Ship of Ghosts
Contributor: C. Peter Chen
Review Date: 26 Aug 2010
Full Title: Ship of Ghosts: The Story of the USS Houston, FDR's Legendary Lost Cruiser, and the Epic Saga of Her Survivors
It had been more than five years since I had read author James Hornfischer's The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors. Although that book remained among my favorite of Pacific War titles in my library, I had not found the time to check out his second Pacific War book on the crew of USS Houston, Ship of Ghosts. When I finally came across this title at the local library in the form of an audio book, I did not think twice before I picked it up.
Commissioned in the 1930s, the heavy cruiser USS Houston was, for reason not entirely known, US President Franklin Roosevelt's favorite ship. She had taken Roosevelt on several trips, and Roosevelt had even came to know several of Houston's sailors by name; some of the ship's crew had even had the honor of going fishing on a small boat with the president. When the Pacific War began, the Allied naval presence in the South Pacific was insignificant next to the might to the Japanese Navy, and USS Houston was a member of this meek Allied force. At the Battle of Sunda Strait, out-maneuvered and out-gunned, USS Houston, together with the Australian cruiser HMAS Perth, sank to the bottom of the Pacific. For the 368 survivors who were fortunate enough to survive the sinking would soon find themselves rather unfortunate, for that they were about to become forced laborers to the Japanese Army, the leadership of which refused to honor the Third Geneva Convention of 1929 because the Japanese government had not ratified it. After a brief stay in Java and then Singapore, they were transported to the dense jungles of Southeastern Asia. For the next four years, while working on the Burma-Siam railway, beatings, starvation and disease became some of the enemies that they faced daily in addition to the regularly beatings dealt by the Japanese and Korean guards.
While Ship of Ghosts covered both USS Houston's glorious days as Roosevelt's yacht as well as the experiences of the crew after the sinking, the latter definitely took on a greater focus. Much like he had done with The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors, Hornfischer told the story with enough detail that the survivors of forced servitude deserved and with enough emotion without betraying the telling of the story in a non-biased manner. When he described what cholera would do to a man, I cringed; when he mentioned the appearance of American aircraft over the prisoners' heads, I found myself tearing up as the author described the jubilation of the prisoners. Many of the double-survivors who lived through the sinking of USS Houston and the life as forced laborers had a tough time re-adjusting to life back in the United States. The author started to describe this difficulty with a seemingly humorous story of an officer who, upon meeting a fellow Naval Academy classmate shortly after being liberated, bowed at the waist rather than extending his hand for a handshake or raising his arms for an embrace. The mental reprogramming, as seen in this incident, went much beyond the method of greeting. Some of the survivors could not eat food at a leisurely pace for the rest of their lives, others grow nervous whenever they were being examined by doctors, while a few of them harbored such hatred that it ate away at them psychologically. The author's excellent research and powerful narrative, combined with the great use of accounts from the survivors, allowed the story of the Death Railway to be told in a harrowing manner and provided another insight into the dark side of human behavior. These accomplishments achieved by the book made it worthy of a follow-up book to Last Stand.
The movie "Bridge on the River Kwai" was mentioned more than once in the book, something I welcomed. This film portrayed the Death Railway experience as the prisoners' struggle to complete an engineering project to show superiority over their captors. Not only that this notion was total fiction, the film also ignored the tropical sores and other tropical ailments that the prisoners of war had to endure. Through this, the author provided another reminder that, while movies allowed historical events to live in the minds of the mainstream, mediums of entertainment sometimes lacked the historical accuracy important for the correct understanding of the event. The Burma-Siam railway was never a symbolic victory of western engineering over that of the Japanese; it was simply a struggle for the American, British, Australian, Burmese, and Thai forced laborers to stay alive.
Robertson Dean performed the reading for the audio edition of the book. He did a fine job with the reading, providing good pace. I was initially impressed with his Japanese pronunciation when I heard him say Kobe with "beh" rather than "bee", but that soon went away when he repeated the frequent mistake of ending the word Kamikaze with "zee" rather than the correct "zeh".
I rank Ship of Ghosts among one of my favorite pieces of work on the Pacific War and very highly recommend it to all visitors of WW2DB.
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Chiang Kaishek, 31 Jul 1937