Book Review: Guadalcanal: The Definitive Account of the Landmark Battle


by Richard B. Frank

New York: Penguin, 1992. Pp. 816. Maps, notes, biblio., index. $19.95. ISBN:0-140-16561-4

Guadalcanal was a six-month campaign where two things were broken: the back of Japan’s naval aviation, and the myth of Japanese superiority in jungle warfare.

The book provides much more detail than Samuel Eliot Morison’s The Struggle for Guadalcanal, going into more detail about the ground combat and it benefits from greater access to Japanese materials. Frank has provided a superb narrative throughout the book, and he is very good about trying to be fair to the commanders on scene. This is most notable with his treatment of the engagement that resulted in the relief of Lieutenant Colonel William E. Maxwell. He is somewhat charitable, and while he properly criticizes Vice Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher’s decision-making process prior to Savo Island, Frank points out what might have had valid reasons supporting those. William F. Halsey’s leadership of the Tokyo raid and Raymond A. Spruance’s brilliant handling of Task Force 16 at Midway stand out in contrast to Fletcher’s performances during the early portion of the Guadalcanal campaign (and the Wake relief expedition).

The only exception to Frank’s charitable assessments of naval commanders appears to be the performance of Daniel Callaghan at the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal. His recounting of the battle contains discrepancies from the account done by James W. Grace in Naval Battle of Guadalcanal: Night Action, 13 November, 1942, most notably by raising the notion that Rear Admiral Norman Scott was killed by friendly fire from the heavy cruiser San Francisco. Here, Frank falls short in what is otherwise a superb account. This is made worse by quoting comments on Callaghan's performance from Vice Admiral William S. Pye (“Orders… such as ‘Give them Hell’ [and] ‘We want the big ones’ make better newspaper headlines than they do battle plans.”), the officer who gave the orders to abandon the garrison at Wake Island. In the reviewer’s opinion, Callaghan performed the extraordinary feat of defeating battleships with a mixed bag of cruisers and destroyers – not only accomplishing the mission he’d been given, but crippling the battleship Hiei in the process. The denigration of Callaghan’s victory is the only real blemish on this definitive account – the charity shown towards the McClellanesque Fletcher’s performance would have been better spent on Callaghan’s, given the long odds the latter was facing.

Aside from the issues over the assessment of commanders, the book is quite flawless. It provides superb accounts that make it a worthy addition to anyone interested in perhaps the most balanced campaign of the Pacific War, be it a causal reader or a historian.

Reviewer: Harold C. Hutchison   

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