Guadalcanal typically is remembered as a small Pacific island where U.S. Marines stayed locked in savage combat for months with tenacious, desperate Japanese defenders during World War II. U.S. Army troops, however, also fought heroically in the battle for Guadalcanal, which stretched from Aug. 7, 1942, to Feb. 9, 1943.
But as military historian James D. Hornfischer makes starkly clear in his new book Neptune’s Inferno, the U.S. Navy actually bore the biggest brunt of the fighting. The Navy also made the greatest sacrifices during the protracted campaign that is now remembered as a turning point in the Pacific theater of the war.
“When it was all said and done at Guadalcanal,” Hornfischer notes in his book, “three sailors would die at sea for every infantryman who fell ashore.”
Much of the fighting focused on Guadalcanal’s airfield, which could be used to threaten or protect key sea lanes between the United States, Australia and New Zealand. U.S. Marines seized the airfield and part of the island in a surprise landing that drove Japanese defenders inland.
During the next six months, seven major sea battles ensued as the Imperial Japanese Navy attempted to destroy American planes and reinforce Guadalcanal’s Japanese troops, so they could retake the airfield.
Five of the encounters were fearsome, grinding night clashes. And, more than once, American ships blasted each other, as well as enemy warships, in the chaotic darkness. In the two daylight battles, carrier-based and land-based aircraft ultimately won the day for the Allies.
The toll of ships, men and aircraft was horrific on both sides. As Hornfischer makes grimly clear, torpedoes and shells ripped through hulls and thick armor plates and ended dozens or even hundreds of lives in an instant. The U.S. Navy lost 25 major warships, including two aircraft carriers and several cruisers and destroyers, as well as numerous smaller vessels. Australia’s losses included its heavy cruiser Canberra. Japanese ship losses included an aircraft carrier, two battleships, several cruisers and other vessels, including six submarines.
Thousands of Allied and Japanese sailors and officers died, and hundreds of planes were shot down. Meanwhile, Guadalcanal’s Japanese defenders never retook the airfield. Instead, their counterattacks were repulsed, and they suffered massive casualties from air assaults, naval gunfire and Marine and Army ground attacks.
Much of Hornfischer’s book focuses on officers and crews of individual battleships, aircraft carriers, cruisers and destroyers, recounting how they veered into combat, absorbed savage hits and valiantly kept fighting and struggling to stay afloat. But he also zeroes in on the strategies, indecisions, failures and heroics of task force commanders and ship captains.
“The campaign,” he writes, “featured tight interdependence among warriors of the air, land, and sea.” Yet that interdependence was tenuous and troubled at best. Lives and ships were lost because of inter-service rivalries, jealousies and stubborn attitudes among key admirals and generals.
Some American warship captains made efficient use of a new technology, radar, while others failed to embrace its early-warning capabilities, with fatal consequences.
Another vital technology, radio, also was not used effectively. Ships, aircraft and ground units frequently could not communicate with each other. And important alerts often were delayed, misrouted or ignored.
Neptune’s Inferno is well written, rich with scene-setting details and very clearly the product of extensive research, as well as interviews with some of the battle’s now-aged survivors.
The author’s two previous WWII books, The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors and Ship of Ghosts, brought him into the major leagues of American military history writers. Neptune’s Inferno is solid proof that he deserves to be there.
— Si Dunn