The Last Battle of USS Houston
Sunda Strait, 28 February–1 March 1942
The Battle of Sunda Strait ended the Allied defense of the Netherlands East Indies (NEI) and was the final battle the Navy’s Asiatic Fleet participated in during World War II. After its defeat in the Battle of Java Sea and the follow-on engagement in Sunda Strait, the Navy’s remaining Asiatic Fleet vessels retreated to Australia where they would fall under the South West Pacific Area command and become part of the Navy’s 7th Fleet in 1943.
During the ARCADIA Conference held in Washington from 22 December 1941 to 14 January 1942, the Allies agreed to form a single unified command called the American-British-Dutch-Australian Command (ABDACOM) to defend against Japanese offensives in Southeast Asia and the Southwest Pacific. After the fall of Singapore on 15 February 1942, ABDACOM’s commanding officer, British General Sir Archibald Wavell, advised the Allied Combined Chiefs that the NEI likely could not be defended against further Japanese attacks. The Combined Chiefs dissolved ABDACOM and ordered Wavell to turn over the defense of the NEI to Dutch Vice Admiral Conrad E.L. Helfrich, who was determined to defend Java.
On 24 February, Allied aircraft and submarines sighted a Japanese convoy in the Java Sea off the coast of the island of Bawean. Two days later, Dutch Rear Admiral Karel Doorman sortied his force, which included five U.S. Navy ships—the heavy cruiser Houston (CA-30), and the destroyers Alden (DD-211), John D. Edwards (DD-216), John D. Ford (DD-228), and Paul Jones (DD-230)—determined to intercept the Japanese convoy and protect Java. The next day, Doorman engaged the Japanese convoy in the Battle of Java Sea. In what was the largest surface engagement since the Battle of Jutland in 1916, the Japanese sunk two of Doorman’s light cruisers and three of his destroyers. Doorman’s remaining force dispersed, with Houston and the Australian light cruiser HMAS Perth (D-29) retreating to the port of Tanjung Priok, located on the northern coast of Java. Unfortunately for both ships, not only had Japanese aircraft nearly destroyed the port facilities at Tanjung Priok, Helfrich issued orders that dock workers were to only fuel Dutch naval vessels. Officers aboard Perth and Houston described to dock workers the nearly complete destruction of the Dutch East Indian Navy that had occurred on 25 February and were able to cajole a limited amount of oil for their ships, but were not able to replace munitions expended in the Java Sea battle. Without sufficient munitions to defend themselves or undertake offensive operations, Houston and Perth had to retreat out of the Java Sea back to the southern Javanese port of Tjilajap.
At 1900 on 28 February, Houston and Perth sortied from Tanjung Priok bound for Tjilatjap through the Sunda Strait, a narrow body of water between Java and Sumatra. Sailors aboard both Allied ships believed the strait to be clear of Japanese vessels. Reports from HMAS Hobart and a Dutch East Indian Army aircraft of Japanese ships in the strait did not reach them before their departure.
At approximately 2315, Houston and Perth came upon elements of the Japanese Western Attack Force in Bantam Bay off the coast of St. Nicholas Point, Java. Not only was Sunda Strait not clear of Japanese vessels, a task force of 29 troop transports, screened by cruisers and a destroyer division, was in the process of landing the Japanese 16th Army on Java.
Upon sighting the two allied ships, the Japanese destroyer Fubuki requested reinforcement from the Japanese screening force. Shortly after that request, Houston and Perth were engaged against a force of three cruisers, seven destroyers, and a myriad of patrol boats and minesweepers. In a ferocious battle that saw ships firing at ranges as close as 200 yards amidst a Japanese smoke screen, the Imperial Navy’s inaccurate fire at the beginning of the battle left crews aboard the two allied ships watching in wonderment as the Japanese fired on their own troop transports. The 700-ton Sakura Maru sank, while three others ran aground on the beach. Unfortunately for the allied ships, Japanese gunners quickly corrected their inaccurate fire. After only approximately 45 minutes, Perth, hit by four of the 87 torpedoes launched by the Japanese during the battle, sank just after midnight on 1 March, leaving Houston to continue the fight alone.
During the battle, Houston faced so many different threats that Sailors were often unable to coordinate fire sufficiently enough on a single target to sink it. Houston’s guns damaged the destroyers Harukaze and Shirayuki and the cruiser Mikuma but all three ships were quickly able to return to action. Facing only two allied ships. Japanese gunners obviously had no such problem, and with Perth settling on the bottom of Sunda Strait, they were all able to concentrate on the American heavy cruiser.
Shortly after Perth sank, a Japanese salvo destroyed Houston’s engineering spaces and a torpedo strike destroyed her plotting room and central fire-control computer, forcing the crews manning each of the ship’s guns to sight targets and fire independently. Despite this, Sailors aboard Houston continued to fight for another half hour. With their ship eventually damaged by an estimated four to six torpedo strikes and numerous shell strikes, including one that killed the ship’s commanding officer, Captain Albert H. Rooks, Houston’s executive officer, Commander David Roberts, ordered his crew to abandon ship at 0033. Out of the ship’s total complement of 1,061 Sailors and Marines, 693 perished, with the 368 surviving Americans spending the next three years in Japanese prisoner-of-war camps. Of the 681 sailors aboard Perth, 353 perished. Of the 328 survivors, 324 were captured and spent the rest of the war as prisoners of war in brutal conditions that resulted in the deaths of 106 more Royal Australian Navy sailors. Amazingly, four of Perth’s sailors outwitted the Japanese and were never captured.
Between the Battle of the Java Sea, the engagement in Sunda Strait and ships sunk while trying to retreat to Australia on 1 March 1942, the Allies lost ten ships and over 2,000 sailors in and around the Java Sea. This catastrophic defeat left the Southwest Pacific completely open to Japanese operations. Without the U.S. Navy to oppose them, the Japanese had only to choose in which direction they wished to advance.
Hornfischer, James D. Ship of Ghosts: The True Story of the USS Houston, FDR’s Legendary Last Cruiser, and the Epic Saga of Her Survivors (New York: Bantam, 2006).
Toll, Ian. Pacific Crucible: War at Sea in the Pacific, 1941–1942 (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2011).