“Neptune’s Inferno” by James D. Hornfischer



The deep bass of this audiobook’s narrator (Robertson Dean) sounds like the Navy personified. I was forced to adjust the equalizer on my car stereo so as to not be blasted away by sheer manliness.

After Pearl Harbor, it looked like nothing could stop the Japanese advance across the Pacific. The US Navy finally started the push back earlier in 1942 at Midway, and that push was definitely well underway after the Guadalcanal campaign later that year. The war was still new so there were lots of mistakes, but the Navy got lucky, fought hard, and denied the island to the Japanese.

The US had discovered (via a leftover Australian “spotter” on the island – those guys really were the gutsy ones) that the Japanese were building an airfield on Guadalcanal. If they succeeded, it meant a clear path on to Australia. So, the US landed a superior force of Marines and took the airfield, which they rechristened Henderson Field, but everyone called it Cactus and the planes that flew from it the Cactus Air Force. Planes launched from an unsinkable airfield were already certain death to navies.

Now the tables were turned on the Japanese – they recognized that they needed to force the Marines out if they were to keep on with the advance. The next few months were an all-out effort to reinforce and resupply the Japanese troops still on the island via a fast destroyer night force dubbed “Tokyo Express,” along with neutralizing the airfield with cruiser and battleship bombardment. The US Navy’s job was to stop them, and they generally did.

Here’s an interesting and darkly humorous lesson learned for the Navy: a practice of the time (and probably now) was to cross-train the sailors on many different jobs in order to have ready replacements when needed. So far so good. But, battle doctrine dictated that each sailor report to his battlestation when in battle. Ok, still sounds alright … except, when a surprise attack came, a game of musical chairs ensued — chances were that most sailors were not at their assigned battlestations when attack came; precious minutes were lost scrambling across the ship and changing the guard at each and every station. Hopefully naval doctrine was adjusted after a few of these occassions.

A key advantage the Navy had was radar-assisted gun control. You always hear about how radar was the savior of the Battle of Britain earlier in the war, but I never really realized it was critical to the Navy as well. Particularly during Guadalcanal, where most of the major engagements were at night. It was a tricky business being able to illuminate the opposing ships via searchlight or star shells without giving your own position away. With radar, the Navy silently kept track of all around it.

Of course it wasn’t that simple. Target misidentification and friendly fire during night engagements was still a big deal and not quite worked out. Also lots of the captains and admirals didn’t understand the advantage provided by radar or were not quite ready to trust the infant technology.

What won war in Pacific (per Halsey): “If I had to give credit to the instruments and machines that won us the war in the Pacific, I would rate them in this order: submarines first, radar second, planes third, bulldozers fourth.”

Finally, though this book didn’t discuss it I gotta throw out a link to this awesome article I recently read about mechanical computers on-board the Iowa class battleships — not yet in existence during Guadalcanal, but the other heavy surface ships surely had something similar.


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