Death Becomes the Ghost–Volume I: The Glory, Volume II: The Shame, Grade A Productions, New York, two-volume videotape, 1997, $39.95.
The heavy cruiser USS Houston (CA 30) led an existence that was different from most other U.S. Navy ships during World War II. While other cruisers sailed as part of task forces, engaging the Japanese in great carrier battles, Houston was under nearly constant attack from December 7, 1941, until March 1, 1942. Escorting Allied ships around the Java Sea without air cover, Houston was shot at almost daily by Japanese forces. Despite overwhelming odds, the ship’s crew fought on until she sank in the Sunda Straight off Java. Many of her crew became prisoners, forced to endure some of the cruelest treatment experienced at the hands of the Japanese.
Now Houston’s story, as well as that of her crew, is presented in Death Becomes the Ghost, the video. The first volume details Houston’s fight against the Imperial Japanese Navy as it advanced on Australia. The second volume depicts the horrible conditions suffered by her crew.
The video begins with a quote from a sailor, “I was about to experience Asia in first-class style,” while showing sailors packed like sardines in the ship’s sleeping quarters. Houston was the flagship of America’s Asiatic Fleet and President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s favorite vessel. Built to the specifications of the 1922 Washington Naval Treaty, Houston lacked torpedo tubes, a fact that would cost the ship and crew dearly.
When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, they mistakenly claimed Houston as sunk, a claim repeated so often that the ship became known as the “Galloping Ghost of the Java Coast.” Houston began running convoy duty, protecting troop and supply ships from attack.
Unlike most U.S. ships that retired for repairs after receiving battle damage, Houston stayed on the job, braving enemy fire to aid her allies. When she escorted Australian troops to the tiny island of Timor, the convoy came under Japanese bomber attack. Houston’s captain ordered every gun fired into the air while he pulled his ship away from the convoy. The ruse worked. The Japanese concentrated their fire on Houston and ignored the convoy.
On February 27, 1942, Houston, as part of an Allied fleet, clashed with the Japanese at the Battle of Java Sea, one of the earliest sea battles of the war. In the largest battle since Jutland, the Japanese sank 12 Allied ships and declared Houston destroyed.
Despite heavy damage, however, Houston sailed for one more day. On her way back to Australia, the cruiser ran into the Japanese in the Sunda Straight. In a battle so close that opposing sailors could see each other standing on the decks, the Japanese formed their ships in a semicircle around Houston. Unlike Houston, the Japanese ships had torpedoes. After taking four torpedo hits, the valiant cruiser began to go down.
The story of Houston’s sinking, which comes at the end of Volume I, is the best part of that volume. Each veteran explains how he escaped the sinking ship and how the Japanese patrol boats cruised the waters, machine-gunning survivors. Of 1,100 crew members, only 368 men survived to become Japanese POWs. The film footage in the first volume is exceedingly good, especially considering the lack of film at that point in the war. The interviews with veterans also bring the story to life. The video’s only weaknesses are that the maps provide too much information without giving familiar points of reference, and the narrator speaks too quickly, speeding through interesting details and facts.
Volume II finds the survivors rounded up and marched off to POW camps. Otto Schwartz recounts how he was marched barefoot down an asphalt road that had turned into melted tar under the tropical sun. For four days he and a band of other captured sailors marched without food or water into captivity, occasionally smacked with a rifle butt if they stepped out of line. “Everyone was wounded in some manner,” explains Schwartz, but they received no medical treatment and soon began to succumb to dysentery.
After weeks of internment in Java, the POWs were put into the holds of cargo ships that had previously carried animals. With no sanitation facilities or food, and constantly at risk of being sunk by Allied submarines, the transports became known as “hell ships.”
The POWs were sent to Burma to build a railroad connecting Burma to Thailand. American sea and air attacks on Japanese merchant shipping had forced the Japanese to use land routes and complete a railroad through the jungles of Burma, which most engineers considered impossible to build. In dense, steaming jungles, 61,000 Allied POWs and 200,000 natives slaved to build a railroad with crude tools.
POWs survived on daily rations of a half cup of rice infested with maggots and rat droppings. Allied bombers constantly attacked. Japanese officers subjected POWs to “speedos”–14- to 16-hour work shifts on half rations. But tropical ulcers were the men’s greatest fear. They could start as simple scratches and end up as huge sores that ate down to the bone. The only cure was to cut away the rotted flesh, amputate the affected limb–without anesthesia–or, what some men resorted to, pile maggots into the wound and hope that they would eat away the infection.
The stories of the railroad are filled with detailed sketches of brutality and stark photos of prisoners so skinny that they look like walking skeletons. More than one veteran in the video becomes teary-eyed as he recounts the ordeal. It is hard to believe any of the men could have made it back home alive.
After the prisoners survived 3 1/2 years of these horrendous conditions, their Japanese guards told them that they were now the lords of the camps and the Japanese were their prisoners. Veteran interviews reveal that the Japanese had been planning to kill all the POWs on August 22, 1945. The dropping of the atomic bombs on mainland Japan saved their lives. The video concludes with the men of Houston returning home, greeting relatives and reflecting on their wartime service 50 years later.
Death Becomes the Ghost is one of the finest World War II documentaries ever made. The film footage provides a fascinating look at the all-but-forgotten Houston and her crew. The POW segments might be disturbing to watch, but they make viewers appreciate how happy veterans were to make it home alive. This video is excellent source material for anyone researching the American fleet in the opening months of the war or anyone interested in the human drama of World War II.
Kevin M. Hymel