The Galloping Ghost
On the eve of another unheralded anniversary, I'm going to indulge my fascination with military history once more, and take a trip back. A history that an ever-decreasing few lived through, and retain forever seared in their memories and their shared experiences with their living and departed comrades.
There are many such stories, 65 years old now. This is one, lost among the more heralded stories, that I felt worth revisiting. I wish to acknowledge here that the great bulk of my ability to pay tribute to this story comes about thanks to the memoirs of Capt. W. G. Winslow (Ret) and his superb books The Fleet The Gods Forgot and The Ghost That Died At Sunda Strait, recommended reads both.
The USS Houston (CL 30, later CA 30) was launched on September 7, 1929, at Newport News, Virginia, and was commissioned on June 17, 1930. Classified a "heavy" cruiser, she sported a main battery of nine 8" guns in three independent turrets, along with eight 5" dual purpose (surface target or anti-aircraft) guns, as well as four quadruple mounts of 1.1" anti-aircraft guns and eight .50 caliber machine guns. She weighed in fully laden at about 14,000 tons, and possessed a top speed of at or just under 35 knots. For the time, she was an up-to-date, first-class fighting ship.
Such was her trim, stately and aggressive appearance, none other than the Commander-in-Chief, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, embarked aboard her for four different cruises, between 1934 and 1939. For a period of time -- September to December, 1938 -- she was the flagship of the US Fleet in the Pacific; with her deployment to the Philippines in November of 1940, she became the flagship of the US Asiatic Fleet.
So she was, on the morning of December 7, 1941, and would remain until the end. An end that came on the morning of March 1, 1942, in a distant place known as Sunda Strait, between the islands of Java and Sumatra. Of her 1015 officers and crew embarked, only 360 survived to be captured by the Japanese.
Only 285 of them would live to see home again.
In her brief but courageous war career, the Japanese reported having sunk the USS Houston so often, her defiant crew nicknamed her "The Galloping Ghost of the Java Coast". Granted, the Japanese weren't far from wrong once: on February 4, 1942, the Houston and other ships were enroute to engage enemy naval forces when Japanese aircraft attacked in force. It was here that the gunnery officer of the Houston discovered that many of the 5" shells in their magazines were faulty; Houston took an aerial bomb through her Number Three turret, killing 48 and wounding 50. But due to excellent training and damage control response, Houston survived. Again on February 15, Japanese aircraft attacked the Houston and the ships she was escorting (transports carrying troops); on this occasion, with a fresh supply of newer 5" shells aboard (from the USS Boise), the anti-aircraft fire put up by the Houston was so accurate and intense that not one Japanese bomb scored on any ship in the convoy.
On the fateful day of February 26, 1942, Dutch Admiral Karel Doorman set forth to intercept the large Japanese invasion forces reported approaching the island of Java. His ABDA (American-British-Dutch-Australian) combined force consisted of the Houston; the British heavy cruiser Exeter; the Australian light cruiser Perth; the Dutch light cruisers De Ruyter (with Doorman embarked) and Java; and ten destroyers (four American, four British, two Dutch). Supporting the Japanese invasion forces were at least four heavy cruisers, one light cruiser, and at least 13 destroyers, though this strength was not known by Doorman or the men under his command.
From contact in the late afternoon of February 26, until well after dark, the Battle of the Java Sea didn't go well for the ABDA Fleet: Exeter was badly damaged by shell fire, and forced to withdraw; De Ruyter and Java were mortally hit by torpedoes and sunk; three destroyers were also sunk. Reports of damage to the Japanese combatant ships was confused and disputed, but the bottom line was that the troop transports of the Japanese invasion fleet, headed for the island of Java, went untouched.
In Doorman's last moments (before he went down with the De Ruyter), he ordered Houston and Perth to withdraw.
On the afternoon of February 28, Houston and Perth were ordered to clear the area via Sunda Strait, and join up with other ABDA naval forces south of Java. Erroneously, the captains of both vessels were assured that aerial reconnaissance had verified no hostile vessels were within a day of Sunda Strait.
At 2315, as the two ships approached the eastern end of the Strait, lookouts discovered how inaccurate the intelligence report had been: before them lay the Japanese invasion force, heavily supported by the aforementioned (and previously engaged) cruisers and destroyers.
Houston and Perth had no choice; they went to Battle Stations and attempted to fight their way through.
Japanese screening forces filled the waters with torpedoes, attempting to protect the transports; in the process, they hit and sank several of their own ships, as well as provided Houston and Perth with plenty of help in illuminating targets for their ships' guns, which carried out a savage execution of an enemy on all sides.
But the lopsided melee could only have one outcome: at 0020 on the morning of March 1, 1942, the dead-in-the-water HMAS Perth went down fighting, taking more than half her crew, including her commanding officer, H. M. L. Waller. At 0030, shortly after giving the order to abandon his own mortally-wounded ship, Captain Albert Rooks, USS Houston, was killed by a shellburst. At 0035, with a few guns still firing in a vain but courageous attempt to cover the survivors abandoning her, and with her flags flying, the USS Houston joined Perth at the bottom of Sunda Strait.
Houston and Perth didn't stop the Japanese invasion of Java, but they died giving it their best try. Later, several survivors revealed that Japanese interrogators refused to believe that only two Allied cruisers had been present, since 15 Japanese ships (they claimed) had been sunk during the battle.
That was 65 years ago. Today, as then, the spirit, courage and sacrifice of the USS Houston and her intrepid crew deserves tribute and remembrance.