Wednesday, March 7, 2018

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

August 1942 and American forces decide to start the process of pushing back the Japanese on land and sea, landing troops on the island of Guadalcanal, the largest island in the Solomons in the South West pacific. The marines quickly gain a toehold and control of the only airfield, but do not dislodge the Japanese from much of the island. However, neither navy has control of the sea, nor total superiority in the air. Determined to re-take the island the Japanese fly daily bombing runs from bases in New Britain and also send the Tokyo Express – a convoy of destroyers turned troop and cargo ships – on nightly runs to bolster and resupply their army. They also send larger formations that include battleships and cruisers to bombard marine positions, as well as submarines. Opposing them is a US fleet still adapting to being at war. What follows is a series of seven large night battles between US and Japanese naval forces, mainly between destroyers, cruisers and battleships, but also occasionally aircraft carriers and their aircraft. Both sides claim victories in the savage clashes that at their conclusion leave both with twenty four vessels sunk, however it is the US that retains Guadalcanal, with most Japanese soldiers evacuated through a Dunkirk-style rescue.

Hornfischer tells the story of the Guadalcanal campaign from the US naval perspective, seeking to rebalance accounts that focus more on the actions of the marines on the island. To that end he achieves that aim providing a detailed overview of both the administrative challenges and politics of naval command and the unfolding of each battle based on extensive research. While the command politics is rather dry in its telling, excavating the ins and outs of decision making and responsibility for follies, the battle engagements are more compelling, giving a sense of the chaos and carnage of clashes drawing on first-hand testimony. While Hornfischer does provide some rebalancing in the US account, it still suffers from imbalances. By focusing exclusively on the naval engagements, the battles on land and in the air are backgrounded. Moreover, it is still very much a US account and is laced with American patriotism that verges on jingoism – barely any mention is made of the wider war and political context in the Pacific and the role and action of other Allies, and the Japanese side of the battles are somewhat sketchy. In addition, while the story does provide a somewhat personal perspective of individual actors, they all remained somewhat thin, consisting mainly of descriptions of actions, rather than providing a sense of the person and their fate. As such, while book does largely succeed in its aims, albeit in a rather flat narrative, it would have been useful to read a more holistic account of the campaign. Overall, an interesting if narrow account of the taking and defending of Guadalcanal.

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