Neptune’s Inferno: The US at Guadalcanal
By James D. Hornfischer
We are taken step by step, in staggering detail, through the grim struggles for the now legendary South Pacific island of Guadalcanal.
The Marines barely held on to win a victory in this first major land battle for US forces after Pearl Harbour. Their endurance came at a heavy cost with many killed and even more left shattered by the trauma or the effects of malaria and other tropical diseases.
Less well known is the price the US Navy in the campaign. Few realise that naval casualties were three times higher than the losses of the Marines and Army.
The naval battles in the Solomons were incredibly intense and damaging to both sides. At the end of the Battle for the Eastern Solomons, the carriers were exhausted. Every US carrier had either been disabled or sunk. The heavily damaged Enterprise and Saratoga both spent months under repair before they could rejoin the fight. The Yorktown had been sunk at Midway, the Lexington in the Battle of the Coral Sea, while the Wasp and the Hornet both went down in the Solomons.
The Japanese fared only marginally better at this stage of the war. They still had two carriers afloat, but they had lost so many pilots neither carrier was operational and they had to be recalled to Japan to train new air crews.
This book charts a blow by blow account of the struggle that won the war in the Pacific. The Japanese threw so much into these battles and still lost. Once Guadalcanal was lost, their end was inevitable.
However, victory did not come cheap.
The grim land battles waged by the Marines cost 1,592 lives. It is less well known that naval deaths were three times larger. By the end of the seven naval battles in the Solomons over 5,000 Americans had been killed at sea.
Japanese losses were very high with over 20,000 lost on land and around 4,000 at sea.
Iron Bottom Sound, as the surrounding water off Guadalcanal became known, is littered with the wreckage. Both the Americans and Japanese each lost 24 major warships in those waters. Aircraft losses were also roughly similar (US 436, Japan 440).
The human tragedy can’t be ignored, but that in itself is not the reason to read this book. There is so much more to the truth of what took place. It is an account of the strategies, struggles, politics, economics and devastating mistakes. It is a warts and all tale of deadly egos, careers unjustly destroyed and the book includes a sordid account of ’battles’ within the Pentagon and Washington’s corridors of power.
It unflinchingly details deadly friendly-fire incidents where US ships were destroyed by their own forces and the blatantly misleading propaganda that was fed to the distraught public. Regrettably, few people even today are aware of these terribly lethal mistakes.
Hornfischer has provided a detailed account of the full ugliness of war – its causes and what flows from it.
Why Bother to Read it?
Not all of the ugliness of war happens on the battle field. This is an account of the complexity of war. The human stupidity, greed and naked ambition as well as the political lies and deception.
It details those travesties in a way that does not detract from the heroics and sacrifice of the many who fought so hard. It is a well-balanced frank account of one of the most important campaigns in the Second World War.
Photo by Mark Toohey