Travis J. Hardy
Review of Stanley Coleman Jersey, Hell's Islands: The
Untold Story of Guadalcanal. College Station: Texas A&M U
Pr, 2008. Pp. xx, 514. ISBN 978-1-58544-616-2.
The historiography of the Pacific campaign of
World War II has often been overshadowed by scholarship on the
European theater. Further, while major works have been devoted to
such famous places as Iwo Jima, Okinawa, and Guadalcanal, there
remain many gaps in the history of the Pacific war.
Stanley Coleman Jersey's Hell's Islands helps further our
understanding of the land campaign for Guadalcanal and nearby
Florida, Tulagi, Gavutu, and Tanabogo islands, a campaign that was
"a key to control of the South Pacific area" (xiv). Jersey stresses
that a full understanding of the campaign is not possible without
taking both Japanese and American perspectives into account and thus
draws extensively on both American and Japanese sources and oral
Jersey served as a medical evacuation officer in
the South Pacific during World War II. Hell's Islands
represents his first major monograph and can be called a labor of
love. It originated from an oral history project that Jersey
undertook in the mid-1980s among former Australian coastwatchers,
who played an important role throughout the South Pacific campaign.
Besides the coastwatchers, Jersey includes insights from men on both
sides of the conflict.
The book focuses solely on the land campaign
between 7 August 1942 and 9 February 1943. The introduction states
that the air and naval campaigns at Guadalcanal have been the
subject of other works and lie outside the scope of the volume
(xv). One interesting, and often overlooked, aspect of the campaign
is the efforts by the Australian military from 1939 till the
outbreak of general war in the Pacific in 1941 to fortify the
Solomon Islands and the early efforts of Japan to reconnoiter these
islands. Jersey demonstrates that the Solomon Islands were indeed
key objectives for the Imperial Japanese forces in their plans to
cut off the lines of communication between the United States and
Australia from the very beginning of the war.
The title of the work implies the revelation of
hitherto unknown aspects of the Guadalcanal campaign. A reader
looking for this will be disappointed. True, Hell's Islands
highlights some overlooked segments of the seven-month long battle,
such as the actions of the 2nd Marine Division, often overshadowed
by those of the 1st Marine Division, but it presents nothing
previously unknown to historians. Jersey attempts as well to place
his work in the expansive historiography that explores the human
experience in combat, "revealing the very human, non-strategic side
of war" (xv).
His extensive use of memoirs and oral history collections on both
the American and the Japanese sides makes his work far more
successful in this regard.
The book follows a standard chronological
narrative format with little commentary or analysis. It is clearly
intended for a general audience, although historians with an
interest in more traditional campaign histories will find the
details of unit movements quite useful. However, lay readers or
historians preferring a more non-traditional approach to military
history may be confused by the numerous company and unit
designations as well as the plethora of individual characters who
make only brief appearances.
Jersey mostly allows Japanese and American
soldiers and marines to tell their own story in their own voices.
The use of these sources adds a richness to his account that is
sometimes missing from traditional studies of Pacific
campaigns. It is here that Jersey is at his best. His narrative of
the "Battle of the Ridge" on 12 September 1942 makes ample use of
Japanese memoirs outlining preparations for the offensive and giving
accounts of the brief, but bloody, battle that reveal the
commonality of the experiences of both Japanese and Americans. For
example, one Lt. Shotaro Maruo, a company commander during the
assault, notes that "one of our planes dropped a bomb in the midst
of the 1st Company, 124th Infantry, killing one and wounding four.
It was meant for the Americans" (229). So too, Jersey supplies
numerous examples from the American side of misdirected bombs and
"friendly" artillery fire. The memoirs give evidence of the horrific
nature of the combat on Guadalcanal.
What really set us off was that our unarmed corpsmen [were] nothing
but a target, despite the Red Cross band on their arm. I saw two
Corpsmen killed trying to care
for one of our wounded. While we were halfway up the hill one of our
men was wounded. A Corpsmen [Robert Wilson] came to his aid. They
shot Wilson, pulled him inside a cave and started cutting him up one
piece at a time. First a hand, then an arm. We could hear him
screaming above all the other noises of rifle, machine gun and
explosives. There was no alternative but [to] blast the caves with
TNT, killing all [Louis Carr, 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marine Division]
By its consistent use of Japanese language
sources, Hell's Islands broadens the perspective of American
historiography of the Pacific War. However, this is a double-edged
sword in that Jersey too often fails to elucidate the importance of
the materials he presents. The presentation of long passages from
memoirs without comment on their significance in the larger picture
of the campaign gives the book a strongly anecdotal quality. Take, for
example the following diary entry outlining supply
problems facing Japanese forces on Guadalcanal.
Even during the four-day lull in the battle we had only five
shaku [about 0.15 pint] of rice per man per day and had to
escort the wounded. After that we were continuously marching and
escorting the patients. Our daily ration was from seven shaku
[0.21 pint] to one go [0.318 pint] of rice. Moreover, daily rains
and bad roads made the officers and men extremely fatigued [1st Lt.
Kozaburo Miyazawa, 29th Infantry] (302).
Jersey presents no discussion here of the
troubles the Imperial Japanese army encountered keeping its forces supplied. Nor does he offer any insight into the important
role this played in the Allies' eventual victory. By contrast, excellent examples
of how to incorporate oral histories and Japanese language sources
into an analytical framework can be found in the works of Peter
Schrijvers and John Dower.
Jersey has compiled a wide-ranging bibliography
of primary resources, including records from the National Archives,
the Marine and Naval Historical Centers, and the Australian War
Memorial. Hell's Islands is thus a fine supplementary work on
the Solomon Islands campaign but one that falls far short of being a
central work on the subject, chiefly by its isolation of the
Guadalcanal campaign from the larger events of the Pacific War.
There is little discussion, for instance, of the friction between
Douglas MacArthur and Chester Nimitz and its effect on the
allocation of men and materiel to the Pacific and specifically for
the Guadalcanal campaign. Also problematic is Jersey's exclusive
concentration on the ground campaign. For example, though he
acknowledges that the struggle for Guadalcanal was intimately linked
to the fate of Henderson Field, he ignores the decisive importance
of the sorties Marine pilots carried out from the airbase to the
outcome of battles between Japanese and American ground troops.
Jersey's work is valuable because it offers an
excellent base of primary sources--especially Japanese sources--for
future historians of the Pacific campaigns to draw on. It is at
times entertaining and certainly provides insights into the
experiences of the men who fought at Guadalcanal. In the end,
however, Hell's Islands cannot overcome serious shortcomings
of analysis and contextualization.
University of Tennessee
 See John Costello, The Pacific War (NY:
Rawson, Wade, 1982); Ronald Spector, Eagle against the Sun:
The American War with Japan (NY: Free Pr, 1985); Jonathan G.
Utley, Going to War with Japan, 1937-1941 (1985; rpt.
Fordham U Pr, 2005); John Dower, War without Mercy: Race and
Power in the Pacific War (NY: Pantheon, 1986).
 Major works in this field include Lee B.
Kennett, G.I.: The American Soldier in World War II
(1987; rpt. U Oklahoma Pr, 1997); Paul Fussell, Wartime:
Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War (NY:
Oxford U Pr, 1989); Gerald F. Linderman, The World within
War: America's Combat Experience in World War II (NY: Free
Pr, 1997); John C. McManus, The Deadly Brotherhood: The
American Combat Soldier in World War II (Novato, CA:
Presidio, 1998); Peter Schrijvers, The Crash of Ruin:
American Combat Soldiers in Europe during World War II (NY:
NYU Pr, 1998) and The GI War against Japan: American Soldiers
in Asia and the Pacific during World War II (NY: NYU Pr,
2002); Peter S. Kindsvatter, American Soldiers: Ground Combat
in the World Wars, Korea, and Vietnam (Lawrence: U Kansas
 See notes 1 & 2 supra.