give them the support and experience they need to fulfill their wartime missions at every level of command responsibility.  That will give us the force which will win in war; and recognition of it will go far toward preventing one.”

Several essays get to the heart of Clancy’s personal philosophy.  In “Investia-3. Principles,” he writes that, “A healthy society allows citizens of different beliefs to speak their mind.  In words that resonate today:

“As citizens of a free society you have a civic duty both to tolerate people whose beliefs are different from your own, and a moral duty to listen to them from time to time, because even a fool has something intelligent to say once in a while.”

“Back to the Frontier” calls for support to the nation’s space program, recalling Neil Armstrong’s and Buzz Aldrin’s walk on the moon in 1969.

Harrison, Baldwin and Affleck as Jack Ryan.
“Who can forget that night?  Who can forget the pride of nationhood?  Who can forget the excitement and the wonder? ... Exploration is part and parcel of American history ... The Space Program is the future.  It really is that simple.”

There are hundreds of other works by and especially about Tom Clancy.  Legions of critics have weighed in on the prolific writer, but he is much more complicated than his novels or protagonist Jack Ryan.  Clancy said he wrote “The Hunt for Red October” to achieve a lifelong dream to be a novelist and to achieve immortality.  

Tom Clancy, R.I.P.