Neptune’s Inferno; or, “If You Get Hit, Where Are You?”

I finished reading this morning, while camped out in front of the (closed) Turkish Airlines counter at Dulles (they have one single flight out of here, at 11:10 p.m., and they don’t open their counter for check-in until 7:20 p.m., and you can’t get through security without a boarding pass, which you can’t get without check-in, and did I mention that all the restaurants in Dulles are on the far side of security and I’ve been here since 4:00 a.m?), a book given to me for Christmas, Neptune’s Inferno, by James D. Hornfischer, a history of the naval battle for Guadalcanal, from early August through the end of 1942.

This is the third book of Hornfischer’s which I’ve read. I have his Ship of Ghosts, about the survivors of USS Houston. She was part of the ABDA fleet which was annihilated in the opening weeks of the war. She survived the first few battles only to come to grief in the Sunda Strait. She, in company with HMAS Perth, stumbled across the entire Japanese invasion fleet coming ashore in Java, including a destroyer force and squadron of heavy cruisers covering the transports. Both Allied ships were sunk, each taking roughly half her crew with her. Both captains were killed in the action, Houston’s by taking a shell splinter that just about eviscerated him. Houston’s survivors ended up in no small part working on the Burma-Siam railroad line the construction of which forms the setting for Bridge on the River Kwai. The thing about the battle was that it was so sudden – the Allied ships hadn’t expected to come across hostiles – and occurred in the middle of the night, that Houston and her consort effectively just disappeared, as far as Allied high command could tell. It wasn’t until the end of the war that it was known anyone had survived, and who.

A couple of vignettes from that book.

One of the eventual survivors from Houston had his battle station in the mast top, manning a heavy machine gun with a Marine sergeant. As the ship was heeling over, on her death ride and with the order to abandon ship having been given, the sailor was getting ready to drop into the water (by that point the top was well out over the water), and he noticed the Marine wasn’t. Come on, let’s go, was the thrust of his observations. The Marine just pointed out that he couldn’t swim. So over the sailor goes, striking out with might and main to avoid the suction when the ship went down. He later recalled that among his last glimpses of Houston was the sight of tracers still pouring forth from the mast top, as the Marine fought his station to the very last. You can’t teach that kind of tough.

The other vignette speaks volumes about how the Dutch (who owned Java as of the war’s beginning) were viewed by the locals, and how the Japanese were viewed (at least as of that time). Houston sank so close to the beach that many of the sailors who got off in time were able without too much trouble to swim ashore. The current in Sunda Strait is pretty ferocious, but since the swimmers were swimming perpendicular to it, those who weren’t swept out into the open ocean were able to make shore. To a man they were turned in to the invaders by the local villagers who found them hiding in the woods, and it wasn’t out of fear of the Japanese. The Dutch had behaved in the East Indies much as the Belgians had in the Congo, and with very similar results, in terms of how the native population reacted when they had the chance for regime change. In short, the Japanese Greater Southeast Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere was very much not looked upon as being a cynical euphemism by its purported beneficiaries.

The third book of Hornfischer’s I have is The Last Stand of the Tin-Can Sailors, the story of the destroyers and destroyer escorts screening the light carriers whose job it was, during the Battle of Leyte Gulf, to cover the landing forces. and provide in-shore close air support.  Admiral Halsey having been snookered into taking all his fleet carriers and all his heavy screening forces (he flew his flag in New Jersey, sporting nine 16″/50-cal guns) to chase — far to the north, well away from the critical focus of Halsey’s actual mission — Japanese carriers who weren’t carrying any planes – in other words, they were suicide decoys – all that was left to guard the San Bernardino Strait was a group of escort carriers, whose magazines were full of anti-personnel and other “soft” (in other words, not armor-piercing) ordnance), along with a squadron of destroyers and one of even smaller destroyer escorts. And here comes Admiral Kurita with the Center Force, consisting of the bulk of the remaining Imperial Japanese Navy heavies. Battleships and heavy cruisers. It actually took them two tries to get through the strait; it was on the first effort that Musashi was sunk (her sister, Yamato, didn’t go on her own death ride until later). Kurita had turned back but then reversed course after all and on the morning of October 25, 1944 (metaphor alert: this was the anniversary of Agincourt in 1415, when a badly-out-numbered Henry V opened a can of whip-ass and flat smeared it all over the French – we few, we happy few, we band of brothers, anyone?) all that stood between him and the helpless American invasion fleet at anchor, frantically unloading the invasion force, were a dozen or so tin cans, with the escort carriers several miles further off.

Hornfischer uses the story of USS Johnston (DD-557), commanded by Commander Ernest E. Evans, to construct the narrative framework of the story. He was from Oklahoma, half-Indian (and so of course his Academy nickname was “Chief”). When he took command of Johnston, he offered any man in the crew who wanted off a transfer, no questions asked.

On that October morning, by chance Evans happened to be the closest ship in the formation to the Japanese battle line as it came out of the strait. Without waiting for orders, he turned his destroyer to engage a line of battleships and cruisers. Maneuvering at flank speed, he engaged with such of his 5″ mounts as could be brought to bear, chasing the Japanese shell splashes (on the theory that your enemy will have corrected his fire control solution away from that spot so he won’t hit there again) and trying to get close enough to launch his torpedoes. Chasing shell splashes only works if your enemy doesn’t figure out what you’re doing, and if there are enough people shooting at you, then you’re out of luck in any event; there’s no place to dodge to where someone’s not likely to drop a 14″ round onto your unarmored deck. Which is what happened to Johnston. She started taking large-caliber shell hits.

Evans gave the order to launch the torpedoes and then turned away to open the range. By that time all Johnston’s 5″ mounts were out of commission, the ship had been badly holed, was on fire, and was losing speed. As she steamed away from the Japanese, she came upon the other small boys, likewise riding hell-for-leather to engage the enemy battleships with their destroyers and destroyer escorts. Notwithstanding he had nothing left to fire at the Japanese, Evans turned Johnston around and went back into the fight. After all, Kurita had no way of telling she was a sitting duck; every turret that fired at Johnston was a turret not firing at a ship still capable of action. When last seen, Evans was standing on Johnston’s fantail, severely wounded (as I recall, among other things, he had a hand shot off by that point), shouting rudder orders down a hatch into the rudder room where crewmembers were manhandling the rudder, all other steering control having been shot away.

Evans received a posthumous Medal of Honor. And the small-ship Navy acquired an immortal example of gallantry.

They’re called “tin cans,” by the way, because that’s how easily they open up. When I was on an Adams-class guided missile destroyer back in the day, we had an A-6 that was supposedly bombing our wake for practice put a practice bomb onto us instead. The idea is they drop these dummy bomblets that have a saltwater-activated smoke flare in the nose into your wake, 500 yards or so astern of you. They’re aiming at the centerline of your wake and it’s easy to see how good their aim is. Well, this ass-hat, in the words of the JAGMAN investigating officer’s report – which I saw – “released his bomb with a friendly ship filling his windscreen.” This practice bomb weighed less than 10 pounds and, except for the smoke flare in the nose, was completely inert. A chunk of metal, no more and no less. It went completely though our ship. It penetrated a bulkhead on the O-2 level, blew up the Mk-51 fire control radar’s power panel, penetrated the O-2 level deck in that space, crossed the small office space beneath that and went through the far bulkhead out into the open air, penetrated the O-1 level deck, went across the main passageway (almost taking out our chief boatswain’s mate), penetrated the inboard bulkhead of the chief petty officer’s mess, ripped up their refrigerator, penetrated the far bulkhead back into open air, and would have kept right on going over the side except it hit the inboard side of one of the davits for the captain’s gig, and bounced back into the scuppers.

Neptune’s Inferno, as mentioned, deals with the specifically naval engagements of the Guadalcanal campaign. The Marines ashore make an appearance only to the extent of their interaction with the navy, consisting mostly of their outrage when, two days after the Marines splashed ashore, Vice Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher (most recently seen relinquishing command of the American carriers to Raymond A. Spruance half-way through the Battle of Midway back in early June, 1942 , when his flagship, Yorktown, was put out of action and eventually sunk) took the carriers, which were pretty much all the flat tops the Navy had in August, 1942, away from the battle in order not to risk them against Japanese aircraft. It was a decision Admiral Earnest King never forgave him for (and for which he was relieved). From a strategic perspective it was the right choice. If those carriers had been put out of action at that point, the Navy’s operations in that entire portion of the Pacific would have been crippled. You can always get some reinforcements ashore, get some more supplies ashore. In fact the Japanese did more or less exactly that with the night-time runs of the “Tokyo Express”; because of the Marines’ Henderson Field on the island, and the back-up of the American carriers just out of reach of their land-based aircraft flying from Rabaul, they couldn’t make day-time landings or even use slower transport ships because they couldn’t get in, un-load, and be gone from the danger zone before the American aircraft would be back in the air the next morning. So they used destroyers . . . and managed to put well over 20,000 troops ashore, together with artillery and related supplies.

The Marines came to forgive the Navy, more less, when the light surface forces (destroyers and the new anti-aircraft cruisers, bristling with 5″ rapid-firing guns) showed a gleeful willingness to plow up great swathes of Japanese-bearing tropical jungle. They’d literally hose out corridors through the undergrowth with their gunfire. No less than Lt. Col. Lewis D. “Chesty” Puller expressed his gratitude after having observed the fun from one of the firing ships. The sub-title of this post is his reply to his host’s reaction when, just prior to going back ashore, he observed to the captain that he, Puller, wouldn’t have captain’s job for anything.  The captain was amazed; surely wouldn’t he prefer to have a shower and a bed when the day’s work was done?  Puller asked him when he got hit, where was he, and then pointed out, “When I get hit, I know where I am.”

And then after the night-time surface actions all the bodies would wash ashore.

In the end, for every Marine who died defending Guadalcanal dirt, three sailors died defending its waters. USS Juneau, her keel already broken by a torpedo strike and shot all to hell, was limping away the morning after the Night Cruiser Action, on November 14, 1942, when a submarine found her. She literally disappeared in a single flash of explosion. Out of her crew of almost exactly 700, all of ten men survived. Among the dead were the five Sullivan brothers, of Waterloo, Iowa.

For all the valor of the surface navy – and the naval fight was overwhelmingly a surface fight; the airplanes were mostly consumed (and they were consumed, as well) defending Henderson Field – the senior leadership really comes across as bumbling, in Hornfischer’s telling. Most of the action went down at night, an environment the Japanese had spent years aggressively training to own. And they did, even without the benefit of search or fire-control radar, both of which the Americans had in abundance, and which all but one of the OTCs (officer in tactical command: the guy out on the water who’s actually ordering the formation, steaming directions, and controlling – supposedly – the action) studiously ignored. It started with the Battle of Savo Island (a gob of island several miles to the northwest of Guadalcanal proper), when a fast-moving Japanese cruiser squadron got the jump on not one, but two American formations of cruisers and destroyers, and sent four out of five Allied cruisers (USS Quincy, USS Vincennes, USS Astoria, and HMAS Canberra) to the bottom in a maelstrom of fire lasting barely an hour from start to finish.

The eventual verdict on Savo Island (the waters between it and Guadalcanal acquired the nickname “Ironbottom Sound” by the time it was all over) was that the Americans simply had not been ready for combat, eight months after Pearl Harbor. They just didn’t know their craft. The Americans got a little of their own back off Cape Esperance when Rear Admiral Norman Scott was put in charge of a scraped-together force to challenge the night-time deliveries of the Tokyo Express. But for all of his drilling his ships in gunnery exercises (including off-set firing at each other, where two ships would shoot at each other’s wakes, or at target sleds towed by each other, much like that A-6 pilot was supposed to have done to my ship 40-odd years later), and all his aggressive instincts, even he couldn’t quite get it all in one sock, when it came to a real, live, shoot-em-up night action. He bungled some maneuvering signals, put his flag in a ship which did not have the 10-cm search radar (a vast improvement over its predecessor; it was actually useful for running a naval fight, as was later demonstrated), and before anyone knew it, what should have been a smoothly unfolding fight turned into a chaotic slug-fest, with individual commanders more or less picking their targets of opportunity and seeing how many rounds they could pump into them. Scott’s forces did manage sufficiently to cripple the sole Japanese battleship that she was scuttled. But it was otherwise an opportunity mostly lost.

Then the mistakes got worse. Rear Admiral Dan Callaghan, a real swell guy but a desk admiral, was put in charge of the cruisers, over Norman Scott, who – even if he’d stumbled a bit his first time out of the gate – at least had spent countless hours pondering the dynamics of modern naval action. There is not much indication that Callaghan did. He owed much of his advancement to senior rank to his connections, not least with FDR himself. During the Night Cruiser Action of November 13, 1942, he made an absolute pig’s breakfast of his formation, his handling of it, and his conducts of the battle. But he did have the decency to get killed that night, along with all but one of his staff and his flag captain (Cassin Young, who had won his own Medal of Honor at Pearl Harbor). Norman Scott was also killed that night. But the Americans bagged one of the two battleships the Japanese had sent.

In the aftermath of the Night Cruiser Action, the Americans had so few heavy surface forces left that Halsey finally decided to pull his two battleships – Washington and South Dakota – away from escorting carriers and transports, and shove them into Iron Bottom Sound. And not a moment too soon. Admiral Yamamoto had decided to try one final all-out push to destroy Henderson Field through naval gunfire (they’d made a pretty good run at back in September). This time the American commander, Rear Admiral Willis Lee, was a radar geek who knew exactly what use his radar could be. The Americans shot them all to hell and gone, saving Henderson Field and thereby guaranteeing that the Japanese simply could not maintain their forces on the island.

By the time the Japanese evacuated, many of their units had only a handful of men left who were not so starved or sick or both as to be completely out of action.

What I found, other than the very well-written narration, interesting about the book is the portrayal of William Halsey. In Last Stand, Halsey comes off as a blustering buffoon, who was so gung-ho to Get Him Some Carrier Scalp that he abandoned what was actually his principal strategic function – safeguarding the Leyte Gulf invasion – and but for the courage of the small boys could have cost the Americans an enormous loss. Gentle Reader will also not overlook that it was also during this time and shortly thereafter that Halsey came within an ace of losing not one but two battle groups to typhoons, by reason of his mismanagement of refueling. In Neptune’s Inferno he comes across being something of a naval cross between Nathan Bedford Forrest and Omar Bradley. Perhaps it’s the difference between 1942 and 1944. By the time of Leyte Halsey had worn four stars for almost two years and was a fleet commander. Perhaps with Leyte he had risen to his level of incompetence.

In any event, Neptune’s Inferno is a tremendous read. Hornfischer does an excellent job of narrating surface naval action. This is more complicated than it sounds, I suggest. If you’re describing the Battle of Shiloh, for example, or the First Marne, you can hook your narrative onto place names that can easily be shown on a map in geographic relationship to each other. Not every author has this talent. The first time I tried to read August 1914 I gave up because Solzhenitsyn’s description of the run-up to Tannenberg is nearly unintelligible without a map to refer to (and then some time later I discovered that – in the very back of the book, exactly where you would not look for it – his publisher had put just such a map; made all the difference in the world). In describing a naval surface action, however, all you’re left with is “port” and “starboard,” and it’s very difficult even to draw it out on a map because the relative positions of the ships to each other at any specific moment is of such critical importance. I think Hornfischer does as good a job of conveying the actual movements of the ships over the trackless water as well as anyone I’ve ever run across.

Can’t recommend too highly, in round numbers.

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