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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 – Illustrated, August 28, 2007
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"Son, we’re going to Hell."
The navigator of the USS Houston confided these prophetic words to a young officer as he and his captain charted a course into U.S. naval legend. Renowned as FDR’s favorite warship, the cruiser USS Houston was a prize target trapped in the far Pacific after Pearl Harbor. Without hope of reinforcement, her crew faced a superior Japanese force ruthlessly committed to total conquest. It wasn’t a fair fight, but the men of the Houston would wage it to the death.
Hornfischer brings to life the awesome terror of nighttime naval battles that turned decks into strobe-lit slaughterhouses, the deadly rain of fire from Japanese bombers, and the almost superhuman effort of the crew as they miraculously escaped disaster again and again–until their luck ran out during a daring action in Sunda Strait. There, hopelessly outnumbered, the Houston was finally sunk and its survivors taken prisoner. For more than three years their fate would be a mystery to families waiting at home.
In the brutal privation of jungle POW camps dubiously immortalized in such films as The Bridge on the River Kwai, the war continued for the men of the Houston—a life-and-death struggle to survive forced labor, starvation, disease, and psychological torture. Here is the gritty, unvarnished story of the infamous Burma–Thailand Death Railway glamorized by Hollywood, but which in reality mercilessly reduced men to little more than animals, who fought back against their dehumanization with dignity, ingenuity, sabotage, will–power—and the undying faith that their country would prevail.
Using journals and letters, rare historical documents, including testimony from postwar Japanese war crimes tribunals, and the eyewitness accounts of Houston’s survivors, James Hornfischer has crafted an account of human valor so riveting and awe-inspiring, it’s easy to forget that every single word is true.
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"On sea and on land, these intrepid sailors endured enough for a thousand lifetimes. In this riveting account, Hornfischer carefully reconstructs a story none of us should be allowed to forget."—Hampton Sides, author of Blood and Thunder and Ghost Soldiers
“Hornfischer has produced another meticulously researched naval history page-turner in Ship of Ghosts. He manages to fuse powerful human stories into the great flow of historical events with a singular story-telling talent.”—John F. Lehman, former Secretary of the Navy, author of On Seas of Glory
“Hornfischer has done it again. His narrative is fine-tuned and always compelling but where he truly excels is in his evocative, often lyrical descriptions of combat at sea. Those who enjoyed his previous best-seller will love Ship of Ghosts—military history at its finest.”—Alex Kershaw, author of The Bedford Boys and The Few
“Masterly…[the] description of the huge and terrifying naval engagements are as overwhelming a stretch of historical writing as I have ever come across…. Beautifully written and heartgripping.”—Adam Nicolson, author of God’s Secretaries
“Recounts perhaps the most devastating untold saga of World War II in piercing detail.”—Donovan Webster, author of The Burma Road
“Hornfischer is quickly establishing himself as doing for the Navy what popular historian Stephen Ambrose did for the Army…. So great is the drama of the Houston and its survivors that this story seems to tell itself.” —Rocky Mountain News
“With vivid and visceral descriptions of the chaos and valor onboard the doomed Houston…the author penetrates the thoughts and fears of adrenaline-pumped sailors in the heat of combat…. Hornfischer masterfully shapes the narrative…. breathing life into an unforgettable epic of human endurance.” —USA Today
“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.” –Booklist, starred review
“What kind of yarn is Ship of Ghosts? Put Stephen Ambrose aboard the cruiser once known as ‘the Galloping Ghost of the Java Coast.’ Next, bring Patrick O’Brien for nautical detail and high seas drama. Then factor in Joseph Conrad for tales of men under stress in exotic climes…. Naval history of the highest order.” –Metrowest [Boston] Daily News
About the Author
- Publisher : Bantam; Illustrated edition (August 28, 2007)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 576 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0553384503
- ISBN-13 : 978-0553384505
- Item Weight : 1.39 pounds
- Dimensions : 6.1 x 1.2 x 9.2 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #221,692 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
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On March 1, 1942, USS Houston and the HMAS Perth, an Australian cruiser, were operating in the Sunda Strait near the island of Java. An armada of Japanese warships discovered the pair of Allied cruisers and attacked them. During a severe and lengthy firefight, the vastly outnumbered and outgunned Houston and Perth put up a gallant resistance, but both cruisers ultimately sank. (Houston’s commanding officer, Captain Albert H. Rooks, would posthumously receive the Medal of Honor for his conspicuous gallantry during this battle.)
Of the 1,100 crewmembers aboard Houston at the time of its sinking, only about 400 survived. Those survivors, most of whom suffered severe burns and wounds and were covered with their ship’s thick bunker oil, tried to swim to shore and escape being captured by the Japanese. However, most of them ended up as Japanese prisoners of war (POWs) working as slave laborers on a railroad line then being built by the Japanese between Ban Pong, Thailand and Thanbyuzayat, Burma. (This was the infamous “Death Railway” depicted in the 1957 film “The Bridge on the River Kwai.”)
With his powerfully eloquent and straightforward prose, Hornfischer recounts the beatings, starvation, and torture, and other atrocities that the POWs received daily at the hands of their Japanese tormentors, and the tremendous courage each prisoner demonstrated in the face of such inhuman savagery. Much of Hornfischer’s work is based on interviews with many of the crewmembers who were still alive at the time he was writing the book.
“Ship of Ghosts” is one of James D. Hornfischer’s earlier works of naval history, and it is one of his best. He masterfully tells the story of USS Houston and its crew with great power and compassion. I found the book so engrossing that I finished reading its 500-plus pages in only three days. “Ship of Ghosts” is a superb book that easily earns my highest recommendation.
You close the book grateful, not only for the sacrifices made by these men and those few who helped them, but that you have not had to suffer such deprivation and brutality as these men did in captivity. While I have always been both angered and fascinated by the brutality of the Japanese and their compatriots in building the Burma-Thailand railroad, this book not only brings home exactly what those abuses were and, in a small part, explains why.
What is left is to understand and yet another admirable astonishment is how those survivors really coped with the resulting untreated and dismissed PTSD in the face of a government incapable of recognizing the damage it continued to do to its own.
This book will have you crying - while, and long after you're done, reading it. I don't think it matters male, female. Any vet or family of a vet in any service will find this hits too close to home, regardless of their particular war (or lack thereof). If you ever wanted to understand the threat of captivity, this book lays it out for you.
Despite the subject matter, the author clearly writes from a familiarity with his subject, the men he writes about, and a love for those men and that ship. The perspectives of a handful of sailors and Marines are intertwined with descriptions of the main military activities and political considerations of the time in such a way that this reads like a movie more than a documentary or news story. In every sentence, I could see the environment like I was watching it on the screen rather than plugging through descriptions and explanations to get to the "good part".
Read this. It's good.
This is a page Turner and heartfelt sadness as you read on. I recommend this book to see our nations history and the men of The United States and other countries who fought for their countries legacy
Top reviews from other countries
I am now going to read about Guadalcanal.
Whilst James Hornfischer's book can also be taken as an excellent "stand alone" book, because he does put what happened to the USS Houston into context, for a better understanding of the context I think that the starting point is "Rising Sun" by John Toland, followed by "Battle of the Java Sea" by David Thomas, followed by "Ship of Ghosts: The Story of the USS Houston" by James Hornfischer, ... and in that order.
For me, all three books were "a gripping read", but for a yet more complete picture of what happened in the Far East in the earlier part of World War II, and, crucially for those already planning our defence with World War III in mind, books on the air war are also essential reading, ... but that is another story.