(CL-30: displacement 9,050; length 600'3"; beam 66'1"; draft 16'4"; speed 33 knots; complement 621; armament 9 8-inch, 4 5-inch, 2 3-pounders (saluting), 6 21-inch torpedo tubes; aircraft 4; class Northampton)
The second Houston (CL-30) was laid down on 1 May 1928 at Newport News, Va., by the Newport News Shipbuilding & Dry Dock Co.; launched on 7 September 1929; sponsored by Miss Elizabeth Holcombe, daughter of the mayor of Houston, Texas; and commissioned at the Norfolk Navy Yard, Portsmouth, Va., on 17 June 1930, Capt. Jesse B. Gay commanding.
After fitting out, Houston visited New York City; Gardiner’s Bay, Long Island, N.Y.; then Newport, R.I., before clearing the last-named place on 30 August 1930 for northern Europe. During her shakedown cruise the new warship paid port calls at Southampton, England (8-17 September); Rotterdam, the Netherlands (18-27 September); and Le Havre, France (28 September-6 October) before she set a course to return to the U.S. She paused briefly at Key West, Fla. (18-20 October) after which she proceeded to the city for which she was named. Following her visit to Houston (23-29 October), the cruiser paused again at Key West (1-2 November) then pushed on for Hampton Roads, standing in on 5 November, assigned to Cruiser Squadron 5, Scouting Fleet.
Following a post-shakedown availability, Houston departed the New York Navy Yard on 10 January 1931 and proceeded to the Philippine Islands, steaming via Hampton Roads, Va., the Panama Canal, and Honolulu, Territory of Hawaii, standing in to Manila, Philippine Islands, on 22 February 1931. Two days later, on 24 February 1931, Adm. Charles B. McVay, Jr., Commander in Chief, Asiatic Fleet (CinCAF) hauled down his flag on board the heavy cruiser Pittsburgh (CA-4) and transferred it to Houston, which had arrived on the station after her long voyage “ready in all respects for any duty” and required “no time for [an] engineering overhaul.”
Houston, with Adm. McVay embarked, sailed from Manila on 22 March 1931, and visited Hong Kong (25-26 March), the admiral exchanging calls with “civil, naval, and military officials” that included Sir William Peel, governor of the colony, and Vice Adm. Sir W. A. Kelly, Commander in Chief, British Naval Forces in China. The admiral transferred his flag to the river gunboat Mindanao (PR-8), then visited Canton where he exchanged calls with a number of Chinese diplomatic and military officials, later expressing his being “much impressed by the work which has been accomplished in changing Canton into a modern city and in developing the port as a rival of Hong Kong as a port of entry…” During that time, Houston hosted Rear Adm. Chen T’se and 57 young naval officers and cadets who had traveled by rail to the British Crown Colony for a “visit of inspection” of the Asiatic Fleet’s flagship, and entertained Americans residing in Hong Kong.
Sailing from Hong Kong on 30 March 1931, Houston, with Adm. McVay again embarked, then visited Amoy (31 March-3 April), during which the usual calls and entertainments proceeded apace. The U.S. Consul in Amoy later informed the admiral that “he [the consul] knew of no prior visit aboard [sic] a foreign man-of-war by Chinese civilians.”
Leaving Amoy in her wake on 3 April 1931, Houston proceeded to Nanking, reaching that Yangzte River port on 7 April. There, Adm. McVay conferred with U.S. Minister in China Nelson T. Johnson, “and to lend prestige to the elevation of the American Consulate to Consulate General.” He also exchanged calls with Vice Adm. Chen, Acting Minister of Marine, and Minister of Foreign Affairs C. T. Wang, and entertained members of Chinese officialdom.
Clearing Nanking on 13 April 1931 with U.S. Minister Johnson as a passenger, Houston reached Shanghai on the 15th, where she remained through the end of May. On 8 June, the ship sailed for the waters of northern China, and reached Tsingtao the following day. There the CinCAF exchanged calls with local Chinese government officials. Adm. McVay remained at Tsingtao, in Houston, until 21 August, when the flagship got underway to return to Shanghai. During that time, on 1 July 1931, Houston was reclassified as a heavy cruiser, CA-30.
Arriving at Shanghai on 22 August 1931, Houston hosted her first flag change of command on 1 September when Adm. Montgomery M. Taylor relieved Adm. McVay. Four days later, Houston sailed to return to Tsingtao for the Asiatic Fleet’s concentration in North China waters. After a brief period at Tsingtao (6-14 September), Adm. Taylor wore his flag in the cruiser as she touched at Chinwangtao, the seaward end of the Great Wall (15 September). He then traveled to Peiping [Peking] to confer with Minister Johnson (16-18 September), after which time re-embarked in Houston and sailed for Hankow.
Houston’s schedule of operations reflected Adm. Taylor’s desire to visit “as many parts of China as possible in order that the Commander in Chief might familiarize himself with the political and military situation.” Consequently, the flagship visited Hankow (23-28 September), Nanking (29 September-5 October), Shanghai (6 October-16 November) and Amoy (18-19 November). Transferring his flag to Isabel (PY-10), the admiral visited Swatow (20-23 November) and Hong Kong (24-30 November) before transferring his flag back to Houston at Manila on 1 December, remaining on board for a little over a fortnight, transferring to Isabel at Olongapo on 16 December. Adm. Taylor then proceeded to Manila, arriving later the same day and remaining there until 21 January 1932, at which point Isabel returned to Olongapo (21-22 January), where CinCAF broke his flag again in Houston, returning to Manila on 22 January.
The situation in China, however, soon worsened to open hostilities between China and Japan. On 28 January 1932, city authorities proclaimed a State of Emergency in Shanghai, and “in accordance with the approved defense plan,” the Fourth Marine Regiment assumed its positions to defend its part of the International Settlement. Houston, flying CinCAF’s flag, cleared Manila on 1 February, and arrived at Shanghai on the 3rd. She put a portion of her bluejacket landing force ashore on 4 February to guard the Riverside Plant of the Shanghai Power Company, the cruisermen relieving the landing force from the destroyer Borie (DD-215) that had been put ashore the day after the proclamation of the State of Emergency. The next day [5 February], the transport Chaumont (AP-5) stood up the Whangpoo River to Shanghai, bringing the U.S. Army’s 31st Infantry Regiment from Manila. Houston put her marine detachment, temporarily assigned to the Fourth Marines, ashore on 8 February, “service [that] afforded the Detachment valuable practical training.” Houston’s marines remained ashore on duty until 29 April, while the ship rotated the details of sailors on landing force duty to afford them training, too. “With a large portion of [her] landing force ashore for several weeks,” Adm. Taylor later observed, “[Houston] had an opportunity to test [her] plans for maintenance of ship activities with a depleted crew.”
Ultimately, the relaxation of tensions enabled Houston to depart Shanghai, which she did on 7 June 1932. Setting course for Tsingtao, she stood in to that port on 8 June, and remained there for two months. Clearing Tsingtao for Chefoo on 8 August, she reached her destination the following day, where Adm. Taylor transferred his flag to Isabel to proceed to Hsinho, thence by train to Peiping. The admiral broke his flag in Houston again on 1 September off Taku Bar. The ship proceeded to Chefoo (2 September), then returned to Tsingtao (3-23 September). Following the CinCAF’s flying from Hankow to Chungking (1 October), then proceeding to Ichang (2-4 October) in river gunboat Tutuila (PR-4), thence to Isabel (5 October), he rejoined Houston at Hankow on 6 October.
After visiting Nanking (9-13 October 1932), Houston called at Shanghai (14 October-9 November), then Hong Kong (12-22 November), at which point CinCAF transferred his flag to Isabel and visited Canton (22-23 November), then rejoining the cruiser at Hong Kong (23 November). The admiral then traveled in Isabel to Manila, where he remained from 28 November 1932 to 9 January 1933, then to Olongapo (9-10 January), where he rejoined Houston to return to Manila where she remained for a little over two months (10 January-13 March).
With Adm. Taylor embarked, Houston sailed from Manila for a cruise through the Philippine Islands, visiting Iloilo (14-15 March), Cebu (16-18 March), Davao (20-21 March), Dumanquillas Bay (22-25 March), and Zamboanga (25-27 March). The flagship returned to Shanghai on 1 April, remaining there until standing down the Whangpoo and setting course for Japan on 29 May. Houston put in to Yokohama on 2 June, where the admiral went ashore and traveled by rail to Kobe (13-14 June). “The cordial reception given the Commander in Chief during his recent visit to Yokohama and Kobe,” Taylor later wrote, “gave every indication that the Japanese are endeavoring to extend a hand of friendship to the United States.” Breaking his flag in Houston at Kobe, the CinCAF sailed for Tsingtao on 14 June, reaching his destination on the 16th.
Houston remained off Tsingtao, flying Adm. Taylor’s flag – save for a brief period at Chefoo (31 July-2 August 1933) -- until 11 August, at which point the heavy cruiser sailed for Shanghai, where, on 18 August 1933, Adm. Frank B. Upham relieved Adm. Taylor as CinCAF and broke his flag in Houston at Shanghai. Underway on 21 August, the flagship sailed for north China, and visited Tsingtao (11 August-11 September), then Chefoo (12-13 September). Adm. Upham transferred his flag to Isabel at the latter port on 13 September, and proceeded to Hsinho (15 September), at which point he traveled to Peiping by rail. Returning to Isabel at Hsinho on 21 September, thence to Houston via Taku Bar, he retained his flag in Houston until 23 September, when he transferred it again to Isabel to proceed up the Yangtze to Nanking (25-28 September), and Hankow (30 September-6 October). Putting in to Shanghai on 8 October, he returned to Houston that day. Soon thereafter, Upham transferred his flag to Houston’s sister ship Augusta (CA-31) (Capt. Chester W. Nimitz, commanding), on 14 October 1933, and Houston sailed for the United States, streaming a long “homeward bound” pennant astern. Ultimately, the heavy cruiser proceeded to San Francisco, Calif., to join the Scouting Force.
Assigned to Cruiser Division 5, Houston participated in fleet maneuvers in the spring of 1934, and arrived at New York on 31 May, where President Franklin D. Roosevelt reviewed the fleet. Subsequently, on 1 July, Houston lay four miles off the Naval Academy wharf, Annapolis, Md., prepared to receive President Roosevelt and his party, who embarked in the destroyer Gilmer (DD-233) at 0730 to be transported out to the cruiser. With all on board by 0800, Houston, Gilmer, and Williamson (DD-244) sailed immediately, clearing the Virginia capes the following morning, setting course for Cap-Haïtien, Haiti, at 0630 and proceeding through smooth seas and gentle breezes.
Over the days that ensued, Houston transported the President to Cap-Haïtien (5 July 1934); then Mayaguez, Puerto Rico (6-7 July); St. Thomas, Virgin Islands (7-8 July); Frederiksted, St. Croix (8 July); and Cartagena, Colombia (10 July), where Williamson provided transportation for the Presidential party. Arriving off the entrance of the Panama Canal at 0700 on 11 July, Houston anchored an hour later, President Roosevelt sending a message of appreciation to Gilmer and Williamson as they returned to their regular operation schedules. Underway at 1000, the heavy cruiser began the transit of the isthmian waterway, completing it upon arrival at the Balboa docks at 1700, the President and his guests viewing it “from a commanding position on the communication deck.”
Houston cleared Balboa at 1730 on 12 July 1934, joined by the heavy cruiser New Orleans (CA-32), which had been substituted for San Francisco (CA-38), the ships reached Cocos Island at 1400, and reached a position several miles offshore where they put boats over the side for fishing, with President Roosevelt, Capt. Wilson Brown wrote later, having “a strike almost immediately.” Underway late on 14 July, the two cruisers steamed to Clipperton Island, arriving there on the 17th to inspect it from seaward. While the heavy seas encountered that day prevented the President from fishing, each ship lowered two boats that encountered a plethora of tuna that, unfortunately attracted sharks that snatched the fish before they could be landed – despite the work of a Marine rifleman “who did effective work whenever a shark came near the surface.” Later the same day, Houston and New Orleans set course for the Hawaiian Islands.
On 19 July 1934, the rigid airship Macon (ZRS-5) contacted the flagship during the forenoon watch, then her planes passed over Houston about mid-day. The airship herself made a dramatic appearance soon thereafter, coming out of a “heavy rain cloud,” and Macon and her aircraft interested the Chief Executive, who noted the “impressive” performance of launching and hooking-on. “The strong light and shadow caused by passing clouds,” Capt. Brown later noted, “showed the Macon off to great advantage.” Boats from the ships retrieved newspapers dropped in waterproof packages.
Capt. Brown, Mr. Rudolph Forster, and the President’s sons Franklin, Jr., and John, accompanied Capt. Walter B. Woodson, Houston’s commanding officer, on his Saturday morning inspection of the crew and living spaces on 21 July 1934, after which President Roosevelt addressed the members of the crew massed on the well deck. After recounting humorous anecdotes of earlier inspections he himself had carried out while Assistant Secretary of the Navy in 1918, he told the sailors before him, “You have given me a very happy cruise and made it possible for me to do a lot of catching up with both official and personal work that I have been waiting a long time to carry on. I am delighted with the ship and the officers and men of the U.S.S. Houston. It is a fine ship.” Of the crew, he said, “The crew of this ship like the crew on most ships represents a cross section of the United States, a mighty fine cross section…” In conclusion, he reiterated his enjoyment of the cruise, concluding, “I am glad that I have had you as my shipmates and I hope that we will have another cruise some day. Many thanks.”
Houston anchored off Kailua two hours into the morning watch on 24 July 1934, and the President and his guests got in considerable fishing, all engaged returning on board “tired and very sun-burned.” The flagship steamed to Hilo, arriving in company with New Orleans to find a large fleet of fishing boats “waiting to act as an escort” on the 25th, then moved on to Honolulu, met at the entrance buoys the next morning [26 July] by “Army and Navy planes and by a large fleet of small, gaily decorated boats – mostly Japanese fishermen…” In the inner harbor, among those on hand to greet Houston’s arrival was Duke Kahanamoku, the five-time Olympic Gold Medalist, who stood “majestically in a war canoe with feathered cloak and head dress and right hand resting on a spear.” Houston remained at Honolulu while the President visited Schofield Barracks and the Pearl Harbor Navy Yard, among other places on Oahu (26-28 July), then sailed for Portland, Ore., in company with New Orleans, bringing their cruise to completion on 3 August after a cruise of 11,783 miles.
After Houston rejoined the fleet after that period of special duty, she wore the flags of Vice Adm. Harris Laning (11 September-20 October 1934) and Vice Adm. Edward H. Campbell (3 December 1934-1 April 1935), then flew the flag of Assistant Secretary of the Navy Henry L. Roosevelt (15-31 May 1935) on an inspection of Pearl Harbor and the Hawaiian area. Houston participated in Fleet Problem XVI, conducted in the North Pacific off the coast of Alaska and in the vicinity of the Hawaiian Islands, maneuvers that represented various phases of a naval campaign – including a “major fleet battle”—as well as exercising the fleet to prepare for, and conduct, an overseas expedition and to seize an advanced base. By mid-year, Houston’s engineering performance had earned her the right to paint a white “E” on one of her stacks to denote “excellence in engineering,” while designated members of her engineering force could wear an “E” on their uniform.
Houston flew the Presidential flag (2-23 October 1935) when she again welcomed President Roosevelt as a shipmate, as well as wore the flag of Adm. Joseph M. Reeves, Commander in Chief, U. S. Fleet (2 October) during the Fleet Review at San Diego that began his cruise. Escorted by Portland (CA-33), Houston transported Roosevelt, with Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes and advisor Harry Hopkins among his party, to Cerros Island (3 October), Magdalena Bay (4 October), Cocos Island (9-11 October), Bahia Honda (12-13 October), the Perlas Islands (14-15 October), transited the Panama Canal (16-17 October), Puerto Bello (17 October), the Gulf of San Blas (17-19 October), Devil’s Island (19 October), before ultimately disembarking at Charleston, S.C. on 23 October.
Other flag officers who used Houston as flagship soon thereafter included Vice Adm. Arthur P. Fairfield (23-26 March 1936) and Vice Adm. Arthur J. Hepburn (15 May-24 June 1936), the latter flying his flag when the ship crossed the Equator on 20 May en route to Panama and Valparaiso, Chile, reaching the latter port nine days later and remaining there until 2 June. Houston stood in to the waters off Long Beach, Calif., on 15 June. Subsequently, she visited Seattle and Bremerton, Wash., Portland, and San Francisco. Vice Adm. William T. Tarrant utilized Houston as his flagship during the period 24 June 1936 to 16 March 1937.
On 16 April 1937, Houston, as flagship for Rear Adm. Edward B. Fenner, Commander Cruisers, Scouting Force, sailed for Hawaiian waters once more, and participated in Fleet Problem XVIII. The year’s large training evolutions took place in the North Pacific again, as well as ranged to the Hawaiian Islands, and again focused on the seizure of advanced bases. The Problem pitted the Battle Force against an augmented Scouting Force. Afterward, Houston stood in to San Francisco Bay on 28 May to participate in celebrations attending the opening of the Golden Gate Bridge.
Houston participated in Fleet Problem XIX (March-April 1938), a three-phase evolution that essentially involved three fleet problems in themselves. Destroyers would be deployed to scout and attack; the ships would develop proper fleet dispositions and practice conducting major fleet battles. Spanning the Pacific from the west coast to the Hawaiian Islands, Part II of Fleet Problem XIX pitted the Battle Force, substantially augmented by submarines, versus an augmented Scouting Force. Part V would pit the U.S. Fleet versus the Hawaiian Defense Force (augmented by some fleet units) to test the latter’s capabilities and to provide an exercise for the fleet to carry out seizing and defending advance bases. Part XI saw the carrier-augmented Battle Force against the submarine-augmented Scouting Force in defending a coastline.
President Roosevelt returned to Houston to review the fleet on 14 July 1938, coming on board at Oakland, Calif.; Adm. Claude C. Bloch, CinCUS, broke his flag on board the same day, the ship getting underway that afternoon for San Francisco Bay. The President and his party left the ship later that same day following the review, but returned on the 16th, the presidential cruise beginning at San Diego late that afternoon. Escorted by the destroyer McDougal (DD- ), Houston visited Cerros Island (17 July), Magdalena Bay (18 July), San Jose Del Cabo Bay (19 July), Braithwaite Bay (20 July), Clipperton Island (21 July), proceeding thence for the Galapagos Islands, arriving there on the 24th and preparing for the Crossing the Line ceremonies that continued the following morning when the ship crossed the Equator at 0840. After another succession of islands and bays, and fishing trips nearly daily, Houston brought the 5,888 mile cruise to a close at Pensacola, Fla., on 9 August. “This is the third visit I have taken on the HOUSTON in the past four years,” the President told the crew the evening before, “Every moment of the trip has been delightful. I feel the HOUSTON is home.” The ship disembarked the President so he could return to Washington via Warm Springs, Barnesville, and Athens, Georgia. When released from that special duty, the heavy cruiser again served as CinCUS flagship, Adm. Bloch again wearing his four-star flag on board (19 September-28 December 1938), after which time Houston returned to the Scouting Force.
Houston got underway from San Francisco on 4 January 1939, steamed to Norfolk and Key West, and there embarked President Roosevelt and Adm. William D. Leahy, the Chief of Naval Operations, for the duration of Fleet Problem XX, large scale maneuvers that involved the U.S. Fleet exercising control over Caribbean sea lanes while at the same time maintaining sufficient strength to guard American interests in the Pacific. Long-range search operations, in addition to escorting merchant convoys and setting up and defending advanced bases, in addition to engaging in a major fleet engagement, all received due attention. She arrived at Houston, Tex., on 7 April for a brief visit before returning to Seattle, where she arrived on 30 May.
Assigned as flagship for Commander Destroyers, Hawaiian Detachment, Houston wore the flag of Rear Adm. Ralston S. Holmes (11-17 November 1939), after which time the cruiser steamed to Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1939. She then served as flagship for Vice Adm. Adolphus Andrews, Commander Hawaiian Detachment (18 December 1939-17 February 1940), the admiral hauling down his flag at the Mare Island Navy Yard (17 February). She then wore the flag of Rear Adm. Gilbert J. Rowcliff, Commander Scouting Force (31 May-31 August 1940).
Houston departed Pearl Harbor on 24 August 1940 for the west coast of the U.S., and arrived at Mare Island Navy Yard on 30 August. During that overhaul, Houston received significant changes in her antiaircraft battery. Four additional 5-inch guns were mounted on the “flight deck” (atop the aircraft hangar); splinter protection was fitted for the 5-inch guns on the flight and boat decks. She also received three 3-inch single-mount antiaircraft guns, but delays in the delivery of 1.1-inch quadruple mount machine guns resulted in only one being installed were installed (ultimate armament fit called for a one-to-one replacement of 3-inch mounts with 1.1-inch guns); and Mark XIX directors were installed for the 5-inch guns, atop the pilot house and on the deckhouse just after of number two stack. The placement of directors and rangefinders altered her silhouette. Following her overhaul and modernization, she got underway on 15 October for San Pedro, where she arrived the following day. Clearing San Pedro on 18 October, the heavy cruiser set course to return to Pearl Harbor, reaching her destination on the 24th.
Departing Oahu on 3 November 1940, Houston stood in to Apra Harbor, Guam, on 13 November, less than a fortnight after a typhoon had devastated the island, rendering the Navy Yard at Piti a shambles, damaging the Marine Barracks, sinking one of the two recently arrived district patrol craft (YP) and blowing the dredge YM-13, being used to dredge a channel near Sumay, ashore. It had reduced the Pan American Airways hotel to “kindling wood.” The storm also blew away dwellings and poultry, destroying crops and completely disrupting the lives of the Chamorro farmers.
Captain George J. McMillin, the governor, later praised the people of the island for their “cheerful willingness and unremitting effort...to repair or replace their homes” that reflected “character of which any group...might be proud.” Such industry extended to the Navy community to provide a worthy welcome for the heavy cruiser on her way to rejoin the Asiatic Fleet. By the time Houston arrived, indefatigable residents had cleared away debris, “strung Japanese lanterns around the dance pavilion…dried out the piano, set up long tables in the now-longer-screened” new wing of the club, and gave “one of the most successful dinner-dances in station history.” Those festivities honored Houston’s captain and his officers, preceded by a cocktail party given by Capt. and Mrs. McMillin “for the visiting officers and a good many of the station people,” as well as two Navy nurses who had arrived in the transport Chaumont (AP-5) “just in time to participate in the emergency duty in the hospital during the typhoon…” Guests of honor included Capt. Jesse B. Oldendorf (Houston’s commanding officer), Comdr. Homer L. Grosskopf (executive officer), Lt. Cmdr. David W. Roberts and Lt. Cmdr. Arthur L. Maher, and 27 others. Houston’s officers reciprocated that hospitality “with a beautifully appointed and gala luncheon party” on board ship the next day, inviting Capt. and Mrs. McMillan “and all station officers and their wives” to attend.
Getting underway after her brief visit (13-14 November 1940), Houston reached Manila on 19 November 1940. Adm. Thomas C. Hart, CinCAF, shifted his flag from Augusta to Houston on 22 November 1940, with Augusta standing out of Manila Bay that day, trailing a “homeward bound” pennant as her sister ship had done seven years before. Soon thereafter, Houston cleared Manila on 9 December, arriving at Aparri the next day, then moved on to Batangas (11 December), ultimately returning to Manila on the 12th.
Houston remained as Adm. Hart’s flagship until the admiral moved his headquarters ashore to the Marsman Building on the Manila waterfront in May 1941. As the Asiatic Fleet and local forces of the Sixteenth Naval District faced the prospect of hostilities with Japan given the continuing war in China and European powers’ concerns with events in Europe and the Mediterranean, the operational tempo increased accordingly. Houston received an abbreviated overhaul in November 1941, with the ship receiving three additional 1.1-inch mounts to replace the 3-inchers she had carried since her refit at Mare Island. Given the imminence of hostilities, Adm. Hart dispersed his forces, including his former flagship, as a precautionary measure to await further developments.
Consequently, Houston departed Cavite at 1110 on 1 December 1941 and dropped anchor at Iloilo at 1257 the next day. While there, one of her boats operated on nightly patrol of the narrows at the entrance to the harbor. A quarter of an hour before the end of the mid watch on 8 December [7 December east of the International Date Line], Houston received a priority dispatch from CinCAF: “Japan has started hostilities. Govern yourselves accordingly.”
On the afternoon of 8 December 1941, Rear Adm. William A. Glassford, who had only recently arrived in the Philippines from China, where he had been Commander Yangtze Patrol, arrived at Iloilo by air, embarked in Houston with a small staff and broke his flag as Commander Task Force (TF) 5. Less than one hour later, the ship got underway to meet groups of auxiliary vessels that had been sent south from Manila Bay soon after the outbreak of hostilities.
Steaming in company with the light cruiser Boise (CL-47), that had not yet returned to the Pacific Fleet after having escorted a convoy to the Philippines, and the destroyers Paul Jones (DD-230) and Barker (DD-213), Houston and her consorts sighted the first of two convoys at 1455 on 11 December 1941. The ships had been dispatched from Manila soon after war broke out, that group comprising the seaplane tender Langley (AV-3) and the oilers Pecos (AO-6) and Trinity (AO-13), shepherded by the destroyers John D. Ford (DD-228) and Pope (DD-225). Less than two hours later, those two destroyers proceeded on “duty previously assigned.” Late the next day (12 December), Houston sighted the second convoy, comprising submarine tenders Holland (AS-3) and Otus (AS-20) and Isabel, escorted by John D. Ford and Pope. The vital auxiliaries reached Balikpapan, Borneo, late on 14 December.
Underway the following morning (15 December 1941), Houston, wearing Rear Adm. Glassford’s flag as Commander TF 5, sailed for Surabaya, Java, along with Boise, John D. Ford, Pope and Parrott, shepherding Holland and Otus. The convoy reached its destination on the 17th, with the flagship mooring alongside a pier at the Dutch Naval Base at 1842. Rear Adm. Glassford hauled down his flag at 1130 on 20 December, and he and his staff moved ashore. A little less than an hour later, 20 minutes into the afternoon watch, Houston cleared Surabaya and stood out to sea. At 2123, she sighted Whipple (DD-217), Alden (DD-211) and Edsall (DD-219). Entering the Indian Ocean after completing the passage of the Alor Straits, the following day [21 December] the task group then began escorting Otus, Pecos, and the cargo vessel Gold Star (AK-12) later that same day. Ultimately, the convoy formed up to enter the waters of Port Darwin at 0627 on 28 December, with Houston dropping anchor a little less than one hour into the afternoon watch (1256).
The pause in port, however, proved brief, for Houston stood out of Darwin early on the afternoon of 30 December 1941, along with Stewart (DD-224), Alden, Whipple and Edsall, and set course for Torres Strait. The cruiser and her consorts dropped anchor in Normanby Sound on the afternoon of 2 January 1942 to await the arrival of a convoy from Oahu; Bulmer (DD-222) joined them. The next morning [3 January], the convoy -- comprising Chaumont, USAT Willard A. Holbrook, and the Dutch-registry troopship Bloemfontein -- escorted by Pensacola (CA-24), hove into view, with Edsall standing out to contact the inbound cruiser. Less than an hour after the convoy arrived, a few minutes after noon, the ships set course for Darwin, all arriving safely without incident during the first watch on 5 January.
Houston remained at Darwin for a little less than a week, standing out on the afternoon of 12 January 1942 in company with Alden and Whipple and DesDiv 57 less Barker. Whipple returned to Darwin at midnight, but the remainder of the task group continued on. At 1047 on 14 January, Houston launched Plane No.1, a Curtiss SOC-3 Seagull from her port catapult, piloted by Lt. Thomas B. Payne, the ship’s senior aviator, with RM1c P. J. Dale as his radio-gunner. Eighteen minutes later, at 1105, Payne reported sighting a ship. At 1140, he reported that the vessel in sight was a sinking ship. Capt. Rooks dispatched Alden to investigate, and the destroyer left the formation at 1145 to do so. Returning at 1347, Alden identified the wreck as that of the small Dutch motor ship Poigar, and reported that only the bridge was visible. The attack had occurred not more than a few hours previously, but that there were no signs of either casualties or, more ominously, any survivors.
Standing in to Kebola Bay on 17 January 1942, Houston fueled from Trinity, then sailed for Torres Strait, reaching her destination on the 20th and fueling Whipple and John D. Edwards upon arrival. In company with the two destroyers, she then escorted President Polk from Thursday Island to Surabaya (21-28 January), during which passage Pecos, the U.S. freighter Hawaiian Planter, and Pillsbury (DD-227) joined the convoy.
Houston departed Surabaya on 31 January 1942 in company with Paul Jones and Whipple, setting course for Makassar Strait to cover a planned raid by Marblehead and accompanying destroyers to be carried out at midnight the following day on 2 February. The 2nd passed without incident, until Marblehead signaled “Risk too great” as the time drew nigh for the operation.
Consequently, Houston came about and headed for Madura Strait, reaching her destination the next morning [3 February] and finding Dutch cruisers De Ruyter and Tromp, destroyers Van Ghent, Banckert, and Piet Hien, and nine U.S. destroyers there. Marblehead stood in soon thereafter, followed soon by Rear Adm. William R. Purnell, who arrived by flying boat (PBY) to confer with Rear Adm. Karel W.F.M. Doorman, RNN, the commander of the striking force. That same day, Japanese naval land attack planes (Takao Kōkūtai) bombed the ABDA operating base at Surabaya, while land attack planes (First Kōkūtai) bombed Malang, Java, raids that indicate for the first time that substantial enemy air forces have been moved south. Additionally, on the return flight from Malang, First Kōkūtai aircraft reported presence of Rear Adm. Doorman’s ships off Madura. As one observer in Houston later recalled, the Japanese “came overhead, looked us over and continued on.”
Japanese H6K flying boats (Toko Kōkūtai) found and shadowed Rear Adm. Doorman’s force on 4 February 1942 comprising four cruisers and accompanying destroyers that had been sighted the previous day by First Kōkūtai aircraft, attempting the transit of Madura Strait to attack the Japanese Borneo invasion fleet. On the strength of that intelligence, land attack planes from the Takao, Kanoya, and First Kōkūtais bombed Doorman’s ships, damaging Houston (First Kōkūtai) and Marblehead (Kanoya Kōkūtai). De Ruyter and Tromp were slightly damaged by near-misses (First Kōkūtai).
As the attacks had developed, Houston launched Lt. Payne in one of the ship’s SOC-3s, but Lt. John D. Lamade’s floatplane suffered damage and, after being vacated by its crew, was catapulted into the sea. The cruiser went to air defense stations and opened fire with her 5-inch battery. Only one of the first four shells, however, exploded. “As the guns continued to fire,” then-Cmdr. Arthur L. Maher, the gunnery officer, later disclosed, “it became obvious that only about one shell in four was exploding.” The first salvo of bombs straddled the ship, nine near-misses that threw “great masses of water as high as the forward machine gun nest” on the foremast. Houston consequently caught tons of water on her weather decks as far aft as the flight deck, where it flooded the deck to the depth of about one foot, making footing treacherous for the loading crews, washing them about the deck, shells cradled in their arms as the ship twisted and turned. The ship turned so violently that the forward director jammed in train.
The delay between the first and second attacks allowed Houston’s men to repair broken phone leads, clear away the water on the decks, and clean all the fire control instruments. When the attacks resumed, Houston’s 5-inch guns fired at the second wave as it departed, knocking down the Mitsubishi Type 1 from the Takao Kōkūtai flown by NAP3c Hirata Yasuo that crashed into the sea near Marblehead. For about two hours, the bombings continued, coming about 15 to 20 minutes apart.
The last attack came from the port side and stack gases prevented the director from obtaining precise ranges; the first salvo of bombs proved a near-miss off the starboard side, but one bomb hit the mainmast and went off about three feet above the main deck, between the crew’s head and Turret III which, like Turrets I and II, was fully loaded in case a torpedo attack developed. Bomb fragments set off a powder charge and ignited a serious fire inside the turret. Gunner James E. Hogan, officer-in-charge of an ordnance repair party, immediately went to the after flooding station and found that it had been irreparably damaged. Realizing the peril to the ship if Turret III was not flooded, Hogan opened the shell deck door and first flooded the shells, then the powder hoists and handling rooms, thus preventing the spread of the fire to the magazines. While Gunner Hogan had been thus engaged, Lt. (j.g.) Walter G. Winslow, A-V(N), one of the ship’s aviators, proceeded to the scene and entered the burning turret with a fire hose, training it on the blazing interior until driven out by billowing smoke. He later returned to the turret and aided in the removal of casualties.
Ordered to proceed to Tjilatjap, Houston put in to that port the next afternoon [5 February 1942], put her wounded men ashore and began fueling, while effecting repairs. With the military escort in charge of Lt. (j.g.) Harold S. Hamlin, Jr., the remains of the men slain in Turret III were taken ashore and interred on 6 February. Marblehead had suffered extensive damage, and only masterful seamanship and heroic effort enabled her to reach Tjilatjap that day and moor just ahead of Houston, which provided a military escort for the Marblehead’s dead.
On 8 February 1942, Adm. Hart visited Tjilatjap to confer with Rear Adm. Doorman, and visit his two damaged cruisers in company with Cmdr. Roy W. Bruner. “My old flagship was unlucky in being hit at all,” Hart scribbled later in his diary, “but, hit accepted, is lucky to be still afloat for it was an A.P. [armor piercing] bomb and headed straight for her magazine; it happened to hit up on the mast and exploded at the main deck. It was a terrific explosion and the loss of life was great. But Houston will stay in service, minus one turret, for a time at least.” Reflecting further upon the spirit he encountered, he wrote: “Of course the Cruiser people were none too cheery but there is plenty of determination in them.”
Completing repairs on 9 February 1942, Houston sailed for Darwin the following day, having taken on board a quantity of new 5-inch ammunition that had been left by Boise when she had had to depart the station after taking major hull damage, and arrived on 14 February, fueling soon after her arrival. The urgent need to reinforce the garrison on the island of Timor, however, meant her rest would be brief. Late in the mid watch on 15 February, Houston, destroyer Peary (DD-226) and Australian corvettes HMAS Swan and HMAS Warrego cleared Darwin, shepherding USAT Meigs, U.S. freighters Mauna Loa and Portmar, and Australian coaster Tulagi, and set course for Timor, the auxiliary vessels transporting the U.S. Army’s 147th and 148th Field Artillery, and Australian Army units. At noon that day [15 February], a single Kawanishi H6K Type 97 flying boat from the Toko Kōkūtai sighted the convoy and began trailing it, keeping well out of gun range.
Two hours later, in response to Houston’s request for fighter cover from Darwin, a solitary USAAF Curtiss P-40E, flown by Lt. Robert J. Buel of the 21st Pursuit Squadron, arrived -- one of only two available. The cruiser fired bursts in the direction of the flying boat to indicate its position among the cumulus clouds, the flashes prompting the flying boat to veer away and abandon what was apparently a bombing run. Buel managed to shoot down the Kawanishi, but was shot down in turn.
The next day [16 February 1942], with the sighting of approaching Japanese planes – 35 Mitsubishi G4M Type 1 land attack planes (First Kōkūtai) and 10 H6Ks (Toko Kōkūtai) – Houston prepared to launch two of her SOC-3s, one flown by Lt. John D. Lamade and the other by Lt. (j.g.) Winslow, the pilots directed to clear the area and proceed to Broome, Australia. Lamade managed to get off without incident, but the 5-inch guns on the flight deck opened fire, shredding the tail assembly and after fuselage of Winslow’s Seagull.
As the Japanese bombers droned nearer, Peary and the two Australian corvettes steamed ahead as an anti-submarine screen, while Houston led the column of transports, opening fire with her 5-inch and 1.1-inch batteries as they were able to do so. Capt. Rooks’ masterful maneuvering of the ship enabled her to emerge unscathed although the Japanese bombing was accurate and the bombs were falling in small patterns, his effective action utilizing calculations made by Lt. Payne, the ship’s senior aviator in the wake of the 4 February action. Near-misses damaged Miegs and Mauna Loa; on board the latter, one crewman was killed, and of the 500 troops embarked, one is killed and 18 wounded. Houston’s heavy antiaircraft fire, however, using Boise’s ammunition, saved the convoy from destruction. After the action, Capt. Frederick E. Trask, Mauna Loa’s master, wrote, the warship “steamed past us to see how we had fared, and she was heartily cheered for her splendid work.” The convoy commodore, in USAT Meigs, signaled Houston: “Exceedingly Well Done.”
The imminent fall of Timor to the Japanese, however, resulted in the recall of the convoy and its being routed back to Darwin, the ships standing in on 18 February 1942. Houston fueled, then stood out soon thereafter, setting course to proceed to Broome to recover Lt. Lamade and his SOC-3. That fortunate circumstance resulted in the cruiser’s being absent when a Japanese carrier striking force (Vice Adm. Nagumo Chuichi) attacked that port on 19 February 1942; 189 planes from carriers Akagi, Kaga, Hiryu and Soryu bombed shipping, airfields, and shore installations. Carrier bombers sank Peary, USAT Miegs and Mauna Loa (on board the latter all hands--37-man crew and seven passengers--survive); and damaged the seaplane tender (destroyer) William B. Preston (AVD-7). Portmar was damaged and beached (one of her 34-man crew was killed; two of the 300 embarked soldiers perished as well; 12 men were injured); freighter Admiral Halstead (carrying drummed gasoline) was damaged as well (she suffered no casualties).
Houston reached Tjilatjap, Java, on 21 February 1942, then sailed, via Sunda Strait, to join Rear Adm. Doorman’s force assembling at Surabaya, reaching that port late on the afternoon of 24 February, and moored alongside the Rotterdam Pier, then shifted to the naval base at midnight, mooring port side-to. The ship received the information that the Japanese were making two or three air attacks daily, pounding Surabaya’s port facilities from above 22,000 feet – above the range of any antiaircraft battery in the vicinity.
The next morning [25 February 1942] a siren sounded ashore, and Houston’s men went to air defense stations. Soon, nine twin-engined bombers came into view, flying in from the southwest at 22,000 feet. The cruiser’s five-inch guns began to bark as the planes came into range, only after reaching “a very high position angle.” The enemy ordnance landed about 500 yards away in some buildings. Across the pier from where Houston lay moored, the Dutch light cruiser De Ruyter had sent her men ashore to air raid shelters, while a shore battery vainly fired at the enemy, employing small-caliber guns that could not reach the enemy. Once the Japanese had left the area, Houston fueled, then cleared the dock and dropped anchor in the stream, the belief being held that the enemy would continue to target the port facilities.
That afternoon [25 February 1942], the Japanese conducted a second raid, 18 planes approaching from the south at 24,000 feet, adequate warning again coming from a siren ashore. The enemy’s bombs splashed harmlessly between the dock and the ship, while a U.S. destroyer anchored “well down the bay” transmitted a spot that indicated that the cruiser’s shells were exploding about 500 feet below the Japanese bombers. No other ships fired a shot, while “a shore battery fired a few rounds to indicate to us that the planes were enemy and could be fired upon.”
That night, Houston put to sea as part of an ABDA force to sweep the waters north of Madura Island. Given the possibility of action, the ship’s crew manned their general quarters stations. Returning to port early the following morning [26 February 1942], Houston anchored “well away from [the] other ships.” Although a siren sounded ashore later that morning, no raid materialized. That afternoon, however, 27 Japanese bombers, flying in a large V of V’s attacked Houston, then ship maintaining a barrage from her eight 5-inchers until the guns reached an elevation of 80°, at which point “cease fire” was sounded and the word passed for the crew to take cover. The Japanese’ bombs landed on three sides of the ship, some fragments striking her but doing no serious damage. That night, a second sweep proved, like the one carried out the night before, fruitless, Houston setting course during the mid watch on 27 February to return to Surabaya.
That afternoon, however, Rear Adm. Doorman received intelligence indicating the location of the Japanese convoy, and ordered the striking force to proceed and engage it. Doorman’s force of five cruisers and 11 destroyers attacked the Japanese support force (Rear Adm. Takagi Takeo) covering the Java invasion convoy in the Battle of the Java Sea. During the action, Houston’s Turret I experienced a casualty, but Sea1c George T. Rocque, rammerman on the right gun, together with three other members of the crew, hand-rammed the 8-inch gun “for sixty salvoes without loss of firing time.”
Japanese gunfire proved ineffective, the heavy cruisers Nachi and Haguro expending 1,271 8-inch rounds but achieving less than a half dozen hits, of which five proved to be duds – two on Houston (one passing through the foc’sle on the port side and passing out the starboard, and one that caused leaks and flooding of two small spaces), and one on the British heavy cruiser HMS Exeter, and two on De Ruyter. The only shell that did explode, however, reduced Exeter’s speed and forced her to veer out of the battle line. Haguro torpedoed and sank the Dutch destroyer Kortenaer; survivors were rescued by British destroyer HMS Encounter. Japanese destroyer gunfire sank the destroyer HMS Electra; while destroyer HMS Jupiter fouled a mine laid earlier that day by the Dutch minelayer Gouden Leeuw and sank. Allied gunfire damaged the Japanese destroyers Asagumo (she is briefly dead in the water) and Minegumo, but the U.S. destroyers’ torpedo attack proved ineffective.
The Battle of Java Sea, begun late the previous afternoon, continued into the mid watch of 28 February 1942, and in the second phase of the engagement, Haguro torpedoed and sank De Ruyter (Doorman’s flagship, in which he was lost) while Nachi torpedoed and sank Java. Ordered not to linger to pick up survivors, Perth and Houston, the only survivors of the battle line, retired to Batavia, where they fueled on the afternoon of the 28th.
Meanwhile, unencumbered by resistance from the collapsing ABDA forces, a Japanese invasion force landed on the north coast of Java. Shortly before midnight, Perth (Capt. Hector M. L. Waller, RAN) and Houston, attempting to retire from Java, encountered the Japanese transport force that the now-deceased Rear Adm. Doorman had been seeking, and its escorting ships (Rear Adm. Takagi) in Banten Bay, Java, and engaged them, an encounter of mutual surprise.
The Battle of Sunda Strait continued into the mid watch (1 March 1942) as Houston and Perth engaged three Japanese cruisers and nine destroyers (Rear Adm. Kurita). In the melee, Houston and Perth were sunk by torpedoes and gunfire of Japanese heavy cruisers Mogami and Mikuma; Japanese minesweeper W.2 and transports Ryuho Maru (the flagship of Lt. Gen. Imamura Hitoshi, the commander of the 16th Army); Tatsuno Maru, Sakura Maru and Horai Maru were sunk, and landing ship Shinshu Maru damaged, by torpedoes fired by Mogami; destroyers Shirakumo and Harukaze were damaged by gunfire.
Upon learning of Capt. Rooks’ death – a Japanese shell had struck No.1 1.1-inch mount and broken into fragments, inflicting fatal wounds -- Cmdr. David W. Roberts, Houston’s executive officer, immediately assumed command and directed the dying ship’s final actions, ordering her continuing fire until “all hope of further damaging the enemy was lost.” After giving the “abandon ship” order, Roberts concentrated on saving as many lives as possible “without any thought of personal risk.” He called down from the navigation bridge to ask if boats had been put in the water, then said he was going to aft to supervise those efforts. For his “indomitable fighting spirit, personal courage and tenacious devotion to duty,” he was awarded (posthumously), the Navy Cross.
Lt. (j.g.) Hamlin, swimming away from the doomed ship, turned back to look. “She was full of holes all through the side, these close-range destroyer shells had gone right through one side and out the other, a good many of them. There were holes all through the side of the ship, her guns were askew, one turret pointing one way, and another the other, and five-inch guns pointing in all directions…as I watched her she just lay down to die, she just rolled over on her side and the fire went out with a big hiss. I looked at her for a couple of seconds and then began to think of suction…and swam for all I was worth…” Houston, hit by an estimated four torpedoes and over 30 shell hits, rolled over on her beam ends and sank bodily.
Houston (CA-30) was stricken from the Navy Register on 8 May 1942.
Houston’s commanding officer, Capt. Rooks, was later awarded the Medal of Honor (posthumously) in recognition of his heroism, courage, gallantry and distinguished service during the period between 4 and 27 February.
Houston was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation and two battle stars for her World War II service.
Commanding Officers Date Assumed Command
Capt. Jesse B. Gay 17 June 1930
Capt. Robert A. Dawes 18 November 1930
Capt. William Baggaley 3 January 1933
Capt. Walter B. Woodson 5 June 1934
Capt. Guy E. Baker 25 June 1935
Capt. George N. Barker 16 July 1937
Capt. Francis Cogswell 24 May 1939
Capt. Jesse B. Oldendorf 16 October 1939
Capt. Albert H. Rooks 30 August 1941
Cmdr. David W. Roberts 1 March 1942
Robert J. Cressman
1 March 2017