Book Review: Ship Of Ghosts

Right or wrong, more than one expert has compared the COVID-19 pandemic to WWII in terms of the global scale of its impact.  So perhaps it was fitting that I took the time to finish reading Ship Of Ghosts.  It’s a fascinating and terrifying account of the USS Houston and what happened to it in 1942, not long after Pearl Harbor had propelled America into WWII.

Author James Hornfischer relates how the city of Houston had campaigned and raised money for a ship to bear its name; they eventually got one.  FDR himself had traveled on the boat several times, fishing with the sailors (not just the officers but the lower-ranked guys too) and participating in the festivities of the crossing-the-line ritual for sailors experiencing their first voyage over the equator.

Those were in brighter days, but then came the war. The boat was based in what was then known as the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia).  Nearby were places that sound beautiful, like Bali and Borneo.  However, the forces of the Americans, British, Dutch and Australians in this part of the Pacific were vastly overpowered by the Japanese and the various nations Japan conscripted into the conflict.  The men on this ship, many of them barely past their teen years, were confident but many knew they had a tough task.  As they were heading out towards action early in the book, one ensign said aloud, “Didn’t I just hear a gate clang shut behind us?”

His words were prophetic.  The Houston was sunk and the sailors who didn’t die that night were scattered.  The fate of those who were pulled out the water was subhuman.  The Japanese had never ratified the documents of the Geneva Convention and had what could only be called a disposable attitude towards prisoners.  Scores of Americans died of horrible diseases as they were forced into labor, many building a railroad from Burma to Thailand.  Worse, when U.S. planes eventually targeted the railroad, death by friendly fire was also a reality.  Still, some did make it home but, in an era long before the military recognized PTSD as a very real thing, they had gone through a hell few can imagine.

One downside is the book got a little into the weeds if you don’t know much about classes of ships or your geography of that corner of the world (quick find Tjilatjap on a map and say that five times fast while you are at it).  It also chronicled the journeys of many different crewmen imprisoned in different locations and it was sometimes difficult to remember who was who.  However, as a somber reminder of what one group of people can inflict upon another group, the book was well worth the read.

One important final comment that is particularly relevant for our current situation.  While this book was published in 2006, in its epigraph, it quotes Virgil from The Aeneid, written in 19 BC.  Virgil had said,  “The day will come when even this ordeal will be a sweet thing to remember.”  Let’s hope old Virgil is right.

NML NPS Score:  7

Review by Steve Bast