Thursday, March 3, 2011

James D. Hornfischer's "Neptune's Inferno"

James D. Hornfischer is a writer, literary agent, and former book editor. He is the author of The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors and Ship of Ghosts, both widely acclaimed accounts of the U.S. Navy during World War II in the Pacific.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Neptune's Inferno: The U.S. Navy at Guadalcanal, and reported the following:
How does a country kid from Georgia make his way in the modern U.S. Navy, circa 1942? Can he cope with a technology so advanced it seems like magic, succeed in a military meritocracy, and fight a war against a ruthless enemy such as the Japanese?

On page 99 of Neptune’s Inferno, we're exploring these vexing questions. The captain of a destroyer observes that the Georgia boys on his ship were a bit too parochial for some things. For one, they had to be kept off the intercom circuit, because their drawl was an impediment to communication. They had a hard time grasping some technical matters, such as relative compass bearings, which made them less than desirable as lookouts.

However, Captain Joseph C. Wylie, the skipper of the USS Fletcher, recalled an incident earlier in his career, in 1930, when as a greenhorn officer he walked in on two superiors having a fist-banging argument about whether rifle or pistol marksmanship was an inborn skill or a teachable trade. One of the officers, Lewis B. Puller (who would later rise to legend as a commander of Marines) told his counterpart, Lloyd Mustin (who became a pioneer in radar-controlled naval gunnery), “I can take any dumb son of a bitch and teach him to shoot.”

Puller pointed to Wylie, the future destroyer captain, and said, “I can even teach him.”

A ten-dollar bet ensued. Puller took young Wylie under his wing. A few weeks later, ashore at a rifle range, Wylie shot well enough to earn a medal designating him as an expert Marine rifleman.

Captain Wylie recalled that moment as a breakthrough to understanding what his rural crewmen were capable of. Preparing to lead them into action in the crucible of the brutal Guadalcanal naval campaign in 1942, he learned to teach them in a way that built upon their native gifts. “Wylie was a good enough leader to appreciate what the recruits from the countryside brought to the game. ‘They were highly motivated,’ he said. ‘They just came to fight.’”

The great gathering of manpower that America assembled to fight Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany required that kind of finesse. By the end of it, America had won not only at Guadalcanal, but had helped save the world from tyranny. On page 99 of Neptune’s Inferno, we get an intimate glimpse of how that came to happen.
Read an excerpt from Neptune's Inferno, and learn more about the book at the publisher's website.

--Marshal Zeringue