Sometimes a Navy surface warfare officer feels like Rodney Dangerfield – “I don’t get no respect.”

Part of the problem, it seems to me, is that we tend to stress our mistakes and shortcomings instead of focusing on the great feats of arms that should be carved into the decks of our haze gray hulls.

Naval aviation, submariners and special warrior rightfully have staked out their places in modern history.

The surface warrior? Well, not so much.

Part of that is, of course, the U.S. Navy has been so dominant on the oceans of the world for so long that there have been few surface actions involving the fleet since – well, since World War II.

Shooting up some offshore oil rigs – it just isn’t all that much.

And even when talking about WWII, it’s the carrier battles that usually pop up – Coral Sea, Midway, the Great Marianas Turkey Shoot . . .

Sure, there were WWII surface battles that come to mind, like the Battle of Surigao Strait – the last great “all surface” battle- or the Battle of Samar, where a handful of destroyers, a few Navy pilots and some escort carriers took on a much superior Japanese force and, well, you can read all about it in James Hornfischer’s Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors.

Then there is the story of the great naval battles fought in the waters off Guadalcanal – a tale that begins with the near disaster of the Battle of Savo Island (at look at which you can find here) and with the seemingly eternal grudge of Marines toward the Navy that “abandoned” them on Guadalcanal.

Well, now, wouldn’t it be nice if Mr. Hornfischer had written a book on that topic? Try this: Neptune’s Inferno: The U.S. Navy at Guadalcanal:

Neptune’s Inferno is at once the most epic and the most intimate account ever written of the contest for control of the seaways of the Solomon Islands, America’s first concerted offensive against the Imperial Japanese juggernaut and the true turning point of the Pacific conflict. This grim, protracted campaign has long been heralded as a Marine victory. Now, with his powerful portrait of the Navy’s sacrifice—three sailors died at sea for every man lost ashore—Hornfischer tells for the first time the full story of the men who fought in destroyers, cruisers, and battleships in the narrow, deadly waters of “Ironbottom Sound.” Here, in brilliant cinematic detail, are the seven major naval actions that began in August of 1942, a time when the war seemed unwinnable and America fought on a shoestring, with the outcome always in doubt.

And wouldn’t it be great to discuss his books with Mr.Hornfischer?

Well, this Sunday 5pm Eastern, Mr. Hornfischer visits us at Midrats on Episode 84 James D. Hornfischer which my co-host CDR Salamander has described as:

When you mention books on naval history, there are but a few authors whose work immediately come to mind, and our guest is one of them.

Unquestionably one of the finest writers of naval history of the last half-century; James D. Hornfischer.

We have talked about his books on a regular basis both on Midrats and over at our homeblogs; The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors and Ship of Ghosts. He has a new book out, one that will be required reading for his fans – Neptune’s Inferno: The U.S. Navy at Guadalcanal.

We will have him for the full hour, so don’t miss the discussion of the U.S. Navy in the opening of WWII, the lessons we should take from history, and the importance of the study of naval history for both the professional and amateur.

Please join us. Here the link again: Episode 84 James D. Hornfischer

Posted by Mark Tempest in Books, Navy, Podcasts

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  • Ben Wachendorf, RADM, USN (Ret)

    Agree with all you say.

    In addition to what you describe, the surface action of USS Johnston, USS Hoel, USS Heerman, and especially USS Samuel B. Roberts against a powerful Japanese surface force in the Battle of Leyte Gulf was one of the most courageous actions in US Navy history. Naval air power also played an important role in this battle, but it was the response to RADM Sprague’s order “Small Boys attack” that makes this combat action so heroic.

  • Rich B.

    And during one of my last few months in the service I recall being lectured how the term “small boys” was derogatory and that I shouldn’t use it.

  • It is only derogatory to the small-minded, insecure, and historically ignorant; IMAO :).

  • Russ Koch

    The battle of Guadalcanal and Okinawa were tough on the Navy, for sure. Like the loss of 60 B17s over Germany, you don’t really grasp the losses until you multiply each aircraft by 10 or so crewman. There is, however, a differing point of view. My father fought in Korea with the 1st MarDiv, and at that point in time, there were plenty of old timers who were veterans of that battle still serving. The unbridled disdain for the Navy was passed on to my Dad and he holds it to this day. I guess he would say that getting your rear kicked wasn’t an admirable thing. Leaving a Marine division ashore alone, well…I won’t go on.

  • Byron

    Mr. Koch I humbly request that in your comparisons you also add the thousands of sailors who perished when their ships were sunk through shell fire or torpedo’d, many of them at night, all of them at the mercy of the Japanese Navy or Army (if they drifted ashore) or the unforgiving sea. These would be the same sailors that fought and died to make sure the Marines weren’t forced to retreat into the sea or become POWs of the “merciful” Japanese Army.

  • UltimaRatioReg


    Let’s just say that the Marines see Frank Jack Fletcher’s actions off Guadalcanal a bit differently. I believe that is what Mr. Koch is referring to. No real beef with the Navy, but some very legit criticism of Admiral Fletcher’s decisions in the wake of Savo.

  • Byron

    As someone in the middle, I can understand ADM. Fletchers reluctance to risk his last two carriers and cruiser force ( a much diminished force at that) until more assets could come to reinforce him in the theatre. Remember, he had just lost Savo Island and that had to weigh heavily on his mind.

  • Duke

    Savo Island certainly highlights three problems with which it took a long time to come to grips: an overreliance on barely adequate (and inadequately handled) radar; a lack of understanding of Japanese night surface tactics; and a real lack appreciation for the capabilities of the ‘Long Lance’ torpedo.

  • Paul P

    Let’s not forget that Fletcher’s decision to withdraw occurred before Savo and not after.

    Obviously, I wasn’t there, but I imagine that despite the rivalry between the Navy and the Marines, there were probably many, if not all members of that task force that didn’t want to abandon the Old Breed on that island. .

  • Duke

    @Paul P- Well said. Running away from a fight just isn’t the Navy way, from John Paul Jones through Arleigh Burke and on to the present.

  • Chuck Hill

    The events of the night of November 13, 1942 should have redeemed the Navy’s reputation in the eyes of the Marines.

  • UltimaRatioReg


    It isn’t the Navy whom the Marines really had issue with. The battles around the Solomons, and later with the fight off Okinawa, proved to the Marines that the Bluejackets had plenty of courage.

    However, Fletcher’s decision to up and leave with the transports after 24 hours, while the ships held the vast preponderance of the Marines’ food and ammunition and a good deal of their key equipment (all of the runway construction equipment) rightfully does not pass the smell test, and certainly didn’t to Vandegrift and the 1st MarDiv in 1942.

  • Mike S.

    In the comments thus far (e.g. “smell test”), it’s clear Marines and others blame VADM Fletcher for withdrawing (the carriers, not the transports). I felt that way, too, until I read his wartime biography, “Blackshoe Carrier Admiral,” by J.P. Lundstrom. Fletcher never responded to his harsh critics like R.K. Turner and especially S.E. Morison. Lundstrom finally tells his side. I recommend you read at least the Guadalcanal part. IMHO, the rest is outstanding reading, well worth the money or effort to borrow from library. v/r MS

  • Chuck Hill

    I can certainly see that, but Russ Koch was referring disdain for the Navy in general.

  • UltimaRatioReg

    Marines only have disdain for the goofy blueberry uniforms you guys are forced to wear. 🙂

    THIS Marine has the utmost respect for the Navy’s accomplishments in World War II. My father served in Admiral Barbey’s VII Amphibious Force under MacArthur, in New Guinea, New Britain, and the Admiralties.

  • Duke

    @URR- Speaking of uniforms, I remember some comments my dad had about “Seagoing Bellhops”. 🙂

    Semper Fi!

  • UltimaRatioReg

    Yeah, my Dad used to tease my brother and I (both Jarheads) about it, too.

  • Russ Koch

    Sorry that I lost track of the conversation! It looks like a good one. My Dad was a weapons company grunt and fought in Korea. He got out as a corporal and carried his experiences mostly silently. When he did talk about the Corps, he always talked about Gunny Thompson, and it is clear to anyone who listens that Dad revered the Gunny. Gunny Thompson (real name) was old Corps and old 1st MarDiv and ‘Canal veteran. They just hated the Navy, pure and simple. They passed it down through stories and lore and it stuck. Remember that they did not know about this ship or that. This carrier, or that cruiser, THAT was of course, secret. They knew that they landed, some still carrying ’03 springfields, started to unload cargo (by hook), and the Navy bugged out. They were lucky to get the smaller force off Tulagi (if memory serves). Things were so primitive and they were almost all green…I think I would probably hate the Navy too. Like it or lump it; that is the simple truth.
    If it makes anyone feel better, my Dad hates the Army too! Their early performance in the Korean War is his second favorite subject. His likes: M1 rifle, F4U, M48 tank (or whatever it was then), M37 Dodge “command car”. As a Marine corporal myself, right or wrong, I revere him.
    Semper Fidelis.

  • Duke


    I’d love to hear your Dad’s stories about the dogies. From the son of a sailor, Semper Fi!