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.
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.