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Neptune's Inferno: The U.S. Navy at Guadalcanal (original 2011; edition 2012)

by James D. Hornfischer (Author)

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Member:christiguc
Title:Neptune's Inferno: The U.S. Navy at Guadalcanal
Authors:James D. Hornfischer (Author)
Info:New York: Bantam, 2012.
Collections:Your library
Rating:****
Tags:nonfiction, male author, american, solomon islands, guadalcanal, america, japan, war, wwii, history, military history, us navy, naval history, military, pacific theater, guadalcanal campaign, bantam books, random house, bookshelf26, read2016

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Neptune's Inferno: The U.S. Navy at Guadalcanal by James D. Hornfischer (2011)

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thoroughly enjoyed Neptunes's Inferno, it was a well written history of the Naval Battle related to Guadalcanal and would encourage all to read it. I do wish their had been more on the land battle, but that was not the focus of this book. ( )
  dsha67 | May 9, 2018 |
James Hornfischer is the author of a couple of well-regarded books about the US Navy in the Pacific (The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors and Ship of Ghosts); haven’t read those, but they’re on the list. Neptune’s Inferno is about the naval battles off Guadalcanal from August to November 1942. Hornfischer notes that the United States Marines got a lot of good public relations from Guadalcanal – and deservedly so – but about three times as many sailors died in the campaign as Marines and soldiers. (Note: when I mention “Americans” below I also include Australians on board the Canberra and Australia. Sorry.)


Hornfischer is a good writer – this is a page-turner. There’s a lot of information I’ve never come across anywhere else. Of particular note:


* Despite the eventual overwhelming material superiority, the United States was severely short of bunker fuel oil. This kept the older US battleships in port on the US west coast until the fuel shortage lessened, and limited battleship support at Guadalcanal to the newer Washington and South Dakota. Even those ships were generally kept at a distance outside of Japanese land-based aircraft. This, in turn, puts the Japanese decision not to do a third strike at Pearl Harbor against the fuel storage facilities in a different light.


* In general, the Americans made very poor use of their technical superiority. Admittedly, the earliest American radar (“SC”) was difficult to use and interpret (instead of the now familiar circular plot, the SC displayed on an X-Y axis with X showing the distance to the target and Y the signal return strength. The azimuth was determined mechanically; the operator cranked the antenna by hand). The later SG radar, however, produced the now-familiar circular plot that pops into everybody’s head when thinking of “radar”. Unfortunately, American commanders had mixed feelings about the new technology. Admiral Daniel Callaghan and Admiral Norman Scott (particularly Callaghan) put their SG-equipped ships in the rear of the formation and generally ignored the information they provided. Hornfischer comes just short of calling Admiral Callaghan criminally incompetent for taking his cruiser force right into the middle of a Japanese flotilla with two battleships rather than stand back and use his radar superiority. Only battleship task force commander Willis Lee made good use of the radar on the Washington – and annihilated Kirishima in the process.


* The Americans still hadn’t figured out the Long Lance torpedo. American ships hit by torpedoes during the battles didn’t believe that range was possible and generally though they had been torpedoed by a submarine. Americans hadn’t figured out their own torpedoes, either. American surface battle doctrine was still gunfire dominated; which is just as well, because American torpedoes didn’t work.


* As far as it goes, though, American gunfire could be pretty effective. At the First Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, the light cruiser Helena had ninety seconds to shoot at the destroyer Amatsukaze before the San Francisco moved between them and blocked the line of fire. In that 90 seconds the Amatsukaze was hit by 125 six inch shells. That had to hurt.


The good parts of this book are the repeated use of first-person accounts of the battles, and the excellent character studies of the American participants. I minor problem is an unusual use of terms for what are just about everywhere else called the First and Second Naval Battles of Guadalcanal – Hornfischer calls these The Cruiser Night Action and The Battleship Night Action. The maps are OK, but suffer the problem inherent in static depictions of a fluid naval battle. It would be really interesting to see these animated somewhere; I don’t know if the details of the battle are good enough to do that – i.e., if you can position every ship involved continuously through the battle – but it would be fun to try. The most haunting part is an epilog, where Robert Graff, a survivor of the sinking of the Atlanta at the Second Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, returns and drops a wreath over his ship’s grave. ( )
  setnahkt | Dec 15, 2017 |
Inferno doesn't begin to describe it. Guadalcanal represented the first major invasion by U.S. forces in the 20th century and many hard lessons had to be learned. The oft-repeated charge that the Marines were abandoned there by the Navy is belied by the statistic that for every Marine who was killed on land, five sailors died at sea in the horrific battles there. “The puzzle of victory was learned on the fly and on the cheap.”

Hornfischer brilliantly, succinctly (and often horrifically as he describes the dreadful injuries suffered by the sailors) sets the stage discussing the personal and political challenges and conflicts that affected and drove the allocation of resources: the Army v the Navy (McArthur v Nimitz and King) in the Pacific; Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin in the Atlantic, with George Marshall stuck in the middle. The importance of Midway in boosting moral and altering the overall strategy cannot be overstated.

Here’s an interesting little detail. Admiral Kinkaid was a day late getting to the staging area because his charts showed the International Date Line in the wrong place. Personally, the thing always confuses me, but his staff were careful not to let the higher brass learn of the error.

Things got off to a bad start right from the beginning. Admiral Fletcher, (supported by Nimitz) in charge of the carriers, and Admiral Turner(supported by King), commanding the landing, hated each other. At the planning meeting at Saratoga, Fletcher worried about the risk to his carriers and refused to provide air support for more than 3 days. Turner, knowing the supply ships had not been combat loaded (so the most important supplies could be off-loaded first) knew that he could not afford to have the Marines abandoned after three days. This became infamous as the “Navy Bug-Out.” Whether Fletcher was correct in arguing that the risk to the carriers was far more strategically important is a debate that continues to this day. Hornfischer explains the rationale from both perspectives without coming down on either side.

The Japanese were already suffering from “victors’” disease and tended to dismiss the landings as inconsequential and but a diversion aimed at slowing down the Japanese advance on Port Moresby. The Japanese had their own army-navy slugfest of distrust. The Army, in fact, had not told the Navy that the U.S. had broken their operational code. There was no central intelligence gathering unit and army commanders had to rely as much on their instincts as hard intelligence that was virtually non-existent.

But the US Navy had a lot of hard lessons to learn. The Battle of Savo Island (otherwise known as the Battle of Five Sitting Ducks) revealed that the three minutes it took to get everyone in place after calling for general quarters was way too long. Especially as it meant having everyone run around changing places from where they had been. Leaving float planes on the decks of cruisers during action meant having aviation-fueled bombs on the rear deck. And captains ignoring the warnings of some of those being supervised could be deadly, not to mention poor communications and reluctance to trust new radar. Admiral Turner summed it up nicely: "The Navy was still obsessed with a strong feeling of technical and mental superiority over the enemy. In spite of ample evidence as to enemy capabilities, most of our officers and men despised the enemy and felt themselves sure victors in all encounters under any circumstances. The net result of all this was a fatal lethargy of mind which induced a confidence without readiness, and a routine acceptance of outworn peacetime standards of conduct. I believe that this psychological factor, as a cause of our defeat, was even more important than the element of surprise".

There were lots of lessons to be learned and many heads to roll. Communications was a big problem as frequencies differed between services and even between planes and ships. One little tidbit was that southern boys, of which there were many, had to be kept off the radios since their heavy regional accents often made them incomprehensible to those on the other end of the wireless. Another was the importance of communications and knowing the difference between friend and foe. Many casualties occurred and ships sunk because the combatants couldn't tell the difference at night.

Guadalcanal became the trial run for many of the islands that were to follow. ( )
  ecw0647 | Oct 28, 2017 |
Hornfischer provides a detailed account of the naval action that took place around Guadalcanal. The book provides a somber reminder of the thousands of forgotten heroes who sacrificed everything to preserve freedom. ( )
  proflinton | Jun 1, 2017 |
My second Hornsicher book although when I acquired it I'd forgotten the first - the superlative "The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors". I'd been meaning to read this book for a while and as I was "in the region", actually the Celebes Sea but close enough, I thought I'd take the plunge. The topic is Guadalcanal and while this is a well-documented campaign this concentrates on the naval side rather than the traditional land aspect.

Mr Hornfischer makes a point I'd never thought about - Guadalcanal was a seminal battle in WWII where the allies turned the axis tide - along with Stalingrad and El Alamein.

Guadalcanal is thought of as a USMC (marines) campaign, and their due should be noted, but 3 sailors fell for every infantryman.

Sitting back when completing this book I reflected as to how I'd summarize the reading experience. The phrase "exceptionally crafted" to me was obvious, however, when I thought further I'd add "emotionally wrung" and "humbling". The description of the actions long and detailed - relentless and impressing so deeply the courage, determination, sacrifice, and carnage on both sides. When ships went down there was no discrimination as to rank. No privilege there. Part way through the book I scribbled down:
- you can't run
- rank is awful
- nobody backed down
- the heroism palpable
- older commanders a liability
- orders are often misinterpreted
- destroyers should be renamed destroyed

It's fair to say that naval action in the Pacific is often thought of in carrier terms whereas this campaign was mainly surface ships. The only comparison that comes close in WWII, to me, is the Bismark chase and that was much less in scope and excluded any land component.

I must get my emotional breath back before contemplating another Hornsicher book!

Semper Fi! ( )
  martinhughharvey | Dec 17, 2015 |
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Draws on interviews with veterans and primary sources to present a narrative account of the pivotal World War II campaign, chronicling the three-month effort to gain control of Guadalcanal as a battle that taught the U.S. Navy and Marines new approaches to warfare.… (more)

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