Building Bridges on Sunken Ships

By Sam Cox (Rear Adm. USN, Ret.), Director, Naval History and Heritage Command

I’ve just attended a series of meetings in Jakarta last week where government officials from Indonesia, the United States, Australia, and the United Kingdom all expressed their determination and resolve to protect and preserve the USS Houston and other sunken wrecks, many of which serve as war graves.  We’ve been working for some time now with partners in the Pacific – most notably Indonesia – to do whatever possible to prevent – to the extent practicable – unauthorized activities.  I view our recent gathering as a most favorable development, and I’m hopeful that our getting together will only further strengthen our efforts.

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NHHC Director Sam Cox (left) participates in a discussion with delegates from Australia, Great Britain, The United States and Indonesia in Jakarta.

There were a number of important outcomes. For starters, it increased awareness of our preservation efforts for these wrecks, not just with participating countries but the local population who is best positioned to support preservation. Residents who inhabit the nearest land where the USS Houston and her approximately 650 fallen Sailors and Marines rest just off shore are, by in large, poor. Because of this there exists a temptation to remove from the wrecks anything that might be deemed of value. The dialogue this week helped meaningfully reinforce, I think, the importance of dignity and respect for the sanctity of these sites. Finally, it’s my opinion that talking – face-to-face – fostered national recognition and respect for our fallen service members. It’s because of their courage and sacrifice we enjoy the relative peace, stability and independence we each now enjoy.

USS Houston in Manila Bay, Philippine Islands, in 1940-41, after her final modifications. Courtesy of Robert I. Martin, 1975. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph.

USS Houston in Manila Bay, Philippine Islands, in 1940-41, after her final modifications. Courtesy of Robert I. Martin, 1975. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph.

I also spent some time there scoping possible sites for a museum exhibit in Indonesia to educate residents and visitors about the history and the wrecks themselves. It’s a bit ambitious, but our team is working to open the first phase of the museum exhibit by March 1, 2016 – which would mark the 74th anniversary of USS Houston’s sinking. We’ll also be planning for a commemoration like last year’s. As the date approaches we’ll be sure to provide everyone an update.

While I’ve been meeting with counterparts, my staff back at NHHC has been busy collecting the imagery Indonesian and U.S. Navy divers from USNS Safeguard (T-ARS 50) captured earlier this month at the wreck site to compare to the June 2014 dive on USS Houston.  Visibility and current limited results, but any time we can check on our shipmates is a good day. Anything we learn will also build on our understanding of the ship’s current condition for future visits. It’s important to note the divers completed the survey with a wreath-laying ceremony in waters near the wreck of USS Houston.

I’m honored and humbled to be part of this more important endeavor, and my staff and I will work to keep you informed as events warrant.

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BANTEN BAY (Oct. 20, 2015) Navy Divers assigned to Explosive Ordnance Disposal Mobile Unit 11, Mobile Diving Salvage (MDS) 11-7, and an Indonesian Navy diver prepare for dive operations held in support of search and survey operations of the sunken World War II navy vessels USS Houston (CA 30) and HMAS Perth (D29). The data collected by the dive exercise will help the U.S. embassy in Indonesia and Naval Historical Heritage Command catalog the current state of the wrecks. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Arthurgwain L. Marquez/Released)

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