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H-Gram 003: The Valor of the Asiatic Fleet 

February 2017 


Admiral Thomas C. Hart, USN

Admiral Thomas C. Hart assumes command of the Asiatic Fleet at Shanghai, China, 25 July 1939. Admiral Hart commanded the fleet from July 1939 to February 1942. His command had done its utmost to prepare for a Japanese attack on the Philippines. However, this very capable and popular officer was never able to overcome subsequent perceptions of failure (NH 81641).

Contents 

1. USS Asheville (PG-21) 

2. The Battle of Java Sea

3. USS Houston (CA-30)

4. Artifact of the Month

 

Even in defeat there is often extraordinary sacrifice and courage that deserves to be remembered. This H-Gram is dedicated to the hundreds of Sailors of the U.S. Asiatic Fleet, who gave the last full measure of devotion, fighting until the end, even when they knew the odds were hopeless. They were an inspiration to the rest of the Navy during WWII, but have been largely forgotten since.

1. The Last Ship to Die: USS Asheville (PG-21) 

I found the painting "Asheville's Defiance" by the late Tom Freeman (attachment H-003-1) stashed deep in the back room of the USNA museum, which regrettably, is typical of history's treatment of the demise of the U.S. Asiatic Fleet in the opening months of WWII.  Depicted in the painting are the final minutes of the WWI-vintage China coastal patrol boat, USS Asheville (PG-21) under the command of Lieutenant Commander Jacob W. Britt (USNA '29).  One of the last ships to evacuate Java, she has been left behind due to an engine casualty reducing speed to 10kts.  Unbeknownst to Britt, between Asheville and the relative safety of Australia are four Japanese Pearl Harbor-veteran carriers, four battleships, numerous cruisers, destroyers, submarines and hundreds of land-based bombers; and the Japanese know the compromised allied rendezvous point (COMSEC violation).  Sighting the Asheville alone at dawn on 3 Mar 1942, the Japanese destroyers Arashi and Nowaki, backed up by a heavy cruiser, close for the kill with a 20kt speed advantage and combined 12x 5" guns and 16x 24" torpedoes to Asheville's 3x 4" guns.  Asheville does not strike her colors, raise a white flag, jump into the lifeboats or scuttle the ship.  Instead, Asheville opens fire, and she keeps firing as long as she is able to fire.  It takes the two top-of-the-line Japanese destroyers over 30 minutes and 300 rounds to put the archaic China gunboat under; an action viewed by the Japanese as a total fiasco but was typical of the prodigious expenditure of surface ammunition to little effect, by both sides, during the course of the campaign.  The Japanese rescued one Sailor and left the rest to perish as they hurried to massacre an Allied convoy just over the horizon.  Engineman Fred L. Brown died in Japanese captivity in March 1945 from the combined untreated effects of disease and beatings, and the story of the Asheville is known only via another POW from the sunken USS Pope (DD-225) and fragmentary Japanese reports.    Because no witnesses survived the war, there are no Medals of Honor, no Navy Crosses, no unit citations, just the dim memory of a brave crew of 166 men who fought valiantly without hope, lost somewhere about 160 NM SW of Bali.   All RADM Morison's seminal History of U.S. Naval Operations in WWII has to say about Asheville is that she was sunk. 

(*Post-script.  The IJN Arashi was the lone destroyer transiting at high speed sighted at the critical moment of the Battle of Midway by LCDR Wade McClusky, leading USS Enterprise (CV-6) dive bombing squadrons and running low on fuel, that led the way to the Japanese carriers, and disaster for the Japanese.)

2. The Sacrifice of the Asiatic Fleet: The Battle of Java Sea 

The 26-episode, Emmy-award-winning television documentary from the early 1950's, "Victory at Sea" does not even mention the Battle of the Java Sea, the loss of the USS Houston (CA-30) and the demise of the U.S. Asiatic Fleet, in what ADM Ernest J. King described as "a magnificent display of very bad strategy," that cost over 20 U.S. Navy vessels and over 2,000 Sailors killed.  Even the naval historian Rear Admiral Samuel Eliot Morison in his History of U.S. Naval Operations in WWII, addressed the subject reluctantly, stating that he had to write about it because, "I owe it to the brave men who held this successor of Thermopylae" (300 Spartan stand against Persian Empire) and then proceeded to miss many of the instances of extraordinary valor and duty displayed the Sailors of the U.S. Asiatic Fleet.  It has always been my view that it is when the chips are down, and everything is going to hell, that you take the full measure of those you serve with.  The outcome may have been a disaster, but the Sailors of the Asiatic Fleet did not let the Navy or their shipmates down; in case after case (more than I can recount here) they fought on against overwhelming odds, with extreme valor and ingenuity, refusing to surrender (despite the collapse and defeatism all around them) in some cases to the last man.  They fought in the finest traditions of the U.S. Navy and they deserve to be remembered.  If you are looking for examples of the core attributes listed in the CNO's Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority (integrity, accountability, initiative and toughness) you will find examples aplenty in the U.S. Asiatic Fleet.

In attachment H-003-2 I provide an overview of the key points of the Japanese offensive in the Far East from December 1941 to March 1942 and the U.S. Navy's response.  I discuss how the U.S. Navy strategy to rely on a potent force of submarines (29) to defend the Philippines failed because of Japanese air superiority and because of defective U.S. torpedoes.  I also discuss how the first U.S. involvement in establishing a coalition headquarters during WWII (ABDA Command - American, British, Dutch, Australian) was an abject failure, and is a case study in almost everything that can go wrong in coalition warfare, especially when the enemy has the initiative (and air superiority.)  The first U.S. surface action since the Spanish American War at Balikpapan, Borneo in Jan 42 was a victory, marred by faulty torpedoes.  The culminating Battle of the Java Sea, the largest surface action since Jutland to that time, was an unmitigated disaster, and exemplifies what can happen to a coalition/allied force that has never trained or operated together; where lack of a common signaling regime proved fatal, along with Japanese air superiority.  The lessons of ABDA Command and the Battle of the Java Sea provide a ringing endorsement of the need for exercises like RIMPAC, or standing alliances like NATO (with standardized SOP) because after the war starts is too late to figure that out.  A major lesson, that all the navies in the Far East learned the hard way (or by happy surprise in the case of the Japanese) was that you command the sea by commanding the air over the sea.

In attachment H-003-3 I provide a short summary of some of the many truly heroic actions by the U.S. Asiatic Fleet, hopefully just to whet your appetite to want to read more.  A theme that comes through is that it doesn't matter whether a Sailor is on a first-line warship, or the most unglamorous ancient auxiliary; when the war comes, none are spared the requirement for sacrifice and the full measure of duty.  In the case of the Asiatic Fleet, the Sailors repeatedly rose to the occasion.  Some of the greatest heroism in the history of the U.S. Navy was exhibited by the crews of vessels like the armed yacht USS Isabel (PY-10, the "Alternate" Asiatic Fleet Flagship) and her Presidentially ordered reconnaissance of Japanese shipping off Cam Ranh Bay days before the outbreak of war; the submarine rescue ship USS Pigeon (ASR-6) and minesweeper USS Whippoorwill  (AM-35) that pulled a submarine and a destroyer clear of the raging inferno at Cavite at great risk; the submarine tender USS Canopus (AS-9) and her Naval Battalion on Bataan and her "Mickey Mouse Battle Fleet;" the archaic seaplane tender USS Heron (AVP-2) that survived hours of coordinated torpedo and bomb attacks and destroyed an attacking Japanese seaplane; the PT-boats of Motor Torpedo Squadron Three (MTB-3), who rescued General MacArthur, and Philippine President Quezon; Patrol Wing 10, which flew multiple bombing missions (after the B-17s had been withdrawn) at great cost; the seaplane tender USS Langley (AV-3, formerly CV-1), ordered on a suicidal daylight run to deliver US Army Air Force P-40 fighters to a port that didn't have an airfield; and the heroic last battles of the ancient destroyers Pope (DD-225), Pillsbury (DD-227) and Edsall (DD-219), who fought valiantly until the end, in Edsall's case against two Japanese battleships, two heavy cruisers, and aircraft from four Japanese carriers. [Attachment H-003-6 is a still from a film showing Edsall's last moments.]  Amongst the lost ships and aircraft, come numerous epic stories of survival, including the crew of the sunken minesweeper USS Quail (AM-15) who were the last to escape from Corregidor, sailing a 21ft launch all the way to Australia, complete with an episode with New Guinea headhunters.  Lastly, in an observation that should give hope to every Sailor was a statement by a senior officer on USS Canopus, "it was the biggest troublemakers that truly rose to the occasion in combat," an observation echoed in CAPT Paul Rinn's book, "No Higher Honor" about the USS Samuel B. Roberts (FFG-58) mine strike in the Persian Gulf in 1988.

3. USS Houston (CA-30) 

According to one witness, when the heavy cruiser, USS Houston (CA-30) pulled into Tanjung Priok (port for Batavia (now Jakarta)) Dutch East Indies on 28 Feb 1942, having barely survived the hours-long gunnery duel of the disastrous Battle of the Java Sea the day and night before, the ship's cat deserted.*  The story is possibly apocryphal, although what is more certain is that the Australian light cruiser, HMAS Perth's black cat (named Red Lead) attempted to desert in the same way in the same port at the same time.  Along with the cat, went Houston's luck.  Having survived over 80 days as the largest Allied warship in the Far East, with no air cover and under multiple bombing attacks and the constant threat from the same kind of Japanese aircraft that had made short work of the British battleship HMS Prince of Wales and battlecruiser HMS Repulse on 10 Dec 41, seriously damaged in one air attack, and having survived a major surface action, the Houston, in company with Perth, would go into battle that night near the Sunda Strait against overwhelming odds from which neither ship, nor most of their crews would survive.  Within the next couple days, other remaining ships of the U.S. Asiatic Fleet would meet the same fate, in a number of cases, alone, against insurmountable odds, with no survivors.

The skipper of the Houston, Captain Albert C. Rooks, was a hero of mine, long before I joined the U.S. Navy, when I first started reading naval history.  A brilliant officer, strategic thinker, and exceptional shiphandler, Rooks was destined for high flag rank, greatly respected by superiors, and most tellingly, revered by his crew for his no-nonsense leadership, and most importantly, his handling of the ship in combat.  In an intense air-raid in the Flores Sea on 4 Feb 1942, Rooks skillfully dodged dozens of accurately aimed bombs from over 50 aircraft; all but the last bomb from the last plane that came off at an errant angle and through sheer luck destroyed Houston's after 8" turret, killing 48 men and reducing her combat power by one third.  Given the option to withdraw his ship from the region for repairs, Rooks declined, because even damaged, Houston was the most capable ship the Allies had.  In a second major air attack, with a new load of 5" anti-aircraft shells to replace the 75% dud rate of her original load, Houston brilliantly defended a troop ship convoy, downing multiple Japanese aircraft with no loss to the convoy.

On the night of 28 February-1 March 1942, while executing pre-planned orders to withdraw from the Java Sea, the Houston and the Perth attempted to exit through the Sunda Strait.  With Perth in the lead (her skipper, the legendary Captain Hec Waller, was senior) the two unescorted cruisers encountered a Japanese blocking force, and in the initial exchange of gunfire discovered that they were unexpectedly in the midst of the main Japanese invasion force for Java.  Although already critically low on ammunition, low on fuel, previously damaged, and with exhausted crews, both cruiser skippers chose to turn and attack towards the dozens of Japanese troop transports along the shore, which was the reason both ships had gone back into the Java Sea a week earlier.  Although the chance of escape was slim, Captain Rooks placed duty over survival, and decided to sacrifice his ship dearly in an attempt to thwart the landing.

In the hours-long night close-quarters melee that followed, both ships were surrounded on all sides by two Japanese heavy cruisers and numerous destroyers and smaller patrol craft, which fired 87 torpedoes at Houston and Perth.  The Allied cruisers avoided numerous torpedoes, several of which hit and sank Japanese troop transports, including the one with the Japanese commander of the invasion force embarked (LTG Imamura), who survived his swim ashore.

Both Allied cruisers were eventually hit by multiple torpedoes and countless shells, yet they still damaged numerous Japanese ships, fighting until they were out of ammunition.  Perth went down first, and Houston fought on alone for over 30 minutes, as Japanese ships closed to within machine gun range.  Both Waller and Rooks were killed by enemy shellfire after finally giving the order to abandon ship.  A Marine in Houston's forward anti-aircraft platform fired his .50 cal machine gun at the enemy until the ship slipped beneath the surface, her national ensign still flying high. 

Of Houston's crew of 1,168 men, only 368 survived the battle, and until only 291 survivors emerged from Japanese captivity at the end of the war, no one in the U.S. really knew what happened in the Sunda Strait.

Captain Rooks was awarded a Medal of Honor while in missing-in-action status during the war for his actions in the Battles of the Flores Sea and the Java Sea; the period of action did not cover the Battle of Sunda Strait.  Houston was awarded a Presidential Unit Citation after the war.

Today, the Naval History and Heritage Command is working with the US Embassy in Jakarta and the Indonesian government to protect the wreck of the Houston from metal salvagers who have illegally removed the wrecks of almost every other Allied ship lost in the Java Sea.  Although Albert Rooks faced a far tougher fight than John Paul Jones, Farragut, or Dewey, the U.S. Navy has no ship named after Rooks, although there is a water fountain at the Naval Academy dedicated in his honor.  (*James Hornfischer, "Ship of Ghosts.") For more on USS Houston, see Houston Memorial Service remarks from 5 March 2016 [included as H-gram attachment H-003-4].

4. Featured Artifact

USS Houston (CA-30) trumpet (attachment H-003-5

Published: Tue May 07 16:23:43 EDT 2019