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Using journals and letters, rare historical documents, including testimony from postwar Japanese war crimes tribunals, and the eyewitness accounts of Houston’s survivors, James Hornfischer has crafted an account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.
About the Author
James D. Hornfischer was a writer, literary agent, and book editor. He was the author of the New York Times bestsellers Neptune’s Inferno, The Last Stand of the Tin Can Soldiers, Ship of Ghosts, and The Fleet at Flood Tide, all widely acclaimed accounts of the U.S. Navy in the Pacific during World War II, as well as the upcoming Who Can Hold the Sea. His books have received numerous awards, including the Samuel Eliot Morison Award for Distinguished Service and the Naval Historical Foundation Distinguished Service Award. James D. Hornfischer died in 2021.
“Ship of Ghostswould 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.” —Stephen Harrigan, author of Challenger Park and The Gates of the Alamo
"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."—Hampton Sides, author of Blood and Thunder and Ghost Soldiers
“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.”—John F. Lehman, former Secretary of the Navy, author of On Seas of Glory
“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.”—Alex Kershaw, author of The Bedford Boysand The Few
“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.”—Adam Nicolson, author of God’s Secretaries
“Recounts perhaps the most devastating untold saga of World War II in piercing detail.”—Donovan Webster, author of The Burma Road
“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.” —Rocky Mountain News
“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.” —USA Today
“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.” –Booklist, starred review
“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.” –Metrowest [Boston] Daily News