‘Enemy Forces Engaged,’ USS Houston Fought Insurmountable Odds

19-N-13455: USS Houston (CA 30), starboard view. Undated and unknown location. (Photo courtesy of the National Archives)

19-N-13455: USS Houston (CA 30), starboard view. Undated and unknown location. (Photo courtesy of the National Archives)

 

By Capt. R. Mark Stacpoole, U.S. Navy, American Legation, U.S. Naval Attaché, Jakarta, Indonesia

I ask you to spend a minute this weekend in remembrance of the 1,082 brave men of the heavy cruiser USS Houston (CA 30). It was in the early hours of March 1st, 73 years ago, that she sailed for the final time into the teeth of enemy fire. While heading for the Sunda Strait, and in concert with the Australian light cruiser HMAS Perth, she ran into the main Japanese invasion force then landing on the island of Java. This force consisted,  in its entirety, of one light carrier, one seaplane carrier, five cruisers, 12 destroyers, a mine-layer and 58 troopships.

Low on fuel and with her after turret out of action, this as a result of earlier damage sustained at the Battle of Makassar Strait, Houston, along with Perth, entered the fray.  The last message anyone would ever hear from these ships was a radio transmission sent by Houston; the message read “Enemy forces engaged.”

Perth went down first, fighting to the end, but even the heroism of her crew could not overcome four torpedo strikes and untold hits by enemy cannon.  When Perth succumbed, 353 men went down with her including her commanding officer, Capt. Hector Waller.

 

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Battle of Sunda Strait, 28 February – 1 March 1942. Painting by John Hamilton depicting USS Houston (CA 30) in her final action with Japanese forces. Courtesy of the US Navy Memorial Foundation. Painting from the John Hamilton collection. (Courtesy of NHHC Art Gallery)

 

Houston was now left alone, surrounded by enemy ships and aircraft. In quick succession she was hit by shell and torpedo but continued to fight on. Some time after 01:30, having been hit scores of times, faced with extensive flooding below decks, out of ammunition for her main guns, and with fires raging out of control, Capt.  Albert Rooks, the commanding officer, gave the order to abandon ship. Only minutes later he was killed by an exploding Japanese shell.

Houston was bathed in the glare of Japanese searchlights, still under heavy fire and settling by the bow when her surviving crew gave her to the sea.  As she began her final plunge one survivor wrote that “it seemed as a sudden breeze picked up the Stars and Stripes, still firmly blocked on the mainmast, and waved them in one last defiant gesture.” Other survivors saw red tracer fire still spitting out of a machine gun platform as one lone Marine, Gunnery Sgt. Walter Standish, true to the traditions of the Corps continued firing until the sea took him.

Some 675 Sailors and Marines died with Houston. Most of these men were killed during her final battle, were taken down with the ship or died when the pitiless tide washed them into the vast Indian Ocean but others were machine gunned as they swam helpless in the water.

The 366 survivors were taken into captivity, but their ordeal was far from over. Many would end up in POW camps in Burma, where they were forced, under inhuman conditions, to construct the infamous Burma Railway. Of this handful of survivors a further 76 died of sickness, abuse, torture, hunger and neglect. At war’s end in 1945 only 290 men remained, many broken in body but not in spirit, to return to the United States. Think of them, for they paid the full price in defense of our freedoms.

As one of the survivors later wrote  —“Well Done , Well Done!”

141014-N-WZ747-087 JAVA SEA (Oct. 14, 2014 ) Naval officers from Australia, Indonesia and the United States participate in a wreath-laying ceremony aboard the submarine tender USS Frank Cable (AS 40) 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). Both ships were sunk during World War II by Imperial Japanese forces within Indonesian waters during the battle of Sunda Strait in February 1942. Frank Cable, forward deployed to the island of Guam, conducts maintenance and support of submarines and surface vessels deployed to the U.S. 7th Fleet areas of responsibility and is on a scheduled underway. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Jon Erickson/Released)

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JAVA SEA (Oct. 14, 2014 ) Naval officers from Australia, Indonesia and the United States participate in a wreath-laying ceremony aboard the submarine tender USS Frank Cable (AS 40) 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). Both ships were sunk during World War II by Imperial Japanese forces within Indonesian waters during the battle of Sunda Strait in February 1942. Frank Cable, forward deployed to the island of Guam, conducts maintenance and support of submarines and surface vessels deployed to the U.S. 7th Fleet areas of responsibility and is on a scheduled underway. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Jon Erickson/Released)

 

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