The telling of history is a tricky business and becomes especially elusive when personal legacies and parochial interests are at stake. This phenomenon is apparent in the reams of popular histories written about World War II, with the Pacific theater as a case in point. The story of the US Navy in the Pacific War is often a tale of the emergence of the aircraft carrier and the rise of naval aviation as the epitome of naval warfare. Meanwhile, the story of Guadalcanal is usually a tale of Marine Corps grit triumphing over the ferocity and prowess of the Japanese soldier, despite the abandonment of the Corps by the Navy upon which it depended.
James D. Hornfischer’s Neptune’s Inferno cuts through such over-simplifications while also conveying the very personal and visceral stories of the naval personnel who fought at Guadalcanal. Critically, he examines the essential role the US Navy played in this campaign, specifically highlighting the decisiveness of the amphibious task force. He examines the operational art required of Navy commanders pressed by a deadly and committed enemy. Finally, he provides constant insight into the lived experience throughout the campaign and the eternal importance of leadership at all levels, spanning the range of task force commanders to the most junior sailors.
While Hornfischer presents the entire picture of the campaign, ranging from the input of policymakers in Washington D.C. to the Marine forces fighting in the depths of the island of Guadalcanal, this is foremost a Navy story. He traces the generation of the expeditionary task force after the attack on Pearl Harbor and the efforts of commanders to build and train the task forces that would eventually establish sea control across the Solomon Islands. The initial distrust of radar, a new technology, highlights the difficulties of rapidly integrating new systems among crews while under duress. The action at the First Battle of Savo Island offers valuable lessons from one of the worst defeats in US naval history, while the First and Second Naval Battles of Guadalcanal reveal the confluence of skilled leadership, technical and tactical proficiency, and pure luck that allowed the US Navy to thwart Japan’s attempt to remove allied forces from Guadalcanal and Tulagi. In detailing a naval fight wherein both the US and Japanese fleets fought at virtual parity, Hornfischer’s focus on the navy presents a goldmine to modern naval leaders training for a fight against a peer adversary, whether they stand on the deck-plates, on the bridge, or at a maritime operations center.
The reader seeking lessons in operational art will find that Hornfischer offers a master class. Task Force 61, as the naval expeditionary force, included an amphibious force charged with fighting the landing force ashore, air support forces fighting from carriers, a task force of land-based aircraft, and a landing force charged with destroying enemy ground forces ashore. Hornfischer discusses the plethora of challenges inherent in the employment of such a force at sea and to support forces ashore. He uses primary sources that capture the orders and correspondence of the commanders in the heat of combat, their recorded thoughts, and discussions as they reflected on the fighting afterward. This affords the reader insight into how these leaders committed their combat power and how they balanced risk to mission and risk of force.
This book also provides a constant drumbeat on the importance of leadership in every step of preparing for and successfully fighting a naval campaign. You can characterize the entire enterprise by being on a shoestring budget, and the response of leaders to this condition had immediate operational affects. Of note, Hornfischer takes the reader inside the command post of of Vice Admiral Robert Ghormley, commander of South Pacific Forces, who was paralyzed into inaction by the situation. Admiral Chester Nimitz, Ghormley’s immediate superior and the commander-in-chief of the Pacific Fleet, ultimately relieved Ghormley and replaced him with Vice Admiral William ‘Bull’ Halsey, who immediately invigorated the command and shaped conditions for success at Guadalcanal. Similarly, Hornfischer offers glimpses into the command cultures of task forces, task groups, squadrons, and individual ships.
Finally, these stories are immediately accessible to the modern reader by Hornfischer’s exceptional skill at reconstructing events through the eyes of the most junior sailor who was present at any engagement.
Neptune’s Inferno offers a litany of takeaways for today’s military reader. Hornfischer’s work is a brilliant and successful contribution to the fields of both military history and leadership development. He offers a detailed and rigorous analysis of the entire campaign from planning to execution, an emphasis on the unique aspects of operational art necessary to conduct such a campaign, and the successes, failures, honest mistakes, and lucky guesses of those who fought it. The modern naval professional should consider Neptune’s Inferno to be required reading.
Brian Kerg is a prior-enlisted mortarman, communications officer, and nonresident fellow with Marine Corps University’s Brute Krulak Center for Innovation and Future Warfare. He is currently a student at the School of Advanced Warfighting in Quantico, Virginia. Follow or contact him on twitter @BrianKerg.