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Ship of Ghosts: The Story of the USS Houston, FDR's Legendary Lost Cruiser, and the Epic Saga of her Survivors Paperback – August 28, 2007

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Ship of Ghosts: The Story of the USS Houston, FDR's Legendary Lost Cruiser, and the Epic Saga of her Survivors + The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors: The Extraordinary World War II Story of the U.S. Navy's Finest Hour + Neptune's Inferno: The U.S. Navy at Guadalcanal
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

This engrossing WWII epic by Hornfischer (TheLast Stand of the Tin Can Sailors) recounts the exploits of the Houston, mainstay of the skimpy Allied fleet opposing the Japanese onslaught in the war's early days, until her sinking in a desperate battle with overwhelming Japanese forces in the Java Sea in 1942. This part of the story features a superb evocation of naval combat as the harnessing of immense destructive forces—booming eight-inch guns, plunging bombs, stealthy torpedoes—by the crew's frenzied yet meticulous choreography. The narrative then shifts gears to follow the Houston's several hundred survivors through Japanese POW camps in Southeast Asia, focusing on the labor camps on the Burma-Thailand railway (glamorized in the movie Bridge on the River Kwai). Shorn of their weapons and confronting starvation, disease and the brutality of Japanese guards, the prisoners cultivated a different kind of heroism, where survival hung on the ability to absorb hardship and humiliation without complaint, and the pilfering of an egg or a can of condensed milk for the dying was the ultimate act of courage. The result is a gripping, well-told memorial to Greatest Generation martyrdom. Photos. (Nov. 7)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

*Starred Review* The author of Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors (2004) gives us another excellent volume of World War II naval history. His subject is now the heavy cruiser Houston--before the war, FDR's favorite ship for a Caribbean cruise and, in 1941, flagship of the Asiatic Fleet. Her crew was prewar navy almost to a man, as well as being part of the peculiar subculture of the Asiatic Fleet. When war came, the surface vessels of the fleet sailed south to join in the defense of the Dutch East Indies, which has been described as "a magnificent display of very bad strategy." Houston fought long and well, taking major damage in a Japanese air attack and fighting in the Battle of the Java Sea. She and HMS Perth encountered the Japanese invasion of Java, and both went down fighting. Most of Houston's crew went down with her or died as Japanese POWs. Drawing on the survivors' accounts and extensive published resources, Hornfischer has painted a compelling picture of one of the most gallant ships and one of the grimmest campaigns in American naval history. He has a positive genius for depicting the surface-warfare sailor in a tight spot. May he write long and give them more memorials. Roland Green
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 544 pages
  • Publisher: Bantam; Reprint edition (August 28, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0553384503
  • ISBN-13: 978-0553384505
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1.1 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.7 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (224 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #142,452 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

James D. Hornfischer ( is the author most recently of Neptune's Inferno: The U.S. Navy at Guadalcanal (Bantam 2011). A New York Times, Boston Globe, and Publishers Weekly bestseller in its hardcover edition, the book is a selection of the U.S. Navy's official Professional Reading List maintained by the Chief of Naval Operations, and was chosen as a best book of 2011 by Military History Quarterly and several other book reviewers.

Hornfischer's other books include Ship of Ghosts (Bantam 2006), about the cruiser USS Houston and the odyssey of its crew in Japanese captivity, and The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors (Bantam 2004), a naval action narrative about the Battle off Samar that won the Samuel Eliot Morison Award and was chosen by the Wall Street Journal as one of the five best books on "war as soldiers know it."

Hornfischer has also collaborated with Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell, the bestselling author of Lone Survivor, on Luttrell's second book, Service: A Navy SEAL at War (Little Brown, 2012), a New York Times bestseller.

Hornfischer's motivation to write about the U.S. military reaches back to his childhood years building Monogram and Revell model ships and aircraft, watching "Black Sheep Squadron" on TV, featuring Robert Conrad as the legendary Marine fighter pilot Major Pappy Boyington, and absorbing the epic intonations of Laurence Olivier narrating the documentary "The World at War."

A native of Massachusetts and a graduate of Colgate University and the University of Texas School of Law, Hornfischer lives in Austin, Texas.



"Extremely readable, comprehensive and thoroughly researched. . . . Analytical and entertaining . . . In the end what one takes away from Mr. Hornfischer's vivid and engaging account is a feeling for the uncertainty, complexity and extreme physical and psychological demands of war at sea in 1942." --Ronald Spector, The Wall Street Journal

"Hornfischer understands the human dynamics of the U.S. Navy in the Pacific war as well as any student of the subject.... He reconstructs the fighting in a masterful synthesis of technical analysis, operational narrative, and tales of courage." --Publishers Weekly

"As in his first two books, the author's narrative gifts and excellent choice of detail give an almost Homeric quality to the men who met on the sea in steel titans." --Booklist (starred review)

"With this grand, sweeping, history-correcting book, James Hornfischer takes his place among the elite historians of the United States war in the Pacific during World War II. Like a Curtiss Helldiver, Neptune's Inferno catapults the reader high into the skies for a clear perspective on the vast oceanic conflict, then dives relentlessly to propel us right into the smoke and fire and human valor of the brutal inferno known as Guadalcanal. Along the way, and drawing on newly available papers, Hornfischer clears up lingering misconceptions about this battle, including the full extent of the U.S. Navy's role in victory. And in his character portraits of the brilliant, quirky top admirals and generals of the fractious Army-Navy command, Hornfischer offers a worthy counterpart to Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals." --Ron Powers, coauthor of Flags of Our Fathers

"Neptune's Inferno is a superb portrait of the U.S. Navy's critical role in the Guadalcanal campaign, both the surface and aerial combat. Comprehensive with much that is new, yet immensely readable, it covers not only the admirals, but the junior officers and bluejackets as well. Highly recommended." --John B. Lundstrom, author of The First Team

"Hornfischer has produced an account that is visceral, yet technical; sweeping, yet personal. It's a terrific read, and an important new addition to the literature on this most important naval campaign in the Pacific." --Jonathan Parshall, coauthor of Shattered Sword: The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway

"Hornfischer's accounts of naval combat in the Pacific are simply the best in the business."
--Ian W. Toll, author of Six Frigates: The Epic History of the Founding of the U.S. Navy

Customer Reviews

4.6 out of 5 stars

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

107 of 110 people found the following review helpful By Michael Diehl on November 27, 2006
Format: Hardcover
Hornfischer's new history of the last days of USS Houston (CA30) covers the story of USS Houston from her launch through her sinking at the Battle of Sunda Strait, Java, February 1942. Most of the volume covers her wartime service with the United States Asiatic fleet, and the subsequent ordeals of her surviving crewmembers as prisoners of war in Java, Burma, Thailand and Japan. The tales of valor, resistence, and survival in the face of the impossible circumstances of Asiatic Fleet, and of her crew's survival in prisoner of war camps, have long awaited telling. Hornfischer deserves great credit for obtaining and presenting the tale, and for honoring the last great men of a generation of WW2 veterans who are rapidly dwindling in number.

The story of USS Houston's service as Asiatic Fleet's flagship when America entered the war has only been told once before with any competence (E.P. Hoyt's "The Lonely Ships") -- but not with the detail provided by Hornfischer. More importantly, the story of USS Houston's survivors, as they worked on the Burma-Thai death railway, and in at least one instance, as slave labor in a Japanese shipyard, and the endurance, resistence to Imperial Japanese Army sadistic brutality, and the prisoners' acts of defiance has never been told before.

This is Hornfischer's second widely available entry exploring the courage and valor of men of the US Navy in WW2 who, in some circumstances, faced very long odds and survived. Those who have read Hornfischer's "Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors" will be pleased with this new entry. "Ship of Ghosts" is sure to be another candidate for the Samuel E. Morison award for naval history.
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103 of 113 people found the following review helpful By Michael J. Maxwell on November 15, 2006
Format: Hardcover
When I first read the sample pgs on Amazon, it reminded me of those Civil War books w/ the flowery language in place of facts/1st hand experiences - but I was going to get this book cause there are rarely new WWII stories. The only thing I had know about the Houston was that it had been lost early in the war & had only seen that 1 Japanese photo of it engulfed in shell splashes (not incl here unfort - prob too sensitive!)

Well, I was wrong! This IS an epic story, more involved than the bks I have on the Indianapolis, Juneau or Bismark, written in an easy-reading style,(different than most of my WWII books) full of human interest stories & personal experiences - I read it in 10hrs in 2 sittings. 100pgs of the 530 are notes, but it incls the crew list, so it's a good value for your $18 - not like that new Midway book 'Shattered Sword' which is half technical info. I'm going to get this authors other 'Last Stand' bk.

And hey - if you're going to review these books, don't go on & on w/ all the details/contents like some of these guys - why bother reading it. You'd think these guys are writting their own book!
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38 of 40 people found the following review helpful By Jeffrey T. Munson on January 10, 2007
Format: Hardcover
Author James Hornfischer has followed up his best-selling "Last Stand of the Tin Can Soldiers" with another sea epic that's sure to become as popular as his first book.

Hornfischer's second effort deals with the heavy cruiser USS Houston, the flagship of the rag-tag Asiatic Fleet. Given orders to intercept the advancing Imperial Japanese Navy in the early days of the Pacific war, the small Asiatic fleet had little chance of survival. The Japanese held a massive superiority over the Allies in all types of ships. It was only a matter of time before the Japanese succeeded in destroying the plucky little Allied fleet.

Despite these overwhelming odds, the Asiatic Fleet fought bravely, though in the end, the Japanese prevailed. The Houston and the Australian cruiser HMAS Perth were sunk in the Java Sea while attempting to sneak by the Japanese fleet and reach safety in Australia.

Several hundred crewmen of the Houston and Perth were captured by the Japanese and dispresed to various POW camps in Southeast Asia. This began a three-year ordeal for the survivors, who were forced to deal with the constant brutality of their captors. Beatings were a common occurance, and the Japanese informed the POWs that escape was futile. Some men were sent to Japan to work in mines or shipyards, and some were sent to Burma and Thailand to construct a railway for the Japanese. Glamorized in the movie "The Bridge on the River Kwai", these men labored without the aid of machines to build a railway consisting of tracks, bridges, tressels, and tunnels. It was an engineering miracle that these starved and decimated men were able to accomplish such a feat.
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24 of 25 people found the following review helpful By Jerry S on January 1, 2007
Format: Hardcover
A book I had trouble putting down once I started. Just an amazing gut wrenching story. The first part of the book is not all that different from many other books about a ship that sails into battle against an overwhelming enemy and is lost. Very interesting, very enlightening, particularly since little has been written about the Houston, and I'm sure any Navy guy will love it, but still similar to that of other doomed ships. The real story in this book, the second 2/3's, is of the absolutely sub-human existance of the survivors of the Houston and many others, for well over 3 years, at the hands of the ungodly barbaric Japanese while being forced to build the Burma-Thailand Death Railway. There are stories within stories here, some of which can bring you close to tears for these young men. This should be required reading, along with a few other books I can think of, for every Jananese high school student.

A great book, very thorough, will definitely add to your understanding of the Pacific war and the men who fought it. I hope America is still producing men like this.
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