I recently watched the movie Unbroken, about down Army Air Force pilot Louis Zamperini and it reminded me of a book I’ve been meaning to mention for a while. Ship of Ghosts is by James D. Hornfischer and it chronicles the ordeal of the USS Houston (CA-30). The Houston was one of the few ships of the US Asiatic Fleet that had the unenviable task of trying to hold back the Imperial Japanese Navy during the early days of the Second World War. Like so many ships in that fleet, the Houston was eventually sunk by the Japanese.
Most of the crew that survived fell into the hands of the Japanese.
For those unfamiliar with what that entailed, the Japanese had not signed the Geneva Conventions. Their military culture at the time also strongly believed that death for the country was one of the highest honors. The Japanese war machine simply had no allowance for soldiers who failed to fight to the death. On either side of a conflict.
The result was that those men captured by the Japanese would suffer some of the hardest years of their lives, enduring torture, forced labor, starvation, disease and death.
If the title was not enough to warn you, Ship of Ghosts is not a story of uplifting triumph. Some of the men do survive, in fact we only have the survivor’s voices to tell the tales. But what they endured is fascinating only in how horrible it was and in that anyone could survive it.
Like all good histories, Ship of Ghosts lets us meet the characters we’re about to learn about before things go wrong. We follow them out to the under supplied, aging Asiatic Fleet where almost nothing happens but where everyone expects something to go wrong soon enough. We watch the Houston run before the raging storm of the ascendant Japanese Navy. It fights and eventually dies, and the good ship’s labors are done. But the men have three long years to survive.
What they endure is not fun reading. But it is the kind of thing everyone should read. People did endure these things, they did survive them. Kind of puts our lives into perspective. And they did these things for us. And that, perhaps, is why we don’t want to hear about them. Because if we accept that these events are real, and they have real motivations, what are the consequences for our lives? Have we been grateful for what they gave? And do they deserve something beyond gratitude?
Frankly, until you’ve read a book like Ship of Ghosts, those are questions you can’t even begin to appreciate, much less answer. And even if appreciating the question is all you can do, you’ll be better for it.