Neptune's Inferno: The U.S. Navy at Guadalcanal Paperback – Mar 6 2012
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Selected as a Best Book of 2011 by Military History Quarterly
“A literary tour de force that is destined to become one of the . . . definitive works about the battle for Guadalcanal . . . [James D.] Hornfischer deftly captures the essence of the most pivotal naval campaign of the Pacific war.”—San Antonio Express-News
“Vivid and engaging . . . extremely readable, comprehensive and thoroughly researched.”—Ronald Spector, The Wall Street Journal
“Superlative storytelling . . . the masterwork on the long-neglected topic of World War II’s surface ship combat.”—Richard B. Frank, HistoryNet
“The author’s two previous World War II books . . . thrust him into the major leagues of American military history writers. Neptune’s Inferno is solid proof he deserves to be there.”—The Dallas Morning News
“The star of this year’s reading list is James D. Hornfischer, a military historian whose flair for narrative is rivaled only by his ability to organize the sweep of battle and assess strategy and tactics in layman’s terms.”—Cleveland Plain Dealer
“Outstanding . . . The author’s narrative gifts and excellent choice of detail give an almost Homeric quality to the men who met on the sea in steel titans.”—Booklist (starred review)
“Brilliant . . . a compelling narrative of naval combat . . . simply superb.”—The Washington Times
About the Author
James D. Hornfischer, a native of Massachusetts, is the author of the New York Times bestsellers Neptune’s Inferno, Ship of Ghosts, and The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors, which won the Samuel Eliot Morison Award for Naval Literature. Two of his widely acclaimed works about the U.S. Navy in World War II are selections of the U.S. Navy’s professional reading list. A graduate of Colgate University and the University of Texas at Austin, he lives with his wife and their three children in Austin, Texas.
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Top Customer Reviews
Ship and personnel losses are painstakingly chronicled along with the reasons thereof. What intrigued me was the fact that leadership was not keeping up with the technology, and in some cases was flat out un trusting of staff or incompetent. The fact that the Navy had one of the most advanced radar systems of the time was not only not capitalized on, but widely held as suspect by old school commanders. As the war went on these leaders were cashiered, but not before severe losses in manpower and equipment were suffered.
An interesting take on the war, and a engaging read.
Author James Hornfisher does an excellent job of placing this story into the context of the overall war. He shows the crucial role that Guadalcanal in the decision between a Germany first policy, as promoted by the President, and Japan first, the choice of the navy. While defeat at Guadalcanal may have compelled an American concentration on the Pacific, the Navy's success permitted the United States to direct its greatest effort against Germany.
Hornfisher presents profiles of the Naval officers involved, particularly, Admirals Nimitz, King and Ghormley. The saying is that amateurs talk tactics while professional talk logistics. This is brought to light by the information that some of the Navy's surviving battleships were tied to the West Coast due to a lack of fuel that would have permitted them to roam the seas. The cameo appearances of the Marines ashore, including the legendary Chesty Puller, and the importance of the IJN in attacking, and USN in protecting, Henderson Field and other Marine installations demonstrate the role of inter-service cooperation in the Pacific War. The practice of the Japanese Army and Navy not to share information and the American communication failures remind us that such problems are nothing new. The incredible series of battles in the Slot that gave the name to Ironbottom Sound enrich the maritime lexicon and boggle the mind with the horror and carnage.Read more ›
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
WWII buffs know Guadalcanal as the pivotal campaign where the Allies fought Japan from an offensive posture to a defensive one. Less well understood is that the US Navy made the first effective use of electronically directed fire at Guadalcanal. This created an immediate advantage for the Allies, and helped win the campaign, but stubbornness and lack of understanding of the new technology prevented it from being used to the fullest extent. Until Guadalcanal, navies still steamed in lines, attempting to "cross the T". After Guadalcanal, they started to understand how radar changed everything. This is just one of the many sub-plots that Hornfischer successfully weaves into his big picture.
The Guadalcanal campaign lasted six months. It's all here: every battle and every ship. It even feels like every shell is also here, as Hornfischer describes the damage caused by each ship's battery of 5 inch through 16 inch guns. You really get a sense of the pressure the Navy was under as each ship was sunk (including carriers, battleships, cruisers and 25 destroyers!) or retired from battle due to damage. In the end, after tremendous losses on both sides, the Japanese quit the struggle. Their ship and aircraft losses had been similar to those of the Allies, but theirs were irreplaceable, while the Allies were just starting to ramp up production of ships, aircraft, soldiers, sailors & aircrews.
There is a skill to writing an interesting history book, beyond a simple transcription of events, and Hornfischer exhibits that skill masterfully. He foreshadows the outcome of each event by talking about the leadership, their experience, their strategy, their attitudes toward technical innovations, and the morale they inspired (or lack thereof) in their crew. He vividly portrays the confusion in the heat of battle, the all-too-prevalent danger of friendly fire, the tradeoffs between risk and caution, and the importance of good intelligence. He points out where strong leadership succeeded and where more trust in subordinates could have produced a superior result.
The book does use a fair bit of naval jargon without definition, so if like me you have never served on a naval vessel, you will want to familiarize yourself with parts of a ship, types of ships, basic nautical terms, and navy rates before reading this book. Some quick searches on wikipedia and navy.mil sufficed for me. More complex topics like the relative merits of different styles of engagement or which mistakes are rookie mistakes are discussed in sufficient detail for a layman as they come up.
In summary, an excellent book by an author to watch. His previous books are already on my wish list.
Hornfischer masterfully balances issues of strategy (as he examines both political influences and senior military decisions in Washington, Pearl Harbor and in theater), tactics (especially training doctrine, communications issues and the introduction of radar technology) and the infinite supply of personal tales of triumph and tragedy that come in any combat situation.
While the Battle of Midway in June of 1942 ushered in the era of standoff confrontation between carrier-based aviation units, the naval engagements at Guadalcanal were centered on the proficiency of gun crews. Many of the episodes described in this book take places with opposing ships in close visual range. The results are violent and dramatic, and should cure any reader of the notion that naval warfare is somehow less risky than combat ashore.
There are many narrative gems in this book which illuminate the struggles at any level of responsibility. Setting the stage for the post Pearl Harbor responses in the Pacific, Hornfischer writes in the book's opening pages: "Captains were fortunate to find help for their troubles. They were given command of a multitude and saddled with fault for their failings. The bargain they made for their privileged place was the right to be last off the ship if the worst came to pass. Burdens grew heavier the higher one ascended in rank...The burdens of sailors weighed mostly on the muscles. The weight of leadership was subtler and heavier. It could test the conscience."
This insight into the challenges of leadership and command sustains its credibility throughout a well-researched and meticulously documented history.
While any history of naval action in the Pacific will address famous names (many individually addressed many times over in other books), Hornfischer does not overlook the rank and file in recounting moments of hope and horror that follow the impact of ordnance on a warship. He writes "...all of them, American and Japanese, striving and desperate and frightened and riled and tender and human, in fateful collision..."
This book does justice as a follow-up to his most recent previous naval history Ship of Ghosts: The Story of the USS Houston, FDR's Legendary Lost Cruiser, and the Epic Saga of her Survivors. For those inclined to remember the sacrifices of "the greatest generation", this book is an excellent tribute to an under-examined part of the Guadalcanal story.
Hornfischer's book examines in detail seven successive engagements from the Battle of Savo Island in August, 1942, to Tassafaronga at the end of November. In the nighttime battles in particular, events were chaotic, but he plots as clear a course as is perhaps possible. With radar still in its relative infancy, surprise was the norm, and in the darkness friend and foe were often almost impossible to distinguish. Battleships designed to engage the enemy at ranges of 20,000 yards or more instead found themselves hurling enormous shells at darting targets at close range, although more usually the combatants were thin-skinned cruisers and destroyers.
The author never loses sight of the human element, from the commanding admirals down to ordinary seamen, and "Neptune's Inferno" is illuminated by numerous firsthand accounts to create a narrative celebrating heroism and competence in the most trying circumstances imaginable.
Neptune's Inferno: The U.S. Navy at Guadalcanal focuses more on the naval side of the battle than the conflicts on the island, and Hornfisher makes each battle come alive. He doesn't write for the novice history reader, but those who are already used to reading such books will love the excitement. There were a lot of people, places, ships, and even planes involved, and it can seem a bit overwhelming at times. I find I enjoy it more when I don't worry so much about trying to remember every name and detail and keep everything straight, but maybe that'll come with increased familiarity, too.
But Hornfisher has a way with words, and his writing pulls you in to the story making it hard to put down. What I like most is how insightful his books are. He includes the accounts of admirals and regular sailors in his narrative, and sets it against the greater backdrop of events and pulls out the important lessons. He points out that major navies during WWII were "between the age of fighting sail and the age of nuclear propulsion when fuel was consumable and therefore a critical limit on their reach" (pg 37) and how this factored into objectives and events. His first book, The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors: The Extraordinary World War II Story of the U.S. Navy's Finest Hour is one of my all-time favorites, and if this one lacks anything in comparison it's the more inspirational ending of the other. Nonetheless, highly recommended reading for those interested in WWII history.