The [Too Soon] Passing of James D. Hornfischer

Hornfischer in 2016 (Photo by Larry D. Moore CC BY-SA 4.0)

I just learned of the unfortunate passing of naval historian James D. Hornfischer on June 2, 2021 at the age of 55. Hornfischer was known for his well-researched history books on the Pacific War that incorporated extensive personal stories into the narrative. His books include:

  • The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors: The Extraordinary World War II Story of the U.S. Navy’s Finest Hour
  • Ship of Ghosts: The Story of the USS Houston, FDR’s Legendary Lost Cruiser and the Epic Saga of Her Survivors
  • Neptune’s Inferno: The U.S. Navy at Guadalcanal
  • Service: A Navy SEAL at War with Marcus Luttrell
  • The Fleet at Flood Tide: America at Total War in the Pacific, 1944-1945

In many ways, I think Hornfischer was part of a new wave of Pacific War historians who sought to reexamine that theater with a more critical eye. Others would be people like Richard Frank, Jonathan Parshall, Anthony Tully, and Mark Stille, to name a few. Hornfischer was unique in that he extensively focused on personal narratives and the experience of the enlisted sailor and junior officers.

I’ve only read Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors (so far), but I enjoyed Hornfischer’s integration of personal narratives into the history. This made the book fairly easy to read and gave a greater sense of personal agency to the actions of the Taffy 3 sailors during the Battle Off Samar during Leyte Gulf.

Hornfischer’s writing had a fairly popular tone to it which made it accessible to a broad audience (you see his books all the time in the WWII history section of bookstores). Some have even compared James Hornfischer with Stephen Ambrose given how Hornfischer popularized the Pacific Theater the way that Ambrose popularized the European Theater. The fight against Nazi Germany has gotten a tremendous amount of attention in popular culture and it often seems like the Pacific is forgotten about. Alas, with James Hornfischer’s passing, we’re left with a gap we can only partially fill as we struggle to educate people on the war in the Pacific and the stories of the people who fought on, under, and over that vast expanse of water in the greatest conflict in history.

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