28 February 2010
Just Before Midnight, 28 Feb 1942, USS Houston CA 30 Engages Japanese ...
On February 28, the USS Houston CA30 and the HMAS Perth proceeded to the port of Batavia in western Java, and partially refueled before attempting that night to pass through Sunda Strait in an effort to reach the safer waters of the Indian Ocean. As they approached the entrance to the strait near midnight, they unexpectedly encountered a Japanese covering force of nearly one dozen destroyers, three cruisers, and numerous torpedo boats and minesweepers that were protecting the invasion fleet. In the ensuing Battle of Sunda Strait, the Houston and Perth both aggressively fired at the attacking Japanese ships at close range, but, outnumbered and outgunned, they were no match for the enemy forces that completely surrounded them. Four torpedoes sealed the fate of the Perth shortly after midnight. Soon after, the first torpedo struck the Houston, and another Japanese shell destroyed her number two eight-inch turret, at which point Captain Rooks gave the order to abandon ship.
Tragically, one of the incoming Japanese shells struck a gun mount, killing Captain Rooks. The abandon ship order was countermanded and the Houston continued to fight, now alone against the Japanese fleet. She managed to hit three destroyers and sink a minesweeper before three more torpedoes ripped into the ship.
Hit by four torpedoes and listing to starboard, the Houston was doomed. The Japanese turned on their searchlights and continued to blast the ship. Captain Rooks and the majority of the crew were already dead. As a second order was given to abandon ship, the remaining crew members jumped over the sides, then began swimming furiously away from the suction of the sinking ship.
In the water, Japanese torpedo boats were machine gunning escaping sailors. Those who could avoid the gunfire began swimming through the dark, oil-coated water towards the Java shore, many miles away. Terrible as the experience of the last few days had been, their ordeal was just beginning. (Information from University of Houston Special Collection).
When I was in college, I wrote my thesis on the sinking of this ship and the heroic crew. The ship was substandard and the men did the best they could. I was fortunate to attend a reunion/ memorial ceremony in 2002 and again in 2003. The survivors I spoke with were friendly and more than happy to answer my questions. A bit of trivia, their experiences as POWs of the Japanese were used for the movie Bridge on River Kwai.