Play Book Tag discussion

Ship of Ghosts: The Story of the USS Houston, FDR's Legendary Lost Cruiser, and the Epic Saga of Her Survivors
This topic is about Ship of Ghosts
10 views
Archive: Other Books > [Trim] Ship of Ghosts by James D. Hornfischer - 4 stars

Comments Showing 1-3 of 3 (3 new)    post a comment »
dateDown arrow    newest »

Joy D | 3090 comments Ship of Ghosts: The Story of the USS Houston, FDR's Legendary Lost Cruiser, and the Epic Saga of Her Survivors by James D. Hornfischer - 4 stars

PBT Comments: This book's title is a bit of a misnomer. It has no ghosts nor is there anything paranormal about it. This is a WWII true story of a ship that sunk in 1942 and what happened to her survivors in 42 months of captivity. The title refers to the ship's nickname: "The Galloping Ghost of the Java Coast" and also perhaps to the three-fourths of her crew that did not survive the sinking. This was my "Trim the TBR" book for September.

Non-fiction account of one of the lesser known events in WWII: the sinking of the USS Houston, covering the history of the ship itself, first-person accounts of its battles, and the crew’s harrowing experiences as prisoners of war after its sinking. The ship was part of the U.S. Asiatic Fleet in 1942, when the Allies were organizing into a joint fighting force of American, Australian, British, and Dutch. While navigating the Sunda Strait, the USS Houston and HMAS Perth interrupted a large-scale Japanese invasion of Java, were involved in a terrifying night-time battle, and were both sunk. The bulk of the narrative then follows the survivors, who are eventually captured and sent to various POW camps. Many are used as forced labor to build (by hand) the Thai-Burma Railway. The final portions of the book cover the end of the war and how the remaining survivors fared upon returning home.

Hornfischer excels at describing the sounds, sights, smells of the battle scenes:
“The Houston took her first hit when a projectile struck the forecastle, starting fires in the paint locker that danced brightly for about a quarter of an hour. The night air was rancid with cordite. Though the winds were still, the wisps of gray-white muzzle smoke flying from the Houston’s guns fell quickly away, left behind like an airborne wake covering her trail of foam.”

He brings the fears of the sailors to the forefront as they struggle to survive the sinking:
“Lungs burning, Gillan felt himself bump up against the ship’s rail. He was finally free of the enclosed torpedo space. The cord to his miner’s lamp snagged momentarily on the rail, but then he was floating again, being washed up and down, unsure of which direction the surface was. He felt currents whirlpooling around him. The sensation evoked an amusement park ride before the flashing of red, green, and purple lights marked the possibility that his brain was starving for oxygen as he drowned.”

He vividly describes their horrific ordeal on the Thai-Burma Railway, where they endure forced labor, starvation, disease, brutality, and the perils of the jungle:
“Pressured to perform five years of work in twelve short months, they would be given over to the jungle and left to wrestle it toward civilization. They would contend with all its elements—its hardwoods, rocks, and vines, its predators both mammalian and bacterial, under the lash of their enemy and assault from the elements. The work would harden some and consume others. They would forget all but the most basic memories of home, picking their way through a life in captivity that would become the grist for sleepless nights ever afterward.”

Hornfischer has assembled a cohesive and compelling narrative based upon official documents, a compiled library of participants’ voice recordings, and the author’s own interviews many years later. Both the small details of personal stories and the larger context of military strategy are covered. I appreciated the author’s inclusion of insights into how these courageous captives survived such inhumane conditions. The account becomes more fragmented as it progresses. It may have been more cohesive if the author had focused on a more limited number of personal stories in each section. It could also have benefitted by the inclusion of more photos and maps. This book is an absorbing tribute to the men of the USS Houston. Though it can be gut-wrenching to read about the horrors of war, it is ultimately a testament to the triumph of the human spirit in the face of extreme adversity.

Link to
My GR Review


message 2: by Joanne (new) - added it

Joanne (joabroda1) | 7125 comments Joy, you and I seem to have a lot of the same non-fiction books on our TBR shelf-I was just hemming-hawing about this one earlier this morning, trying to decide if I should add to my Fall SRC challenge books! It would also fit into a personal challenge of mine to read more WWII that don't take place in Europe! You made the decision for me! Great review.


Joy D | 3090 comments Joanne wrote: "Joy, you and I seem to have a lot of the same non-fiction books on our TBR shelf-I was just hemming-hawing about this one earlier this morning, trying to decide if I should add to my Fall SRC chall..."
Thanks, Joanne! I'm glad to hear we to share common interests in non-fiction. I'll check out your bookshelves. Hope you enjoy this one as much as I did!


back to top