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

Neptune's Inferno: The U.S. Navy at Guadalcanal
Neptune’s Inferno: The U.S. Navy at Guadalcanal by James D. Hornfischer
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Over the last few days, I’ve been laid up with a back injury and it’s given me plenty of reading time, allowing me plenty of time to read and digest this book. It’s one of the best books I’ve read on World War II in the Pacific.

Neptune’s Inferno: The U.S. Navy at Guadalcanal by James D. Hornfischer is, ostensibly, the story of the naval fight in the waters around Guadalcanal. It goes beyond the story of just the naval battles to tell the story of how the U.S. Navy and specifically its small surface fleet (cruisers and destroyers) learned how to fight World War II. This book looks at the battle itself and the impact the battle had on both the U.S. and Imperial Japanese navies.

“And despite the the ostensible lesson of the Battle of Midway, which ahd supposedly crowned the aircraft carrier as queen of the seas, the combat sailors of America’s surface fleet had a more than incidental voice in who would prevail.”

With the Navy’s carrier fleet depleted after Midway and further depleted during the fighting around Guadalcanal, the burden fell on the backs of the cruiser and destroyer sailors. Seven major naval battles occurred around Guadalcanal. Two of them were decided by aviation during the day, all the rest were surface battles at night. It was the cruisers and destroyers who did most of the fighting, occasionally joined by the larger aircraft carriers and battleships. In the beginning, the Japanese Navy had the upper hand and were superior at night fighting. As the campaign moved on, the U.S. Navy learned it’s lessons and some of their leaders learned how to use the new tool of radar to beat the Japanese at night.

Hornfischer doesn’t look at the naval fighting around Guadalcanal with rose colored glasses. The U.S. Navy’s leadership committed many blunders at Guadalcanal. In many of the major battles around Guadalcanal, the U.S. Navy was technically the victor, but only because the tenacity and spirit of the ships’ crews. Admiral Norman Scott and Admiral Willis Lee stand out as those who learned the lessons of the battles that came before and used the advantages in technology that the U.S. Navy had to win battles.

In Neptune’s Inferno, Hornfischer also sets right the popular notion that the Navy abandoned the Marine Corps at Guadalcanal; while that could be true at the beginning of the campaign it certainly wasn’t by the end. As bloody as the fighting was on Guadalcanal, by the end of the campaign three sailors died at sea for every marine/soldier who died on land. That gives you an idea of how savage and deadly the war between the US Navy and the Japanese Navy was in water around Guadalcanal.

The above just scratches the surface of Neptune’s Inferno. It is an extraordinarily well written book that engages the reader from the Prologue through the end. The accounts of the battles are detailed. Hornfischer uses individual sailors’ and officers’ accounts of the fighting to vividly and graphically describe what happened during the fighting and how the fighting effected men both physically and mentally. Throughout, the fighting in the waters and Guadalcanal was a closely run thing and Hornfischer never lets you forget it. Additionally, the battle narratives are well supported with maps that show the positions and movements of the fleets and task forces (the maps are of particularly good quality for a Kindle!). This is a must read book for those interested in World War II or Naval history and easily rates five out of five stars.

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