Morning Star, Midnight Sun by Jeffrey Cox

I haven’t done any book reviews for a while.  Since retirement I’ve been going full blast on building models even to the extent I’m reading less.  Well, a little less. And I suppose that means I’ve been writing here as much as I want.

But this book has really caught my attention so I thought I’d share.

Jefferey Cox was a new writer to me when I picked this up.  His book covers the early part of the Guadalcanal Campaign, August to October of 1942.  So the subject is certainly not new to me.

Guadalcanal is a fascinating campaign.  In August of 1942 the US Navy was feeling pretty good about things.  Midway was clearly a huge victory and new Japanese operations seemed to have petered out.  So Admiral King, the Navy’s Commander-in-Chief, was looking to push back.  He was particularly unhappy with the so called “Germany First” policy that the US and British Combined Chiefs had agreed on.  Well, all of them except for him.  So he was determined to cause some trouble before the Pacific theater became a forgotten back water.

When the Japanese started developing an airfield on Guadalcanal, at the far southern tip of the Solomon Islands he saw an excuse.  This could conceivably encroach on shipping routes from the US to Australia.  So he ordered Admiral Nimitz to direct all efforts to seizing that base.
This was still early in the war for the US, which was still a long ways from full industrial output.  And fully trained combat units were in short supply.  When the 1st Marine Division was chosen to take the island, it didn’t exist.  Three separate regiments, two of which were at sea, that had never operated together were formed into the new force.  Other disparate elements like the 1st Raider Battalion and the 1st Marine Parachute Battalion were added to over staff the Division under the command of General Alexander Vandegrift.
The operation was code named Watchtower, but as Vandegrift scrambled to bring together men, supplies and ships it became known as “Operation Shoestring“.
This is a fascinating story for several reasons.  To start, this is well before Allied advantages in technology and production could make much of an impact.  Numbers on both sides were close, and neither side had prospects of massive relief coming any time soon. Also, neither side fully appreciated the strengths or weaknesses of their opponents in anything like a realistic way yet.
It also became a complete air, land and sea campaign fought on a huge battlefield; almost 500 miles from Guadalcanal to Rabual.  Both sides main bases, Noumea for the Allies and Truk for the Japanese were another 500 miles removed.
On this huge battlefield a savage campaign was fought by men who’s names also loom larger than life; Joe Foss, Mike Edson, Roy Geiger, Willis Lee, William Halsey, Saburo Sakai, Raizo Tanaka, Chuichi Nagumo.  This is among the great epics of the Second World War.

I could say I’ve read it all before.  Seriously, I’ve read so much on this campaign it surely counts as a mental illness.  There have been a number of outstanding works on it.  Most of them focus on one aspect; air, land, sea or even one of the many sub-battles that make up the whole.  A couple are more complete histories.  So superficially I could say this new book isn’t needed.  And I admit to being a little grumpy about a mistake in the first chapter (referring to Butch O’Hare as the Army Air Force’s first ace of World War II. That’s pretty specific for something so wrong.  He was the Navy’s first ace.  Boyd Wagner, in the Philippines, was the AAF’s first ace).
But the writer quickly redeemed himself.  He gives lot’s of detail and is careful to humanize things at every level.  We get observations and insights from decision makers and the common soldiers affected by those decisions.  The description of Guadalcanal itself is colorful and fun in a terrifying sort of way (it wasn’t known as the Isle of Death for nothing!).  I don’t think I’ve ever read so much about the island’s wild wildlife before.
Action is all presented in a way that is accurate, well detailed and easy to follow.  While maintaining the human element.  For readers awaiting the third volume in Ian Toll’s Pacific War Trilogy this could be seen as a more detailed look at the climax of his first book.  The writing style is actually similar and I think the two works compliment each other.  There is a sequel covering the end on Guadalcanal and the rest of the Solomons Campaign that should be out in a few weeks.  So that allows time to finish before Ian Toll’s next book comes out.
Jefferey Cox also wrote an earlier book on the Java Sea Campaign.  This book did lead me to pick that one up too.  So in a nutshell, I’ve liked this book enough it led me to purchase the writer’s earlier work and I’m eagerly looking forward to his next.  ‘nuf said.

~ Dave 

About atcDave

I'm 5o-something years old and live in Ypsilanti, Michigan. I'm happily married to Jodie. I was an air traffic controller for 33 years and recently retired; grew up in the Chicago area, and am still a fanatic for pizza and the Chicago Bears. My main interest is military history, and my related hobbies include scale model building and strategy games.
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22 Responses to Morning Star, Midnight Sun by Jeffrey Cox

  1. Pierre Lagacé says:

    It seems I could develop the same mental illness. Researching about VF-5 got me hooked on the Guadalcanal Campaign.

  2. Ernie Davis says:

    Guadalcanal certainly looms large in American history, let alone the history of the second world war in the Pacific. I’ve read my share of accounts of that battle, though most tended to be more memoirs or novelizations (Guadalcanal Diary and The Thin Red Line notable among them, as I was a teen at the time I first read them). Certainly some aspects struck me as being similar to Midway, as sort of a land version of the US finally getting off their heels and taking the fight to the enemy. I’m less familiar with the more historic accounts and larger context, but it is always interesting to hear a bit about that too.

    • atcDave says:

      It sounds like you’ve mostly the land combat story? It was the first time we faced Japanese soldiers and won, so yeah, very important.
      But there were a number of key naval battles too; from the worst defeat in US Naval history (Savo Island) to some epic key victories (Cape Esperance) and a number of draws. Plus two of the five carrier v carrier battles in history.
      And the aerial campaign is sort of a small scale (but longer time and distance) Battle of Britain.

      To me its the most interesting part of the whole Pacific War.

    • Ernie Davis says:

      Certainly I am a lot more familiar with the land campaign, though I am aware that the sea battles were among the most intense of the war, with each navy having to retire and leave their troops to more or less fend themselves for a bit fearing unsustainable losses.

      • atcDave says:

        Yeah and there was also a strange “changing of the guard” where the USN typically controlled the seas by day while the IJN did at night.
        John Prados (Combined Fleet Decoded) referred to it as “Makee Learn on a grand scale”).
        Nothing like trying to figure out a new type of operation across vast distances at the end of a not quite robust supply line.

      • Ernie Davis says:

        Well it certainly seems that while Midway broke the Japanese Navy’s dominance it didn’t quite establish ours.

      • atcDave says:

        I think that’s exactly right. The Japanese actually still had more carriers than us after Midway, but they were mostly smaller. So total air power of the carrier forces was more or less equal.
        Both sides had some wounds, but neither felt defeated.

      • Ernie Davis says:

        Well as late as the Guadalcanal campaign we were still trading carriers we could ill afford to lose. In Coral sea we lost the Lexington and destroyed one Japanese carrier at Midway we lost the Yorktown in exchange for 4 carriers at the heart of the Japanese fast carrier fleet, the infamous Kido Butai (good trade all things considered). But operations around and in support of Guadalcanal would cost us both the Wasp and the Hornet and damaged the Enterprise. However in 1943 the US launched 5 or 6 fleet carriers and a number of smaller escort or light carriers.

        So Dave, I guess I see your point. The importance of Midway can’t be diminished but we were still trading body blows with the Japanese fleet for another 6+ months before we really began to establish naval dominance. The same is pretty much true of the land battles too.

      • atcDave says:

        Yeah and the same is true of surface ships, both sides exhausted the supply Of cruisers and went into 1943 using mostly destroyers.

      • Ernie Davis says:

        Yeah, that was another aspect that came out of some light (read Wikipedia) research last night, was how many of the battles were between surface elements of the fleets. Almost like both sides were afraid to lose more carriers…

        So Guadalcanal gave us both the Tokyo Express and Iron Bottom Sound as a result.

      • atcDave says:

        Yeah, and afraid to use carriers sounds exactly right.

  3. It was a massive area to be negotiating a battle in, how anyone could manage the logistics of that, particularly when you consider the different terrains and environments involved, is just incredible. The Pacific war is very much an area I know so little of and every time I read a post about it, I learn something new. It certainly has been a bit of a ‘forgotten war’ with so much emphasis placed on the European theatre, and yet was just as pivotal in the wider scheme of things.

    • atcDave says:

      I do think there’s more about the Pacific War available in the American market. Although this was published by Osprey (a British publisher). Going all the way back to the War, Americans were often more interested in the Pacific than the European War; at least according to the newspapers. There was significant political concern about “selling” the Germany First policy for public consumption.
      But yes, I do think in total the European War is better documented.

  4. Ernie Davis says:

    Well all this inspired me to start a re-watch of “The Pacific”, which oddly has no real navy story as a part of it. But then “Band of Brothers” didn’t cover much of the air war in Europe, so I guess that’s fair. It is what it is.

    Although Tom Hanks does have a new movie about the Battle of the Atlantic that looks promising coming out.

  5. Rich says:

    This sounds like a good book. Although I’ve read the first two books Ian Toll’s trilogy, it was not until I recently read Walter Borneman’s “The Admirals” that I really got a sense for what a contest Guadalcanal was, and how evenly matched the U.S. and Japan were at that time.

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