In the early morning hours of February 28, 1942, HMAS Perth and the badly damaged USS Houston (CA30) limped into Tanjong Priok
The Dutch commander, Vice Admiral “Coen” Helfrich insisted that the two survivors of the Battle of the Java Sea, would ASAP depart the death trap the Java Sea now had become. But after yesterday’s battle both cruisers were low on fuel and short of ammunition, especially 8 inch ‘bricks’. Fuel was a serious problem as the port installations and bunker facilities had been the target of repeated Japanese airstrikes over the past weeks.
While the dockyard tried to solve this problem Admiral Helfrich’s naval intelligence staff briefed the captains and warned them of a second Japanese invasion fleet approaching Western Java. They urged them to sail an evasive northerly course, first towards the Borneo coast, then due west, hugging the Sumatra shoreline. Thus they might be able to sneak unobserved through the dangerous Sunda strait choke point.
Unfortunately, the Captains next visited Admiral Hugh Palliser, senior British commander present, who did not share the Dutch view. He and his staff advised the commanders to take their vulnerable and unprotected cruisers on a straight, high-speed dash for the Sunda strait and the freedom of the Indian Ocean.
Both ships left port at 17.00 hrs, only half refueled, short of ammunition and unescorted. Disregarding the warning about a Japanese fleet approaching West-Java, Captain Waller immediately set a cracking pace in a desperate effort to pass through Strait Sunda and make a high speed run for Australia.
It was a fatal decision because around 2300 hrs. that night the two cruisers ran straight into Admiral Kezaburo Hara’s Japanese fleet of five cruisers and 12 destroyers, screening the 58 troopships that carried General Hitoshi Imamura’s 16th Army. A ferocious gun battle erupted turning HMAS Perth into a blazing wreck that slipped under the waves around midnight.
USS Houston now became the focal point for the incessant Japanese gun and torpedo salvos. Soon the crippled cruiser was dead in the water, ablaze from stem to stern.. Moments after Captain Rooks ordered ‘abandon ship’ he was killed by a Japanese eight inch shell.
At 01.30 hrs, USS Houston slipped beneath the waves of Strait Sunda on the 1st of March 1942, ending the prolonged battle for the mastery of the Java Sea and the invasion of Java. The loss of life was horrendous. Out of a crew of 1064, USS Houston lost 632 officers and men. HMAS Perth lost 380 out of a crew of 680.
371 survivors of the USS Houston were taken prisoner and were sent to Burma and Thailand and other locations. They slaved on the “Burma-Siam Death Railway” building a railroad through the jungle and in the coal mines, docks and ship yards in Japan and other southeast Asian countries. They spent 42 months in captivity suffering humiliation; torture, both mental and physical; starvation and disease (without medication). Altogether, 163 soldiers and sailors died in captivity and of those 133 died working on the Thai-Burma Death Railroad. Many more died soon after the war as a result of diseases contracted while in captivity.
Visit my page “The Battle of the Sunda Strait” for a more detailed account.
And this battle also prominently figures in “The Odyssey”, Book One of “The Java Gold”.