Saturday, March 5, 2011

Neptune's Inferno: The U.S. Navy at Guadalcanal

USS Atlanta CL 51
USS Atlanta air battle Guadalcanal

As a young boy, the name Guadalcanal was first introduced to me in the form of the epic war drama Guadalcanal Diary that was often the fare on early television. It spawned countless boyhood battles as my brother and I along with several neighbor boys would range across forty acres of orange groves pretending to be Marines as we fought imaginary Japanese soldiers. Interest in the Pacific War had been ingrained in me from my earliest days, my mother had related our father's service in an effort to give us something positive to remember him by after they split up and he disappeared from our lives.  I grew up and moved on to other things, but one thing remained constant, an inner calling drawing me back to the events of the Pacific War. I would devour every account and over twenty years ago when Richard B Frank wrote Guadalcanal: The Definitive Account of the Landmark Battle I poured over it with the diligence of a Benedictine monk.

A decade passed and with the help of the Internet, I was able to finally locate my father, or at least come to learn who he was and perhaps why the connection to the War in the Pacific remains such a strong draw to me. As related in earlier posts I had discovered the war for my father began at Guadalcanal when his ship landed Marines on Tulagi in those first days and continued to support the campaign over the next 100 days.

The Pacific War continued to fade in the memory of most Americans until last year when HBO revived attention with the mini series The Pacific. The role of the Navy has for the most part faded from view. Pearl Harbor still draws millions to stand above the weeping bunkers of the Arizona, and for a moment think about the war and the consequences. The waters around Guadalcanal was the home to five epic naval battles that saw 24 Allied ships sunk and cost the lives of over 5,000 American sailors. The Japanese lost an equal number of ships and men as well as over 20,000 against 1500 American lives in land battles. Now twenty years after Frank's book, another joins it to add a welcome focus on the great sea battles that blocked the Japanese advance and halted their efforts to retake the island. James D. Hornfischer, author of two epic stories of the Pacific, The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors and Ship of Ghosts, has just written a new book that takes a fresh look at the naval campaign with new details and material including eye witnesses accounts that until now have never been revealed.

Neptune's Inferno: The U.S. Navy at Guadalcanal is a masterful undertaking that serves to introduce the public to the bravery and sacrifice of  both admirals and seamen as they learn by trial and error to confront the on-rushing Japanese naval Juggernaut. Hornfischer approaches this story with an eye to detail and unlike telling it more from the eye of the common sailor, it moves to look over the shoulder of such people as Nimitz, King and Ghormley and a wider cast of characters than in his previous books. Some serious scholarly types might quibble about a lack of  some of the "inside baseball" approach to command friction or in depth discussion of some battles, but this is a book written for a public who is rapidly forgetting that we ever fought such a war and of the men who sailed off into forgotten battles that left thousands forever lost to Neptune.

This work will reintroduce America to those men and the ships, like the USS Atlanta CL51 that was christened by none other than Margaret Mitchell, author of Gone with the Wind. Following a similar line as he did in earlier works the author follows ships as they prepare for war and sets the tone for the sudden shock of battle and carnage that wrests at one's sanity.

Hornfischer's greatest strength is his portrayal of those who fire the shells. Like previous accounts in "The Last Stand" of gun captains manning their guns to their last breath, this book is full of stories of sailors who in the face of death, act in defiance of the sizzling shell. Men like gun commander Thomas on the USS Boise whose last words before a Japanese shell exploded in his turret were. “The fuze hasn’t gone off yet. I can still hear it spluttering.”

Neptune's Inferno puts James D Hornfischer in the company of such great naval writers as Samuel Elliot Morrison. He took on a epic story that to be told in full detail would take several volumes, but Hornfischer does the subject not only justice, but makes it digestible for millions of Americans by giving them a concise account of what is probably the true turning point of the Pacific War.

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