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About the Author

James D. Hornfischer, an American literary agent, naval historian and author, was born in Massachusetts in 1965. He attended Colgate University, where he was elected to the Phi Beta Kappa Society, and graduated in 1987. He received his law degree from the University of Texas at Austin in 2001, and show more is a non-practicing member of the State Bar of Texas. Hornfischer, a former editor at HarperCollins, is currently a literary agent, representing non-fiction authors in a myriad of subject areas. Hornfischer's lifelong interest in the Pacific Theater during World War II led to his writing numerous books on the subject. His titles include: Neptune's Inferno: The U.S. Navy at Guadalcanal, The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors and Ship of Ghosts. He also co-wrote Service: A Navy Seal at War with Marcus Luttrell, the author of Lone Survivor. Hornfischer's title The Fleet at Flood Tide: America at Total War in the Pacific, 1944-1945 made the New York Times bestseller list in 2016. (Bowker Author Biography) show less
Image credit: Historian James Hornfischer at the 2016 Texas Book Festival. By Larry D. Moore, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=53296731

Works by James D. Hornfischer

Associated Works

Service: A Navy SEAL at War (2012) 278 copies


Common Knowledge

Date of death
Places of residence
Austin, Texas, USA
Colgate University
University of Texas (JD)
Naval Order of the United States
Short biography
A native of Massachusetts, and a graduate of Colgate University and the University of Texas School of Law, Hornfischer is a member of the Naval Order of the United States, the Navy League, and was appointed by Texas Governor Rick Perry as an “Admiral in the Texas Navy.” A former New York book editor, Hornfischer is president of the literary agency Hornfischer Literary Management, located in Austin, Texas, where he lives with his wife and their three children. 



With their chances of winning WW2 quickly waning, Imperial Japan hurls one last Pacific offensive against the US at Leyte Gulf. Devising a three-prong attack with top and bottom feints designed to draw US ships away from the center, Japan nearly pulled off a dramatic victory. Against all odds and logic, the center held. This story draws the focus of WW2 down to that center offensive through the San Bernardino straight—where dramatically over-matched US forces stymied what should have been overwhelming forces. There is some well-handled big picture stuff, but the guts and glory of this book is the staggering amount of detail about the American “oil can sailors” and their fate. Once it gets rolling the narrative will take your breath away. Shifting perspective from ship to ship during the course of the battle could have made the book uneven but the tempo never slows.So much is going on, and clearly related, that I kept being stunned when given a time check reminding me almost everything was happening within a 6am to 8am window. Because of the often staggering amount of detail, kept having flashbacks of the first time I saw SAVING PRIVATE RYAN and their assault on Omaha Beach. Even a watered down filming of this could have the same effect. If you love the sea and history, how people and rise and fall confronted by hell, then grab a copy of this and pull up a deck chair.… (more)
KurtWombat | 22 other reviews | Oct 15, 2023 |
James Hornfischer was justly esteemed as a naval historian and his analysis of the Marianas Campaign is up to his best work. Where I think this book is somewhat less successful is when Hornfischer decides to address the end game in the Pacific War, which the campaign was fought to facilitate, and examine the American strategic bombing assault against Japan, culminating in the use of atomic weapons.

Hornfischer concludes that the psychological mindset of the Japanese leadership was the ultimate center of gravity in the war, justifying the use of the worst weapons we had available to break the deadlock that paralyzed the Japanese government's power of decision. In some ways I'm more convinced of this argument than I might have been, say, ten years ago, as I've become much more aware of weaknesses of the Meiji State that allowed the Japanese military to arrogate too much authority. Still, there are times when Hornfischer doesn't seem like he convinces himself with his own argument, as accepting the principles of Total War is an acceptance of the overthrow of all the restrains that aim to maintain proportionality; sometimes ugly is just ugly.

However, I also think those who argued that Hiroshima was really the opening shot of the Soviet-American Cold War, and that this foreclosed a better relationship with Stalin were/are kidding themselves; though that's an argument for another day. Still, to give those folks their due, I have to accept that there's an element of the U.S. government sleep-walking their own way through the decision making process which sticks with me from all that I've read about it. The American choice to use atomic weapons was as riddled with second guessing, sloppy thinking, and self-serving careerism as the Japanese process of avoiding national suicide. This is a long-winded way of saying that FDR was derelict in preparing Truman to preside over the final decision, and even if the right decision was ultimately made, it is not very satisfying. Overall, I still prefer Richard Frank's "Downfall" as an examination of the 1945 endgame, though Hornfischer takes into account Harold Bix's "Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan," which ascribed much more political culpability to the Japanese sovereign than had been done previously. I suppose I'm arguing that another parallel examination of American and Japanese decision-making processes might be in order; hopefully Richard Frank completes his new trilogy about World War II viewed through the filter of the Sino-Japanese war.
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Shrike58 | 7 other reviews | Dec 24, 2022 |
Top account of Leyte Gulf fight in the Philippines when just a few small pocket carriers took on the last big Japanese fleet.
kslade | 22 other reviews | Dec 8, 2022 |
Non-fiction account of one of the lesser known events in WWII: the sinking of the USS Houston, covering the history of the ship itself, first-person accounts of its battles, and the crew’s harrowing experiences as prisoners of war after its sinking. The ship was part of the U.S. Asiatic Fleet in 1942, when the Allies were organizing into a joint fighting force of American, Australian, British, and Dutch. While navigating the Sunda Strait, the USS Houston and HMAS Perth interrupted a large-scale Japanese invasion of Java, were involved in a terrifying night-time battle, and were both sunk. The bulk of the narrative then follows the survivors, who are eventually captured and sent to various POW camps. Many are used as forced labor to build (by hand) the Thai-Burma Railway. The final portions of the book cover the end of the war and how the remaining survivors fared upon returning home.

Hornfischer excels at describing the sounds, sights, smells of the battle scenes:
“The Houston took her first hit when a projectile struck the forecastle, starting fires in the paint locker that danced brightly for about a quarter of an hour. The night air was rancid with cordite. Though the winds were still, the wisps of gray-white muzzle smoke flying from the Houston’s guns fell quickly away, left behind like an airborne wake covering her trail of foam.”

He brings the fears of the sailors to the forefront as they struggle to survive the sinking:
“Lungs burning, Gillan felt himself bump up against the ship’s rail. He was finally free of the enclosed torpedo space. The cord to his miner’s lamp snagged momentarily on the rail, but then he was floating again, being washed up and down, unsure of which direction the surface was. He felt currents whirlpooling around him. The sensation evoked an amusement park ride before the flashing of red, green, and purple lights marked the possibility that his brain was starving for oxygen as he drowned.”

He vividly describes their horrific ordeal on the Thai-Burma Railway, where they endure forced labor, starvation, disease, brutality, and the perils of the jungle:
“Pressured to perform five years of work in twelve short months, they would be given over to the jungle and left to wrestle it toward civilization. They would contend with all its elements—its hardwoods, rocks, and vines, its predators both mammalian and bacterial, under the lash of their enemy and assault from the elements. The work would harden some and consume others. They would forget all but the most basic memories of home, picking their way through a life in captivity that would become the grist for sleepless nights ever afterward.”

Hornfischer has assembled a cohesive and compelling narrative based upon official documents, a compiled library of participants’ voice recordings, and the author’s own interviews many years later. Both the small details of personal stories and the larger context of military strategy are covered. I appreciated the author’s inclusion of insights into how these courageous captives survived such inhumane conditions. The account becomes more fragmented as it progresses. It may have been more cohesive if the author had focused on a more limited number of personal stories in each section. It could also have benefitted by the inclusion of more photos and maps. This book is an absorbing tribute to the men of the USS Houston. Though it can be gut-wrenching to read about the horrors of war, it is ultimately a testament to the triumph of the human spirit in the face of extreme adversity.
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Castlelass | 10 other reviews | Oct 30, 2022 |



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