Tuesday, May 1, 2007

USS Houston (CA-30)

The USS Houston (CA-30) was commissioned on June 17, 1930, and, after conducting an initial shakedown cruise in the Atlantic, steamed for the Pacific on January 10, 1931, to become flagship of the US Asiatic Fleet. Once war started between China and Japan in 1932, the Houston was sent to Shanghai to protect American lives and property. Marine and Navy gun platoons were sent ashore to help bring some stability to the city and the Houston remained in the area until November of 1933, when she was relieved by the cruiser USS Augusta. The Houston then went to San Francisco where she participated in numerous fleet training exercises. During this period in her life, the Houston made several special trips, including one on July 1,1934, when she took President Franklin Roosevelt on a 12,000 mile cruise from the Caribbean to the Panama Canal, then to Portland, Oregon, and then on to Hawaii. President Roosevelt would make several more trips on board the Houston and this ship would become his personal favorite.

Throughout the rest of the 1930s and on into 1940, the Houston continued to participate in numerous fleet maneuvers and training exercises. On November 3, 1940, the Houston left San Francisco for the Philippine Islands and arrived in Manila on November 19. She immediately became the flagship of Admiral Thomas C. Hart, Commander of the US Asiatic Fleet. The Houston was based out of the Philippines until the start of the war on December 7, 1941. After the war started, the Houston escorted ships between the island of Java, in the Netherlands East Indies (part of current-day Indonesia), and Australia for approximately eight weeks and was attached to the newly formed ABDA (American-British-Dutch-Australian) Command. But while the Houston was performing the tedious (but necessary) task of convoy escort, the Japanese surrounded Java by occupying the islands of Bali, Borneo, and Sumatra.

On February 4, 1942, the Houston was part of a small Allied task force that tried to intercept some Japanese warships that were reported to be in the Makasar Strait of the Flores Sea, just to the northeast of Java. Also in the task force were the USS Marblehead (CL-12), the Dutch light cruiser De Ruyter, the destroyer leader Tromp, as well as three Dutch and four American destroyers. Unfortunately, the ships had absolutely no Allied air cover and were attacked by 54 Japanese land-based bombers. The ships fought the planes for more than three hours. By the time the Japanese left, the Marblehead was seriously damaged and the Houston had sustained a 500 pound bomb hit on its No. 3 turret, which was located towards the stern of the ship. Forty-eight of the Houston’s crewmembers were killed and 50 were wounded. The ships gave up the search for the Japanese warships and returned to Tjilatjap, located on the southern coast of Java.

The Marblehead was so badly damaged that it had to be sent back to the United States for repairs. Although Houston’s No. 3 turret was destroyed, the ship was kept in the area because the Allies were so short of cruisers. With only six of her nine 8-inch guns now operational, the Houston resumed escorting convoys between Australia and Java.

On February 18, the Houston’s commander, Captain Albert H. Rooks, learned that Dutch Vice Admiral Conrad Helfrich had replaced Admiral Hart as commander of the ABDA naval forces. Helfrich was determined to defend Java to the last ship, even though the island’s future was bleak. By February 26, two large Japanese invasion forces were headed towards Java. There was little hope that the few remaining ships of the ABDA Command could stop, let alone defeat, the massive assault groups that were about to attack Java. The Japanese also had total air superiority over the entire area, making it almost impossible for Allied warships to remain at sea without having to endure constant aerial assaults. The wise move would have been to withdraw all of the Allied warships to Australia and abandon Java. But Vice Admiral Helfrich would have none of that and, since he was in command of the ABDA forces, he ordered his ships to attack the oncoming Japanese invasion groups. It turned out to be a horrible mistake.

On February 27, Helfrich sent what was left of his small fleet into the Java Sea, hoping to sink enough enemy transports in the oncoming Japanese invasion force to discourage the enemy from making a landing on the eastern coast of Java. In tactical command of the Allied task force was Dutch Rear Admiral Karel Doorman of the Royal Netherlands Navy. Doorman’s group was composed of the British heavy cruiser Exeter, the Houston, the Australian light cruiser Perth, and the Dutch light cruisers De Ruyter and Java. Steaming with these cruisers were a total of nine British, Dutch, and American destroyers. Doorman steamed right into an oncoming Japanese task force of approximately four cruisers and 13 destroyers. Several additional warships, as well as aircraft, soon joined the Japanese.

What followed was the Battle of the Java Sea and it turned out to be a disaster for the Allies. Admiral Doorman was killed and his flagship, the De Ruyter, was sunk. Also lost were the cruiser Java and three destroyers. In addition, the Exeter was seriously damaged. The Allies claimed that three Japanese destroyers were sunk, but the Japanese maintained that only one destroyer was damaged. Fortunately, the Houston did not sustain any major additional hits during the battle. What was left of Doorman’s ships limped back to Java, with the Japanese invasion force continuing its advance towards the island.

On February 28, 1942, the Houston and the Perth were ordered to leave Batavia, on the northwestern coast of Java, and sail through the Sunda Strait. They would then hook around the bottom of the island and steam for Tjilatjap, which was on the southern coast of Java. Admiral Helfrich wanted to gather his few remaining ships in Tjilatjap to continue the fight against the oncoming Japanese fleet. But on the night of February 28, as the two ships entered the Sunda Strait, they were amazed to find that they had stumbled onto an enormous Japanese invasion force of almost 100 ships which had begun an amphibious landing on the Western coast of Java. One can only imagine what went through the minds of the captains of these two lonely Allied warships when they saw this vast Japanese armada stretched out before them. Turning back was not an option since Japanese warships quickly surrounded the two Allied cruisers. They could have tried to run away, but the Japanese, with their superior numbers and firepower, eventually would have cornered them and destroyed them. So Captain Rooks (on board the Houston) and Captain Hector MacDonald Laws Waller, commanding officer of the Perth, decided that they would attack and sink as many Japanese ships as they could.

The Battle of Sunda Strait lasted almost an hour. The Houston and the Perth blasted a number of Japanese ships at almost pointblank range. One Japanese transport was sunk and three others were forced to beach themselves to prevent them from sinking in deeper water. The Houston also scored hits on three different Japanese destroyers and sunk a Japanese minesweeper. But there were simply too many enemy warships. Both the Perth and the Houston took a terrible beating. Japanese heavy cruisers and destroyers hit the Perth dozens of times and several torpedoes also hit the Australian warship. Shortly after midnight, the Perth could take no more punishment and sank, taking 353 out of 680 crewmembers with her, including Captain Waller.

The Houston didn’t fare any better. She took her first torpedo hit shortly after midnight and began losing headway. But the ship kept on firing all of its guns until it was literally out of ammunition. Soon three more torpedoes slammed into the Houston and at approximately 12:30 AM a shell obliterated the ship’s bridge, killing Captain Rooks. By 12:35 AM on the morning of March 1, 1942, after being torn to pieces by shells, torpedoes, and raging fires, the USS Houston rolled over and sank. Out of a crew of 1,061 men, only 368 made it to shore. Most of them would later die due to torture, disease, and malnutrition in Japanese prisoner of war camps during the remainder of the war.

Captain Rooks would later be posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions in the battle and the Houston’s Chaplain, Commander George S. Rentz, was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross for his efforts to save several wounded crewmen who were struggling in the water after the ship went down. He was the only Navy Chaplain to be so honored during World War II. The Houston was a tough ship, with a brave crew, that fought against impossible odds. This is a ship that clearly deserves to be remembered.