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Ship of Ghosts
Cover of Ship of Ghosts
Ship of Ghosts
The Story of the USS Houston, FDR's Legendary Lost Cruiser, and the Epic Saga of Her Survivors
NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER

BONUS: This edition contains an excerpt from James D. Hornfischer's Neptune's Inferno.

"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Using journals and letters, rare historical documents, including testimony from postwar Japanese war crimes tribunals, and the eyewitness accounts of Houston's survivors, James Hornfischer has crafted an account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.
NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER

BONUS: This edition contains an excerpt from James D. Hornfischer's Neptune's Inferno.

"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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Excerpts-
  • Chapter One Chapter One


    Off the island of Bali, in the silhouette of mountains made sacred by the favor of local gods, a warship plied the black waters of an equatorial sea. The night of February 4, 1942, found her moving swiftly toward a port on the southern coast of the adjoining island of Java. She had sustained a deep wound that day, an aerial bomb striking her after turret, charring and melting the gun house and its entire stalk. The great blast killed forty-six men. Her captain now sought port to patch his ship and bury his dead with honors. For the flagship of the U.S. Asiatic Fleet, this was the first blow of a war not yet sixty days old.

    The USS Houston, a heavy cruiser, was the largest combat vessel the U.S. Navy had committed to the Dutch East Indies. She was bound for the port of Tjilatjap. Its colliding consonants compelled American sailors to give the town the more symphonious nickname "Slapjack" or, chewing their words more bitterly, "that lousy dump." As the thunder of Japan's opening offensive washed over Indonesia in early 1942, Tjilatjap was one of three havens that Allied warships still maintained in these dangerous waters. With the enemy's invasion fleets pressing down from the north and his planes attacking from land bases ever closer to Java, those harbors were fast becoming untenable. The previous day, February 3, Japanese bombers struck Surabaya, the city in the island's east that was home to Adm. Thomas C. Hart's threadbare squadron of surface combatants. To the west, the port at Batavia (now Jakarta) was a marked target too. As Hart's commanders well knew, Japan's aviators had needed just forty-eight hours after the start of war on December 8 to smash American airpower in the Philippines, sink the two largest Allied warships in the region–the British battleship Prince of Wales and the battlecruiser Repulse–and land an invasion force on Luzon. The Imperial red tide knew no pause. Flowing southward, operating at high tempo by day and by night, the Japanese executed a leapfrogging series of amphibious invasions down the coasts of Borneo and Celebes, each gain consolidated and used to stage the next assault. The shadow of the Japanese offensive loomed over Java, where the Allies would make a last stand in defense of the old Dutch colonial outpost and aim to blunt Japan's onrushing advance toward Australia.

    At midnight of February 3, alerted by Allied aircraft to the presence of a Japanese invasion fleet in Makassar Strait, north of Java, the Houston had departed Surabaya with a flotilla of U.S. and Dutch warships–the aged light cruiser USS Marblehead, the Dutch light cruisers De Ruyter and Tromp, and an escort of eight destroyers. Under Dutch Rear Adm. Karel W. F. M. Doorman, the striking force steamed by night to avoid Japanese aircraft. But the distance to their target was such that the Allied ships had no choice but to cross the Flores Sea by daylight on February 4. No friendly fighter planes were on hand to cover them. It was about ten o'clock on that bright morning when Japanese bombers began appearing overhead, ending Doorman's mission before it ever really began.

    That day had started as so many of them did, with the Houston's Marine bugler putting his brass bell to the public address microphone and blowing the call to air defense. As men sprinted to their general quarters stations, they could look up and see the Japanese bombers droning by, one wave after the next, nine at a time, fifty-four in all, locked in tight V formations, silvery fuselages glinting in the sun. Nosing over into shallow power glides from seventeen thousand feet, the...
About the Author-
  • James D. Hornfischer, a native of Massachusetts, is the author of the New York Times bestsellers Neptune's Inferno, Ship of Ghosts, and The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors, which won the Samuel Eliot Morison Award for Naval Literature. Two of his widely acclaimed works about the U.S. Navy in World War II are selections of the U.S. Navy's professional reading list. A graduate of Colgate University and the University of Texas at Austin, he lives with his wife and their three children in Austin, Texas.

Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    August 28, 2006
    This engrossing WWII epic by Hornfischer (The
    Last 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.

  • Stephen Harrigan, author of Challenger Park and The Gates of the Alamo

    "Ship of Ghosts would be an unforgettable book if only for its brilliantly wrought account of the massive, chaotic sea battle that destroyed the USS Houston. But that is only the beginning of a story that grows more harrowing with every chapter, and that finally leaves the reader amazed at what human beings are capable of achieving and enduring."

  • Hampton Sides, author of Blood and Thunder and Ghost Soldiers "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."
  • John F. Lehman, former Secretary of the Navy, author of On Seas of Glory "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."
  • Alex Kershaw, author of The Bedford Boys and The Few "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."
  • Adam Nicolson, author of God's Secretaries "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."
  • Donovan Webster, author of The Burma Road "Recounts perhaps the most devastating untold saga of World War II in piercing detail."
  • Rocky Mountain News "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."
  • USA Today "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."
  • Booklist, starred review "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."
  • Metrowest [Bos "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."
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Ship of Ghosts
Ship of Ghosts
The Story of the USS Houston, FDR's Legendary Lost Cruiser, and the Epic Saga of Her Survivors
James D. Hornfischer
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