By A.P. "Tony" Tully
Note: All times adjusted to local time, with Tokyo time being 90 minutes ahead of Java time. This is a factor to calculate when using Japanese records.
At Cavite Navy Yard at Manila Bay on 27 November 1941 the USS HOUSTON was in the process of undergoing the installation of radar equipment, an enhancement considered to be of the highest-priority, but which had not been achieved during her 1940 refit at Mare Island Navy Yard. But today the alarm sounded and the PA systems announced that all crewmen were to report to their ships immediately. Admiral Thomas C. Hart, CinC of the Asiatic Fleet, had received a message from ONO in Washington to the effect that diplomatic relations with Japan were deteriorating. American military advisors now expected Japan would, within the next few days, initiate some sort of aggressive action, either in the Philippines or Malaya. Accordingly, Admiral Hart was dispatching the HOUSTON to Iloilo, port of Panay Island. Captain Albert H. Rooks rec'd the order on the morning of November 27, and at 1000 passed word that all navy yard work would be halted and the crew would prepare to sortie.
On 2 December the USS HOUSTON left Manila Bay, heading for Iloilo, Panay, interrupting emergency repairs to her engines and boilers as well as scheduled renovations. The failure to complete the radar installation was to prove indeed unfortunate in the months to come. At Panay she stayed, in fact, until the outbreak of war. It was during the early morning of December 8, about 2 am, a radio broadcast was received that told of a large Japanese convoy which British intelligence had been tracking for several days. Unlike other convoys to Saigon in the past months, this one had continued past Saigon and was that very morning in the Gulf of Siam. The British in Malaya and Singapore were fearful that the convoy in the Gulf of Siam indicated a possible Japanese landing on the Malay Peninsula.
On 15 December a small Japanese amphibious force seized Brunei Bay in Borneo, an anchorage fated to play a memorable role in Japan's last year of war, but for now serving merely as an advance base and source of oil for the onrushing IJN onslaught.
On 17 December an amphibious operation was launched against Sarawak, the British rajah-ruled state in the north-west of Borneo. The first landing took place at Miri, just south of Brunei Bay where 2,500 men landed under cover of a battleship, a carrier, three cruisers and four destroyers. Six days later another landing took place at the capital, Kuching. Here the Dutch submarine K-14 caught them at anchor after dusk and sank two and damaged one of the transports. But Kuching was occupied the next day.
New Year's Day 1942 dawned on western prescence in Indonesia waters whose future had suddenly become very uncertain indeed. But steps were already in motion to retrieve the situation, and this very afternoon saw the unusual sight of an American submarine surfacing in Surabaya's outer roadstead. Nothing unusual about that---what was unusual was that this sub flew the four-star flag of an Admiral of the United States Navy! She was the USS SHARK, and it had brought Admiral Thomas C. Hart all the way from his HQ in Manila on a journey that must have been more than a little bit discomfiting to such a flag officer.
With the Philippines hurtling toward occupation, Hart had come south to set up a new center of command and resistance in Java. On 15 January, a new allied command was activated by order of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Code-named "ABDA" for "American, British, Dutch, and Australian" forces, its responsibility for defense included the Dutch East Indies, Burma, the Philippines, the South China Sea, and the northeastern segment of the Indian Ocean. But it was fated to do most of its fighting - and dying - in the waters of the Dutch East Indies.
On 7 January Admiral Hart divided his fleet into four task forces; Striking Force 5 of RAdm Glassford, based at Surabaya, patrol aircraft squadrons, all submarines, and fourth, the Service or Logistics support force, based at Port Darwin, Australia. The American section of ABDA would guard the east flank and waters east of Bali, the British took responsibility for the western flank, and the Dutch would watch over the center of the defense zone, including Java. Having deployed their forces, ABDA braced itself for the impending Japanese invasions and an opportunity to strike back.
Battle of Balikpapan
It was not long in coming. On 20 January the Striking Force was anchored at Kupang, Timor when word was received of a Japanese landing at Balikpapan. As soon as they could be fueled, the aggressive Glassford put to sea with the cruisers BOISE and MARLBLEHEAD, and the destroyers FORD, POPE, PARROT and PAUL JONES. Missing the sortie was the HOUSTON and two destroyers which happened to be away escorting a convoy from Port Darwin to Singapore at the time. A further obstacle to Glassford's lunge was the fact that with one turbine out of operation the MARBLEHEAD could only make a maximum of 15 knots. Nonetheless, her prescence was judged too critical to leave her behind.
It was a fortunate decision, because as it happened, the other cruiser was soon lost to the effort. On 21 January the force was passing through the treacherous Sape Strait, between Sumbawa and Komodo Islands. The flagship USS BOISE was abreast the island that gave the famous Komodo dragons their name when she suddenly shuttered and bounced. Glassford's flagship had struck an uncharted rock pinnacle that had ripped open her starboard side along the keel. In fact, she was so damaged she could not continue. Downcast, Glassford ordered BOISE and MARBLEHEAD to detour to Warorada Bay, Sumbawa, where he shifted his flag to the MARBLEHEAD and topped off her tanks with fuel from BOISE, before the latter cruiser proceed to southern Java for repairs. Since the MARBLEHEAD's speed was so low, and the main hitting power reduced, it was decided to let Commander Paul Talbot's destroyers press on to attack the Japanese alone in a high speed hit and run assault. Despite the mishaps to the cruisers, there was to be no shirking off battle. "Go on in there, and fight!" was Glassford's signal to the elated Talbot. The result was the Battle of Balikpapan.
On the evening of 23 January the transport NANA MARU was set afire and done for by a Dutch aircraft. Nonetheless Nishimura pressed on, and at 2130 the Japanese transports were at anchor and disembarking troops. Nishimura took NAKA and his warships out to sea to guard against submarine danger, thus leaving the transports wide-open to surface attack. On the 24 Japanese forces also made landings at Kendari in the Celebes and at the oil town of Balikpapan in Borneo, adjacent to Makassar Strait.
With this, it is worthy to note that the U.S. Navy had engaged in - and won - its first battle since the naval battles of the Spanish-American War of 1898!
Marblehead's Ordeal - The Battle of Gaspar Strait
On 1 February Admiral Hart formed the first ABDA Combined Striking Force, which on paper at least, was not of inconsiderable power. However, that very day the Dutch cruisers and destroyers had been dispatched to Karimata Strait between Borneo and Sumatra looking for a reported Japanese force. Even though Admiral Hart knew the report was false, he had not been consulted first by Admiral Helfrich, and thus could not tell him. On 3 February Admiral Doorman hoisted his flag on DE RUYTER, a new and sleek cruiser of the Dutch Navy. At this time the rest of his force comprised the TROMP, HOUSTON, MARBLEHEAD, and destroyers STEWART, EDWARDS, BARKER, BULMER, PAUL JONES, WHIPPLE, and PILLSBURY. Upon receiving a report of a Japanese fleet in the southern end of Makassar Strait, Doorman led the Striking Force out of Bunda Roads, Madura Island (immediately outside Surabaya) at midnight of 3/4 February. That afternoon Doorman's ships had been spotted in Bounder Roads, but he felt he could cover enough distance to nullify this report. He set course for an 0500 rendezvous of Meyndertsdroogte Light, from which they would make the run up to Makassar. The rendezvous was carried out as planned, and then the Striking Force set course north for the Japanese convoy in line ahead - DE RUYTER, HOUSTON, MARBLEHEAD, and TROMP - with the four U.S. destroyers to port and starboard, with the four Dutch destroyers astern.
At 0935 Doorman announced that a report had been received of 37 Nell twin-engine bombers having taken off from Kendari, bound for Surabaya. Sure enough, not long after - when the ships were just south of Kangean Island - at 0949, four formations of nine bombers appeared from the east. The morning was bright and clearly, and even the lofty peaks of Bali and Lombok could be dimly seen to starboard at a distance of over forty miles.
Not yet experienced with anti-aircraft actions, Doorman ordered the fleet to scatter in an attempt to make the bombers split up into more vulnerable groups in turn. It was only after this action that it was realized that a fleet's best AA defense was conducted with all ships staying close together in mutual support. Even as they were dispersing, at 0954 nine bombers peeled off, descended to 14,000 feet, and attacked the two American cruisers.
But the first two attacks were beaten off, and no damage had been suffered by the time of the third attack at 1019. This one bore in on the MARBLEHEAD, and 1027 a flight of seven bombers bracketed the cruiser. Three bombs inflicted considerable injury: one hit in the fore section about 10 ft from the starboard side and sheared a motor launch, then exploded in the wardroom and officer's country and bent the forward uptakes , another tore a hole in the bow, and the third hit the port quarterdeck, folding up the steel and wrecking the after steering compartment, while putting the aft turret out of action. Fires broke out, the rudder was jammed hard to port, and 15 killed with 34 seriously wounded including the X.O. MARBLEHEAD slewed around, still making 25 knots but whirling around in circles with a 10-degree list to starboard. Even so, more attacks were coming in, and Captain Arthur G. Robinson maintained speed. A respite now began
At 1111 another two groups of planes made a fourth attack, this time concentrating on flagship DE RUYTER. The bombs bracketed her, and knocked out the cruiser's AA fire-control, but otherwise she escaped harm. The USS HOUSTON was not quite so lucky---- she had already been bracketed by a really close salvo of bombs in the first attack, and had narrowly escaped. Now she suffered a direct bomb hit that nearly destroyed her.
Meanwhile the MARBLEHEAD had settled by the bow to a 30 foot draft, and was listing to starboard. The peak tank was flooded and most compartments below the first platform deck and forward of frame 34. But even though BR 1 & 2 had been secured because of the damaged uptakes, she could still make 25 knots. The TROMP approached several times to remove the crew if necessary, but damage control worked hard. The X.O. Cdr. William B. Goggins had been badly burned [this experience prompted the outlawing of short-sleeves for any reason], and the gunnery officer had taken his place. By 1300 the fires were under control, and the rudder angle had been reduced to 9 degrees port. At 1225 Doorman had ordered all ships westward, and MARBLEHEAD staggered to comply, screened by EDWARDS and STEWART. At 1415 Doorman told MARBLEHEAD and HOUSTON to proceed via Lombok Strait to Tjilatjap for repairs. The DE RUYTER and three Dutch destroyers accompanied them as far as midnight and through the strait, then reversed course back north and to the west. Finally in the early morning of 6 February MARBLEHEAD arrived at Tjilatjap with 26 compartments flooded and 8 more partly flooded. The dock couldn't accommodate her entirely, so the bow was raised and patched, but since the rudder and stern couldn't be repaired a wooden deck was built over the fantail. Finally, on 15 February, she departed for an epic 48 day voyage around Africa and back to the States.
On 9 February the powerful force of Admiral Ozawa sailed unmolested through the South China Sea. Flying his flag in the big heavy cruiser CHOKAI, Ozawa had the carrier RYUJO and the cruisers KUMANO, SUZUYA, MIKUMA, MOGAMI, and YURA together with six destroyers. He had sailed on that same morning from Camranh Bay, and had been preceded by the Advanced Echelon of eight transports, five destroyers, five minesweepers and two submarine chasers under the command of RAdm. Hashimoto. On 11 February another fourteen transports and escort under command of Captain Kojima had followed, and finally on the 12th a large number of landing craft and three more transports joined the Advance Echelon.
Undaunted by all this firepower, Doorman resolved to meet it. Gathering the DE RUYTER, JAVA, TROMP, EXETER, and HOBART, together with four Dutch destroyers and six American ones, he fueled in Pigi Bay on 13 February and then set course northward for the Sunda Strait. Once through the strait, he planned to drive north to intercept the Japanese in the Palembang area, where they were believed to be heading.
On the night of 14 February the flag Dutch destroyer VAN GHENT struck a reef in Stolze Strait. She was so damaged that Destroyer Leader LtCdr F.J.E. Krips had to order her destroyed and shift his flag. Her sister BANCKERT was detached to rescue survivors while the admiral proceeded with his remaining cruisers and destroyers to the north east of Banka Island. This island stood off the estuaries of the many rivers forming the seaward approach to Palembang. It was here that Doorman expected Ozawa to arrive. He planned to round Banka and double-back through the narrow Banka Strait where he would surprise and ambush the Japanese force off the Musi River. But Ozawa had learned of Doorman's approach, and in a clear sign of respect, surprisingly ordered his transports to suspend their approach and turn north away from the Musi River area. In the meantime, Ozawa would hit the ABDA force with RYUJO's carrier planes full force.
Commencing at 1030 on February 15 and lasting for a full eight hours, the RYUJO's planes subjected Doorman's force to successive waves of high-level bombing attacks. But they were so consistent and precise -- too much so -- that the allies were able to gauge the exact moment of release and avoid the bombs. This went on all day, and the destroyers USS BULMER and USS BARKER were badly shaken by close near-misses. The EXETER had come under close attack in Banka Strait, but had fought them off. None of the cruisers had been damaged, but at 1300 - after fending off attacks for two-and-a-half hours - that Doorman decided to abandon the offensive and withdraw. He signaled his ships to retire through the Gaspar Strait and make for home, some to Tanjong Priok, and the rest to Oosthaven on the Sumatran coast; at the latter refueling plans were complicated because the Dutch were already blowing up the installations. The Striking Force thereupon retired to the south of Java. That same night, at 2030, came the climatic surrender of Singapore. It was incredible: in just seventy days Yamashita had struck 650 miles down the Malay Peninsula and captured 130,000 British troops and in the same seventy days an Empire was thus lost to Britain.
Upon learning of Doorman's withdraw, Ozawa ordered the invasion fleet to resume its advance, and Japanese transports began landings in the Musi River on 16 February. The troops immediately made off up river to capture Palembang and with it half the petrol reserves of the Indies. The effect of this defeat was to shatter ABDA's already tenuous harmony. Admiral Hart was relieved of command and Helfrich took over
On 17 February the Dutch destroyer VAN NES succumbed to a bombing attack south of Banka Island as it attempted to rescue evacuees from Sumatra that were part of the exodus from fallen Singapore. The next day Japanese bombers sank the old Dutch battleship SURABAYA in the port it was named after; and the submerged Dutch submarine K-1 was also sunk by an unlucky bomb hit, drowning the reduced crew aboard.
The Raid On Port Darwin
PEARY was hit 5 times. While trying to smoke hospital ship MANUNDA, she was hit on the fantail, removing the dcs, propeller guards, racks, and flooding the steering engine room and slicing off one of her propellers. An incendiary bomb landed near the galley [amidships between the funnels], while another went through the fire room without exploding. The 4th bomb set off the forward ammo magazines fatally wounding Cdr. John M. Bermingham, while the 5th, and incendiary, exploded in the after engine room. She sank stern first about 1300, with a loss of all but 52 of her crew; some 80 officers and men were lost; only one officer - Gunnery officer Lt. W.J. Catlett - survived.
On 23 February General Wavell rec'd orders to leave Java, and on the 25th he left secretly with his staff aboard the British sloop KEDAH, escorted for part of the way by the PILLSBURY. But Admiral Palliser rec'd orders on the 24th to remain in Java as commander of British naval forces as Helfrich's CoS. He was to withdraw when further resistance was futile.
0n 24 February Surabaya was heavily bombed again. The Dutch destroyer BANCKERT had a huge hole blasted in her stern by a bomb's near-miss while she was refueling. As a result, though she was placed in a floating dock of the naval base for repairs, the BANCKERT ultimately would see no further action. At the same time the unlucky USS STEWART - still lying on her port side in dry-dock - was struck by three bombs which finished the job the accident had started. The next day her crew was split up in thirds, and sent to sister-ships PILLSBURY, PARROTT, and JOHN D. EDWARDS.
The Battle of Java Sea
But these losses could not be allowed to distract the mobilizing of the fleets to stop the impending invasion of Java. That same day Admiral Helfrich had ordered the British ships on escort duty at the western end of Java to depart Tanjong Priok and join Doorman. Thus Commodore Collins ordered the EXETER, PERTH, ELECTRA, JUPITER and ENCOUNTER to Surabaya to "on arrival place yourselves under the orders of the Escadier Commandant [Doorman]". At 1400 25 February the British ships departed Tanjong Priok, making a brave sight with all ensigns flying as they headed to sea and their destiny. (Left behind was the Australian cruiser HOBART, who had been delayed in her fueling when her tanker was struck by a bomb only an hour previously). They were expected to reach Surabaya in only twenty-four hours, but so fast were events moving now that even this seemed too long. For Doorman put to sea at dusk of the 25th, without waiting for the British reinforcements, in order to conduct a sweep for the reported Japanese invasion force.
At 2045 Doorman was ordered to "Pursue attack until you have demolished the Japanese force." Meeting at 1700---- Departure was for 1800, but collision delayed till 2200 cleared Surabaya Strait. Sun set at 1948 on the 26th.. By this time of the original 13 American destroyers only 5 were afloat and in fighting trim, and one had to fall out now for repairs. The PEARY and STEWART had been sunk. The BARKER and BULMER were on the way to Australia with the BLACK HAWK, having departed 20 February. After Badung, it had been necessary to withdraw PILLSBURY and PARROTT for overhaul. The EDSALL had damaged herself with a depth charge; the WHIPPLE had collided with DE RUYTER after returning from? Not possible. At the last moment, POPE sprang a leak in her hot well that could only be repaired by prolonged welding jobs in Surabaya despite the air-raid danger.
JAVA opened fire, but DE RUYTER didn't since her guns were trained to starboard. JAVA took one hit on her stern, but with only slight damage. The PIET HEIN suddenly veered sharply to starboard and began to make black and white smoke. FORD and POPE turned to follow and saw a vessel 3,000 off the port beam and another off the port bow. In turning to avoid ramming one enemy, the PIET HEIN was now bearing almost directly toward another. She opened with her guns, not torpedoes, but FORD fired three torpedoes, and POPE fired two. At 2340 one of ASASHIO's torpedoes caught the PIET HEIN square in her port side, demolishing her boiler rooms. She staggered to a halt, wreathed in smoke, and began to sink. Her commanding officer, LtCdr. J.M.L.I. Chompff and 63 of his crew went down with the PIET HEIN.
At the same time shells whistled through FORD's rigging, cutting the afterfalls of the whaleboat. To get rid of it, the FORD's men cut the forward falls and allowed it to drop overboard, with a happy consequence for some survivors of PIET HEIN.
At 0134 the second attack wave came in, with STEWART in the lead sighting two enemy ships off the port bow signaling. STEWART swung hard to right, and she and PARROTT fired port side salvoes of six torpedoes each. Battle began....an 8-inch shell [not true?] caught STEWART but went right through her. But others hit her aft, shrapnel wounding the X.O., and one tore a four foot hole that flooded the after steering room, and No.3 stack had two large holes torn in it. But she continued to make 30 knots. The TROMP then opened fire, and as the four DDs went north at 0212 they encountered one or more to port near Bali and three unid'd to starboard. PILLSBURY's guns scored four direct hits; STEWART fired 5, PARROTT 6, and J.D. EDWARDS `several' torpedoes. At 0225 all firing ceased, and with good timing---the PARROTT's steering had jammed hard to starboard and at 28 knots she hurtled toward Bali. Full astern was ordered, throwing overboard a CPO, who later swam to Bali and with some Dutch soldiers managed to return to Surabaya.
In a peculiar stroke of luck the FORD's boat - drained of gasoline to minimize fire - had landed right side up and 13 PIET HEIN survivors climbed aboard. They tried to start the engine, but of course it was dry. However, by a freak chance the POPE had tripped the trigger that released the spare gasoline drum on the fantail carried for the boats, to reduce the danger of fire. Thus as dawn began to lighten the sky the survivors saw with amazement they were drifting with a large metal drum---they frantically pulled it aboard, not daring to hope. One sniff of the fumes revealed the truth. The boat's engine was started and 20 men more found, and the boat made Java with 33 men who definitely believed in miracles.
But misfortune struck the returning squadron---the damaged STEWART reached Surabaya at 1000 on 20 February and was immediately placed in the floating dock for repairs. But as it was being raised, the shoring collapsed and the ship toppled over to 37 degrees to port. The accident punctured holes in the hull, flooding both engine rooms and the main generator was burned out before it could be shut down. Skipper LtCdr. Harold P. Smith was naturally devastated.
On 21 February a "Western Striking Force" comprised of the HOBART and the obsolete cruisers and destroyers DANAE and DRAGON, and SCOUT and TENEDOS was formed to defend the western end of Java from Japanese fleets. They were barely a token force, with no conceivable chance of being an effective obstacle.
Ominously, at the time that LANGLEY detached from the convoy, Nagumo's carriers were fairly close behind her, within striking distance. It may seem likely that the U.S. Navy's first carrier was destined to also be the first carrier sunk in a carrier-to-carrier battle, but such was not the case. By a stroke of irony, she avoided this dubious honor and it was not carrier-based planes that ultimately hit her.
At Tjilatjap were two American destroyers whose injuries had caused them to be detached from Doorman's Striking Force. The WHIPPLE had suffered a collision with DE RUYTER prior, and with a weakened bow and stern was judged fit only for escort duty. The same was true of the EDSALL, which had been leaking badly ever since she had damaged herself with one of her own depth charges. These two destroyers thus missed Doorman's final action later that very day, and instead were dispatched to meet the incoming LANGLEY.
Even as ABDA's best hope for aircraft reinforcements were burning up on the deck of the stricken LANGLEY, the Allies main battle fleet was preparing for the epic sea contest that would decide the fate of the Netherlands East Indies. The Battle of the Java Sea was at hand.
Another force was available, but would not be participating. On 26 February the HOBART and the obsolete cruisers HMS DANAE and DRAGON and equally antique destroyers SCOUT and TENEDOS were dispatched to intercept Admiral Kurita's Western Attack Group. This included RYUJO, four heavy cruisers, the MIZUHO, three light cruisers, about 25 destroyers, and 50-60 transports! Against such, the opposing British force was laughable, but nonetheless steamed north to make contact with singular pluck. But as fate had it, they did not encounter Kurita, even though Kurita's planes had sighted them and he had dispatched two heavy and two light cruisers with three destroyer flotillas to destroy the HOBART's force. Yet contact was not made, and the British ships eventually turned back. As historian Thomas writes: "It is unnecessary to observe that failure to meet the enemy was a deliverance from suicide."
The British ships returned to Tanjong Priok at about noon on 27 February. There they refueled and were ordered to make for Tjilatjap to escape air raids. But after they had cleared Sunda Strait on 28 February, Helfrich ordered them to make for Ceylon.
As Doorman departed on the 26th, the DE RUYTER collided with and sank a tug and a water barge, delaying the sortie slightly. Some time after 1900 he learned that Jap cruiser planes were near Bawean Island, and so headed there. But at 1830 to U.S. bombers had sighted the convoy and attacked, but Doorman did not learn this for another four hours, but an hour after midnight then reversed course and turned westward. At 0858 27 Feb planes dropped three bombs near JUPITER, but HOUSTON drove them away. In response to the notice, Helfrich ordered: "Despite air attack you will proceed eastward. Search for and attack the enemy." Doorman replied: "Was on eastward heading after search from Spoedi to Rembang. Success of action depends on getting good recon info in time, which last night failed me. Destroyers will have to refuel tomorrow."
They continued to sweep west, and at 1240 Doorman radioed: "Personnel have now reached point of exhaustion [60 hours to morning of 28 w/out sleep]" He decided to retire to Surabaya for rest behind the minefields and hope to receive better recon information. Ironically Doorman got it just as he was returning, and turned in the mined channel: "Am proceeding to intercept enemy unit. Follow me. Details later." They proceeded northwest in a sea made choppy by a 15 knot wind from the east.
Doorman immediately reversed course and headed northwest for the approaching convoy's position off the north coast of Java. With his three British destroyers stationed about five miles ahead, with his flag cruiser DE RUYTER closely followed in single line ahead by EXETER, HOUSTON, PERTH, and JAVA, with the Dutch destroyers stationed to port (KORTENAER had boiler trouble and could barely hold 24 knots), and the American destroyers stationed astern, he hoped to wreak havoc among the Japanese transports.
At 1530 HOUSTON opened fire on bombers overhead, and their drops fell 5,000 yards astern. Asking for cover, Doorman was told that the last eight Brewster Buffaloes had to guard the four dive bombers planning to attack the Japanese.
As the day was calm and visibility perfect, the ELECTRA sighted the enemy as early as 1612. Coming in from the north-west at high speed in three columns was Tanaka's JINTSU and several destroyers to the right, Takagi's two cruisers in the center, and Nishimura's NAKA and six destroyers to the left. The Japanese transports had been turned north out of harm's way. Four minutes later the 8-inch cruisers of both sides opened fire at a range of 28,000 yards. At 1622 the first Japanese salvo landed 1,000 yards over DE RUYTER, at 1629 she was straddled by one and the next one. Then she was hit, but not seriously. The spread was small and about every fourth salvo was a straddle.
As Tanaka's destroyers closed the three British destroyers and engaged them at 18,000 yards, Doorman realized that if he held his present course, he would allow the Japanese to `cap his T'. So he hauled around to the west, parallel to the enemy, at a speed of twenty-five knots, but still outside of the range of DE RUYTER's, PERTH's, and JAVA's guns. The Japanese scored the first hit, with an 8-inch shell on DE RUYTER at 1631, but it failed to explode. Two minutes later, while the long-range gun action continued without effect, the Japanese destroyers began a series of torpedo attacks, fortunately at too great a range; not one of their forty-three Long Lance weapons reached its target. At 1635 an explosion was seen on the rear cruiser with a column of smoke 300 feet height, clearly observed from ALDEN. At 1645 Allied planes attacked as well. Sometime between 1645 and 1655 the JAVA was hit and the Allies turned in simultaneous movements to the left.
A further Japanese torpedo attack at 1700 would have achieved no better result, because it was launched from almost dead-ahead of the Allied line, but for the chance hit that now came on EXETER. At 1650 the JUPITER turned sharply to starboard across EDWARDs, signaling "torpedo". A few minutes later one did pass astern between her and the FORD. At 1658 torpedoes a sub was spotted by EDWARDs, only to be blasted out of the water by its own torpedoes. The HOUSTON rec'd a dud 8-inch shell in the engine room. At 1651 a near-miss on EXETER flooded some compartments, but it was trifling compared to what was to follow. At 1706 an 8-inch shell passed through the gun shield of her starboard 4in turret and No.1 boiler room ventilator down into "B" boiler room. The shell failed to detonate but exploded on entering the boiler itself, killing 14 men. Six of the cruiser's eight boilers were put out of action and a temporary loss of electric power also put the main guns out of action. Speed fell to 11 knots, and EXETER had to haul 90 degrees hard to port out of line, throwing the fleet into confusion.
This confusion came because DE RUYTER was obscured by smoke at the time, so Captain Rooks on HOUSTON simply assumed that EXETER's sudden turn was due to turn by Doorman. So he in turn put HOUSTON's helm over. So, inevitably, did Captain Waller on PERTH, and Captain Staalen on JAVA. Of course when all the cruisers swung, so did the Dutch and American destroyers. The move placed almost all of the Allied force right across the path of the approaching Japanese torpedoes. In the circumstances it is surprising that only one scored a hit, catching the KORTENAER 700 yards to starboard of EDWARDS on the starboard quarter at 1715. She blew up, heeled over to the right and jackknifed at once "folding in two like a jackknife" and was gone within two minutes, the stern at once, the bow within 50 seconds.
Seeing that the Allied force had been thrown into confusion and temporarily slowed to fifteen knots, Takagi ordered all his ships to close in for the kill. At 1726 Doorman signaled all ships to follow DE RUYTER, while Japanese torpedoes began to explode around them as they reached the end of their runs, prompting the wry remark: "even Japanese torpedoes commit suicide if their attack is a failure". To block this, Doorman sent his three British destroyers to counter-attack while he reformed the cruiser line, after detaching the EXETER escorted by LtCdr P. Schotel's WITTE DE WITH to Surabaya for repairs. It was dusk by then and the battle area was shrouded in smoke so the ships of both sides were reduced to firing occasional shots at fleetingly glimpsed targets. At 1715 the ELECTRA hit the light cruiser JINTSU, but almost immediately after was struck in the engine room in turn. The ELECTRA came to a stop, and was battered to a wreck. At about 1800 she heeled over to port and sank bow first. Gallant Captain C.W. May and all but 54 of her crew went down with her; the survivors were rescued by an American submarine.
At 1728 the American destroyers began laying a smoke screen. There followed another long-range duel between the opposing cruisers in which the HOUSTON was twice hit by shells that failed to explode. By hauling round onto a southerly course, Doorman prevented Tanaka's ships from pursuing the limping EXETER and her escort. Tanaka tried another torpedo attack, but not one of the twenty-four torpedoes fired by Nishimura's ships scored a hit. At 1806 a hand signal lamp flashed; Doorman ordered his American destroyers to retaliate. Immediately Commander Binford led his four old four-pipers straight towards the big NACHI and HAGURO. But instead of closing in to a decisive range, albeit at the cost of losing one or more of his ships to gunfire, Binford chose to launch his `fish' at 10,000 yards at 1822, firing their starboard torpedoes, then at 1827 their port torpedoes. But all were too far away. Consequently all the allied torpedoes - like the Japanese - missed their targets.
There followed a lull in the action during which, at 1830, Doorman, having again turned his line north-west, radioed Helfrich: "Enemy retreating west. Where is the convoy?" The most gallant of leaders, he was still determined to attempt to destroy the Japanese transports. And in fact, they were then only thirty miles away to the north. But for lack of search aircraft, Helfrich could not discover or tell him this fact. At 1831 Doorman signaled his ships:" Follow me".
At 1902 while on course 290 the ABDA fleet sighted enemy ships bearing 240 degrees. Doorman pulled north, and managed to avoid contact until 1930 when eight green parachute flares suddenly spotlighted his position. Four enemy ships were on the port bow. At about 1930 the NACHI, leading the HAGURO, JINTSU and several Japanese destroyers, converged on the Allied line, both sides opening fire to little effect. Moreover, Doorman's ships saw the flashes when the Japanese ships discharged still more torpedoes and were able to alter course sixty degrees to starboard to avoid them. Doorman then turned south again towards Java at full speed, hoping to work around Takagi's cruisers under cover of night and so get at the Japanese troop convoy. But Takagi had the advantage of ships carrying aircraft. They dropped flares which illuminated Doorman's ships while the Japanese were cloaked by darkness. At 2009 a single flare again was dropped overhead, and HOUSTON retaliated with some of her own. At first nothing was seen, but at 2023 four ships were reported. Nothing happened, but a turn was made to avoid possible torpedoes fired.
At 2100 the Allied force was further reduced. Doorman was now sailing south toward the Java coast, and at this time the four American destroyers -- having expended all torpedoes - were so short of fuel that they had to be detached to Surabaya. As Binford's ships approach the channel in the minefield they were illuminated by a flare. But here also, they found the POPE which had been standing outside awaiting an opportunity to rejoin the Striking Force. Now all of Desdiv 58 was ordered back inside to refuel and rearm. They found EXETER and WITTE DE WITH already there when the ships tied up at Holland Pier. Meanwhile, after DesDiv 58 split off, Doorman turned his column west, paralleling the Java coastline. Not even a half-hour passed before the force was diminished yet again, this time by an unplanned agent.
The force steamed westerly, paralleling the north coast of Java. Suddenly at 2125 there was a violent explosion on the British destroyer JUPITER. Though she immediately signaled the cruiser JAVA the message "Jupiter torpedoed", it seems rather that she hit a mine. However, Java Sea historian F.C. Van Oosten notes that "this still can not be ascertained with absolute certainty". Whatever it was, the explosion occurred on the starboard side abreast the forward bulkhead of the engine room. This flooded both the engine and boilers and stopped the destroyer cold. A survivor said "we had not blown up. We had not sunk. We had, in fact, just stopped, and the same oppressive silence of a ship in dock during the night watches descended on us". Damage control efforts proved futile, and she settled slowly but inexorably. So Lt. Cdr. N.V.J.T. Thew made the reluctant decision to evacuate her, and an orderly abandonment ensued, with the crew launching boats and rafts. The boats loaded up to the gunwales, and headed for the Java shore, intending to return for the rest. But before the boats could reach her on their return trip, at 0130 HMS JUPITER heeled over to port and sank. Fortunately a Dutch Army phalanx was guarding the coast, and was able to assist and tend to the survivors. As a happy result, her entire crew of 183 survived to reach shore.
Soon afterwards the tenacious Doorman turned north again, still hoping to find the elusive enemy invasion convoy with his remaining ships; now four cruisers and but a single destroyer, the ENCOUNTER. There now occurred and event that removed the ENCOUNTER as well. Steaming north, at 2217 it happened that Doorman's column passed right through the battle field site of the afternoon, and came across a cluster of liferafts with survivors of the KORTENAER. Doorman elected to detach the ENCOUNTER to rescue them, and the British destroyer rescued 113 men from the total of 153, including skipper LtCdr. A. Kroese and took them to Surabaya.
After the ENCOUNTER was detached to rescue the KORTENAER survivors, the four Allied cruisers continued north on their own. Subsequently, at 2315 DE RUYTER suddenly signaled: "Target at port four points!". It was two ships to port, headed on a southerly course, distance 9,000 yards. They were the Japanese heavy cruisers HAGURO and NACHI, and a lookout on the latter had already spotted Doorman at 2303. So even as Doorman's flagship sighted them the Japanese opened fire at 2307. HMAS PERTH was the first to reply with accurate gunfire that straddled by the third salvo. Then Japanese star shells burst brilliantly between the opposing forces, so that their ships could no longer be seen. At 2312 under that cover the IJN cruisers immediately reversed course to parallel Doorman as both sides continued to exchange fire. Both Japanese cruisers than launched torpedoes at 2323; eight from NACHI, four from HAGURO. The range had closed to 8,000 yards. As if waiting to see the results, both Japanese ships ceased gunfire at 2326.
Rightly suspecting torpedoes had been fired, Doorman ordered a 90 degree turn to starboard. Following hard in her wake, the PERTH swung right as well, and the others followed in succession. But the action came just a bit late. The JAVA had not been under fire and was just turning to follow the flagship when at 2332 she was shaken by a tremendous explosion as the JAVA blew up astern of the PERTH. Within just a few seconds the whole stern section of the Dutch cruiser was wrapped in flames, and she staggered to a halt.
The JAVA had been hit on the port side aft, the torpedo from NACHI apparently detonating the aft magazine. JAVA exploded with a tremendous blast, which blew off the stern. The ship immediately began to settle by the stern, and Captain P.B.M. van Staelen gave the order to Abandon Ship at once. However she settled so rapidly that there was no time to launch any boats, and many of the life jackets were consumed by fire. Then suddenly her bow reared high "like a church steeple" and she slid backwards under the sea. The time was between 2350-2355, scarcely fifteen minutes after she was hit. Despite their distress, her survivors left in the water gave three lusty cheers for their Queen. Sadly not many of them survived. Because of the rapidity of her sinking and the explosion and fire, and subsequent exposure, out of a crew of more than 528, only nineteen survived.
In the meantime a second further disaster shocked the senses of the ABDA forces. Even as the JAVA was burning and sinking, the DE RUYTER had continued her turn, settling onto a southeasterly course. At 2335 - because her circle took her back across the firing track - the flagship DE RUYTER was unlucky enough to catch one of HAGURO's torpedoes on the disengaged starboard side, in her reduction gearing, aft of amidships. The explosion ruptured an oil tank and set fire to the AAA deck and set off the 40mm ready ammunition. The result was that DE RUYTER too, burst into roaring flames and in the space of three minutes two of the Allies' biggest ships were blazing hulks.
The PERTH barely missed colliding with the stricken, flagship, heeling over in a emergency turn with full port rudder and one engine that took her scraping past DE RUYTER's port side, while the HOUSTON veered clear to starboard. The DE RUYTER was dead in the water and listing to starboard, but Admiral Doorman was able to send a last message to the PERTH and HOUSTON. It was grim and to the point: "Proceed to Batavia. Do not stop to attempt rescue of us".
The after part of the DE RUYTER was enveloped in flames from the stern to the catapult, so the surviving crew had to assemble forward to stay clear of the flames. The ship was settling aft and when the 40-mm ammunition began to explode, it caused many casualties. Captain E.E.B. Lacomble and Doorman conceded that the cruiser had to be abandoned. As it happened the burning flagship remained afloat for another three hours, and all the surviving crew abandoned ship. However, it was not possible to evacuate the wounded, and the ship's doctor heroically refused to leave them, and remained aboard to share the fate of his patients. Remaining aboard too, was Admiral Doorman. The gallant Dutchmen made no attempt to leave the DE RUYTER, and was last seen on the bridge. At about 0230 the DE RUYTER finally sank. For some time her foremast structure remained above the water, then a final heavy explosion took the ship completely out of sight. The position was 6-11'S, 112-8'E, about 60km southwest of Balean. Her losses were kinder - though still heavy - than the JAVA's. Out of a crew of nearly 450 officers and men, 345 of them were lost with Admiral Doorman, Captain E.E.B. Lacomble, and the flagship. Only about 92 survived the sinking and subsequent time adrift.
The Japanese cruiser torpedo salvoes had been inordinately deadly, given their relatively meager score. Only one hit on each cruiser, but by chance, these had utterly destroyed them. When the gallant HOUSTON's time came, this was to be far from the case.
Captain Waller of the PERTH was now the senior officer in command, and he informed Surabaya that they were bound for Tandjong Priok and that the DE RUYTER and JAVA had been disabled by heavy explosions at 06-00'S, 112-00'E. The Dutch hospital ship OP TEN NOORT was immediately dispatched toward the scene to attempt to rescue survivors, but this errand of mercy was cut short. Radio contact was suddenly lost, and the hospital ship was not heard from again. However, an allied plane reported that he thought he had seen a hospital ship in the custody of two Japanese destroyers, all three ships headed north. It was true: the Japanese destroyer AMATSUKAZE intercepted her.
On the morning of 28 February Commander Binford telephoned Admiral Glassford to advise "the vital necessity of leaving Surabaya that day and no day later." At 1330 the PERTH and HOUSTON gratefully dropped anchor at Tandjong Priok.
An hour later the pilot had still not showed up, and Captain Waller decided they dared wait no longer. Getting PERTH underway at 1930, he led HOUSTON out gingerly out through the minefield at the harbor's entrance himself. As they passed the Dutch destroyer EVERTSEN, Waller radioed that the Dutchman ought to join and follow them. The EVERTSEN's captain, Lt.Cdr. W.M. de Vries, replied that he had no orders to do so, but Waller repeated his recommendation emphatically. This time de Vries replied that he wished to do so, but "could not get under way for at least an hour." Even this seemed too long, and Waller pressed on. The EVERTSEN would have to try to catch up as best she could. In point of fact, two hours passed before she did, but the EVERTSEN did sortie subsequently, and unknown to Waller was following some distance astern as PERTH and HOUSTON headed for Sunda Strait.
This was dead wrong. In fact, at 2239 the Japanese destroyer FUBUKI had sighted the allied cruisers and begun shadowing them from off their starboard beams. Unaware of this for the moment, at 2300 the PERTH increased speed to 28 knots for the final run through Sunda Strait. Passage was expected to take an hour, and within two hours it was hoped they would be far into the Indian Ocean, out of the closing Japanese dragnet and bound for safety. Alas, it was not to be.
At 2306 Captain Waller sighted a vessel five miles ahead. "Challenge" he ordered, "its probably one of our corvettes patrolling the strait." The ship responded with a pale green lamp. This made no sense, and Waller snapped: "Repeat the challenge". This time in response the mystery vessel turned away, and Waller recognized her silhouette instantly. Enemy! "Jap destroyer, " Waller barked. "Sound the rattles. Forward turrets open fire!"
Indeed it was Japanese, .. At 2315 the PERTH and HOUSTON were rounding Babi Island, making the turn to starboard into southwestern end of Sunda Strait. Beyond lay the Indian Ocean and possible safety, but as they rounded the island, the PERTH's officers saw in Bantem Bay an incredible sight: lines of Japanese transports twelve miles directly ahead! The target of a lifetime! It was clear they had stumbled onto one of the main Japanese landings, and with predictable gusto, charged to the attack, main guns blazing. The situation was extreme: though heavy Japanese units lay nearby, only the destroyers HARUKAZE and HATAKAZE stood guard around the transports. It was an incredible situation. In the words of historian Morison: "Although [at the time] HOUSTON and PERTH were only trying to escape, they had accidentally fulfilled the long-felt desire of Hart and Helfrich" and an object that Doorman had given his life in seeking: "they had run into an enemy amphibious force at its most vulnerable moment. But alas, they were so few and the time was so late."
Flabbergasted by the sudden appearance of the enemy, but reacting quickly, the HARUKAZE hastily got underway at 2331 and immediately commenced laying smoke to attempt to screen the valuable transports. She dashed northeast, laying smoke between her flock and the PERTH and HOUSTON. Her consort HATAKAZE also got under way, but withdrew quickly to the north to meet Japanese reinforcements, leaving HARUKAZE alone to the task of defense.
At 2314 the FUBUKI decided to take the risk and launched no less than nine torpedoes at the allied cruisers. The Long-Lances sizzled their way toward the allies, but guessing the launch, PERTH and HOUSTON wheeled around in a tight full circle, and successfully avoided all the torpedoes this time. Then boring to a westward course, they turned parallel to the Bantem beachhead and opened fire on the transports. At 2322 the HATAKAZE gamely opened fire, one little destroyer vs. two cruisers. But time was short, at 2352 Japanese reinforcements from the east arrived, and the crowded little bay began to fill up with Japanese warships. No less than nine Japanese destroyers and three cruisers were closing fast to the rescue of the 16th Army's transports. From the west came the light cruiser NATORI and destroyers HATSUYUKI, SHIRAYUKI, SHIRAKUMO, and MURAKUMO.
At 2330 PERTH turned south, and eight minutes later, looped around to the northeast, the HOUSTON dutifully following in her wake each time, guns blazing. Racing up from the south, desperate to stop the allied cruisers, the destroyers SHIRAYUKI and HATSUYUKI let fly with nine torpedoes each at 2340, but all eighteen of these missed their mark. ASAKAZE gave it a try three minutes later with six "fish" . Then down from the northwest, the flagship of DesRon1 light cruiser NATORI entered the fray herself. She did so by contributing gunfire and four torpedoes to the mix at 2344. Yet the miraculous luck of PERTH and HOUSTON continued to hold. Every one of these missed! So far the Japanese had outright wasted no less than thirty-seven torpedoes, with nothing to show for it. It seemed nothing could touch the enemy. It appeared indeed, as if HOUSTON was a "galloping ghost" and like a ghost, she could not be touched by material objects.
However, it wasn't quite true for shells. At 2326 the PERTH was hit in the forward funnel. Another crashed into the flag deck six minutes later. But damage control reported to Captain Waller that the damage was minor, and the two cruisers swung right, continuing to target the transports as they headed for the Sumatra coast and out of the trap. So far they had been holding their own, but even more trouble was on the way. At 0010 the powerful Japanese heavy cruisers MIKUMA and MOGAMI screened by destroyer SHIKINAMI entered the battle, first turning to parallel the PERTH's and HOUSTON's northeast course, bringing their starboard batteries to bear. Then together they loosed twelve torpedoes at the PERTH at 2349. But before they could turn their attention to HOUSTON, the Japanese cruisers had to wheel hard to port to avoid running aground on Babi Island. Two minutes later this reprieve ended after they completed their reversal and targeted HOUSTON with their main guns, snapping searchlights onto the HOUSTON. At a range of 11,200 meters both cruisers opened up with their 8-inch guns. The HOUSTON returned fire, and near-misses sprouted around the Japanese ships in turn. At 2355 the MIKUMA's electric circuitry was knocked off line, and her guns fell silent for some minutes till they could be repaired. Escorting destroyer SHIKINAMI's port side was gashed by shells. MOGAMI, however, pressed on with the attack, and at 2357 fired six torpedoes at the HOUSTON, now bearing off her port side, range 3,000 meters. Once again the HOUSTON bore a lucky charm, and the torpedoes whizzed by Captain Rook's ship on both sides. By then the MIKUMA had completed her repairs and resumed fire, and together with MOGAMI the cruisers slugged it out with their enemy counterparts.
At 2350 a shell crashed into ordinary seamen's mess on the PERTH from the starboard side at the waterline. This started severe flooding, but much worse ten minutes later the gunnery officer reported that there was almost no 6-inch shells left.
At 2356 the HARUKAZE also let fly with five torpedoes, and her teammate HATAKAZE fired another six a minute later. Now no less than seventeen torpedoes were churning toward the PERTH and HOUSTON.
SHIRAKUMO and MURAKUMO each fired nine torpedoes at midnight. By now Bantem Bay was hellish confusion of twisting ships, erupting water columns, thundering guns, fireballs of explosions, macabre sweeping searchlight beams, multicolored tracers, and bubbling torpedo wakes. At 0005, even as the second wave of Japanese troops was leaving their transports and boarding their landing barges, explosions began thundering amid the anchored Japanese transports. Then total bedlam broke loose as no less than four transports were struck by torpedoes in their starboard sides. On board the RYUJO MARU, General Immamura - commander of the 16th Army had been directing the second wave of landings, when suddenly enemy gunfire erupted from northeast. For some minutes there had been the roar of shells and flashes of guns as a full-blown naval battle broke out just offshore of where his transports lay. He was extremely perturbed, but not as perturbed as when the RYUJO MARU was suddenly rocked by a violent explosion on the starboard side, tossing him into the waters of the bay.
Seeing the explosions illuminating the Japanese ships, the HOUSTON elatedly poured her own fire in that direction. At 0007 The minesweeper W-2 took a direct hit of some kind and capsized and sank, carrying down 35 of her crew. She may have been hit by one of the MOGAMI's last torpedoes, or given the interval, by the HOUSTON's shells.
Yet even as the Japanese reeled under blows from both friendly and enemy ships, the Allies were suffering grievously as well. At 0005 a torpedo [probably from HARUKAZE or HATAKAZE] ripped into the PERTH's starboard side near the forward boiler room. The deck heaved, and from the way the cruiser suddenly became sluggish and slowed, it was clear she had been grievously injured. Captain Waller was still asking for a damage report when minutes later a second torpedo drilled into the PERTH's starboard side directly under him, gushing water and oil over the bridge and bowling over several men. Picking himself up from the deck, his uniform oil soaked, Captain Waller could feel the deadness in the ship following the hit. "Christ, that's torn it. Abandon ship." Surprised, the gunnery officer asked," Prepare to abandon ship, sir?". Waller shook his head---he could feel the life leaving his command. "No. Abandon ship." His seamen's instinct was right: HMAS PERTH had only eight minutes to live.
The HOUSTON's crew watched with dismay the sight of the PERTH staggering out of line, heeling to starboard and nosing down, but had too much problems of their own to pay attention for long. Rooks turned south away from the PERTH's sinking site, and toward the transports again. But at 0015 the HOUSTON was hit by a torpedo [from HATAKAZE if true] or shell in the port side that exploded in the after engine room, scalding to death everyone there. With steam gushing through gaping holes in her deck, the brave cruiser began to slow down, speed cut to 23 knots but her guns kept firing.
It wasn't entirely one-sided either. A shell drilled into the bridge of the destroyer SHIRAYUKI killing one officer and wounding eight men, and the SHIKINAMI's port side was also gashed by shells. The cruiser MIKUMA was hit, losing six men and eleven wounded. But this damage could not save the PERTH and HOUSTON.
But it was the floundering PERTH that the Japanese cruisers pounded unmercifully at a range of 5,000 meters. At 0012 the PERTH heeled over, righted herself for a second, then plunged bow first, taking down Captain Waller and 353 of her crew of 682 officers and men, leaving 307 alive to become POWs. [Of these, about 100 perished in captivity]. However, the Japanese losses were also steadily mounting. The destroyer SHIRAKUMO was hit and damaged, and shells ripped into the HARUKAZE, killing three and wounding five men. But now only HOUSTON was left to fight alone in a bay filled with enemy warships converging for the kill. Dashing southeast, the MIKUMA and MOGAMI found the HOUSTON to starboard on a parallel course, having reversed course in an attempt to close the anchorage and wreak further havoc among the Japanese before she was sunk. Crudiv 7 moved to block this and at 0020 opened a devastating barrage on the HOUSTON. It lasted only three minutes, but by the time MIKUMA and MOGAMI reversed course and ceased firing, the HOUSTON was in a bad way and getting worse. At 0020 a shell struck the HOUSTON's No.2 main turret, gutting it with fire and knocking it out of action.
[Note: Some sources indicate HOUSTON sank at right after PERTH, but this seems too soon. Especially since the Japanese recorded HOUSTON as sinking at 0036. HOUSTON's survivors clearly imply a considerable interval where the American cruiser fought on by herself after PERTH went down, and this and the fact that she was ordered abandoned, then countermanded, then ordered abandoned again, all supports a longer interval between PERTH's sinking and the time HOUSTON went down. Additionally, the Japanese track chart accurately showed the location of the wrecks, and thus its times and tracks can be judged to be mostly accurate.]
At 0029 the destroyer SHIKINAMI fired one torpedo at the HOUSTON at point blank range. This must have been the one all survivors agree slithered through the water to hit the sinking ship on her high port side just before she went down. Now Commander Roberts ordered Abandon Ship for the second time, and this time it was final. Seamen Stafford, standing aft on the tilting fantail, pluckily sounded the call to Abandon on his bugle, even as the HOUSTON reeled in her final throes.
At last, heeling to starboard once more, the HOUSTON put her foc'sle under the waves, and with her flag still flying from the mainmast and jackstaff slid gracefully under at 0036, just half an hour after midnight, 1 March, 1942. [American estimates place the time at 0042-0045.]. Her loss was high: out of 1,008 officers and men, only 368 survived to be rescued. Of these, many died in captivity, such that only 266 survived and were still alive at the end of the war.
On the Japanese side, sunk were four transports: flagship SHINSHU MARU, HORAI MARU, SAKURA MARU, TATSUNO MARU, and Minesweeper W-2. Damaged were . For the Japanese, the night's carnage cost 45 killed and 33 wounded. It had been an epic fight---- and had thoroughly impressed the Japanese. In fact, by a strange irony, the commander of the Bantem Bay landing - Admiral Kurita Takeo - - was to find himself with a similar goal in 1944, when he sought to destroy MacArthur's beachhead at Leyte Gulf in the IJN's last great battle. In that action, Kurita ultimately turned away short of destroying the transports, a controversial decision that among many other complex reasons, may, just may, have owed itself to Kurita's memory of the fate of the PERTH and HOUSTON this night.
The sinking of the USS HOUSTON did not quite end the night's violence in Sunda Strait. For there had been another witness to the sea battle in Bantem Bay. This was none other than the Dutch destroyer EVERTSEN, which had scurried out of Batavia two hours behind the two allied cruisers. She had cleared the Batavia minefield at 2115 and headed along the path the two cruisers had taken. EVERTSEN tried to contact Captain Waller, but failed. Then at midnight, as the destroyer neared the Agenieten Islands she saw the flashes and gunfire of the ongoing Battle of Bantam Bay. Lt. Commander de Vries wisely decided to avoid the area, planning to skirt the north shore of Sunda Strait till Pulu Mundu, Sumatra was reached. At this point she turned south, heading for the exit to Sunda Strait and the Indian Ocean. She did, however, signal Admiral Helfrich that she had sighted a sea battle off St. Nicholas Point. Admiral Helfrich replied immediately, with an order to PERTH, HOUSTON, and EVERTSEN: "If any of the addressees is engaged with enemy, others render assistance as possible". But by then the two cruisers were beyond mortal help, and the EVERTSEN herself was in trouble.
So far she had been undetected, but at 0200, off the island of Dwars in de Weg, the EVERTSEN's luck ran out. Without warning, she was suddenly spotlighted from searchlights from two warships to port, which were also steaming south at high speed. They were the Japanese destroyers MURAKUMO and SHIRAKUMO of DesDiv 12, and they immediately opened fire. The EVERTSEN turned away to starboard, to close the Sumatra coast while attempting to flee. It was no good; any chance of outrunning the Japanese was dashed by the fact that only two of her three boilers were fired. In the chase that followed the lone dutchman took several shell hits and a big fire started aft. EVERTSEN returned fire as best she could, but an early hit knocked out her fire control and she was reduced to firing her guns individually.
Though the EVERTSEN still had power, the fire was spreading quickly and the rear magazine could not be flooded. In view of the imminent danger, Lt.Cdr. de Vries despaired of escape and decided to beach his destroyer on the island of Sebuku Besar. The Japanese destroyers continued to close and as a last gesture the EVERTSEN fired her torpedoes, than ran aground. She drove ashore till her bow was high out of the water, than lurching to port, her stern sank till it was submerged to amidships. Her entire crew scrambled clear and ashore. With the destruction of the EVERTSEN, the fighting in Sunda Strait at last was over. However, the next day would see no relief for the embattled Allied forces of the Asiatic fleet.
At 0935 two large cruisers were sighted to the southward and they turned at once towards the EXETER's force. A moment later a third ship, a destroyer, appeared directly ahead, steaming right for them. It was none other than the victor of Java Sea, Takagi's NACHI and HAGURO. Almost peevishly, instead of engaging Takagi, Allied fire was concentrated on the lone ship ahead at ranges from 14,000-20,000 yards. The destroyer turned aside, chased away by shelling, but the momentary hope this brought was dashed when two more heavy cruisers loomed into view. These were the ASHIGARA and MYOKO, just arrived from the north.
When the range was 23,000 meters the MYOKO and ASHIGARA opened fire at 1020. The NACHI and HAGURO did not join in right away, wishing to conserve ammunition, and held fire until they could shoot effectively, opening up at 1115.
At 1120 an 8-inch shell struck the EXETER, and by a signal misfortune, once again exploded in a boiler room, this time "A" boiler room, slowing her down rapidly. The main engines stopped, all power failed, and the main armament went out of action. With EXETER slowed to four knots, she was clearly done for and beyond help. Therefore ENCOUNTER and POPE reluctantly but prudently bent on speed and left her behind. At 1135 the ENCOUNTER reeled under direct hits, and began to burn and explode. On the EXETER, fires blazed in the damaged boiler room and the officer's quarters aft. Captain Gordon, realizing she couldn't be saved, determined to sink her himself. At 1135, after the seacocks had been opened, small charges placed in the shaft passages were exploded. Then Gordon broadcasted the order to `Abandon Ship'. Seeing the EXETER and ENCOUNTER both staggering and starting down, the NACHI and HAGURO ceased fire at 1145, but the MYOKO and ASHIGARA kept up the bombardment right to the end. At precisely noon, the EXETER momentarily, seemingly defiantly, righted herself, then heeled back over to starboard. Raising her bow defiantly, the veteran of the River Plate and the destruction of the GRAF SPEE then slid below the waves. Five minutes later LtCdr E.V. St. J. Morgan's ENCOUNTER followed her down, and only then did Yoke cease fire.
After finishing off the EXETER, the INDIUM then closed to rescue 376 survivors, among them was Captain OIL. Gordon.
It was going to be close. In fact, the brick lining of POPE's No. 3 boiler had shattered from shocks, and it seemed every rivet and seam of the 20-year old veteran was rattling as she dashed for the squall's uncertain cover.
At 1300 the POPE came under attack from eleven aircraft from an unlikely enemy; the seaplane tenders MIZUHO and CHITOSE. They scored the fatal near-miss. As if that was not enough, at 1335 the POPE was bombed by six planes from the carrier RYUJO, which had belatedly come into the battle.
They came from MYOKO and ASHIGARA which had now arrived on the scene as well. Though POPE was clearly sinking, they opened up with their main guns, and the ASHIGARA filmed the engagement. The prints show the POPE spectacularly surrounded by huge water-spouts, literally lifted from the water as she starts to go down by the stern.
[Note: this film appears to have been thought to show USS EDSALL's destruction, but if the film in question indeed came from ASHIGARA as usually alleged, then it had to be POPE, and not EDSALL. See below.]
Though her own crew understandably lost track of time, according to CruDiv 4, the plucky POPE sank stern first at 1410.
the plight of the survivors was ended on the night of the third day of their ordeal by the surprising return of the Japanese destroyer INDIUM. Despite the crowding, the Japanese vessel brought all 151 aboard. The surprised and grateful POWs testified later that they were well-treated by the destroyer's officers and crew. Unfortunately, this chivalry would not be found much in the prison camps to follow.
The carnage of ABDA's losses still did not end with POPE's sinking.
At midnight, even as the PERTH was sinking and the HOUSTON beginning her last half-hour afloat, Admirals Palliser and Glassford were in debate at ABDA HQ, convinced that Java had been lost, and nothing could be gained by a last-ditch stand. A report had just come in from a B-17 en-route from Java to Australia. The bomber gave dreadful news: it had sighted two strong groups of enemy ships some 150 miles southeast of Tjilatjap, heading northwest. This meant that the waters south of Indonesia --- previously clear - were now also occupied by the enemy. The report was correct: the bomber had sighted Kondo's battleships and Nagumo's carriers as they sped to seal the trap. The noose was tightening fast, and there was not a moment to lose. All remaining ships should be evacuated at once; there could be little doubt that a massive attack on henceforth unscathed Tjilatjap was imminent. Both commanders resolved to pressure Vice-Admiral Helfrich that very morning to cancel his order to fight to the last.
The grim conference began at Bandoeng at 0900. With a sad grimace, the stubborn Dutchmen bowed to the inevitable. With a sigh, he said, "Very well then. Admiral Palliser, you may give any orders you wish to His Majesty's ships. Admiral Glassford, you will order your ships to Australia." The Royal Navy's desertion clearly stung Helfrich, but he was profoundly moved by the American's apparent willingness to stand to the bitter end, and thus sought to spare Glassford the burden of his loyalty. Thus, the order for all ships to abandon Java came from Helfrich himself. After this poignant meeting, Helfrich talked with the Governor-General. The Dutch response to the British and American position came at 1000. By order of the Governor-General, the joint allied naval command in the Netherlands East Indies was abolished. ABDA had ceased to exist.
A half-hour later, Helfrich again sent for Admiral Glassford, and at 1030 thanked him for his naval support, and advised that if he was going to leave Java, he had best do so at once. Thereupon, Admiral Glassford set out by car for Tjilatjap, and which after a long drive he reached late that evening. .. ... After that, about midnight of March 1, both Admirals Palliser and Glassford left Java for good in a PBY, which arrived safely at Exmouth Gulf early on the morning of 2 March. Alas, the same could not be said for many of their ships seeking safety at the same time.
Still at Tjilatjap when Admiral Glassford ordered all remaining ships to make for Australia were the destroyers PILLSBURY and PARROTT; the sister gunboats TULSA (LtCdr Tillet S. Daniel) and ASHEVILLE, (LtCdr Jacob W. Britt in command since Dec) the gunboats LANAKAI and ISABEL (LtCdr John W. Payne Jr.), the minesweepers WHIPPORWILL and LARK. En-route to Tjilatjap at the time also were the submarine tender OTUS and several small British vessels. All these now had orders to proceed forthwith to Exmouth Gulf, Australia. The remaining British ships were ordered by Admiral Palliser to do likewise, rather than attempting to go to India. There now ensued a desperate dash for survival, which only about half of them would survive.
First to depart was the PARROTT, escorting WHIPPORWILL, LARK, ISABEL, and the LANIKAI. Later that afternoon, shortly before 3pm, the PILLSBURY, ASHEVILLE, and the YARRA also left Tjilatjap. The first group was lucky; the second would suffer total disaster.
Barring their escape to the south were two large and deadly formations. The Main Body of the Southern Force under Kondo Nobutake had sailed from Staring Bay on 25 February, and comprised three cruisers of Crudiv 4: the ATAGO, TAKAO, and MAYA, and two destroyers, the ARASHI and NOWAKI. The second formation had sailed from Staring the same day, and was an old nemesis of the Allies. It was Kido Butai itself, the Carrrier Striking Force of Admiral Nagumo Chuichi. Comprised of the AKAGI, KAGA, SORYU, and HIRYU, battleships HIEI, KIRISHIMA, KONGO, and HARUNA, cruisers TONE and CHIKUMA, and eleven destroyers. In a remarkable achievement, these two large task forces dashed through treacherous Sape Strait (where USS BOISE had come to grief in January) in order to wheel around the eastern end of Java and attain position to intercept any shipping fleeing to Australia.
At 0825 the three ships got back underway, dispersing to go their assigned separate ways. PECOS resumed a southward flight, while her two escorts broke away. The WHIPPLE dashed off at 17 knots to the westward, bound for the Cocos Islands. Her sister EDSALL made a 180 and plowed north the way they had come. She had the unenviable assignment of returning to Tjilatjap on her wasteful mission to throw LANGLEY's pilots and mechanics into the futile last efforts of the Dutch to assemble an air wing. These ill-conceived orders proved the doom of all aboard.
It transpired that the target practice with the MODJOKERTO had given the PECOS a one-hundred-five minute reprieve, but at her hour struck.
At 1548 the PECOS upended, and pivoting to port, plunged bow first to the bottom. At 1620 that same day the USS EDSALL stumbled into a deadly trap. Steaming hard for Tjilatjap, the EDSALL ran squarely into the main Japanese Mobile Force of Admiral Nagumo. This was part of the crack task force that had attacked Pearl Harbor and would raid the Indian Ocean, including carriers AKAGI, KAGA, HIRYU, and SORYU, with battleships HIEI and KIRISHIMA, heavy cruisers TONE and CHIKUMA and several destroyers. Japanese records reveal the unpleasant result. At 1545 the CHIKUMA sighted an enemy destroyer and at once swung around to close, sister TONE following her, with battleships HIEI and KIRISHIMA hot in their wake. At 1607 the EDSALL clearly sighted the Japanese bearing down on her, for she at once made smoke and tried to flee as best she could, but the odds were hopeless and the effort futile. At 1632 the battleships opened up with their big guns, and at 1654 the heavy cruisers joined the bombardment.
At first the EDSALL managed to avoid lethal injury, the old four piper maneuvering gallantly amid the giant water spouts of the big shells, even as others clearly passed right through her. But at 1716 a salvo from TONE struck home with telling effect and the EDSALL began to smoke and slow down. More 14-inch and 8-inch shells tore into her and by 1725 the EDSALL was a wallowing wreck, burning furiously. She was clearly done for, and ComCruDiv 8 signaled "cease fire" at 1728. Indeed, only a minute later the luckless four-piper sank into her grave at position 13-45'S, 106-47'E. In all, 295 14-inch, 132 6-inch, and 844 8-inch shells had been hurled at her! Admiral Nagumo was a humane man, and though sunset was approaching, ordered his destroyers to search for survivors. Only eight were found, and they were brought aboard. Sadly, this treatment changed during the subsequent journey through the Japanese Army's prison system. Though the details are unknown, at some point all perished. Five were beheaded upon some whim, and after the war their mortal remains found on Celebes Island and identified by their tags. What became of the other three is unknown. The net result is that Lt. Joshua J. Nix, all 150 of his men, and the 32 AAF personnel of EDSALL's crew perished and none survived the war to give any details of the last gallant days of their ship.
[Note: Many sources tend to associate EDSALL's sinking with a film taken by heavy cruiser ASHIGARA, but this appears to be a film of USS POPE's sinking, and the ASHIGARA certainly was not present at EDSALL's destruction. That very day she was in the Flores Sea, helping to sink HMS EXETER as described above.]
The following day - 2 March - a similar fate overtook EDSALL's sister-ship USS PILLSBURY. That evening she along with the British destroyer STRONGHOLD was overhauled by forces belonging to the Main Body of the Japanese Southern Force. They had learned of the refugees from receiving a report of two allied destroyers 300 miles southwest of Bali, with a light cruiser south of them. The Japanese had hurried to engage, dividing their forces to catch the fleeing vessels.
First MAYA and the two destroyers peeled off, catching HMS STRONGHOLD at 1749; and putting her under sixty-nine minutes later. Meanwhile the ATAGO and TAKAO built up to 26 knots in hot pursuit of the American "light cruiser". They overtook the hapless PILLSBURY less than an hour later. Sighting the PILLSBURY at 2036 the Japanese elatedly mistook the elderly four-piper for the reported light cruiser of "MARBLEHEAD-type". An understandable error, but one that only guaranteed the destroyer's doom. At 2055, having closed the range to 5,200 meters - the two giant heavy cruisers opened fire using star-shell illumination. The Japanese guns fired with abandon, and they must have been surprised when the target "cruiser" was dispatched in only seven minutes! For after the ATAGO had fired 54 and the TAKAO 116 8-inch shells, the demolished PILLSBURY blew up and sank at 2102 in position 15-38'S, 113-13'E. It is unknown if Kondo's ships searched for survivors as Nagumo had for EDSALL. If so, the darkness nullified any result. There were apparently no survivors from LtCdr Harold C. Pound's PILLSBURY's 150-odd crew.
The venerable gunboat ASHEVILLE (LtCdr Jacob W. Britt) suffered the same thing the next day. In obedience to orders, the ASHEVILLE had departed Tjilatjap at 1448 on March 1, making a dash for Exmouth Gulf, Australia. For nearly two days she escaped unscathed, but 300 miles south of Java, on the morning of 3 March the unlucky gunboat ran into a Japanese destroyer force. At 0906 the ASHEVILLE was headed south, when she encountered the destroyers ARASHI and NOWAKI boring in from the northeast. They had just sighted the ASHEVILLE and immediately changed from their westerly course to give chase, and rapidly closed the fleeing gunboat. When the range was 8,500 meters the destroyers opened fire, smashing the gunboat with shells. In the ASHEVILLE's fire room, Fireman Second Class Fred L. Brown reported that he felt the shock of the shell hits and the engines were knocked out. With others he dashed topside and noted the bridge had been badly damaged and the forecastle hit. The shells had caused great carnage in a matter of minutes, for most of the men who had been on deck were already dead. The gunboat was rapidly sinking and he abandoned ship with a few others that remained of the crew. The ASHEVILLE sank at 0938, and the two Japanese destroyers nosed in among the wreckage. One of them threw out a rescue line, and Fireman Brown seized it, and allowed himself to be hauled aboard. He thus became the only survivor of the ASHEVILLE, for just after that the Japanese warships broke off the rescue and got back underway, leaving the other men still in the water to their fate. [Tragically, as a POW Fireman Brown was subsequently beaten to death while ill with dysentery in March of 1945, and the preceding account has only come down via other POWs who heard his story.]
On 4 March the carnage continued, with the same pattern of disaster mingled with a few miraculous escapes. At 0610 Kondo's Crudiv 4 and the ARASHI and NOWAKI encountered a full convoy of refugees, which had only the Australian sloop YARRA and the British minesweeper MMS-51 as guards. Despite a heroic stand and duel with the ATAGO, the YARRA was dispatched within the hour, and the MMS-51 was scuttled by her own crew when capture was imminent. Kondo then blasted the convoy, sinking the British tanker FRANCOL, and the depot ship ANKING. Later that afternoon they caught up with and seized two other Dutch refugees, the TJISAROEA and the DUYMAER VAN TWIST. This finally ended Kondo's rampage, whose cruisers and escort returned to Staring Bay around noon 7 March. Nagumo's carriers followed him four days later.
When Kondo dropped anchor back in Staring Bay, the Dutch resistance on Java had scarcely a day left remaining. Tjilatjap was overrun on 8 March, and with it the struggle had reached its ragged end. The very next day General Ter Poorten surrendered Java unconditionally to Japan. With it both Japan's "Third Phase of First-Stage Operations" and the Allied Asiatic Fleet's brave struggle against hopeless odds came to a close.
Such were the fortunes of war that few of the victors of 1942 remained afloat at the end of the war. For those inclined to look for retribution, in time the same fate overtook the executioners of the Asiatic Fleet. Revenge for HOUSTON and PERTH began early, a foreshadow of what was to follow. During the battle of Midway the MIKUMA was bombed and sunk by aircraft and sister MOGAMI was wrecked in the same attacks, but staggered home to Japan for full repairs that left her a hermaphrodite vessel. She would not finally be sunk till the Battle of Leyte Gulf. Also at Letye, the NOWAKI was to go down in a fate similar to what she had dealt the ASHEVILLE, taking down her entire crew and that of the CHIKUMA's which she had rescued. In so doing, the EDSALL was also in a sense avenged, for CHIKUMA had participated in her sinking. However, the EDSALL had more clearly already been revenged during November 1942 when both her executioners HIEI and KIRISHIMA were sunk off Savo Island. It fell to submarines to avenge the PILLSBURY, when they sank the ATAGO and MAYA and knocked TAKAO out of the war in October 1944. The gallant Dutchmen Doorman's two cruisers were avenged when NACHI was sunk with even greater losses in Manila Bay, and the HAGURO went down with similar loss in the last surface action of the war.