Skip to main content
Related Content
Document Type
  • Documentary Histories
Wars & Conflicts
  • World War II 1939-1945
File Formats
  • Image (gif, jpg, tiff)
Location of Archival Materials
  • NHHC

H-003-2: Japanese Offensive and Navy Response

Admiral Thomas C. Hart U.S.N.
Admiral Thomas C. Hart, 1939 (NH 95164).

H-Gram 003, Attachment 2
Samuel J. Cox, Director NHHC
20 February 2017

The U.S. Asiatic Fleet – Background and Summary

Although commanded by a four-star (Admiral Thomas C. Hart) for oriental “face” reasons, the U.S. Asiatic Fleet was deliberately kept very small, in keeping with the Mahanian principle in force at the time to never divide the Battle Fleet.  (Only in early 1941 did the U.S. Navy begin to “violate” this principle by moving some battleships and aircraft carriers to the Atlantic from what has been the Battle Fleet (later renamed Battle Force) concentration area throughout the 1920’s and 1930’s at San Pedro and Long Beach.)  Consisting of the flagship, the heavy cruiser USS Houston (CA-30), the early 1920’s vintage light cruiser USS Marblehead (CL-12), 13 WW-I vintage destroyers, and an assortment of China gunboats and other auxiliaries, the primary offensive punch of the Asiatic Fleet was envisioned to be the potent force of 29 submarines, recently augmented in anticipation of war with Japan during 1941.

Although U.S. war plans at the time assumed that the Philippines would be lost to the Japanese, and that the U.S. Navy would have to fight our way across the Pacific to the decisive battle between the Battle Fleets in Far Eastern waters, the U.S. did not plan to give up the Philippines without a fight, and the submarines were meant to make the Japanese Navy pay heavily to take the Philippines.  The U.S. plan failed for several reasons, but the most significant was the unanticipated (by the U.S.) immediate loss of air superiority to the Japanese, and the fact that large numbers of U.S. torpedoes were defective.  (I’ll cover the “Great Navy Torpedo Scandal” in a future H-gram, but before the war, the U.S. Navy conducted no live-fire tests of torpedo warshots against actual targets because it was deemed too expensive.  As a result, major flaws were not known and corrected until almost two years into the war, at incredible cost in lost target opportunities and American lives.)

The U.S. Navy Intelligence infrastructure in the Far East, centered around the signals intelligence and code-breaking center known as Station Cast in the Philippines (counterpart to Station Hypo in Hawaii,) worked reasonably well.  Admiral Hart received intelligence from broken Japanese diplomatic codes (that Admiral Kimmel in Hawaii did not get) and had sufficient warning to disperse most of the Asiatic Fleet to safer locations prior to the Japanese attack.  However, U.S. submarines were quickly deprived of key sources of reconnaissance of Japanese invasion force movements, when most of the PBY Catalina flying boats were quickly shot down or destroyed at anchor.  (Of 44 PBY’s that were on station or reinforced Patrol Wing Ten, all but five were destroyed or shot down by March 1942, including one flown by LT Thomas H. Moorer, future CNO and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.)

Without air reconnaissance, or benefit of the ULTRA code-breaking intelligence that became available later in the war, U.S. submarines repeatedly missed intercept opportunities, consistently arriving at Japanese amphibious landing sites after the Japanese invasion ships had left, and were frequently attacked by Japanese aircraft whenever surfaced.  In addition, even with ample warning, the complete lack of effective U.S. air defenses enabled 54 Japanese bombers on 10 Dec 41 to leisurely and accurately plaster Cavite, the only major U.S. Navy base in the region, destroying almost everything at the base, including 230 submarine torpedoes and the submarine USS Sealion (SS-195) (severely damaged and later scuttled.)  Extremely vulnerable to air attack, the submarine tenders were withdrawn further south, except for USS Canopus (AS-9), whose Sailors would serve valiantly as infantry in the defense of Bataan and Corregidor.  In those rare cases where U.S. submarines intercepted the Japanese, such as S-38’s (LT Wreford  G. “Moon” Chapple – future RADM - commanding) heroic foray into the treacherous waters of Lingayen Gulf to attack the main Japanese landing force in what was to that point the largest amphibious assault in history, U.S. torpedoes repeatedly failed to explode on target, leading immediately to the pounding of U.S. submarines by Japanese aircraft and depth charges; Despite the target-rich environment, S-38 only sank one large transport and survived, barely, repeated Japanese ASW attacks.  The Japanese landing at Lingayen was actually a major fiasco, with the Japanese loosing half their tanks and many men to sea state/weather conditions, far more than were lost as a result of U.S. action, and even then the U.S. could not effectively oppose it.


If there is anyone who questions the wisdom of RIMPAC exercises, other regional engagement exercises (or even NATO) the short and chaotic life of the American-British-Dutch-Australian (ABDA) Command, and its Naval Component Command (ABDAFLOAT), and the culminating defeat in the Battle of the Java Sea in February 1942, represents a textbook case of everything that can go wrong in coalition warfare, and the disaster that can befall an Allied/Coalition Force that has never trained together.  Although the stubborn U.S. and Filipino Army defense of the Bataan Peninsula inflicted heavy casualties on the Japanese and greatly slowed Japan’s timetable for completing the capture of the Philippines, the Japanese onslaught everywhere else in the Far East continued at an astonishing and unabated pace.

ABDA Command was conceived as a means by the Allies to defend Singapore and the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia.)   As U.S. and British leaders convened in Washington in late Dec 41 and grappled with the unexpected collapsing situation in the Far East, they pushed for a unified command structure.  In a surprise to the British, the Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army, General George C. Marshal, supported even more surprisingly by ADM Ernest J. King (Commander in Chief, U.S. Fleet,) pushed to have a British army general put in charge of ABDA, while British Prime Minister Winston Churchill pushed to have an American admiral put in charge (both sides most likely saw the whole thing as a loser, leading to the gracious offers to have the other put in charge.)  Without consulting the Netherlands Government-in-Exile, the job was given to British Field Marshal Sir Archibald Wavell (most recently run out of Libya by German General Erwin Rommel) and the naval component command, termed ABDAFLOAT, to Admiral Hart.

ABDA almost immediately became dysfunctional, as the Allied interests quickly diverged and the Japanese racked up victory after victory.  Wavell was focused on the defense and supply of India, and the defense of Singapore (whose garrison quickly surrendered on 15 Feb 42  to a Japanese force half its size in what is generally considered the most ignominious defeat in British military history).  The Dutch Naval Forces Commander in the East Indies, VADM Conrad Helfrich was focused exclusively on the defense of Java (to the last Allied ship) and was so incensed that an American admiral had been put in charge of the naval defense of the Dutch East Indies that he actively worked through diplomatic and government channels to undercut ADM Hart and have him relieved.  The Australians were focused on the defense of Timor and Australia (most of the Australian Army was in North Africa fighting the Germans.)  The Americans kind of just hung out losing ships to fulfill political promises of moral support to the Dutch, brokered in Washington.  Dutch political pressure in Washington became so intense, that Admiral King informed Admiral Hart that he should request to be relieved for “health reasons” (in his 60’s, the Dutch and British claimed Hart was “too old” for his position – he lived to a vigorous 94.)  Hart acceded to King’s “recommendation” and command of U.S. Naval Forces in the region passed to newly-promoted VADM Glassford on 4 Feb, under the overall command of VADM Helfrich.  The relief of Hart marked the official end of the U.S. Asiatic Fleet.  In the end, with the fall of Singapore, Wavell recommended dissolution of ABDA, pulled up chocks and went to India.

First Victory – Battle of Balikpapan – Pre-dawn 24 Jan 42

The first surface action by the U.S. Navy since the Spanish-American War was a victory, and was about the only bright spot in the entire effort to counter the Japanese invasion of the Dutch East Indies (and was played up by U.S. media into a much greater victory than it actually was.)  The great victory was marred by the fact that U.S. surface torpedoes didn’t work any better than submarine torpedoes; the older MK10 warshots used at Balikpapan ran 10 or more feet deeper than their setting (the newer Mk14/15 torpedoes had even bigger problems.)

Four U.S. destroyers, USS John D. Ford (DD-228), USS Pope (DD-225), USS Parrot (DD-218), USS Paul Jones (DD-230), under the command of DESDIV 59 Commander Paul H. Talbot (future RADM), conducted a successful night infiltration of a Japanese invasion force at Balikpapan, on the east coast of Borneo.    The U.S. destroyers withheld gunfire until after launching all their torpedoes (a tactically sound lesson that was not learned or passed on, resulting in many unnecessary U.S. ship losses later in the war, as the Japanese would fire their long-range torpedoes at U.S. gun flashes, with devastating effect.)  The Japanese escorts, not expecting a night attack by the U.S. (they saw themselves as undisputed masters of the night) assumed they were under submarine attack and charged off into the Makassar Strait after a non-existent sub.  This gave the U.S. destroyers almost three unmolested hours to shoot about 48 torpedoes at 12 anchored transports, backlit by a burning Dutch oil refinery, at point blank range, but sinking only 4 transports due to the defective torpedoes, and also sinking one Japanese patrol boat, which turned out to be the largest Japanese surface combatant sunk as a result of U.S. surface action in the entire campaign.  All four U.S. destroyers escaped with only minor damage.  The battle probably delayed the Japanese by a day or two.

Battle of the Java Sea Disaster – 27 Feb 42

On the 27 Feb, a combined Dutch, British, Australian and U.S. task force put to sea from Surabaya, Java, with no air cover, in a last-ditch effort to attack a large Japanese invasion force heading for eastern Java in what became the largest surface action since Jutland to that date.  Under the command of Dutch Rear Admiral Karel Doorman (Commander, Combined Striking Force), embarked in the Dutch light cruiser HMNLS De Ruyter, the force consisted of the U.S. heavy cruiser USS Houston (CA-30)(the largest, most capable ship in the Allied force, even with her after 8” turret destroyed by previous bomb damage), the British heavy cruiser HMS Exeter (victor over the German “pocket battleship” Graf Spee in the Battle of the River Platte in Dec 39), the Australian light cruiser, HMAS Perth (veteran of extensive action in the Mediterranean,) the Dutch light cruiser Java, and 9 destroyers (4 U.S., 3 British, and 2 Dutch.)  Encountering a Japanese force of two heavy cruisers, two old light cruisers, and 14 destroyers, on paper it should have been at least a close match, with the Allied force having an advantage in light cruiser 6” gunfire, that was never effectively brought to bear as the Japanese repeatedly outmaneuvered the Allied force, courtesy of Japanese cruiser scout planes which constantly dogged the Allied force with impunity.  Because of this air reconnaissance advantage, the Japanese were able to keep the laden troop and supply transports well away from the battle.

At the time, it was believed by the U.S. Navy and most navies of the world (including Japan) that the state of gunnery fire control had become so advanced that it was expected that surface actions would be decided in minutes.  The Battle of the Java Sea turned into an hours-long late afternoon/twilight long-range gunnery duel in which the Allies and the Japanese both squandered hundreds of rounds per ship with limited result.  (Houston emptied both her forward magazines, and Sailors humped 260 LB shells from the after magazine under the unusable after turret, the length of the ship during combat (no air-conditioning.))  Many accounts say Houston scored the first hit of the battle, on a Japanese heavy cruiser.  Japanese records do not confirm this, although many Japanese records are on the bottom of the ocean.  Eventually, Houston was hit with two dud Japanese 8” shells, before HMS Exeter suffered a critical hit, that threw the entire Allied force into confusion, as all the lack of common training, doctrine, incompatible signals, tactics, and language issues manifested themselves.  (British and U.S. ships could speak English, but their signal codes were incomprehensible to the other, for example.)

As HMS Exeter fell out of line, and the Allied ships behind her fell into disarray, the Japanese destroyers closed for a torpedo attack.  In the melee that followed, the Dutch destroyer Kortenear and the British destroyer Electra were sunk.  The U.S. destroyers countered with a torpedo attack, with what by then had become the standard result – no hits.  As night fell, the Allied force blundered into a recently laid minefield, and the British destroyer HMS Jupiter, hit one, blew up and sank.  At this point the U.S. destroyers, low on fuel and with torpedoes expended, were detached to return to Surabaya along with the damaged HMS Exeter, and the Dutch destroyer Witte de Witt, which had survivors on board.

The remaining four Allied cruisers, with no destroyer escort, bravely (some accounts say recklessly) continued through the course of the night to try to get around the Japanese cruisers (low on ammunition themselves) but Japanese superiority in pyrotechnics, night optics, and dogged float plane reconnaissance stymied Doorman’s force.  In the end, the Japanese launched a devastating long-range torpedo attack that the Allied ships didn’t see coming in the night.  (Allied reports repeatedly state that they came under submarine attack, even though no Japanese subs were involved in the battle, because they did not know about the extended range (12-22NM) Japanese Type 93 “Oxygen” torpedo (later known as “Long Lance” coined after the war by historian RADM Samuel Eliot Morison.)  Actually, the U.S. did receive intelligence about the Type 93 before the war, but refused to believe it, since we had no similar capability.)  The Dutch light cruisers De Ruyter and Java were both hit, exploded and sank, with heavy loss of life; RADM Doorman went down with his ship.  Executing Doorman’s standing orders to break off contact in the event of the loss of communications with the flagship and proceed to Tanjung Priok (port for Batavia – now Jakarta), the USS Houston and HMAS Perth disengaged, and the disastrous Battle of the Java Sea was over, to be followed by a Japanese sweep up of most every other Allied ship in the region.

Back to H-Gram 003 Overview 

Published: Tue May 07 16:30:06 EDT 2019