Spend any amount of time out to sea and you’ll wonder what it’s like to abandon ship. I sure did. In fact I spent a lot more time pondering the implications of a watery horizon than I ever did memorizing surface radar interface manuals. Perhaps that’s why they never offered me SEAL training. That, and I get winded after thirty seconds of treading water. Whatever the demerit, I did leave the Navy with a pronounced appreciation for sailors in peril (plus a bunch of old uniforms I’d never be able to fit into again). Over the years, I’ve maintained a vigilant watch, scanning local bookstore aisles for toppled stacks and sun-bleached survivors. When I ran across Ship of Ghosts the other week, witnesses heard my sonar pinging all the way over in the cookbook section. In the next paragraph, I’ll try to explain why.
A favorite of FDR’s, the cruiser USS Houston was the first flagship of the Allied Forces' Asiatic Fleet. But that very designation made it a doomed vessel, for in the months following Pearl Harbor, the far Pacific was nowhere an American sailor wanted to be. In hostile waters brimming with enemies, the Houston dodged bombs and detection along the Java Coast until a near suicide encounter with the Japanese fleet in the Sundra Strait broke the gleaming warship’s proud back, spilling its crew of old salts and former farm boys into the great briny blue. The lucky ones died quick. Those that managed to escape the wreckage, stay afloat and swim to nearby shore were rewarded for their bravery with years of unthinkable suffering working as slaves on the Burma-Thailand Death Railway - all while a war-weary nation focused on actions a world theater away.
Nautical author James D. Hornfischer does a yeoman’s job of following the Houston sailor’s improbable journey: from their robust crew of a president’s favorite ship to the battle-tested veterans of countless torpedo attacks to the emaciated skeletons of P.O.W. camp atrocity. For most sunken warship books, the unlucky sailors' plummet into The Drink is the end of the line. In Ship of Ghosts, it is only the beginning: the opening salvo in a gauntlet of torture and disease that the corn-fed young men of Roosevelt’s cruiser could hardly grasp as they traded the hellfire of battle for the comparative safety of shark-infested saltwater. A scant few of the Houston sailors ever made it back home. Those that did went about their lives with the trademark resolve of the Greatest Generation, their distant heroics and deprivation a figment of their imagination’s buried past. Few are still with us now, but both their plight and powers of endurance still awe followers of nautical lore - even a flunkie peacetime squid like myself.