Saturday, November 29, 2014

Haunting Defiance in 'Ship of Ghosts'

Review by Bill Doughty


In "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 (2006, Bantam Dell) the author takes readers to sea, to POW camps and into the jungle as he examines key chapters of World War II.


FDR aboard USS Houston 1935.
Ultimately, this book is about unspeakable horrors of war but also the triumph of the human spirit.

Hornfischer begins by showing why USS Houston (CA-30) was President Franklin D. Roosevelt's favorite ship and how FDR knew many of the crew by name. The president would go fishing with Houston's Sailors.

Then the author shows how Japan's search for natural resources fueled the start of the war and set the stage for Imperial Japan's ultimate downfall, despite earlier victories against America's ally China: "A failure of foresight and a shortage of materiƩl sealed their doom."

That need for oil and other resources continued throughout the war, as Hornfischer writes:
"It was all about China. A world war engulfed the Pacific because Japan had struggled to subjugate its mainland neighbor. Franklin Roosevelt's economic sanctions and oil embargo were punishment for Japan's assault on China, Asia's keystone in the economic world order. Japan's earliest offensives in the southwestern Pacific grew from is need for oil to pursue its war on the continent. Now Japan aimed to strangle China by cutting its essential lines of supply from India and Burma, kept open by threadbare British and American armies."
Japan's army, with its "rigidly hierarchical and ruthless system," where "conceit seemed to flow from the highest levels of the Japanese command," guided the government and justified actions based on ancient martial codes (Bushido) and religious dominion under a belief that the emperor was a descendent from heaven. Those who controlled the military believed God was on their side.
Hornfischer writes powerfully about the sinking of HMAS Perth and then USS Houston in the Battle of Sunda Strait off Java just as he did in "Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors." We hear the wrench of metal, smell the smoke, see the destruction, feel the loss of equilibrium and experience the fear as Sailors fight and struggle to survive.

Sinking of USS Houston (CA-30) in the Battle of Sunda Strait, 1 March 1942.
Painting by Joseph Fleischman, 1950. Naval History and Heritage Command
Memorable characters include PFC John WIsecup, Cmdr. Arthur L. Maher, Sgt. James "Pack Rat" McCone, S1C Melfred "Gus" Forsman, S2C Otto Scwarz, Sgt. Frank Fujita, Dr. Henri Hekking, Col. Yoshitada Nagatomo, and Capt. Albert H. Rooks and his extended family, among dozens more.

Hornfischer describes life in the POW camps scattered throughout Asia, where "the trick to being in Japanese captivity was to navigate the divide separating subservience and defiance."

Among the stories of torture, disease and death are tales of survival and sabotage against the guards – from stealing supplies, urinating in the captors' bathwater, tampering with equipment and hiding a radio to more serious acts against the enemy at the Nagasaki shipyard and on the railway in Thailand. Hornfischer tells the true story of the construction of the railway for the bridges over Tamarkan and River Kwai – Kwae Noi Bridge.

"One of the traits the Americans seemed to have in common with the Australians was a boundless sense of the possible," according to Hornfischer. Two survivors, 2nd Lt. Roy E. Stensland and Pack Rat McCone, are described as having "a raging mind, mercury in the blood, and a visible unconcern with the personal consequences of rebellion."


Overall, those who had a positive attitude were more likely to survive the ordeal of captivity and the rigors of slave labor. One trick was to frame the experience as "endure" rather than "suffer." POW Frank Fujita saw an opportunity to study anatomy and contemplate life and death. Ray Parkin experienced "a naturalist's reverie" in the teak forest where he found that non-dogma "faith and hope are a couple of unclassified vitamins."
"Even as it tried to kill him, Ray Parkin was enthralled by the wilderness all around him, by the cool blue-green bamboo, by the slapping wings of Asiatic nightjars and hornbills, by the swarms of brownish butterflies, by 'hooded lilies, several iris-like orchids, wild ginger, and banana (which bears no edible fruit), clumps of orchids in the branches of trees like corsages of yellow jonquils. There are waves of perfume in the bush which we sometimes walk into. Cinnamon, chocolate, and one honey-sweet like clematis. Sometimes the early morning dew on the dry bamboo leaves smells like the Australian bush – or is it just nostalgia.' 
"Parkin's 'unclassified vitamins' were all around him, and his obsession to catalog them was the kind of force that gave a man a reason to stay alive. 'Vines are leaping with bright new green leaves a foot or so across. They are heart-shaped – some are like two hearts alongside each other. Trees are blossoming. One purple like lilac, and growing like a giant ti-tree ... There are more bird calls' monkeys call like Swannee whistles – flutelike on a slurred scale. All nature moves and has its bing, and we seem to sit on it like a scab.'"
Hornfischer's prose and choice of colorful quotes are at times artful imagery or – especially in the latter part of the book – careful chronology and documentation, preserving the memory and history of POWs from the War in the Pacific, where Pearl Harbor looms throughout the book and throughout the war as a beginning beacon for all of the war's ghosts.

During the war, in POW camps in Asia service members, treated like slaves, dealt with malaria, cholera, tropical ulcers, monsoons, snakes and primitive dental care – tree sap fillings!


Frequent beatings, abuse and unreasonable expectations, combined with inadequate food rations, were a way of life – and death. Their captors regularly violated the Geneva Convention by placing prisoners next to military targets or transporting them with materiĆ©l in "hell ships" subject to attack by American submarines. As the war neared an end the POWs feared they would be killed en masse by their guards.

In 1945 militarists in Japan tried to continue to fight on, still believing in Japan's divine destiny. But as the empire crumbled and B-29s leveled cities in the homeland, Imperial Japan found itself "choking to death on the fumes of the hemisphere-wide wildfire it had started three and a half years before."

Hornfischer proves why he is a favorite with navy leaders, historians and veterans, including Pearl Harbor survivor Ed Vezey. Filled with historical photos, first-source references and an extensive biography, but punctuated with colorful descriptions and vignettes, "Ship of Ghosts" is a top read for anyone interested in WWII history in the Pacific. Read my other reviews and a contribution by the author to Navy Reads.

2 comments:

graphic3211 said...

Interesting article, especially the photograph showing torpedo damage on the USS Houston CA-30 in October 1944. The only problem with this photo is that the USS Houston CA-30 sank the night of 27 Feb 1 March 1942, more than two years earlier. Somehow, you used a picture of torpedo damage of the USS Houston CL-81. This is where I have to wonder if anyone really read the "Ship of Ghosts" or just skimmed it quickly to write an article.

Of course my next thought is whether this comment will actually get posted along with this article.

Bill Doughty said...

Aloha and thank you for taking time to let me know about the photo of another USS Houston namesake. Thanks to your note and to prevent any confusion I replaced the CL-81 photo with a painting of the attack on CA-30, courtesy of NHHC. I apologize for taking so long to respond to you, and I thank you for your opinion.