The US Navy announced today that a wreck in the Sundra Strait is indeed the USS HOUSTON. The “Galloping Ghost of the Java Coast” is found after 72 years.
If you’ve ever wondered how she got there, and her gallant crew’s impossible fight for survival, read on.
The Japanese empire is spreading with terrifying rapidity. Pearl Harbor was just the first move in a terrifying campaign. Within hours, Wake, Guam, Manila, Singapore, Siam among others, were attacked. Just over two months later, Japan’s military controlled a massive portion of the Pacific.
The cruiser HOUSTON had been assigned to Manila’s Naval yard but on the morning of December 8 (December 7 in America, over the International Dateline) she was patrolling near Borneo–thus missing the attack.
The next few months were in disarray. The American Navy quickly retreated to what they believed to be more defensible ports, but the Japanese were faster than anyone had dared dream. And with the American, British, Australian, and Dutch forces in various stages of disarray, retreat, and damaged vessels and planes, their collective defensive positions couldn’t match the Japanese juggernaut that had been planned for years.
The HOUSTON, now one of a small collection of ships which had not been destroyed in December 1941, fought in the Battle of Makassar Strait, and many smaller skirmishes, while escorting and evacuating ships and troops out of soon-to-be-conquered territories. She survived ships exploding next to her while at anchor under air raids. The Japanese reported her sunk so many times, the crew nicknamed the HOUSTON “The Galloping Ghost of the Java Coast”. No sooner had the Japanese declared her destroyed than she appeared miles away, causing havoc for the enemy.
Then came the Battle of the Java Sea. The Allies had built a new base in Surabya, on the coast of the Java Sea. Any further south, they would have to retreat to Australia, or worse, even India of Hawaii. Thousands of miles from the active front, the Allies would be at a disadvantage–patrols would have to be several hundred miles and weeks longer, just getting from base to the front. Supply lines would be stretched longer, and longer lines were, by nature, thinner, and more vulnerable. Therefore, the newly formed American-British-Dutch-Australian (ABDA) Command, were determined to hold the Malay Line.
But the Japanese, with no oil fields of their own, needed to control the Dutch East Indies with not only oil fields, but rubber and metals the Japanese required to build their ever larger military that had to cover an area much bigger than ever before. They couldn’t afford the Allies controlling those resources, nor having a base so close to their desired empire. And here, in these weeks, the Japanese finally proved the point of Aircraft Carriers as dangerous weapons compared to the battleships and cruisers most other militaries had spent millions of resources and time building. Air raids destroyed ship after ship, pre-war bases, and even, on February 19, the city of Darwin Australia.
As the closest Australian port to the Malaysian Islands, Darwin’s harbor was now so choked with half-sunken hulks and her infrastructure so utterly burned that if the Japanese pushed the Allies out of Malaysia, they would HAVE to retreat thousands of miles to south Australia, India, or even Hawaii or the American West Coast.
Then the Japanese took Bali–the Malay barrier was starting to fall.
February 24: Allied Intelligence learns the Japaneses are preparing a force apparently headed to Bali. Unable to intercept with surface ships, the Allies send in their few older submarines that had escaped the carnage at Manila. They are successful at tracking and sinking a few of the ships, and reporting movements of the enemy. That’s when the submarines discovered this initial convoy was only one of THREE. Two more were sailing from the north and northeast.
Admiral Helfrich ordered all available ships and submarines to gather in the Java Sea. The surface attack fleet woudl be under the command of Captain <SOMEONE>
He had three Dutch Submarines (O-19; K-8; K-10) One British (HMS TIRANTE), and two American boats (USS S-37; USS S-38) that weren’t already attacking the lead force available. In addition, he had two Heavy Cruisers (USS HOUSTON ans HMS EXETER) three light cruisers (HNLMS De RUYTER, HNLMS JAVA, HMAS PERTH) and nine destroyers (HMS ELECTRA, HMS ENCOUNTER, HMS JUPITER, HNLMS KORTENAER, HNLMS WITTE de WITH, USS AIDEN, USS JOHN D EDWARDS, USS JOHN D FORD, and USS PAUL JONES) . Twenty ships in total from four different navies.
And coming was the Japanese Heavy Cruisers NACHI and HAGURO; Light Cruisers NAKA and JINTSU; Destroyers YUDACHI, SAMIDARE, MURASAME, HARUSAME, MINEGUMO, ASAGUMO, YUKIKAZE, TOKISUKAZE, AMATSUKAZE, HATSUKAZE, YAMAKAZE, SAZANAMI, and USHIO. Twenty-eight ships. One Navy. One coordinated, trained goal: conquer the Malaysian Islands.
The Allies fought bravely over the seven hour battle, but it was, in the end, a rout. The Japanese jammed radio frequencies, preventing the Allies from coordinating with each other. Two of the light cruisers (De RUYTER and JAVA) and three destroyers would eventually be lost due to this battle (KORENAER was lost, JUPITER hit an Allied minefield in the chaos and sank, WITTE de WITH was severely damaged and sank a few days later.) 2,300 sailors died in those seven hours. By contrast, the Japanese only suffered 36 casualties, and one damaged destroyer, the ASAGUMO.
HOUSTON went into this battle already damaged, two of her eight guns had been damaged in an air raid (see photo above). When the ABDA forces finally were forced to flee in the early hours of February 28, she an the Australian ship PERTH, following the last orders of Admiral Doorman before he went down on the DeRUYTER, fled to Tanjung Priok in Jakarta. The remaining surviving ships headed east and skirted between Java and Japanese-held Bali, heading south.
The efforts of the Allies did not stop the Japanese, but it did delay the Java invasion by a day, a day that allowed many to flee to Australia or to the highlands of Java itself.
HOUSTON and PERTH limped into Jakarta at 1:30 pm on February 28. They pulled in near the Dutch Destroyer Evertsen, who had been docked there for a few days . As the captains of the PERTH and HOUSTON quickly disembarked to warn their respective Naval Officials of what had happened the HOUSTON sailors desperately moved ammunition from their damaged turrents to the remaining working ones. The work stopped at one point, as a Japanese bomber bombed a patrol at the harbor’s entrance. It missed, but it was a horrible reminder of how close the enemy was.
Despite this, the HOUSTON’s own crew reported everyone was in high morale:
“…The morale of the ship’s company was excellent . The ship had been continually engaged with no opportunity for rest since the opening of hostilities with Japan…These duties were carried out under conditions wherein normal supply and repair facilities were entirely lacking. Operations under the command of an in company with ships of other Allied Navies rendered the normal peacetime traniing and doctrine inapplicable. Admiration for the Captain and Executive Officer, and the intense pride of each individual in the performance for the HOUSTON in preceding engagements overcame all adverse influences to morale and spirit through the ship was maintained at an incomproably high level. In contrast, with the high state of morale, the physical condition of both officers and men was poor and in some cases treatment for exhaustion was necessary…Meals had been necessarily been irregualar and inadequate…” USS HOUSTON Report
At 1930 (7:30 pm local time) the HOUSTON and PERTH, with only six hours to get few supplies or fuel, were ordered to return to Java, to Tjilatjap to help evacuate the many civilians trying to flee the invasion from the north. It is also possible that HOUSTON and PERTH had been selected to evacuate Admiral Glassford and his staff from the temporary Allied Headquarters there. The Dutch Destroyer EVENSTEN, which they had docked near, was to join them, but needed another hour before departure.
And, only by chance, PERTH and HOUSTON ran into the main Japanese invasion fleet heading, not for north and northeastern Java, as was believed and reported, but WEST Java, directly in the small convoy’s way. Twenty Japanese warships and fifty-eight Japanese troop transports against three damaged and depleted ships from three different Allied countries.
Today, it’s called the Battle of Sundra Strait.
(The Above movie includes survivors accounts of what happened in this battle and later)
It was dark, only 45 minutes from midnight. The battle was lit by the full moon and the flares of the massive guns from all sides. PERTH, already in the lead, took lead and soon vansihed in the smoke from the gunfire. When HOUSTON saw her again, she was already sinking, just 30 minutes into battle. HOUSTON was now alone.
She fired all her batteries at the enemy which attacked in small groups of ships at a time, while the troopships tried to land and disembark their cargo. HOUSTON’s gunners and pointers, half blinded by the flashes and constantly shifting battle groups in and out of the smoke, found it hard to keep a target in sight for long. But while the HOUSTON could fire at anyone and everyone, the Japanese had to be much more careful–at least three of their own ships were destroyed by friendly fire.
High above in the superstructure, the Japanese scored a hit, sending the superstructure into flames for twenty minutes before it could be gotten under control. Down below, a torpedo ripped into HOUSTON’s after engine room, destroying it. Rescue parties had to turn back, the steam was burning everything in sight–no further communications were recieved from the engine room. The venting steam and heat however, blinded t he Anti-aricraft director and forced temporary evacuation from the aft guns.
Then another torpedo took out the Communications and Plotting Room. The fire and heat forced what few survivors there may have been to abandon and seal those sections–each man on the HOUSTON was now their own fighting unit, independent of each other, but on one floating platform.
Ten minutes later, a direct hit blue the powder magazine in Turret Two, forcing the Conn to evacuate. Over the radio, survivors remembered heare “Fire in Turret Two’s Magazine” “Flood Turret Two’s Magazine” “Fire in A-415-M” “Flood A-415-M” “Fire in A-410-M” “Flood A-410-M”
to this day, no one knows how these fire stared. But flooding Turret Two’s magazine, left Turret One with no more ammunition.
Fire broke out in lifejacket storage. With flames licking out of her, HOUSTON became a glowing target, one which the JApanese could not miss. She took hit after hit.
Five minutes after Turret Two was hit and encircled by enemy ships in point blank range, Captain Albert Rooks announced “Abandon SHIP!” Moments later, a shell struck the communications deck, and killed him.
Another Torpedo hit on HOUSTON’s Starboard side brought HOUSTON to a halt, dead.
A survivor later recalled:
“..The Japanese had encircled the Houston, illuminated it with searchlighst and were raking the HOUSTON wiht shells and machine gunfire. And exploding shell killed Captain Rooks. Then some shrapnel hit me. I entered the water with the goal of distancing myself from the ship. The Japanese contined to rake the survivors. I’d swim under for as long as I could, surface, glance at the HOUSTON and submerge. Finally, the HOUSTON adn the Japanese vanished….”–-David Flynn
The men scrambled to their stations to abandon ship. The Executive Officer, now Captain was last seen going aft to make sure the men could get into lifeboats. Moments later, that section took a severe shelling and he was not seen again.
Twenty minutes after ABANDON SHIP had sounded, an hour after PERTH had sunk, ninety minutes after the battle had started, HOUSTON listed Starboard, rolled, and sank.
Of HOUSTON’s 1,061 men, only 368 were ever found. All of these men were captured. of PERTH’s crew of 681, 328 remained, all but four (who died after reaching shore) were captured.
In the dark, none saw the Dutch Destroyer EVERTSEN. Warned by the flashes and flares far ahead in the night, EVERTSEN sailed around the PERTH and HOUSTON’s battle, heading south to warn those expecting them. Then she suddenly encounted two more Japanese destroyers, who chased her through the night. AFter a few hits, and with her stern aflame, EVERTSEN tried to beach herself. her crew escaped into the Javanese forest, where the survivors were taken prisoner.
Three ships were gone, with them, their crews, and no one in the Allied bases evacuating Java or establishing themselve in Australia knew what had happened. Altogether, 1,071 Allied had gone down with their ships, and 675 survived. And they had fought hard: sinking or forcibly grounding four troopships, damaging one cruiser, killing ten men and wounding 37 (and another minelayer had been sunk in friendly fire in the confusion.)
The survivors were taken to Jakarta, now, only a few days later, in Japanese hands.
It wold be 1945 before the fates of these ships would come to light in the faces and collective memories of the surviving POWs. Meanwhile, the city of Houston Texas, learning of their namesake’s ship missing status, raised enough funds to build a second HOUSTON in her honor–and a second ship, the small aircraft carrier SAN JACINTO. (and now a third HOUSTON, submarine SSN-713 serves in the Navy).
But the resting places of these ships would take longer.
PERTH was found earlier, and by 2013, it was noticed that she had been so stripped by salvagers that her superstructure is largely gone. As neither Indonesia or Australia are part of the international pact that criminalizes such slavage, there is not much to be done but guard her for the future.
And today, after nineteen underwater surveys and years over documentation, the confimation of HOUSTON’s resting place has been announced. Sadly, her wreck proves that people have also been salvaging from her for a long time, but now that her identity has been confirmed, the Navy can better preserve and protect this ship and her gallant crew. Her resting place has been fiarly well known for years, but only now, with the documentation, can the NAvy confirm her, and claim her as a war wreck and grave. And as a certified graveyard, she is protected from further intentional damage by our international pacts.
(Wreck footage begins at 50 second mark)
Thank you HOUSTON, PERTH, EVENSTEN and your men for performing beyond the call of duty. May we never forget.
USS Houston, Senior Survivor (former Gunnery Officer) US Archives, fold3.com
The Ghosts that Died at Sundra Strait by Walter Winslow, HOUSTON survivor. (Google Books)
USS PERTH AND USS HOUSTON WRECKS (one of the documenting phtoographers was Kevin Denlay, who helped find and document the USS PERCH, a US Submarine whose wreck was found in 2006.)