Ship of Ghosts: The Story of the USS Houston, FDR's Legendary Lost Cruiser, and the Epic Saga of Her Survivors

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9780553803907: Ship of Ghosts: The Story of the USS Houston, FDR's Legendary Lost Cruiser, and the Epic Saga of Her Survivors

"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Using journals and letters, rare historical documents, including testimony from postwar Japanese war crimes tribunals, and the eyewitness accounts of Houston’s survivors, James Hornfischer has crafted an account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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About the Author:

James D. Hornfischer's new book, The Fleet at Flood Tide, will be published in October 2016. Hornfischer is the author of the New York Times bestsellers Neptune's Inferno, Ship of Ghosts, and The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors, winner of the Samuel Eliot Morison Award. A native of Massachusetts and a graduate of Colgate University and the University of Texas School of Law, he lives in Austin, Texas.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

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 twin-engine G3M Nells began their bombing runs.

Capt. Albert Harold Rooks steered his ship through the maelstrom of splashes, some of the bombs landing close enough aboard to fracture rivets belowdecks, some falling in patterns dense enough to conceal the six-hundred-foot-long ship behind a temporary mountain range of foamy white seawater. Watching the Houston under bombardment, a sailor on another ship said, "All this water just sort of hung in the air. Then it started to fall back, and out from underneath all this stuff comes the Houston going thirty knots." A master ship handler, the fifty-year-old skipper had an intuitive sense of his cruiser's gait. He was expert in dodging the bombs that fluttered earthward in the midmorning sun, never hesitating to stretch the limits of the engineering plant or test the skill and endurance of the throttlemen and water tenders and machinists, who gamely kept pace with the sudden engine orders and speed changes, risking the destruction of their delicate machinery by the slightest misstep. Relying on the smart reactions of his snipes as an extension of his own hand, Rooks maneuvered his cruiser like none the crew had ever seen, accelerating and slowing, ordering "crashbacks" that wrenched his engines from full ahead straight into full astern, thus steering not only by rudder but by counterturning the propeller screws, the starboard pair surging ahead while the port pulled astern. "He handled that ship like you or I would handle a motorboat," said Howard R. Charles, a private in the Houston's seventy-eight-man Marine detachment.

By acclamation Rooks was one of the brightest lights to wear four gold bars in the prewar U.S. Navy. He had been Admiral Hart's aide when the Asiatic Fleet boss was superintendent of the Naval Academy. On the teaching staff at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, in 1940, Rooks showed a keen analytical mind, and it was with no evident sarcasm that colleagues called him the second coming of the great naval strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan. In the few months since taking over the Houston in Manila, the quietly authoritative skipper had moved out of the shadow of a beloved predecessor and won, it seems, a reputation as a sort of minor deity.

An SOC Seagull floatplane was on the Houston's catapult, propeller whipping the air at full throttle, its pilot ready for an explosive-charged launch. Under normal conditions in the days before radar, the SOCs were used for reconnaissance and gunnery spotting. Flung aloft from catapults mounted on the quarterdeck amidships, the biplanes would fly out ahead of the ship, climb to around two thousand feet, and spend two or three hours weaving back and forth on either side of the cruiser's base course heading. In combat, they could loiter over an enemy fleet, signaling corrections to the gunnery department. The Seagulls were light enough to grip the air at a speed as low as sixty miles per hour, permitting a leisurely reconnaissance pattern. But now the idea was to get the vulnerable, combustible planes off the ship before the Japanese got lucky with one of their bombs.

As another formation of bombers crossed overhead, the antiaircraft officer couldn't stand waiting for the SOC to get airborne. His five-inch guns, elevated high, roared. At once the muzzle blast, just ten feet from the plane, tore the canvas skin right off the plane. As Lt. Harold S. Hamlin recalled, "the pilot found himself sitting on a picked chicken–the blast had removed every stitch of fabric from the plane. Pilot and crewman scrambled out, and the forlorn-looking plane, naked as a jay-bird, was jettisoned."

The Houston belched so much smoke from her after stack that the antiaircraft crews lost use of the aft rangefinder, bathed in black soot. So they aimed by eye. Good as the crews on her eight open-mount five-inch guns were, they were shocked to find that their ammunition was of little use. Their first salvo arced skyward right into the midst of the bombers. But only one of the four rounds was seen to explode. That sorry proportion held up through the day. Of the four hundred odd antiaircraft shells the Houston's crews fired, nearly three hundred were duds. In the prewar years, the Navy Department, mindful of costs, had refused to let its ships fire live rounds in antiaircraft gunnery drills. The Houston's gunnery officer had appealed time and again for permission to use live ammunition but was turned down. The projectiles thus saved had been left to sit and age in the magazines. Now, as the realization dawned on them that most of their stored projectiles were little more than outsize paperweights, the antiaircraft crews became "mad as scalded dogs" and fired all the faster, if to little result.

During the bombardment that rained down on them that morning, the light cruiser Marblehead was straddled perfectly by a stick of seven bombs, engulfing the old ship in giant splashes. Two struck home, and a near miss, detonating underwater close aboard to port, did as much damage as the direct hits. Fifteen men were killed as fires raged fore and aft. With part of her hull dished in, scooping in seawater at high pressure, seams and rivets leaking, the Marblehead listed to starboard, settling by the head, her rudder jammed into a hard port turn. Seeing her distress, Captain Rooks turned the Houston toward her to bring his gunners to bear on the attackers. As he did so, another V of bombers passed overhead at fifteen thousand feet. A second flock of bombs wobbled earthward. They missed–all of them except for the stray.

Some say that the lone five-hundred-pounder must have gotten hung up in the Japanese plane's bomb bay on release. With its carefully calculated trajectory interrupted, it wandered from the path of its explosive peers, arcing down outside the field of view from the pilothouse, where Rooks, head tilted skyward, binoculars in hands, was watching the flight of ordnance and conning his ship to avoid it. Unseen until it was far too late, the wayward bomb found the ship. It punched through the searchlight platform mounted midway up the Houston's sixty-foot-high mainmast, rattled down through its great steel tripod, and struck just forward of the aft eight-inch gun mount, whose triple barrels were traine...

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