By Sam Cox (Rear Adm. USN, Ret.), Director, Naval History and Heritage Command
One of the most valiant ships in over 240 years of naval history, USS Houston was lost in a battle against overwhelming odds 75 years ago. Commissioned at the beginning of the Great Depression, Houston was a design compromise due to treaty limitations. However her captain and crew never compromised their sense of duty.
During the pre-war years, USS Houston was President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s favorite warship, and he sailed on her several times. She was present at the opening of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, California in 1937. She was the flagship of the U.S. Fleet under Rear Adm. Claude C. Bloch a year later in 1938. In November 1940, Houston had the honor of becoming the flagship for Adm. Thomas C. Hart, Commander Asiatic Fleet.
December 7, 1941
Reacting to intelligence reports of imminent Japanese offensive action in Southeast Asia, Admiral Hart sortied almost all operational ships out of Subic Bay and the northern Philippines just before the attack on Pearl Harbor, sparing the USS Houston the fate of the Pacific Fleet in Hawaii. With the stunning loss of the British Battleship HMS Prince of Wales and battlecruiser HMS Repulse to Japanese air attack, the heavy cruiser USS Houston was left as the largest, most capable warship amongst the Australian, British, Dutch and American (ABDA) Alliance forces in the Southwest Pacific.
February 4, 1942 The Battle of Flores Sea
During the Japanese invasion of the Dutch East Indies, which began in January 1942, outnumbered Allied naval forces engaged the enemy in a series of naval battles which harassed and delayed the Japanese conquest of the East Indies and helped thwart the invasion of Australia, although the British bastion of Singapore fell. On Jan. 24, U.S. destroyers conducted a daring night attack on an enemy landing force in Makassar Strait, momentarily slowing the relentless Japanese advance. On Feb. 4, 1942, Houston was in the Flores Sea south of Makassar Strait as part of an ABDA force searching for an anticipated Japanese invasion force when she came under intense aerial bomb attack. The skipper of the USS Houston, Captain Albert Rooks, USN displayed extraordinary shiphandling skill in radical maneuvering to avoid bombs from as many as 37 Japanese bombers. Despite faulty ammunition, most of which were duds, USS Houston’s gunners brought down several aircraft. However, on the last wave of Japanese aircraft, one bomb hung up on an aircraft and came off at an errant angle, unseen by the USS Houston. By sheer fluke, the bomb exploded on the main deck near the after turret. Fragments penetrated the barbette and turret and ignited the powder. The hit killed 48 men, wounded 20 more, and started an extremely serious fire. The after turret was so badly damaged that it was useless for the remainder of the campaign. Captain Rooks was given the option to withdraw his ship from Dutch East Indies for repairs, but knowing this would have seriously weakened the ABDA force even further; he declined to do so.
February 26-27, 1942 Battle of the Java Sea
USS Houston and the ABDA force received word that the Japanese were rapidly approaching Java with a formidable invasion force. On Feb. 26, USS Houston and the Australian light cruiser HMSA Perth went back into the Java Sea, along with other allied ships under the overall command of Dutch Rear Admiral Karel Doorman to find and attempt to interdict the Japanese force. Without any air cover, hampered by communications and language difficulties, and unwitting of the range and capability of Japanese torpedoes, the ABDA force was doomed. Although the USS Houston scored the first hit, on a Japanese heavy cruiser, the rest of what came to be known as the Battle of the Java Sea was an unmitigated disaster. Constantly dogged by Japanese reconnaissance aircraft, the ABDA force was repeatedly outmaneuvered by the Japanese. By the time the action was over, the Dutch flagship, the light cruiser HMNLS De Ruyter, was sunk and RADM Doorman killed, as was the Dutch light cruiser Java, and the Dutch destroyer Kortenear, and the British destroyers HMS Electra and HMS Jupiter, the latter after striking a recently laid Allied mine. With the force commander killed, the USS Houston and HMAS Perth commenced executing RADM Doorman’s standing orders to withdraw from the Java Sea to regroup with other scattered survivors of the battle south of Java.
February 28 – March 1, 1942 Battle of Sunda Strait
Perth and Houston entered the Sunda Strait under cover of darkness with HMAS Perth, under the command of Captain Hec Waller, in the lead as Waller was senior to Rooks. Warned that they might encounter a Dutch patrol vessel in the strait, neither had received an aircraft reconnaissance report that had spotted the major Japanese invasion fleet closing in on the Sunda Strait. When challenged by an unidentified ship, and not recognizing the identification code, the Perth opened fire on what proved to be a Japanese destroyer, and the Houston immediately followed suit. As gun flashed lit the sky, Waller and Rooks realized that in the darkness they had already steamed past most of dozens of Japanese troop transports hugging the blackened shore of Banten Bay. Despite being low on ammunition and damaged from previous battles, both ships turned to attack the Japanese invasion force. In the vicious nighttime close-quarters melee that followed, the allied ships were swarmed by two Japanese heavy cruisers, a squadron of a dozen destroyers and other smaller armed escorts. As many as 90 Japanese torpedoes were launched at Houston and Perth, some of which struck at least four Japanese transports , including the one with the commander of the Japanese invasion force, Lieutenant General Imamura, embarked, which sank or had to be beached. Struck by several torpedoes, Perth fought valiantly to the end, but went down first, with Captain Waller killed on the bridge after giving the abandon ship order. USS Houston fought on for almost another hour, surrounded on all sides by numerous Japanese ships, often within .50 cal machine gun range, until she was out of major caliber ammunition, even firing flares at the Japanese. Finally succumbing to several torpedo hits and numerous shell hits, Captain Rooks gave the order to abandon ship before being killed by shrapnel from a Japanese shell. As Houston went down, survivors recounted that her battle flag was still flying high, and a lone Marine up in the mast fired his .50 cal until the very end.
Though it’s been 75 years since the loss of USS Houston, The U.S. Navy remembers the more than 600 Sailors and Marines who died that night and the many more who would die from torture, neglect, disease and hunger after they were taken captive. The fate of Houston and Perth was not known until the end of WWII and surviving POWs provided detailed after action reports. USS Houston was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation. Captain Rooks was awarded a Medal of Honor while he was in Missing-in-Action status for his actions in the Battles of the Flores and Java Sea, and a Fletcher-class destroyer was named in his honor. Captain Rooks and the valiant crew of USS Houston, who fought alone against insurmountable odds and endured incredible horror and suffering, nevertheless left an indelible legacy of honor, courage, and commitment that serve as an inspiration to today’s Navy and its Sailors.