Diving for the USS Houston in the Sunda Strait; 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 that 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 group of British and Australian divers on a “tour” of the wrecks of the Houston and Perth.
 
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 cruiser Houston, 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 that was conducting a midnight invasion of the island of Java.  The two cruisers were trying to pass through the Straits to the Indian Ocean when they observed strange lights from ships in the vicinity of the northwest tip of Java.  The Houston flashed a message and challenged the ships but did not receive the correct 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 the 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 Japanese prison camps.
 
I gave Brian’s request some thought and agreed to take them to the wrecks.  We met at my home in Jakarta for a safety and logistics meeting and made our final preparations for the expedition. 
 
We made 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 part of the dive team.  We planned to get underway from the port of Merak before 8 pm the night of the 26th of 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 Nicholas Point at the northwest tip of Java.  Due to the possibility of strong winds we wanted to be in a sheltered area rather than motor directly to the Houston 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 much more technical in nature and requires additional safety precautions over simple 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 an 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 about 5 am 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 south side, saw the indication of a huge anomaly (the Houston) on the fathometer, and then dropped anchor after we cleared the hull of the ship.  The plan was to have Paul Behrens and I suit up, go down the anchor chain to the ocean bottom, swim to the hull 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 Paul 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 pressure 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 redundant systems including air sources, dive lights, knives, etc.  But the result is increased preparation time and a very heavy outfit for each of us. 
 
We finally 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 the morning.  We had to carefully pull ourselves down the anchor line because if we happened to let go we would be swept away and would not be able to get back.  As we descended the water around us became increasingly dim and we found 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 heading, 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 we had 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 ceiling, in 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. 
 
I believe 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 were 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.
 
After we 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 adjacent to number 3 gun turret.  Paul and I stopped here and sent up a buoy, tied to the bollard, for the Australian and 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 down 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 decompression stops.  The single tank British and Australian divers had no need to decompress so they went directly to their safety stop and then the surface.  Paul and I surfaced about 20 minutes later.
 
Conditions 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 night 62 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 the 600 - 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 a massive battering and is more broken up than the USS Houston.  The Houston also experienced a massive loss of life but was perhaps more sturdy in its construction as it appeared much more intact, especially in the main body of the ship. 
 
The next morning we motored back to the Houston, albeit the weather turned on us, making it even less appealing.  All the same a decision was made to dive the Houston again as the shot line had to be released and recovered.  Paul and I wanted to see if we could enter a compartment we found on a previous trip to see if there was anything worth recovering for the US Navy museum onboard the carrier Lexington in Corpus Christi.  The weather continued to turn bad while Paul and I suited up for one last dive. 
 
We entered 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 then 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 seemed to 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 still 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 night 62 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 our air 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 what 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.
 
We 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 allow 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.
 
As the 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 head back to Jakarta.  We had strong winds and heavy seas, not something for the faint of heart.  We finally had to seek refuge in the port of Merak as we rounded Nicholas Point.  This is one of west Java's jewels in the crown.  A city that has directed its focus on presenting itself as an environmentally focused town, devoid of the usual rubbish that finds it way to the edge of shores, streets etc.  In fact the local people that we meet, as result of hiring them to ferry us to shore and to carry all the luggage and gear, clearly had the local environment as a top priority.  The people were friendly and we even had welcome smiles from two of the local Indonesian Navy representatives.
 
With each dive the Houston and Perth reveal even more of themselves to us.  We know that some divers have taken advantage of these wrecks to loot them and sell their wares on the black 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 Houston Survivors Association and US Navy museum and so that a tangible memento will exist to bear witness to the sacrifice of its crew.