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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 Hardcover – October 31, 2006
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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.
*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
Top customer reviews
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.
This book covers the whole story of the "galloping ghost of the Java coast".
It describes from when the Houston was launched in 1929, its peacetime missions, the fighting in Dutch East Indies, its sinking and the survivors time as POWs of the Empire of Japan.
Particularly the time on the "Railway of Death".
I found this book very interesting and contained a lot of information I had never read before.
But in this history, he details the lives of the crew and the horrible ordeal the crew endured when captured by he Japanese after the vessel's sinking. The stories about the individuals survivals are well researched and engrossing. A wonderful read for those interested in how humans survive even the cruelest ordeals.
I chose the Ship of Ghosts because I felt it would give a more detailed account of the the early course of the war. However, I was unprepared to discover that the book went on to follow the fate of the survivors of the sinking. I had never given any thought that any Americans were involved in the building of the Thailand-Burma Railroad. I feel that the author did an admirable job describing the horrid conditions under which the railroad was built through a basically trackless jungle, while giving us insight into the prisoners feelings.
I feel this book has done an admirable job documenting a chapter in history which is virtually unknown to almost everyone.