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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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"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
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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.
Top international reviews
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.
Prior to reading this book I have studied the Battle of Java Sea and the Battle of the Sunda Straights, the fall of Singapore and what in parallel is similar sad history of defeat, the fate of Force Z (HMS Repulse and the POW) from a variety of sources as well as seeing for example the damage these two ships (Perth and Houston) took on their last hours first hand on the wrecks themselves. But sadly the book is let down by it's bias (which is the down side to a lot of narrative history) to America and the what is now rapidly becoming 'bad taste' American centric view of the USA supreme morality and 'good guy' of the world assumption. An assumption that come from within the USA but is often not shared outside.
This is a view that seems to stereotype the rest of the nationalities involved (in this case) in the Pacific war as lesser peoples who were blessed despite in defeat of which in this case was the result of the lesser peoples by the intervention of the USA. The British are arrogant gutless fools who can be blamed as the number one bad guys (a dark part of the American psyche which still seems to rear it's out dated head even in the 21st century), followed by the demonic Japanese who did as we all know (my great uncle was prisoner of the Japanese army) treat people horridly from a western perspective but are also shown to be an ugly weak and uncultured people something which again is simplistic and naive and no doubt offensive to most Japanese, then the foolish Dutch cowards, the cheerful but simple Australians, mates of kind but no match in war, sport or as comrades for the Americans and then last and so quickly dispatched with mild racism the 'natives' who we must assume are the Javanese. I am sure most Indonesian would consider their early independence movement as just a bunch of down trodden natives. Jakarta is not Batavia anymore and retains its Japanese name for a reason the Japanese occupation help to speed up Indonesia's independence.
This perspective is probably the result of the story being told from survivors of Houston and their views which is understandably and no one would want to question their bravery or suffering.
But sadly it not holistic and for non Americans it verges on offensive something which is not acceptable in the 21st century globalised world.
Which is the shame because it a important story and one that needs to be told. But next time I gaze upon the Perth 6 inch guns pointing towards surface frozen in their last firing moments I will not forgot the brave sailors that also met there fate that night. Lest we not forget HMAS Perth, HMS Exeter, HMNS De Ruyter, HMNS Java and the numerous other ships that were also sunk in then Dutch East Indies in those fateful days. A good history of the Houston but needs to be read with an awareness of the jaded an now moribund American centric view of modern history.