By Richard B. Frank Random House. 800 pp. $34.95

WHO NEEDS another book about Guadalcanal? Richard B. Frank himself poses this question, conceding that there have already been three "admirable" works, foremost among them Samuel Eliot Morison's The Struggle for Guadalcanal, which the author rightly nominates as the best written of the Harvard historian's 15 volumes on World War II naval operations.

Frank cites The Cactus Air Force by a Marine flyer, Thomas C. Miller, as the best book about aviation on Guadalcanal and The Battle for Guadalcanal by another Marine, Brig. Gen. Samuel B. Griffith II, as tops among books covering action on the ground. There are many others, from war correspondent Richard Tregaski's Guadalcanal Diary to Herbert C. Merillat's Guadalcanal Remembered, that get high marks from Frank, who successfully knits together operations in all three elements -- land, sea, air -- in this colossal volume.

What makes this book stand out from everything that went before is the author's use of American radio intelligence recently declassified and, especially, Japanese publications not available when the earlier chronicles were being written; Frank paid to have these books translated. He properly acknowledges his debt to John Lundstrom's The First South Pacific Campaign, a gem of a book about early strategy.

Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto, commander of the Combined Fleet, could not imagine the Americans starting an offensive before 1943, when the new Essex-class carriers would begin pouring into the Pacific. So he was shocked when the First Marine Division began landing on Aug. 7, 1942, next to the airfield abuilding on Guadalcanal, a malaria-infested island nine degrees below the equator, east of Port Moresby, New Guinea, north of New Caledonia, two targets already in the Japanese sights. BY ALL LOGIC, Yamamoto should have been right: The Americans were woefully unprepared. Having lost the aircraft carrier Lexington in the Coral Sea battle and the carrier Yorktown at Midway, they had only the carriers Enterprise, Saratoga, Hornet and Wasp, and two of those would soon join the once-might "Lady Lex." The Japanese Navy, though it suffered the loss of four carriers at Midway in June 1942, had better-trained pilots than the Americans and in the Zero fighter they initially had a fight plane superior to any American aircraft, Army or Navy. They also had the superb Long Lance torpedoes, whereas the American torpedoes failed to explode half the time.

That the Americans boldly set out to seize the Japanese airfield (to be renamed "Henderson") on Guadalcanal was due to the iron will of one man: Adm. Ernest J. King, chief of naval operations. His Army counterpart, Gen. George C. Marshall, had his eyes fixed on Europe; Adm. Chester Nimitz, commander of the Pacific Fleet and Pacific Ocean Areas theater, was reluctant, and his South Pacific subordinate, Vice Adm. Robert L. Ghormley, teamed up with Gen. Douglas MacArthur, commanding the Southwest Pacific theater next door, to warn against "the gravest risk." Nonetheless, King pushed the plan through.

Seven sea battles were fought in the waters around Guadalcanal, beginning with the Japanese attack off Savo Island on the second night that cost the U.S. Navy three precious heavy cruisers and the Australian Navy one. Though the Japanese were outgunned, 34 eight-inchers against 52, they knew how to fight at night. As a consequence, Adm. Richmond Kelly Turner had to retreat with the remnants of his fleet and his cargo ships before they had been unloaded, leaving the Marines without much food or ammunition.

Frank says that the Americans could have lost Guadalcanal any time up to the great naval battle of mid-November, which meant three months of heart-in-mouth existence, almost too much to bear.

Frank's carefully constructed tables show that each side lost about the same number of planes, 682 for the Japanese, 615 for the Americans. But this counts operational losses: In combat the Japanese lost 446 versus 264 -- many fewer than claimed in wartime communiques. More important was the fact that the Japanese lost two to four times as many aircrewmen as the Americans (420 divided into 150 Army, 140 Marine, 130 Navy). In December 1942 Adm. Munetaka Sakamaki, chief of staff of the 11th Air Fleet, complained that the new pilots arriving in the South Pacific were only one-third as efficient as the men they replaced; many had not even flown a Zero.

In his sweeping final chapter, called "Summary and Reflections," Frank notes that in 1942 not only did the United States outproduce the Japanese in airplanes, 49,445 to 8,861, Japan "lacked the time or resources to replace the skilled pilots and crews that perished over and around Guadalcanal." His highest marks Frank reserves for Maj. Gen. Alexander A. Vandegrift, commander of the First Marine Division, and his staff, who "with remarkable facility" stayed one step ahead of the Japanese 17th Army in each of the attempts to recapture Henderson Field in September, October and November. Frank praises the first Army regiment, the 164th Infantry, which arrived Oct. 13, amidst the storm of the 63rd and worst air raid. He provides a mixed review for the other Army units, which, along with the Second Marine Division, replaced the exhausted, disease-wracked First.

The Americans lost 1,207 Marines and 562 soldiers out of 60,000 eventually committed. Their enemy had two-thirds of his 30,000 troops killed; the rest were cleverly evacuated by destroyers on the night of Feb. 8, 1943, when Army Maj. Gen. Alexander M. Patch, successor to Vandegrift, was expecting an attack.

Frank's prose doesn't sing but it hums along nicely until, after a couple of hundred pages, he starts burdening his verbs with more weight than they can decently carry: Guns "bay" and even "caterwaul"; a PBY plane didn't send a message, it "yowled" one; the "deployment and sustenance of Collins's division trunked from a single, treacherous road."

His errors are frequent and mostly careless misspelling: the "Chaplin Corps" instead of "Chaplain"; "Lt. Col. Joseph Sailor," premier Marine dive-bombing commander, should be "Sailer"; Robert Trumbull of the New York Times turns up as "Turnball." More serious is dating the House of Representatives' 203-202 vote to extend the draft in November 1941; the date was Aug. 12, which, if the vote had gone the other way, would have left nearly four months to disband the U.S. Army before Pearl Harbor. But Richard Frank, a 43-year-old government lawyer in Washington, has written a comprehensive, indispensable account of the most interesting campaign of the Pacific war. Robert Sherrod, who covered World War II for Time and Life magazines, is the author of five books, including the recently republished "On to Westward: The Battles of Saipan and Iwo Jima."