Book on Guadalcanal battle focuses on Navy dive-bombers

THE BATTLE FOR HELL’S ISLAND: How a Small Band of Carrier Dive-Bombers Helped Save Guadalcanal. By Stephen L. Moore. NAL Caliber. 512 pages. $27.95.

Guadalcanal was one of World War II’s biggest slugfests, a battle fought in the skies, in the seas, and in the malarial jungles of the Pacific.

For the Japanese, Guadalcanal served as an important foothold in the nation’s quest to expand its defensive perimeter, one that followed the disastrous naval defeat at Midway in June 1942 that had cost four aircraft carriers.

American war planners, in contrast, viewed the island as a vital means of keeping communication lines open between the United States and its ally down under, Australia.

The importance of the island to both sides was evident in the ferocity of the fighting in the six-month battle that ran from late 1942 through early 1943, one that earned Guadalcanal the infamous nickname “Hell’s Island.”

World War II historian Stephen Moore has crafted an exciting new book on this desperate fight, “The Battle for Hell’s Island: How a Small Band of Carrier Dive-bombers Helped Save Guadalcanal.”

Moore is the author of several excellent World War II histories, including his previous book, “Pacific Payback,” which covers the six months of the war between the attack on Pearl Harbor and the Battle of Midway.

In his latest book, Moore carves out a small story in this massive battle, focusing on the role a handful of Navy dive-bombers played in helping America win victory.

Moore traces the backstories of the pilots, who began the war fighting on the carriers Lexington and Yorktown, both of which were lost. The Lexington was sunk in the Battle of the Coral Sea, and the Yorktown a few weeks later at Midway.

The pilots all wound up serving aboard the carrier Enterprise, which was enlisted in the fight for Guadalcanal. But the fliers’ new home proved short-lived.

After the Enterprise was damaged in battle, pilots had no choice but land ashore on a primitive runway of crushed coral — illuminated by kerosene lamps and jeep headlights — that only three weeks earlier the Japanese had controlled.

The runway, the fliers soon learned, wasn’t the only primitive part of the experience.

Marooned on Guadalcanal, pilots bedded down in a rubber tree grove and ate captured Japanese rice, which was cooked in a large vat and stirred with a shovel.

Absent fresh clothes the fliers even resorted to wearing captured Japanese underwear. Not only was life austere, but enemy snipers frequently took shots at the men from the jungle.

Despite the challenges, the pilots went on to fly repeated missions against the Japanese that along with the island’s brutal conditions helped wear down the enemy and contributed to Japan’s defeat.

As with his previous books, Moore has done a dogged job of research, mining myriad sources such as official war diaries and action reports.

One of the many strengths, however, is his liberal use of the airmen’s own words to help narrate the story, based on interviews with survivors, oral histories, and the fliers’ letters. These humble voices all add richly to the book’s authenticity.

Moore also does a terrific job with the book’s pacing, placing the reader in the cockpit for much of the action. Readers experience just how violent and intense dogfights were during World War II, where pilots literally buzzed so close to one another to kill them machine guns.

In a particularly graphic detail that hammers home that reality, Moore recounts one pilot who spotted the severed scalp of a fellow airman on the flight deck.

All of these elements make “The Battle for Hell’s Island” not only a great read but an important tribute to the fliers who helped win the Battle of Guadalcanal and World War II.

Reviewer James Scott is the author of “Target Tokyo,” “The War Below” and “The Attack on the Liberty.” He lives in Mount Pleasant.