Blazing Star, Setting Sun
The Conclusion of the Guadalcanal-Solomons Naval Campaign of World War II
Jeffrey R. Cox
Osprey Publishing, Oxford, United Kingdom, 2020, 512 pages
Book Review published on: October 16, 2020
Jeffrey Cox, author of Morning Star, Midnight Sun, continues in telling the stirring accounts of the vital four months of the Guadalcanal and Solomons campaign during World War II in Blazing Star, Setting Sun: The Conclusion of the Guadalcanal-Solomons Naval Campaign of World War II. Cox, with flair for the dramatics and details, vividly describes how, despite the missteps and misfortune, the tide of the war in the Pacific turned in favor of the Allies. By early 1944, American victories combined with technological developments and changes in operational warfare strategy forever changed Japan’s initial superiority of personnel and equipment, placing Japan on the defensive till the end of the war. Cox masterfully tells of the hard fight experienced by the Allies on the ground, in the air, and on the Pacific Ocean.
Cox’s contribution of one of the more famous naval campaigns in the first year of the war in the Pacific comes at an interesting time for World War II histories. Though partly a celebratory account of America’s first victory in World War II, the book seeks to integrate the stories of individual naval engagements around Guadalcanal with the exploits of the Cactus Air Force flying from Henderson Air Field and American naval task forces in providing a candid and often brutal description of night naval fights in a winner-take-all campaign for Guadalcanal. The result is a work that clearly challenges the traditional historical narrative of the Guadalcanal-Solomons Naval Campaign in underscoring the importance of this campaign. Blazing Star, Setting Sun describes a campaign that was a must-win by both sides. Japan correctly accessed the importance of Guadalcanal in threatening Allied sea lines of communication between the United States and Australia. A Japanese victory would isolate Australia and facilitate Japanese plans to defeat it. An American victory would keep the sea lines of communication open and would be a morale boost for the Allies in a very dark period of World War II. Blazing Star, Setting Sun goes beyond previous works on the Guadalcanal-Solomons Naval Campaign in giving the reader a vivid blow by blow account from the bridges of American and Japanese ships as they engaged the other in complete darkness during the First and Second Naval Battles of Guadalcanal.
Cox captures the mistakes by both sides, unpreparedness of the American Navy, and horror of night naval combat in the First and Second Naval Battles of Guadalcanal. His research indicates the U.S. Navy was at a disadvantage in naval engagements with the Japanese navy due to the failure of the Mark 14 and Mark 15 torpedoes, overreliance on radar, and Japan’s superiority at night operations. He informs us that the Mark 14 and Mark 15 torpedoes often failed to denotate due to a faulty Mark 6 exploder. The Mark 14 also tended to run deeper than set due to being calibrated incorrectly, often missing its target. The U.S. Navy overly relied on its new radar technology, SG surface search radar, which crews had little training nor appreciation for its capabilities and limitations. Cox describes the failure of Rear Adm. Daniel Callaghan and Rear Adm. Norman Scott in the First Naval Battle of Guadalcanal to select warships possessing SG surface search radar to lead the formation as they moved out in complete darkness to find the Japanese fleet. Despite an utterly chaotic fight described by participants as a barroom brawl with the lights out, an outnumbered U.S. Navy forced a superior Japanese navy to abandon its mission to attack Henderson Air Field on Guadalcanal.
Realizing the strategic importance of Guadalcanal, the Japanese navy decided on another night attack that would target Henderson Air Field while Japanese transports unloaded supplies and replacements to forces on the island. Out of destroyers from the previous night fight with the Japanese navy, the U.S. Navy was forced to risk using its battleships, USS Washington and USS South Dakota to engage Japanese forces. These battleships were successful in stopping the Japanese despite the South Dakota taking some twenty-six hits that rendered it combat ineffective. This engagement would be the first of two battleship versus battleship engagements in the Pacific War. Cox informs us that this would be the last attempt of the Japanese navy to regain maritime control of the Guadalcanal area, relying on the Tokyo Express to reinforce Japanese forces on the island. Japan would soon lose Guadalcanal and the ability to stop the Allied push to Tokyo.
Cox is critical of the Army-Navy service rivalry that resulted in the creation of separate command areas for the Pacific. Gen. Douglas MacArthur got the Southwest Pacific Command, with Australia, New Guinea, the Solomons, the Bismarcks, the East Indies, and the Philippines. Adm. Chester Nimitz had the rest, with the area adjoining MacArthur’s command called the South Pacific Command under Adm. William Halsey. Lack of a unified command in the Pacific denied Allied forces a coherent operational approach in defeating Japanese forces. Cox blames Gen. George Marshall and Gen. Henry Arnold for their insistence on an Army command for the entire Pacific theater despite the obvious reality that naval forces would play the predominant role in securing Allied victory against Japan.
The strength of Blazing Star, Setting Sun is Cox’s exceptional prose and style along with exceptional use of maps and photographs that give the reader a “you are there” feel for events as they happened. It is simply hard to put down. Cox’s exhaustive research of both primary and secondary sources provides a comprehensive look of the naval engagements from both Allied and Japanese perspectives. The lack of sufficient map and naval formation images force the reader to consult outside sources. However, this is only minor given an otherwise exceptional work. This would be an excellent addition to Cox’s previous work Morning Star, Midnight Sun or in the library of any historian or student with an interest in the Guadalcanal-Solomons Naval Campaign or Pacific theater of operations during World War II.
Book Review written by: Jesse McIntyre III, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas