for the USS Houston in the SundaStrait; Part II By David
C. Faltot (excerpts
from an article by Brian Dinsley)
It had been
6 months since I had last dove the wreck of
the USS Houston. During that dive I experienced
a combination of equipment failures coupled with my own poor judgment
landed me in critical condition at Mt.Elizabeth hospital in Singapore. Needless
to say I had mixed feelings when I
was contacted by Brian Dinsley, a British diver who asked me to lead a
British and Australian divers on a “tour” of the wrecks of the Houston
In April of
2004 Dinsley called me and asked for some
help. He had a group of divers (British
and Australian) who wanted to dive the wrecks of the American heavy
and the Australian cruiser Perth. Both
ships were casualties of the Battle
of the Sunda Straits when they ran into an entire Japanese task force
conducting a invasion of the island
of Java. The two
cruisers were trying to pass through
the Straits to the Indian Ocean when they
strange lights from ships in the vicinity of the northwest tip of Java.
flashed a message and challenged the ships but did not receive the
response. A gunfight quickly ensued and
the Houston and Perth
both found themselves surrounded by the entire Japanese fleet.
Within two hours it was all over. Both ships had gone down with
the bulk of
their crews and those who survived fought against strong currents and
Japanese, who were shooting the survivors while they struggled in the
water. Those who passed through this
ordeal faced several years of malnutrition, privation and torture in
Brian’s request some thought and agreed to take
them to the wrecks. We met at my home in
Jakarta for a safety and
meeting and made our final preparations for the expedition.
arrangements for a 65 foot sailboat powered by
inboard diesels. It was a great boat and
its skipper and owner, Cameron, was an Australian diver who was also
the dive team. We planned to get
underway from the port
before the night of the
June. We needed to get out at that time due
to the shifting of the tides. We sailed that
night for several hours and dropped anchor for the night in the
vicinity of NicholasPoint at the northwest
Java. Due to the possibility of strong
winds we wanted to be in a sheltered area rather than motor directly to
and anchor in unprotected waters. The
weather was clear, seas were relatively calm and, after dropping
anchor, we had
a good meal while setting up and testing our equipment (wreck diving is
more technical in nature and requires additional safety precautions
recreational diving). We talked a bit
about the wreck and its history and then went below to our bunks for
the night. While we
slept a boat quietly pulled up alongside. It was a group of
pirates intent on helping
themselves to our equipment. They
boarded us but one of our Indonesian crew members woke and called out
alert. The pirates, who were in no mood
for a fight, quickly retreated as we scrambled up onto the deck.
From that time on our crew rotated guard
shifts to preclude another attack.
We woke at
to prepare for our dive. It was a gray,
overcast morning and the seas were a bit choppy. We got underway
again to head toward the
wreck of the Houston using our GPS
to position ourselves on the north side of the hull. The ship
lays on its starboard side on a heading
of 080 degrees. So to avoid the
possibility of fouling our anchor on the wreck we approached from the
side, saw the indication of a huge anomaly (the Houston)
on the fathometer, and then dropped anchor after we cleared the hull of
ship. The plan was to have Paul Behrens
and I suit up, go down the anchor chain to the ocean bottom, swim to
of the wreck and then find the bollard on the port stern side of the Houston
from which we would send up a buoy. The
Australian and British divers would then go down the buoy line and meet
and I on the Houston, vicinity of
number 3 turret.
Paul and I
began getting out gear ready which was a
considerable effort considering we were both using twin steel high
tanks, each with two separate, independent regulator sets. We use
this configuration due to the
challenging nature of the dive and our desire to have completely
systems including air sources, dive lights, knives, etc. But the
result is increased preparation time
and a very heavy outfit for each of us.
entered the water, swam to the anchor line and
began our descent. We were surprised at
the strength of the current as it is usually much more calm early in
morning. We had to carefully pull
ourselves down the anchor line because if we happened to let go we
swept away and would not be able to get back.
As we descended the water around us became increasingly dim and we
ourselves in need of our HID lights. We
found the bottom at about 125 feet.
Visibility was only about 6 feet and I pulled myself across the ocean
bottom on the anchor chain with Paul close behind. Once we found
the anchor we knew we needed to
take a 180 degree compass reading and swim along the bottom, on that
while crabbing into the current.
Although it was not quite dark on the bottom, it was very dim and we
needed our lights to see where we were going.
As we swam I noticed that the light went from dim to dark and we still
had not found the hull of the ship. We continued
to swim and then, directly ahead, appeared a wall of steel. I thought
found the bottom of the hull and so we began to ascend. To my
surprise, and concern, there was a
steel ceiling directly overhead that stopped our ascent. As we
investigated we found we were
surrounded by steel so we began to pull ourselves back, along the
the direction from which we came hoping to find the exit. After a
few minutes of pulling ourselves
through wreckage we saw the dim green light that showed open water.
We exited from what we discovered was a large
torpedo hole that was in the bottom of the ship.
this torpedo hole was the last of the torpedoes
fired by the Japanese. As the Houston
was sinking it was listing severely to starboard such that the yardarms
nearly dipping into the water. There was
a tremendous explosion as a torpedo hit from the port side. The
port side began flooding and the ship
righted itself before making its final plunge to the ocean bottom.
The survivors reported that this torpedo hit
occurred on the forward port side.
During our dives on this ship during the past three years we searched
for a port side torpedo hole but never found one until now. I
believe we had not previously found it
because of continual poor visibility and strong currents.
exited the torpedo hole we swam up over the top
of the hull and found ourselves in the vicinity of number 1 gun turret.
We swam back past the Admirals cabin,
quarterdeck, hangar bays until we reached the bollard on the port side
to number 3 gun turret. Paul and I
stopped here and sent up a buoy, tied to the bollard, for the
British divers. We then hung on to the
port side propeller guard and waited for them to join us. After
about a ten minute wait we saw the
lights of our group as they worked themselves down the buoy line.
Upon reaching the ship Paul and I split them
up and took them on a very short tour of the ship but we could not stay
long because our air was running low from our ordeal in the torpedo
hole and we
were already in decompression mode. We
slowly made our way up the ascent line stopping at our required
stops. The single tank British and
Australian divers had no need to decompress so they went directly to
safety stop and then the surface. Paul
and I surfaced about 20 minutes later.
that day on the Houston
were poor and our group decided to move to the wreck of the Perth
(3 nautical miles distant) to see if things were any better. We
left the buoy on the Houston,
motored off and found the Perth
with no problems. Conditions gradually
improved throughout the day and our group completed three dives on the Perth. The Perth
is also a heavy cruiser although not quite as large as the Houston. It is
deeper than the Houston,
about 135 feet, and is laying on its port side with its now silent guns
pointing toward the surface. Visibility
was much better here and there was virtually no current.
I am sure
that all the guys harboured their own special
thoughts of what the ships crew must have gone through that terrible
years ago. It is one of the worst war
tragedies in view of loss of life for Australia. The same
or similar can be said about the USS
Houston. The loss of life on both ships was very high...well into
- 700 plus for each.
We could see
a lot of shell damage to the hull and of
course the damage the torpedoes caused was obvious. The ship took
massive battering and is more broken up than the USS Houston. The
also experienced a massive loss of life but was perhaps more sturdy in
construction as it appeared much more intact, especially in the main
morning we motored back to the Houston,
albeit the weather turned on us, making it even less appealing.
same a decision was made to dive the Houston
again as the shot line had to be released and recovered. Paul and
wanted to see if we could enter a compartment we found on a previous
see if there was anything worth recovering for the US Navy museum
carrier Lexington in Corpus
weather continued to turn bad while Paul and I suited up for one last
the water and swam to the buoy that we had
previously positioned. Once there we
completed our final safety checks and began our descent. We made
it to the bollard and then began our
descent to the open hatch that led into the bowels of the ship.
We entered the crew galley area careful not
to position ourselves under anything that could fall on top of us and
looked for the hatch that led into the officers quarters. I
entered first as I had the camera and I
wanted to get some photos before stirring up the deadly silt that
pervade every crevice on this ship. Even
with the use of my HID light the water was murky and visibility was not
great. The first thing I saw were bunks
that had crashed down onto the starboard side of the compartment.
There was a great deal of rubble and, I would
surmise, personal effects buried in the silt of the compartment.
We saw several steel columns that would have
been vertical, floor to ceiling, had the ship been upright. The
walls were brown with silt but, with a
slight touch, revealed what appeared to be white paint underneath.
I tried getting some photos as Paul began
exploring the extent of the room. We saw
what appeared to be bookshelves as well as fans and lights that were
plugged into the wall. The portholes
also appeared to be intact with the battleports still closed. It
was an eerie feeling to be in that
compartment, knowing we were the first to enter since that fateful
years ago. But we could not stay long. For each minute we
remained in that room
visibility began to decrease as silt was inadvertently stirred up by
bubbles and movement. As our visibility
decreased we made our way back to the exit hatch which was in the
corner of the
compartment. We positioned ourselves on
the adjacent wall and Paul continued to explore up toward the port
side. At this point, with visibility rapidly going
to zero, I was more interested in finding the exit hatch. I felt
for the hatch along what would have
been the ceiling of the compartment and finally my hand bumped into
appeared to be the hatch frame. I quickly
ducked my head outside and, sure enough, was looking into the crews
galley. I then remained where I was, one
hand on the now invisible hatch, and with my HID light on waiting for
Paul. I could see his HID light as he moved, about
ten feet above my head and he gradually worked his way back down to me.
In his exploration he found a ships lamp that
was still plugged in and attached to the wall.
He recovered it and we subsequently exited the ship.
photographed the lamp as we exited the hull and then
swam forward to the maintenance spaces and 5 inch gun deck. We
entered the maintenance spaces, swam
forward and exited the port aircraft hanger.
In the process we found an empty ammunition box that we also
recovered. We then swam back to our
entry bollard, dropped the ammunition box and began our ascent and
decompression. Due to its weight we
could not recover the ammunition box at that time and positioned it to
for easy recovery at a later date. We
decompressed for about 40 minutes and then made our way to the surface.
Our fearless skipper, Cameron, picked us up
in the zodiac inflatable and we made our way back to the boat.
weather turned, it was just a matter of making it
back into port, any port for that matter, so we could get off board and
back to Jakarta. We had
strong winds and heavy seas, not something for the faint of
finally had to seek refuge in the port
of Merak as we rounded NicholasPoint. This is
one of west Java's jewels in the
crown. A city that has directed its focus on presenting itself as
environmentally focused town, devoid of the usual rubbish that finds it
the edge of shores, streets etc. In fact the local people that we
as result of hiring them to ferry us to shore and to carry all the
gear, clearly had the local environment as a top priority. The
were friendly and we even had welcome smiles from two of the local
dive the Houston
and Perth reveal even more
to us. We know that some divers have
taken advantage of these wrecks to loot them and sell their wares on
market. These vessels are war graves and
should be treated with the utmost respect.
As we continue to dive the Houston
and if we find anything of note, we will send those items to the
Survivors Association and US Navy museum and so that a tangible memento
to bear witness to the sacrifice of its crew.