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The ‘Nightmare’ Night USS Houston Went Down

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USS Houston (CA-30) in 1934. US Navy Photo

USS Houston (CA-30) in 1934. US Navy Photo

The following is a first person account of the 1942 Battles of Java and Sunda Strait. The work was published in the February 1949 issue of Proceedings as, “The Galloping Ghost.” The text is presented unaltered and includes language some could find offensive.

On the night of February 28, 1942, the U.S.S. Houston, Admiral Tommy Hart’s former Asiatic flagship, vanished without a trace somewhere off the Northwest coast of Java. The mystery of the Houston remained complete until the war ended and small groups of survivors were discovered in Japs prisoner of war camps, scattered from the island of Java through the Malay Peninsula, the jungles of Burma and Thailand, and northward to the Islands of Japan.

Of the 1,008 officers and men who manned her, approximately 350 escaped from the sinking ship, only to be captured in the jungles of Java, or as they floundered helplessly in the sea. Of the original survivors, only 266 lived through the ordeal of filth and brutal treatment meted out to them in Japs prisoner of war camps.

To me the story of the U.S.S. Houston, especially the last three weeks of her valiant battle against tremendous odds, is one of the great epics of the United States Navy, yet historians of World War II seem to have neglected it completely.

What happened to the Houston that night is a nightmare of many years standing, yet each incident of that wild battle lives in my mind as vividly as though it happened only minutes ago.

On that fateful evening of February 28, 1942, I stood on the quarterdeck contemplating the restful green of the Java Coast as it fell slowly behind us. Many times before I had found solace in its beauty, but this night it seemed only a mass of coconut and banana palms that had lost all meaning. I was too tired and too preoccupied with pondering the question that raced through the mind of every man aboard, “Would we get through Sunda Strait?”

There were many aboard who felt that, like a cat, the Houston had expended eight of its nine lives and that this one last request of fate would be too much. Japs cruiser planes had shadowed us all day and it was certain that our movements were no mystery to the enemy forces closing in on Java. Furthermore, it was most logical to conclude that Japs submarines were stationed throughout the length of Sunda Strait to intercept and destroy ships attempting escape into the Indian Ocean.

Actually there wasn’t any breathing space for optimism, we were trapped, but there had been other days when the odds were stacked heavily in the Jap’s favor and we had somehow managed to battle through. Maybe it was because I had the Naval Aviator’s philosophical outlook and maybe it was because I was just a plain damn fool, but I couldn’t quite bring myself to believe that the Houston had run her course. It was with this feeling of shaky confidence that I turned and headed for my stateroom. I had just been relieved as Officer-of-the-Deck and the prospect of a few hours rest was most appealing.

The wardroom and the interior of the ship, through which I walked, was dark, for the heavy metal battle ports were bolted shut and lights were not permitted within the darkened ship. Only the eerie blue beams of a few battle lights close to the deck served to guide my feet. I felt my way through the narrow companionway and snapped on my flashlight briefly to seek out the coaming of my stateroom door. As I stepped into the cubicle that was my room, I took a brief look around and switched off the light. There had been no change, everything lay as it had for the last two and a half months. There had been only one addition in all that time. It was Gus, my silent friend, the beautiful Bali head I had purchased six weeks before in Soerabaja.

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Gus sat on the desktop lending his polished wooden expression to the cramped atmosphere of my stateroom. In the darkness I felt his presence as though he were a living thing. “We’ll get through, won’t we, Gus?” I found myself saying. And although I couldn’t see him, I thought he nodded slowly.

I slipped out of my shoes and placed them at the base of the chair by my desk, along with my tin hat and life jacket, where I could reach them quickly in an emergency. Then I rolled into my bunk and let my exhausted body sink into its luxury. The bunk was truly a luxury, for the few men who were permitted to relax lay on the steel decks by their battle stations. I, being an aviator with only the battered shell of our last airplane left aboard, was permitted to take what rest I could get in my room.

Although there had been little sleep for any of us during the past four days, I found myself lying there in the sticky tropic heat of my room fretfully tossing and trying for sleep that would not come.

The constant hum of blowers thrusting air into the bowels of the ship, the Houston’s gentle rolling as she moved through a quartering sea, and the occasional groaning of her steel plates combined to bring into my mind the mad merry-go-round of events that had plagued the ship during the past few weeks.

USS Houston (CA-30) escorts merchant ships in the Timor Sea, in February 1942. The photo was takten from the Australian Grimsby-class corvette HMAS Swan (U74). Australian War Memorial Photo

USS Houston (CA-30) escorts merchant ships in the Timor Sea, in February 1942. The photo was takten from the Australian Grimsby-class corvette HMAS Swan (U74). Australian War Memorial Photo

Twenty-four days had elapsed since that terrifying day in the Flores Sea, yet here it was haunting me again as it would for the rest of my life. My mind pictured the squadrons of Japs bombers as they attacked time and again from every conceivable direction. After the first run they remained at altitudes far beyond range of our anti-aircraft guns, for they had learned respect on that first run when one of their planes was blasted from the sky and several others were obviously hit and badly shaken. But that first salvo almost finished the Houston. It was a perfect straddle, and the force of those big bombs seemed as though a giant hand had taken the ship, lifted her bodily from the water, and tossed her yards away form her original course. There had been no personnel casualties that time but our main anti-aircraft director had been wrenched from its track, rendering it useless, and we were taking water aboard from sprung plates in the hull.

That day the crew had only the steady barrage from the anti-aircraft guns and Captain Rook’s clever handling of the ship to thank for keeping them from the realms of Davy Jones. But there was one horrible period during that afternoon when the Nips almost got us for keeps. A five-hundred pound bomb, and a stray at that, hit us squarely amidships aft. Some utterly stupid Jap bombardier failed to release with the rest of his squadron and Captain Rooks could make no allowances for such as him. The salvo fell harmlessly off the port quarter but the stray crashed through two platforms of the main mast before it exploded on the deck just forward of number three turret. Hunks of shrapnel tore through the turrets thin armor as though it were paper, igniting powder bags in the hoists. In one blazing instant all hands in the turret and in the handling rooms below were dead. Where the bomb spent its force, a gaping hole was blown in the deck below which waited the after repair party. They were wiped out almost to a man. It was a hellish battle which ended with forty-eight of our shipmates killed and another fifty seriously burned or wounded.

I strove desperately to rid myself of the picture of that blazing turret—the bodies of the dead sprawled grotesquely in pools of blood and the bewildered wounded staggering forward for medical aid—but I was forced to see it through. Once again I heard the banging of hammers, hammers that pounded throughout the long night as tired men worked steadily building coffins for forty-eight shipmates lying in little groups on the fantail. We put into Chilatjap the following day, that stinking fever ridden little port on the South Coast of Java. Here we sadly unloaded our wounded and prepared to bury our dead. It seemed that in the hum of the blowers I detected strains of the Death March—the same mournful tune that the band played as we carried our comrades through the heat of those sunburned, dusty streets of Chilatjap. I saw again the brown poker-faced natives dressed in sarongs, quietly watching us as we buried our dead in the little Dutch cemetery that looked out over the sea. I wondered what those slim brown men thought of all this.

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The scene shifted. It was only four days ago that we steamed through the minefields protecting the beautiful port of Soerabaja. Air raid sirens whined throughout the city and our lookouts reported bombers in the distant sky. Large warehouses along the docks were on fire and a burning merchantman lay on its side vomiting dense black smoke and orange flame. The enemy had come and left his calling card. We anchored in the stream not far from the smoldering docks where we watched Netherlands East Indian soldiers extinguish the fires.

Six times during the next two days we experienced air raids. Anchored there in the stream we were as helpless as ducks in a rain barrel. Why our gun crews didn’t collapse is a tribute to their sheer guts and brawn. They stood by their guns unflinchingly in the hot sun, pouring shell after shell into the sky while the rest of us sought what shelter is available in the bullseye of a target.

Time and again bombs falling with the deep throated swoosh of a giant bullwhip exploded around us, spewing water and shrapnel over our decks. Docks less than a hundred yards away were demolished and a Dutch hospital ship was hit, yet the Houston, nicknamed “the Galloping Ghost of the Java Coast” because the Japs had reported her sunk on so many similar occasions, still rode defiantly at anchor.

When the siren’s bailful wailing sounded the “all clear,” members of the Houston‘s band came from their battle stations to the quarterdeck where we squatted to hear them play swing tunes. God bless the American sailor, you can’t beat him.

Like Scrooge, the ghosts of the past continued to move into my little room. I saw us in the late afternoon of February 26, standing out of Soerabaja for the last time. Admiral Doorman of the Netherlands Navy was in command of our small striking force. His flagship, the light cruiser De Ruyter, was in the lead, followed by another Netherlands light cruiser, the Java. Next in line came the British heavy cruiser Exeter of Graf Spee fame, followed by the crippled Houston. Last in the line of cruisers was the Australian light cruiser Perth. Ten allied destroyers made up the remainder of our force. Slowly we steamed past the ruined docks where small groups of old men, women, and children had assembled to wave tearful goodbyes to their men who would not return.

Map of the Battle of Java Sea. Naval History and Heritage Command Image

Map of the Battle of Java Sea. Naval History and Heritage Command Image

Our force was small and hurriedly assembled. We had never worked together before, but now we had one common purpose which every man knew it was his duty to carry through. We were to do our utmost to break up an enemy task force that was bearing down on Java, even though it meant the loss of every ship and man among us. In us lay the last hope of the Netherlands East Indies.

All night long we searched for the enemy convoy but they seemed to have vanished from previously reported positions. We were still at battle stations the next afternoon when at 1415 reports from air reconnaissance indicated that the enemy was south of Bowen Island, and heading south. The two forces were less than fifty miles apart. A hurried but deadly serious conference of officers followed in the wardroom. Commander Maher, our gunnery officer, explained that our mission was to sink or disperse the protecting enemy fleet units and then destroy the convoy. My heart pounded with excitement, for the battle later to be known as the Java Sea Battle was only a matter of minutes away. Were the sands of time running out for the Houston and all of us who manned her? At that moment I would have given my soul to have known.

In the darkness of my room the Japs came again just as though I were standing on the bridge . . . a forest of masts rapidly developing into ships that climbed in increasing numbers over the horizon. . . those dead ahead, ten destroyers divided into two columns and each led by a four stack light cruiser. Behind them and off our starboard bow came four light cruisers followed by two heavies. The odds weigh heavily against us for we are outnumbered and outgunned.

The Japs open fire first. Sheets of copper colored flame lick out along their battle line and black smoke momentarily masks them from view. My heart pounds violently and cold sweat drenches my body as I realize that the first salvo is on its way. Somehow those big shells all seem aimed at me. I wonder why our guns don’t open up, but as the Jap shells fall harmlessly a thousand yards short I realize that the range is yet too great. The battle from which there will be no retreat has begun.

At twenty-eight thousand yards the Exeter opens fire, followed by the Houston. The sound of our guns bellowing defiance is terrific, the gun blast tears my steel helmet from my head and sends it rolling on the deck.

The Royal Navy cruiser HMS Exeter (68) and the Australian cruiser HMAS Hobart (D63) under aerial attack by Japanese aircraft in seas of South East Asia. A Dutch destroyer is visible at right. Most probably this image was taken as the ship was passing through the Gaspar Straights, Indonesia, 14-15 February 1942. Imperial War Museums Photo

The Royal Navy cruiser HMS Exeter (68) and the Australian cruiser HMAS Hobart (D63) under aerial attack by Japanese aircraft in seas of South East Asia. A Dutch destroyer is visible at right. Most probably this image was taken as the ship was passing through the Gaspar Straights, Indonesia, 14-15 February 1942. Imperial War Museums Photo

The range closes rapidly and soon all cruisers are in on the fight. Salvos of shells splash in the water ever closer to us. Now one falls close to starboard followed by another close to port. This is an ominous indicator that the Japs have at last found the range. We stand tensely awaiting the next salvo, and it comes with a wild screaming of shells that fall all around us. It’s a straddle, but not a hit is registered. Four more salvos in succession straddle the Houston, and the lack of a hit gives us confidence. The Perth, 900 yards astern of us, is straddled eight times in a row, yet she too steams on unscathed. Our luck is holding out.

Shells from our guns are observed bursting close to the last Jap heavy cruiser. We have her range and suddenly one of our eight-inch bricks strikes home. There is an explosion aboard her. Black smoke and debris fly into the air and a fire breaks out forward of her bridge. We draw blood first as she turns out of the battle line, making dense smoke. Commander Maher, directing the fire of our guns from his station high in the foretop, reports our success to the Captain over the phone. A lusty cheer goes up from the crew as the word spreads over the ship.

Three enemy cruisers are concentrating their fire on Exeter. We shift targets to give her relief, but it is not long after this that Exeter shells find their mark and a light cruiser turns out of the Jap line, smoking and on fire. Despite the loss of two cruisers, the intensity of Jap fire does not seem to diminish. The Houston is hit twice. One shell rips through the bow just aft of the port anchor windlass, passes down through several decks and out the side just above the water line without exploding. The other shell, hitting aft, barely grazes the side and ruptures a small oil tank. It too fails to explode.

Up to this point the luck of our forces had held up well, but now there is a rapid turn of events as the Exeter is hit by a Jap shell which does not explode, but rips into her forward fireroom and severs a main steam line. This reduces her speed to seven knots. In an attempt to save the Exeter, whose loss of speed makes her an easy target, we all make smoke to cover her withdrawal. The Japs, aware that something has gone wrong, are quick to press home an advantage, and their destroyers, under heavy support fire from the cruisers, race in to deliver a torpedo attack.

The water seems alive with torpedoes. Lookouts report them approaching and Captain Rooks maneuvers the ship to present as small a target as possible. At this moment a Netherlands East Indies destroyer, the Koertner, trying to change stations, is hit amidships by a torpedo intended for the Houston. There is a violent explosion and a great fountain of water rises a hundred feet above her, obscuring all but small portions of her bow and stern. When the watery fountain settles back into the sea it becomes apparent that the little green and grey destroyer has broken in half and turned over. Only the bow and stern sections of her jackknifed keel stick above the water. A few men scramble desperately to her barnacled bottom, and her twin screws in their last propulsive effort turn slowly over in the air. In less than two minutes she has disappeared beneath the sea. No one can stand by to give the few survivors a helping hand for her fate can be ours at any instant.

Naval History and Heritage Command Image

Naval History and Heritage Command Image

It is nearing sundown. The surface of the sea is covered with clouds of black smoke, which makes it difficult to spot the enemy. It is discovered that Jap cruisers are closing in upon us, and our destroyers are ordered to attack with torpedoes in order to divert them and give us time to reform. Although no hits are reported, the effect of the attack is gratifying for the Japs turn away. At this point the engagement is broken off. The daylight battle has ended with no decisive results; however, there is still the convoy, which we will attempt to surprise under the cover of night.

We check our losses. The Koertner and H.M.S. Electra have been sunk. The crippled Exeter has retired to Soerabaja, escorted by the American destroyers, who have expended their torpedoes and are running low on fuel. The Houston, Perth, De Ruyter, and Java are still in the fight, but showing the jarring effects of continuous gunfire. Only two destroyers remain with us, H.M.S. Jupiter and H.M.S. Encounter.

The Houston had fired 303 rounds of ammunition per turret, and only fifty rounds per gun remain. The loss of number three turret has been a great handicap, but there are no complaints for the Houston has done well. The Chief Engineer reports that his force is on the verge of complete exhaustion and that there have been more than seventy cases of heat exhaustion in the fire rooms during the afternoon’s battle. We are in poor fighting condition, but there is plenty more to be done.

During the semi-darkness of twilight we steam on a course away from the enemy in order to lead any of their units which might have us under observation into believing that we are in retreat. When darkness descends we turn and head back.

Shortly after this H.M.S. Jupiter, covering our port flank, explodes mysteriously and vanishes in a brief but brilliant burst of flame. We are dumbfounded, for the enemy is not to be seen yet we race on puzzling over her fate and blindly seeking the transports.

HMS Jupiter (F85) HMS Kashmir is in the background in 1940. Imperial War Museums Photo

HMS Jupiter (F85) HMS Kashmir is in the background in 1940. Imperial War Museums Photo

An hour passes with nothing intervening to interrupt our search, and then high in the sky above us a flare bursts, shattering the darkness. Night has suddenly become day and we are illuminated like targets in a shooting gallery. We are helpless to defend ourselves, for we have no such thing as radar, and the plane merely circles outside our range of vision to drop another flare after the first one burns itself out, following it with another and still another.

We cannot know for sure, but certainly it is logical to assume that the enemy is closing in for the kill. Blinded by the flares we wait through tense minutes for the blow to come.

On the ship men speak in hushed tones as though their very words will give our position away to the enemy. Only the rush of water as our bow knifes through the sea at thirty knots, and the continuous roaring of blowers from the vicinity of the quarterdeck, are audible. Death stands by, ready to strike. No one talks of it although all thoughts dwell upon it.

The fourth flare bursts, burns, and then slowly falls into the sea. We are enveloped in darkness again. No attack has come, and as time passes it becomes evident that the plane has gone away. How wonderful is the darkness, yet how terrifying to realize that the enemy is aware of our every move and merely biding his time like a cat playing with a mouse.

The moon has come up to assist in our search for the convoy. It has been almost an hour since the last flare, and nothing has happened to indicate that the enemy has us under observation. During this period Ensign Stivers has relieved me as officer of the deck. I climb up on the forward anti-aircraft director platform and sprawl out to catch a bit of rest before the inevitable shooting begins. I hardly close my eyes before there comes the sound of whistles and shouting men. I am back on my feet in a hurry and look over the side. The water is dotted with groups of men yelling in some strange tongue which I cannot understand. H.M.S. Encounter is ordered to remain behind to rescue them.

Now we are four, three light cruisers and one heavy. We plow on through the eerie darkness. Suddenly out of nowhere six flares appear in the water along our line of ships. They resemble those round smoke pots that burn alongside road constructions with a yellow flame. What exactly are they, and how did they get there? Are they some form of mine, or is their purpose to mark our path for the enemy? No one dares to guess. Either eventuality is bad enough.

As fast as we leave one group astern, another group bobs up alongside. We cannot account for them, and this oriental deviltry is as bewildering as it is confusing. None of us has ever seen such a phenomenon before. We continue to move away from them, but other groups of floating flares appear.

The uncertainty of what is to follow is nerve wracking. We look back and there, marking our track on the oily surface of the sea, are zig-zag lines of flares which rock and burn like ghoulish jack-o-lanterns. We leave them on the far horizon and no more appear. We are again in welcome darkness.

At approximately 2230, lookouts report two large unidentified ships to port, range 12,000 yards. There are no friendly ships within hundreds of miles of us, therefore these are the enemy. The Houston opens up with two main battery salvos, the results of which are not determined, and the Japs reply with two of their own which throw water over the forecastle. With this exchange of fire the Japs disappear in the darkness and we make no effort to chase them, for we need all of our ammunition to sink transports.

There is no relaxing now. We are in the area where anything can happen. Hundreds of eyes peer into the night seeking the convoy, as we realize that the end of our mission is approaching.

During the night the order of ships in column has been shifted. The De Ruyter still maintained the lead, but behind her comes the Houston, following by the Java and Perth in that order.

A half hour passes without incident, and then with the swiftness of a lightning bolt a tremendous explosion rocks the Java 900 yards astern of the Houston. Mounting flames envelop her amidships and spread rapidly aft. She loses speed and drops out of the column to lie dead in the water, where sheets of uncontrolled flame consume her.

Torpedo wakes are observed in the water, although we can find no enemy to fight back. The De Ruyter changes course sharply to the right, and the Houston is just about to follow when an explosion similar to the one that doomed the Java is heard aboard the De Ruyter. Crackling flames shoot high above her bridge, quickly enveloping the entire ship.

Naval History and Heritage Command Image

Naval History and Heritage Command Image

Captain Rooks, in a masterpiece of seamanship and quick thinking, maneuvers the Houston to avoid torpedoes that slip past us ten feet on either side. Then joined by the Perth, we race away from the stricken ships and the insidious enemy that no one can see. How horrible it is to leave our allies, but we are powerless to assist them. Now that Admiral Doorman has gone down with his blazing flagship, the Captain of the Perth takes command, for he is senior to Captain Rooks, and we follow the Perth as he sets a course for Batavia.

What an infernal night, and how lucky we are to escape. It seems almost miraculous when the sun comes up on the next morning, February 28, for there have been many times during the past fifteen hours when I would have sworn we would never see it.

The Houston was a wreck. Concussions from the eight-inch guns had played merry hell with the ship’s interior. Every desk on the ship had its drawers torn out and the contents spewn over the deck. In lockers, clothes were torn from their hangers and pitched in muddled heaps. Pictures, radios, books, and everything of a like nature were jolted from their normal places and dashed on the deck.

Franklin D. Roosevelt in the admiral's cabin onboard USS Houston in 1939. National Archives and Records Administration Photo

Franklin D. Roosevelt in the admiral’s cabin onboard USS Houston in 1939. National Archives and Records Administration Photo

The Admiral’s cabin was a deplorable sight. At one time it had been President Roosevelt’s cabin, but no one could have recognized it now as such. Clocks lay broken on the deck, furniture was overturned, mirrors were cracked, charts were ripped from the bulkhead, and large pieces of soundproofing that had come loose from the bulkheads and overhead were thick in the rubble on the deck.

The ship itself had suffered considerably. Plates already weakened by near hits in previous bombing attacks were now badly sprung and leaking. The glass windows on the bridge were shattered. Fire hose strung along the passageways were leaking and minor floods made it sloppy underfoot.

The Houston was wounded and practically out of ammunition, but there was still fight left in her, plenty of it.

These events accompanied by many others played upon my mind in the minutest detail, until at last my senses became numb and I relaxed in sleep.

It was nearly 2400 when, Clang! Clang! Clang! Clang!, the nerve shattering “General Alarm” burst through my wonderful cocoon of sleep and brought me upright on both feet. Through two and a half months of war that gong, calling all hands to battle stations, had rung in deadly earnest. It meant only one thing, “Danger”—man your battle station and get ready to fight. So thoroughly had the lessons of war been taught us to the sharp, heartless clanging of that gong that I found myself in my shoes before I was even awake.

Clang! Clang! Clang! Clang! The sound echoed along the steel bulkheads of the ship’s deserted interior. I wondered what kind of deviltry we were mixed up in now, and somehow I felt depressed. I grabbed my tin hat as I left the room and was putting it on my head when a salvo from the main battery roared out overhead, knocking me against the bulkhead. We were desperately short of those eight-inch bricks and I knew that the boys weren’t wasting them on mirages. I flashed my light to assist me in passing through the deserted wardroom and into the passageway at the other end, where a group of stretcher-bearers and corpsmen were assembled. I asked them but they didn’t seem to know what we had run into. I left them and climbed the ladder leading to the bridge.

As I climbed there was more firing from the main battery, and now the five-inch guns were taking up the argument. I realized that it was getting to be one hell of a battle and I started running. On the Communication deck where the one-point-one’s were getting into action, I passed their gun crews working swiftly, mechanically in the darkness without a hitch, as their guns pumped out shell after shell. Momentarily I caught a glimpse of tracers hustling out into the night. They were beautiful.

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Before I reached the bridge every gun on the ship was in action. The noise they made was magnificent. The Houston was throwing knockout punches. How reassuring it was to hear, at measured intervals, the blinding crash of the main battery, the sharp rapid crack of the five-inch guns, the steady methodic pom, pom, pom, pom, of the one-point-one’s; and above all that, from their platforms high in the foremast and in the mainmast, came the continuous sweeping volleys of fifty-caliber machine guns which had been put there as anti-aircraft weapons, but which now suddenly found themselves engaging enemy surface targets.

As I stepped on the bridge the Houston became enveloped in the blinding glare of searchlights. Behind the lights I could barely discern the outlines of Jap destroyers. They had come in close to illuminate for their heavy units which fired at us from the darkness. Battling desperately for existence the Houston‘s guns trained on the lights, and as fast as they were turned on, just as fast were they blasted out.

Although the bridge was the Houston‘s nerve center, I was unable to find out what we were up against. This was mainly because the tempo of the battle was so great and every man stationed there so vitally concerned with his immediate duty that I was reluctant to butt in at such a time and ask a question that had little relative meaning. What we had actually run into was later estimated to be sixty fully loaded transports, twenty destroyers, and six cruisers. We were in the middle of this mass of ships before either side was aware of the other’s presence.

Suddenly surrounded by ships, the Perth and Houston immediately opened fire and turned sharply to starboard in an effort to break free. However, the fury of the Japs was not to be denied and the Perth was mortally wounded by torpedoes. Lying dead in the water she continued to fire with everything she had until Jap shells blasted her to bits and she sank.

When Captain Rooks realized that the Perth was finished he turned the Houston back into the heart of the Jap convoy, determined in the face of no escape to sell the Houston dearly.

Dennis Adams' painting "HMAS Perth in the Battle of Sunda Strait." Australian War Memorial

Dennis Adams’ painting “HMAS Perth in the Battle of Sunda Strait.” Australian War Memorial

At close range the Houston pounded the Jap transports with everything she had, and at the same time fought off the destroyers that were attacking with torpedoes and shellfire. Jap cruisers remained in the background, throwing salvo after salvo aboard and around us. The Houston was taking terrible punishment. A torpedo penetrated our after engine room, where it exploded, killing every man there and reducing our speed to fifteen knots.

Thick smoke and hot steam venting on the gun deck from the after engine room temporarily drove men from their guns but they came back and stayed there in spite of it. Power went out of the shell hoists which stopped the flow of five-inch shells to the guns, from the almost empty magazines. Men attempted to go below and bring shells up by hand, but debris and fires from numerous hits blocked their way. In spite of this they continued to fire, using star shells which were stowed in the ready ammunition boxes by the guns.

Number Two turret, smashed by a direct hit, blew up, sending wild flames flashing up over the bridge. The heat, so intense that it drove everyone out of the conning tower, temporarily disrupted communications to other parts of the ship. The fire was soon extinguished, but when the sprinklers flooded the magazine our last remaining supply of eight-inch ammunition was ruined, which meant that the Houston was now without a main battery.

Numerous fires were breaking out all over the ship and it became increasingly difficult for the men to cope with them. Another torpedo plowed into the Houston somewhere forward of the quarterdeck. The force of the explosion made the ship tremble beneath us, and I realized then that we were done for.

Slowly we listed to starboard as the grand old ship gradually lost steerageway and stopped. The few guns still in commission continued to fire, although it was obvious that the end was near. It must have torn at the Captain’s heart, but his voice was strong as he summoned the bugler and ordered him to sound “Abandon Ship.”

When I heard the words “Abandon Ship” I did not wait to go down the ladder which already had a capacity crowd, with men waiting; instead I jumped over the railing to the deck below. That was probably a fortunate move, for just as I jumped a shell burst on the bridge, killing several men. I trotted out on the port catapult tower where the battered and unflyable hulk of our last airplane spread its useless wings in the darkness. It contained a rubber boat and a bottle of brandy, both of which I figured would come in handy, but I was not alone in this, for five people were there ahead of me.

Despite the fact that we were still the target for continuous shells and the ship was slowly sinking beneath us, there was no confusion. Men went quietly and quickly about the job of abandoning ship. Fear was nowhere apparent, due possibly to the fact that the one thing we feared most throughout the short space of the war had happened.

Captain Rooks had come down off the bridge and was saying goodbye to several of his officers and men outside his cabin, when a Jap shell exploded in a one-point-one gun mount, sending a piece of the breach crashing into his chest. Captain Rooks, beloved by officers and men, died in their arms.

When Buda, the Captain’s Chinese cook, learned that the Captain had been killed, he refused to leave the ship. He simply sat cross-legged outside the Captain’s cabin, rocking back and forth and moaning “Captain dead, Houston dead, Buda die too.” He went down with the ship.

Sinking of USS Houston (CA-30) in the Battle of Sunda Strait, 1 March 1942. Painting by Joseph Fleischman, 1950. Naval History and Heritage Command Photo

Sinking of USS Houston (CA-30) in the Battle of Sunda Strait, 1 March 1942. Painting by Joseph Fleischman, 1950. Naval History and Heritage Command Photo

During this time I made my way to the quarterdeck. Dead men lay sprawled on the deck, but there was no time to find out who they were. Men from my division were busily engaged in the starboard hangar in an effort to bring out a seaplane pontoon and two wing-tip floats that we had filled with food and water in preparation for just such a time. If we could get them into the water and assemble them as we had so designed, they would make a fine floating structure around which we could gather and work from.

I hurried to the base of the catapult tower where I worked rapidly to release the lifelines in order that we could get the floats over the side and into the water. I uncoupled one line and was working on the second when a torpedo struck directly below us. I heard no explosion, but the deck buckled and jumped under me and I found myself suddenly engulfed in a deluge of fuel oil and salt water.

Up until that moment I must have been too fascinated with the unreality of the situation to truly think about it and become frightened, but when this sudden torrent of fuel oil and water poured over me, all I could think of was fire. It was the most helpless sensation I ever had experienced in my life. Somehow I hadn’t figured on getting hit or killed, but now I was gripped with the sudden fear of blazing fuel oil on my person and covering the surface of the sea. I was panicked, for I could figure no escape from it. The same thought must have been in the minds of the others, for we all raced from the starboard side to the shelter of the port hangar. No sooner had we cleared the quarterdeck than a salvo of shells plowed through it, exploding deep below decks.

Events were moving fast, and the Houston in her death throes was about to go down. There was only one idea left in my mind, and that was to join the others who were going over the side in increasing numbers. Quickly I made my way to the port side and climbed down the cargo nets that were hanging there. When I reached the water’s edge I dropped off into the warm Java Sea. When my head came above the surface I was aware that in the darkness I was surrounded by many men, all swimming for their lives. Frantic screams for help from the wounded and drowning mixed with the shouts of others attempting to make contact with shipmates. The sea was an oily battleground of men pitted against the terrors of death. Desperately I swam to get beyond reach of the sinking ship’s suction. As much as I loved the Houston I had no desire to join her in a watery grave.

Naval History and Heritage Command Image

Naval History and Heritage Command Image

A few hundred yards away I turned, gasping for breath, to watch the death of my ship. She lay well over to starboard. Jap destroyers had come in close and illuminated her with searchlights as they raked her decks with machine-gun fire. Many men struggled in the water near the ship, others clung desperately to heavily loaded life rafts, and then to my horror, I realized that the Japs were coldly and deliberately firing on the men in the water. The concussions of shells bursting in the midst of swimming men sent shock waves through the water that slammed against my body with an evil force, making me wince with pain. Men closer to the exploding shells were killed by this concussion alone.

Dazed, unable to believe that all this was real, I floated there, watching as though bewitched. The end had come. By the glare of Japanese searchlights I saw the Houston roll slowly over to starboard, and then, with her yardarms almost dipping into the sea, she paused momentarily. Perhaps I only imagined it, but it seemed as though a sudden breeze picked up the Stars and Stripes still firmly two blocked on the mainmast, and waved them in one last defiant gesture. Then with a tired shudder she vanished beneath the Java Sea.

The magnificent Houston and most of my shipmates were gone, but in the oily sea around me lay evidence of the carnage wrought by their last battle. Hundreds of Jap soldiers and sailors struggled amidst the flotsam of their sunken ships; and as I watched them drown or swim for their lives, I smiled grimly and repeated over and over, “Well done, Houston!”

  • Vitonio

    Well done Houston.

  • publius_maximus_III

    Makes one proud to be an American. Despite almost certain death, these brave sailors and officers carried out their duties faithfully to the end.

  • REJohnston

    I had the honor of being Commanding Officer of USS RENTZ (FFG 46) from 1994 to 1995. RENTZ was named after CDR George S. Rentz, who was the HOUSTON’s chaplain. He survived HOUSTON’s sinking but while floating in the ocean he gave his lifejacket to an injured sailor and drifted off into the night. In the spring of 1995 I took a number of the HOUSTON survivors and Chaplain Rentz’ son and daughter (then in their 80s) to sea on RENTZ for a daytime cruise. The sailors were proud survivors that worked to keep the memory of their ship and POW experiences alive. Seeing them sit on the mess decks and talk to my modern day sailors was heartwarming. Later that year, while RENTZ was deployed to the Western Pacific, I was able to do a memorial service over HOUSTON’s final resting place in the Sunda Strait. HOUSTON’s story, and that of her crew in captivity in Thailand and Burma working on the Death Railway, deserves to be wider known.

  • B. Strutts

    Disturbingly fascinating and well written, yet the author and survivors are left in the dark waters fighting for survival. Was there a Part II?

  • Don Kehn, Jr.

    The story of HOUSTON is, to paraphrase a journalist: “One which loses nothing of its power even after countless re-tellings.”
    I met & visited with Walt Winslow in August, 1994 and he autographed both hardback copies of his works for me at that time. “Windy” Winslow was a gracious & fine gentleman–like all of the CA-30 survivors I’ve known– and I am thankful that I got to meet him when I did.
    As regards some of the images utilized in this piece, though, one should be aware that the ONI track-chart of the sinking of JAVA and DeRUYTER (which dates from 1943) is woefully inaccurate, and should no longer be taken seriously. Neither of the Japanese cruisers were in such positions at the time they sank the two Dutch cruisers, nor do torpedoes behave in such a way…except in cartoons.