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
Hardcover in dustjacket, 530 pages, bibliography, notes, crew list, and index
Published by Bantam Books, 2006
Dimensions: 6.1 x 2.0 x 9.4 inches
The USS Houston (CA-30) was a Northampton-class heavy cruiser commissioned in 1930. She had a reputation as a spit and polish ship, and became a favorite of President Franklin Roosevelt, who was embarked several times in the pre-war years. At the beginning of the Pacific War she was the flagship of the U.S. Asiatic Fleet, stationed in the Philippines. She joined the American-British-Dutch-Australian (ABDA) naval force at Java under the overall command of Admiral Karel Doorman of the Royal Netherlands Navy. She was bombed by Japanese aircraft during the Battle of Makassar Strait on 04FEB42, destroying her after 8” gun turret, which could not be repaired locally. On 26FEB42 ADM Doorman dispatched the ships of the ABDA to intercept a Japanese invasion fleet bearing down on Java. The ABDA force was badly mauled, loosing two cruisers and three destroyers while inflicting no meaningful damage in return. Houston and HMAS Perth survived and returned to the port of Tanjong Priok, but were unable to resupply their depleted fuel and ammunition stocks.
The Houston and Perth were ordered to withdraw south through the Sunda Strait under the cover of darkness. Unknown to them at the time the Japanese were in the process of conducting landing operations in Bantam Bay. The two cruisers wandered into the midst of the Japanese invasion force. In a confused close-quarters engagement both Allied ships were sunk. Approximately one-third of the complements of the cruisers were eventually taken prisoner by the Japanese.
The first third of the book details the history of the Houston and her actions with the ABDA against the Japanese. The remainder follows the story of the Houston’s survivors while in Japanese captivity. The Houston’s sailors and Marines were held alongside the crew of the Perth and soldiers of the 2nd Battalion, 131st Field Artillery Regiment, a Texas National Guard unit which had been captured on Java, the three groups sharing the same fate. The prisoners were moved to Burma, packed onto ships at the ratio of one man per ton of the transport’s displacement. There they were used as slave labor constructing the infamous “Death Railway” of Bridge Over the River Kwai fame through the Burmese jungle. The work was all done without the aid of machinery, the jungle offering no hope of escape. Approximately 20% of the prisoners there died of disease and starvation.
Hornfischer is a great author and a diligent researcher, most of the material for this book comes from interviews with survivors of the Houston’s crew or their records, and those of the Perth and the 131st Field Artillery as well. The fates of the Houston and Perth were mysteries to the Allies for most of World War Two and are little know even today so this work fills a gap in the record. The experiences of the prisoners are grim, readers should not expect anything uplifting there other than the resilience of the men in the face of overwhelming adversity. Recommended.