Book Review – Ship of Ghosts

A few years ago I read “The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors” by James Hornfischer. That book is about the battle off of Samar, part of the larger battle of Leyte Gulf. Leyte Gulf was one of the largest naval battles in history.

The courage of those men on the “Tin Cans” blows me away. These little destroyers charged headlong into the teeth of much larger Japanese warships. Many paid the ultimate price. But I don’t want to give too much away. “Tin Can Sailors” is one of my favorite all time books.

Once I get a good book by a good author, I tend to stick with that author. Hornfischer’s “Ship of Ghosts” has been sitting on my “to read” shelf for a long time, and with a business trip I took last week I decided to take it with me to kill time on the plane. Another outstanding read.

Ship of Ghosts doesn’t have a very happy beginning, middle or end. It is the story of the USS Houston and it’s survivors. The Houston (CA-30) went down in the battle of Sunda Strait. Only 368 of her crew of over 1,000 survived. She went down blazing, which is consolation to me, but not to the families of those lost.

As if that isn’t bad enough, many of the survivors were machine gunned by the enemy as they floated in the water. With great survival instincts and ingenuity, many made it to shore, along with many survivors of the HMAS Perth, which was sunk in the same battle at Sunda Strait. Unfortunately for those who did make it ashore, the Japanese had pretty much conquered Java and the surrounding areas. The men were captured, and sent to prison camps.

I think “camp” might be a gracious way of putting it. Conditions were horrific most of the time, and a large count of the survivors of the naval battles ended up working on making the Burma Railway, or Railway of Death. The final two-thirds of the book are about how those men toiled, got sick, and somehow made their way through three years of misery to survive and tell their tales. Not to mention the daily mistreatment (to put it lightly) by the Japanese. The death rate was astonishing – I can hardly believe that any of them made it through all of that.

The book is extremely easy reading, and I very much enjoy Hornfischer’s style of mixing up short stories from survivors with official histories and action reports. I highly recommend “Ship of Ghosts” along with “Tin Can Sailors” if you enjoy WW2 Pacific theater history.

Cross posted at LITGM.

4 thoughts on “Book Review – Ship of Ghosts”

  1. There is a great story of a USC track star before the war who went into the Air Corps and had to ditch his B24 in the Pacific. They were picked up by a Japanese ship and spent the war in POW camps in Japan. I’ve seen pictures of him as an athlete and right after he was freed. He was still alive a few years ago. Maybe the starvation, like in rats, contributed to long lives in ex-POWs.

    Here’s his book.

  2. Thanks for the recommendation, it is now on my list. I am just so amazed that these guys actually survived all of what they had to go through. It would be amazing even if only half of it were true.

  3. If you have not taken the time to sit down and listen to your family veterans, do it now. Somebody you know has a remarkable story of courage.

    Tin Can Sailors is excellent reading. So is a history of Army nurses in WWII, “And If I Perish”.

  4. D from M, you would be interested in “Tin Cans” (1960) by Theodore Roscoe. He writes about the WW2 world wide mission of US DDs and DEs. What the DE USS England accomplished is impressive.
    I recently found a copy on Abe books to replace a copy I had in the early 60s.

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