Neptune’s Inferno: The U.S. Navy at Guadalcanal, by James D. Hornfischer (Bantam Books, 2012, 512 pages)
A Masterclass in Naval Warfare
Neptune’s Inferno (2011) is the third of James D. Hornfischer’s World War II books, the earlier being The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors in 2004 and Ship of Ghosts in 2006. Although Hornfischer died in 2021 at the age of 55, these three works and the two that followed (Service: A Navy SEAL at War with Marcus Luttrell and The Fleet at Flood Tide: America at Total War in the Pacific, 1944–1945) cement his position as one of the most gifted historians and authors of naval warfare.
Combining an expansive view of the battlefield and minute details of ships and gun batteries, Hornfischer describe the series of battles that defined America’s fight for Guadalcanal leaving the reader reeling, and as confused and panic stricken as those who fought aboard the navy’s ships. For the layman, not knowing a light cruiser from a heavy cruiser from a battleship can lead to periods of befuddlement, but, Hornfischer wisely adds liberal doses of tales at the human level that bring readers alongside, feeling the ships shudder as they are hit, vibrate as their big guns fire, and surrender as they fall beneath the surface.
After the first battle, he writes (and quotes), “The day was beautiful, the sea like glass and the ship was slowly overturning and sinking . . . Men were in the water, boats were picking them up. It would have made a gripping picture. It was just past noon on the ninth when the Astoria began settling by the stern. Then she was gone.” The horrific but calm scene is as much respite as the reader will find. All are vivid with Hornfischer’s frequent use of sensory details. Again, in another battle scene, as the men on the island were shelled, he quotes, “The air was filled with the bedlam of sound; the screaming of shells, the dull roar of cannonading off shore, the whine of shrapnel, the thud of palm trees as they were severed and hit the ground, and in the lulls from the big noises, the ceaseless sifting of dirt into foxhole.”
While most films and tales of Guadalcanal address the land war on the island complete with vicious hand-to-hand combat and near starvation conditions, this is a tale of the battles at sea. And when both sides withdraw at the end of six months, while the US newspapers and ticker-tape parades claimed victory, Hornfischer paints a picture of a more subdued outcome. Yes, the Japanese casualties were extraordinary and, yes, the Imperial Japanese Navy was forced to evacuate its soldiers from the island, but the US was forced to return to safe harbor to regroup and review its naval battle strategy, communications, command capabilities, and sailors’ preparedness before taking to the seas again.
A highly recommended read to anyone with an interest in history and World War II battles at sea rather than on land. For, as Hornfischer’s explains, quoting a naval strategist: “It has been said that an army is as brave as its privates and as good as its generals. In a navy, the dynamics are different. On a ship bound for battle, admirals and seamen alike stand equally exposed to the hazards of combat . . . The ship and crew members will go where [the admiral] directs them . . . but his is the choice of the hazard that will incur.”
Near the end, Hornfischer says, “Victory did not come by way of a shattering decisive battle. It came through attrition, exacted relentlessly, night after night. Victory, when it came, did not march on parade.” And later, “But the significance of the Guadalcanal campaign was never just about war materiel or real estate . . . It had to be seized by men with an active will to fight.
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Rona Simmons is an Atlanta-area based author of historical fiction and nonfiction. Her latest work, A Gathering of Men (Koehler Books, 2022) is set during World War II and presents a unique perspective on the war. The same can be said of her prior work, The Other Veterans of World War II: Stories from Behind the Front Lines (Kent State University Press, 2020), celebrating the contribution of noncombat veterans. Simmons is a contributing writer for DODReads.com