The USS Houston in 1935  (Wikipedia photo)

More than 72 years after the USS Houston went down during a battle with Japanese forces, the Navy has confirmed that underwater wreckage found off the Java coast is that of the World War II cruiser.

Details from the Los Angeles Times:

“In recent months Navy archaeologists worked with Indonesian Navy divers to survey the wreck over the course of 19 underwater searches, said U.S. Pacific Fleet commander Adm. Harry Harris.

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The Navy History and Heritage Command confirmed that the recorded data is consistent with the identification of the former Houston.

Documented evidence shows the grave site was disturbed, noting that hull rivets and a metal plate were removed from the ship. Both U.S. and Indonesia officials are working to coordinate protection of the historic site, which is also a popular recreational dive location.”

Divers also determined that unexploded ordnance had been removed from the wreck.  That may explain why the Navy waited so long to confirm that the final resting place of the Houston, giving divers and EOD teams more time to collect other pieces of ordnance and block access to the ship’s magazines.  Senior Navy and Marine officers laid a wreath on the water at the site back in June, memorializing the 700 sailors and Marines who went down with their ship during the Battle of Sunda Strait on February 28, 1942. 

Discovery of the Houston’s final resting place solves the final mystery surrounding the legendary ship.  While the cruiser’s loss was affirmed shortly after the battle, the exact spot where it went down remained unknown until the recent location and analysis of the wreckage near Java.

Unfortunately, media accounts of the discovery gloss over the history of the USS Houston, and its legacy as a fighting ship.  For members of the World War II generation, the ship was a symbol of determination, heroism and sacrifice against long odds. 

Indeed, for many months after the Houston went down, it was assumed that all hands were lost with the ship.  In fact, almost 300 members of the crew survived the sinking, only to be taken prisoner by the Japanese.  They endured hellish conditions in POW camps immortalized by the book and film “Bridge on the River Kwai.”  William Holden’s character in the film, Lieutenant Commander Shears, was identified as a survivor from the Houston.  Shears’ escape from the POW camp mirrors that of five Houston sailors who managed to reach Allied lines and report that roughly one-third of the crew had survived.  At the end of the war, 291 were repatriated and returned home. 

When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, the USS Houston was part of the Navy’s small Asiatic Fleet.  With most of our capital ships destroyed or heavily damaged in Hawaii, long-standing plans for a decisive surface battle with Japan were scrapped, and the Asiatic Fleet–along with ground and air forces in the region–were on their own.  In late December 1941, Houston was assigned to the Joint American-British-Dutch-Australian (ABDA) naval forces, under Admiral Karel Doorman of the Royal Netherlands Navy.

As the Japanese took Hong Kong and Singapore in rapid succession (and advanced steadily in the Philippines), the situation on Java grew increasingly grim.  On 26 February, with reports of a large invasion force approaching the island, Doorman took his squadron to sea, hoping to intercept and destroy the transports carrying troops and supplies towards Java. 

It was a brave, but futile gambit.  Doorman had no air cover, and he was well aware of what occurred at Pearl Harbor and later, at Singapore, where Japanese aircraft sank the HMS Prince of Wales and Repulse in less than three hours.

On paper, Admiral Doorman appeared to have a strong force: two heavy cruisers (the HMS Exeter and Houston); four light cruisers (the USS Marblehead; the HMNS De Ryter, HMNS Java and HMAS Perth), along with 10 destroyers.  But many of his vessels dated from the First World War, and only one (Exeter) had radar.  Communications between elements of the battle fleet were limited and Japanese jamming only made the problem worse.  Doorman’s force was further depleted when Marblehead was damaged in a preliminary engagement, sending her on a 16,000 mile journey to the United States for repairs.

Late on the afternoon of 27 February, the Houston, along with the rest of Doorman’s forces, entered battle against a Japanese screening force of four cruisers and 13 destroyers.  The engagement went badly for the Allied naval squadron; attempts to push past the Japanese force were repeatedly rebuffed, at a high cost in ships and sailors.  By the end of the day, only Houston and Perth remained; the two Dutch cruisers had been sunk, taking their captains and Admiral Doorman down with them.  Three other destroyers were also lost.  The Battle of the Java Sea, the largest surface engagement since Jutland, ended in a decisive Japanese victory.

The next evening Houston and Perth were ordered to sail through Sunda Strait to Tjilatap, on the south coast of Java, the first step on a planned journey to Australia.  Intelligence reports indicated no Japanese naval activity in the area, but shortly after entering the Strait, the two cruisers and an accompanying destroyer ran into the main Japanese invasion force.  A furious night action ensured; Perth, suffering multiple hits from torpedoes and gunfire, went down just before midnight.  Houston, surrounded and alone, fought on.  Crews manhandled eight-inch shells to the forward guns from the disabled rear turret and scored multiple hits on several Japanese vessels. 

Houston’s luck finally ran out around 12:30 a.m., local time.  The cruiser’s brave Captain, Albert Rooks, was killed by a shell burst and the ship–crippled by three torpedoes–slowed to a crawl.  Japanese destroyers moved in and machine-gunned the decks, killing more sailors.  Just before 1 am, the Houston rolled over and sank, her ensign still flying.  Over 300 crew members went into the water before being captured and put in enemy POW camps. 

For his sacrifice, Captain Rooks was awarded the Medal of Honor.  Houston’s 59-year-old Chaplain, Commander George Rentz, received the Navy Cross for aiding his wounded shipmates in the water, and giving his life jacket to another sailor. 

Such was the legacy of the “Galloping Ghost of the Java Coast,” a ship claimed sunk by the Japanese on multiple occasions before that fateful February night.  It is fitting that the Houston’s final resting place has been found, and it can now be preserved as a memorial to a great ship and the brave men who took her to into harm’s way.    

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