Home » Foreign Forces » New Survey: USS Houston Wreck ‘Largely Intact,’ HMAS Perth Status Inconclusive


New Survey: USS Houston Wreck ‘Largely Intact,’ HMAS Perth Status Inconclusive

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

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

A new sonar survey has found the World War II wreck of cruiser USS Houston (CA-30) mostly undisturbed, while the status of nearby wreck of Australian warship HMAS Perth is less clear, according to information from the U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command provided to USNI News.

The results of the December survey in Indonesian waters – conducted by the Australian National Maritime Museum (ANMM) and the National Research Centre of Archaeology Indonesia – temporarily allays concerns of those who feared Houston had met the same fate of other World War II ships that have been damaged or removed entirely by illicit scrapping operations, as reported by several British news outlets late last year.

Articfacts from USS Houston recovered by a recreational diver. Naval HIstory and Heritage Command Photo

Articfacts from USS Houston recovered by a recreational diver. Naval HIstory and Heritage Command Photo

“We are encouraged that Houston is still there. However, the data is not detailed enough to determine if disturbance, especially small scale disturbance as noted previously, has continued,” Sam Cox, director of the Naval History and Heritage Command, said in a statement provided to USNI News.
“We take very seriously our obligation to remember the service of American and allied sailors who have made the ultimate sacrifice in defense of freedom. We’ll do everything we can, and work with everyone we must, to safeguard their final resting places.”

The U.S. and Australia view the ships – both sunk on March 1, 1942 during the Battle of Sunda Strait – as war graves and have been working with the government in Jakarta to protect the sites against illegal scrappers. More than 650 U.S. sailors and Marines died when Houston sank, and more than 350 died when Perth was sunk.

A 2014 survey found that salvage divers have entered Houston’s wreck and have taken brass fittings and other more valuable metal. The same survey found Perth had suffered more salvage damage.

While the new survey proved Houston is still largely intact, Perth’s status was less clear.

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

“Unfortunately the results of the sonar survey were inconclusive,” Australian National Maritime Museum Director Kevin Sumption said in an ANMM statement provided to USNI News.
“Very poor weather conditions at the time impacted on the quality of the images collected, and we just can’t say definitively what kind of disturbance there has been to the site… A physical dive on the site with both ANMM and [Indonesian] archeologists will be the only way to gain a clear picture of what remains of Perth.”

Perth has been the target of extensive salvage operations and has suffered more damage than Houston.

Still, the pair of Perth and Houston have fared better than Dutch, British and U.S. ships that have been raided and scrapped in the last years in the Java Sea.

All of the ships were sunk by the Imperial Japanese Navy in some of the costliest conflicts early in the war. The Japanese beat back Allied forces from former colonial holdings in Southeast Asia. The sailors who weren’t killed when their ships sank were captured by the Japanese and pressed into forced labor, with many working on the Burma-Thailand railway — the backdrop for the novel and film “Bridge Over the River Kwai.”

A separate survey found Royal Navy cruiser HMS Exeter and destroyer HMS Encounter have been totally removed, while the destroyer HMS Electra has been picked over. The U.S. diesel-electric attack submarine USS Perch (SS-176) – which was scuttled by its crew on March 3, 1942, and is not a war grave – has also been completely salvaged, according to a report in The Guardian.

 Japanesephotograph of HMS Exeter sinking in the Second Battle of the Java Sea

Japanesephotograph of HMS Exeter sinking in the Second Battle of the Java Sea

The Dutch have also suffered loses – light cruiser HNLMS De Ruyter and cruiser HNLMS Java have had significant sections removed from the wrecks, and the destroyer HNLMS Kortenaer is completely gone.

British and Dutch officials have registered complaints with Jakarta over the salvage of the ships and implored the Indonesian government to do more to stop the illicit salvage, according to press reports.

Images over the last several years have emerged of salvage barges pulling up metal for scrap from wreck sites that are in Indonesian territorial waters. The wrecks are in relatively shallow water and are easily accessible by illegal salvage crews.

Salvage crane was caught stripping the wreck of a Dutch submarine in October 2012. Photo via ABC

Salvage crane was caught stripping the wreck of a Dutch submarine in October 2012. Photo via ABC

“We will continue to work with regional governments and partners to prevent inappropriate activity on the wrecks of Royal Navy vessels,” the U.K. Ministry of Defense said in a statement late last year.
“Where we have evidence of desecration of these sites, we will take appropriate action.”

While the U.S. and Australia have expressed concerns in private to Indonesian officials, USNI News understands, they have not taken as hard a line as the Dutch or the U.K. in their public statements.

“Whenever possible, the U.S. Navy works to enhance collaboration with its international partners and local authorities in areas where the wrecks are located, as well as other U.S. government agencies, to promote the preservation of these fragile historical and cultural resources which are a testament to the sacrifice of the sailors and Marines who served in them,” read the NHHC statement.

Sailors assigned to the submarine tender USS Frank Cable (AS 40) lower a wreath into the water as naval officers from Australia, Indonesia and the United States observe during a ceremony in honor of the crews of the U.S. Navy heavy cruiser USS Houston (CA 30) and the Royal Australian Navy light cruiser HMAS Perth (D29) on Oct. 14, 2014. US Navy Photo

Sailors assigned to the submarine tender USS Frank Cable (AS 40) lower a wreath into the water as naval officers from Australia, Indonesia and the United States observe during a ceremony in honor of the crews of the U.S. Navy heavy cruiser USS Houston (CA 30) and the Royal Australian Navy light cruiser HMAS Perth (D29) on Oct. 14, 2014. US Navy Photo

“The U.S. Government takes any desecration of a war grave like USS Houston, or any other Navy wreck on which sailors lost their lives, very seriously.”

The Department of the Navy has more than 17,000 sunken ships and aircraft around the world, the majority from World War II.

  • MA

    From the back cover of the book “The Last Battle Station” about the USS Houston
    But in 1941 it was obsolete, a victim of budget cutbacks. And with condemned ammunition, minimal armor and no radar….
    We never learn

  • DD877

    My Mother-in law’s Brother was a Marine Bugler on Houston when it was sunk…

    • Catdog

      Hearing that and seeing the Bugle in story is very sobering.

    • Paul Taylor

      DD877: Paul Taylor here from the Naval History and Heritage Command. Please give us a call at 202-433-7880 or reach back to us via email at [email protected]. We’d be very interested in speaking with you about your mother-in-law’s brother. Thanks!!!

  • PappyStu

    These salvage operations of sunken warships aren’t much different than grave robbers. Unfortunately it’s not very practical to attempt to protect these vessels in shallow waters from unscrupulous scavengers…

    • muzzleloader

      Agreed. While these ships are war graves, and should be treated as such, it is difficult to enforce. These ships lay in waters that are either in the jurisctiction of sovereign countries, or so remote as to make monitoring them all but impossible. Add to that, that no nation has the assets,manpower, or funds to make protecting war graves a priority.

  • John Bardwell

    I had a cousin on the Houston so those SOB’s best leave it alone. Sure would like to see some photos of the wreck.

    • Rocco

      Why are they SOB’s !!???

      • Catdog

        Grave robbers.

      • muzzleloader

        He is referring to those salvors that are plundering these wrecks.

  • Bhess

    I read Hornfischer’s book on the Houston. Those poor sailors. They had to endure so much.

    • publius_maximus_III

      Currently reading his book “Neptune’s Inferno” about the U.S. Navy at Guadalcanal.

      • Bhess

        I read that once a year now. Neptune’s Inferno is my favorite of his. It’s a great book.

  • graphic3211

    The locations on your map for HMAS Perth and USS Houston are WAY WAY off. Both ships are very close to Banten Bay near to Panjang Island, only a few miles from the coast of Indonesia. That proximity means that salvagers could be seen from shore.

  • tiger

    Why salvage steel when there are tons of ships to scrap? The Usn has to pay folks to get rid of our ships now.

  • John Schwarz

    Great update article Mr. LaGrone. We continue to support both the efforts and approach being taken by our U.S. Navy officials in their attempt to protect the USS Houston CA-30 as well as H.M.A.S. Perth.

  • REJohnston

    I had the honor of serving as Commanding Officer of USS RENTZ (FFG-46) from 1994 to 1995. RENTZ was named after HOUSTON’s Chaplain, CDR George S. Rentz. Prior to our 1995 deployment to the Western Pacific RENTZ hosted members of the HOUSTON Survivor’s Association onboard for a daylight cruise off San Diego. Making the day extra special was the fact that Chaplain Rentz’ son and daughter also joined us, 53 years after their father died. In June 1995, while enroute from Lumut, Malaysia to Surabaya, Indonesia, I and the crew of RENTZ conducted a service over the HOUSTON’s final resting place in honor of our ship’s namesake and all of the brave men that went down onboard HOUSTON. That place is sacred ground and I dearly hope that the Indonesian government is serious about protecting the wreck of the HOUSTON.

  • incredulous1

    “17,000?” that has to be a typo. Take out the expendable landing craft and boats, and I would believe 170 from WWII combined theaters. But 17,000 is not credible since that’s more than starting numbers and production numbers ’41-45.

    • Harold Mckenzie

      17000 counts aircraft wrecks as well as small craft such as landing craft and PAtrol boats

  • Ed L

    USS Houston CA-30 was commission in 1930 and was later label a Treaty Class Cruiser as the provisions of the 1930 London Naval Treaty considered ships with 8-inch main guns to be heavy cruisers Even though the Houston displacement was less than 10,000 pounds. Northampton-class cruisers were a group of six heavy cruisers built for the United States Navy, and commissioned between 1928 and 1931.
    The Northamptons saw much action in World War II. Three (Northampton, Chicago, and Houston) were lost during the war The Chester, Louisville and Augusta were scrapped shortly after WW2

  • John B. Morgen

    Shoot the grave robbers—all of them!

    • Trudy Buffington

      I absolutely agree with you!!! Show them no mercy!!!

  • Kristine P

    My Uncle John Walchuk, was a Gunner’s Mate, on the USS Houston. Given
    his position, our uncle was presumed to have died in battle that
    horrible night. I remember reading the letters sent to my Grandma from
    the military. The first one with no information really except he was
    missing, the second letter no better. The third letter stating it was
    presumed he was dead. This has had a profound effect on my family as
    when he left for war he had told my mother he would always be there to
    protect her. These young men went off to war with innocent thoughts of
    protecting friends, family and the USA. They died hero’s that put up a
    good fight. The ones that did not die were made to work on the Burma-Thailand railway. (“Death Railway”) The book “Ship of Ghosts” does a good job covering this event.