SPECIAL TO THE AMERICAN-STATESMAN
Sunday, December 24, 2006
Pearl Harbor, Annapolis . . . Austin? It might seem an unlikely roll call, but landlocked Central Texas has a proud place in the annals of U.S. Navy history, now documented in local writer Jim Hornfischer's "Ship of Ghosts."
The book, Hornfischer's second, offers a harrowing account of the sinking of the USS Houston by the Japanese in 1942. It also tells the little-known story of "The Lost Battalion," a detachment of Texas National Guard artillerymen from Camp Mabry taken prisoner at the same time. Hornfischer recounts in thrilling detail how the Texans and the survivors of the Houston endured 3 1/2 years as prisoners of war and participated in the building of the infamous Burma-Thailand Death Railway, an event romanticized by the David Lean movie "The Bridge on the River Kwai."
"Finding a story like this was the last thing on my mind when I moved to Austin in 1993," says Hornfischer. "But it turns out I landed at ground zero, so to speak. Not only is Fredericksburg the birthplace of Chester Nimitz and home to the National Museum of the Pacific War, but the Texas Military Forces Museum at Camp Mabry has a room dedicated to the Burma-Thailand railway that covers the fate of the Lost Battalion and the men of the Houston." (Nimitz was the U.S. and Allied forces commander in chief in the Pacific during World War II.)
Hornfischer has a keen ear and eye for a good war narrative. His first book, "The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors," told the story of a World War II battle in which a small U.S. fleet faced down a far larger Japanese force in a 2 1/2-hour slugfest. It won the 2004 Samuel Eliot Morison Award for Naval Literature and has been added to the syllabus of the Navy's Professional Reading program. Hornfischer, who also works as a literary agent, was responsible for getting James Bradley and Ron Powers' mega-bestseller "Flags of our Fathers" into print and selling it to DreamWorks. (The Clint Eastwood-directed film adaptation was released in October.)
Hornfischer first heard about the Houston from his client James L. Haley, who had researched the events for one of his histories of Texas. "He turned me on to the dramatic possibilities of the story," says Hornfischer.
As it turned out, he didn't have far to travel for research. In addition to the resources at Camp Mabry, Ronald Marcello at the University of North Texas has been compiling testimonies from survivors for many years. Val Poss, the president of the USS Houston Survivors Association, lives up the road in Round Rock. She and Otto Schwarz — a hero of the book, who died in August — collected numerous artifacts, videotaped interviews and taped oral histories.
"These people have dedicated much of their lives to honoring the memory of the crew of the Houston and the Lost Battalion, and I am in their debt," Hornfischer says.
Prior to the war, the Houston — which had been commissioned after the residents of Houston campaigned to have a ship named in their honor — had been a favorite of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who used the ship for four long trips. The president became an honorary member of the crew; he participated in the raucous hazing sailors undergo when crossing the equator for the first time and demonstrated his common touch by inviting enlisted men on fishing trips.
After hostilities broke out, Roosevelt's war plan left the Houston to fend for itself. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, the Houston was patrolling the waters between the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) and the Philippines. After a handful of dangerous skirmishes, it was torn apart by the Japanese Navy shortly after midnight March 1, 1942.
From the moment the Houston sinks, the book's human drama escalates. Only 368 of the more than 1,000 crewmen lived to make it to Java, where they were imprisoned by the Japanese. A few days later, their fate became entwined with that of 534 artillerymen from Camp Mabry who had also been taken prisoner. When the Guardsmen first appeared in the camp, they made it clear where their loyalties lay. The sailors greeted them heartily with: "Hey, Yanks!," but were quickly corrected. "We're not Yanks," replied the Guardsmen. "We're Texans."
The two groups had more in common than you might think. The sailors were mostly farm boys, a breed deemed "most desirable material" by the pre-war Navy. The Texans hailed largely from small rural towns and shared similar values with the sailors. "These guys were the pre-war enlistees who were not motivated to go in as revenge for Pearl Harbor," explains Hornfischer. "There was a different dynamic at work. A lot of these guys joined the military as an adjunct to the New Deal, or to escape a broken home. For example, one sailor in the book, Howard Charles, joined to get away from his SOB stepfather in Kansas."
The two units were shipped to Singapore and Burma, where they were forced into slave labor, enduring lice infestation, 20-foot pythons, rotten rice, dysentery and cholera. Hornfischer says the privation the men endured was so brutal he "struggled to make the book readable, so someone would want to keep turning the pages."
He focuses on the captives' efforts to undermine the railroad, not, as "Bridge on the River Kwai" would have you believe, to build a viable railroad out of a misdirected form of pride. "That movie either amuses or enrages the veterans," says Hornfischer, "One vet told me, 'Those guys were in the Hilton compared to what we had.' The movie succeeds on its own terms, but those terms are very different from history."
In one telling real-life episode, prisoners Howard Charles and Frank King snuck out of their hut, stole a pair of wire cutters and sabotaged a railroad flatcar loaded with rails. The next morning, when the engineers started the locomotive, the heavy rails slid loose, impaling a handful of Japanese who were riding in the caboose. The Americans behaved "like special forces operatives — starving, brutalized special forces operatives — working behind enemy lines, doing what they could on instinct and guts," writes Hornfischer. "They seized their opportunities in the theater of combat operations just as any soldier, sailor or Marine would do."
Despite the Americans' rebellious nature, just two prisoners managed to escape the camps before the rest were freed at the end of the war. In all, 77 crew members from the Houston and 87 from the Lost Battalion died in Japanese captivity.
Hornfischer says it's an honor to tell the tale of these heroic souls in detail for the first time. He also sees the book as a corrective to a popular misconception about the soldiers who fought in World War II. "Some people talk about the Greatest Generation as an aspect of character that crystallized mysteriously in this generation. But when you look at the Houston, you realize these guys came out of the Depression and the 'Hungry '30s.' You can see rather clearly that deprivation provided an unlikely preparation for this ordeal. The Navy didn't prepare them. Life did."