to perpetuate the memory and history of our dead

3.2 The USS HOUSTON

The journey into hell that befell the US POWs who worked the TBR, began on 1 MAR 1942. After surviving the Battle of the Java Sea, the HMAS PERTH and USS HOUSTON attempted to withdraw to Darwin for repairs. They sailed directly into the huge IJN invasion fleet in the Sunda Straits. Nearly out of ammo due to the earlier battle, they put up a heroic but impossible fight. Soon nearly 1000 men from both ships found themselves in the water as those ships sank from multiple torpedo hits. No formal record of this engagement exists but survivor accounts suggest that it lasted less than 30 minutes from the firing of the first shot.

These men made choices: try to evade or swim to certain captivity ashore.

Fate of the Houston crew

The USS Houston Association website lists 1069[1] crewmen assigned in February 1942.

On the 4th and 5th, the ship was attacked by air. One Marine and 57 USN were killed or wounded. Of the 9 wounded, only 4 survived.

On the night of the 28 February and into 1 March, it is thought that roughly half of the 1000 men still aboard made it into the water. But only 368 are known to have made it ashore. All but one of those (GySgt Standish) were taken as POWs. Somewhere around 130 crewmen are thought to have survived the sinking; made it into the water, but died prior to coming ashore. Many of those in the water were known to have been wounded or burned. The one individual that survivors remember being in the water with them but who did not come ashore was the Ship’s Chaplain CDR Rentz. After 12-18 hours in the water, 334 US Sailors and 34 Marines were taken as POWs. The majority had come ashore at a place called Bantam Bay.

And so began their three and a half years of captivity, deprivation, starvation and death.


Summary of the fate of the crew:

USS HOUSTON
ENLNCOSNCOOFF
all crew76919051501060
73%18%5%5%
KIA4921353827692
71%20%5%4%
POW277551323368
75%15%4%6%

[1] The precise location of 3 is unknown and one was assigned to the TXNG where he became a POW.

Follow these URLs to see a list of the USS HOUSTON crew and the ship’s history:

http://www.usshouston.org/crewlist.htm

http://www.navsource.org/archives/04/030/04030.htm

http://www.microworks.net/pacific/battles/sunda_strait.htm

http://www.usshouston.org/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/USS_Houston_(CA-30)

Battle of the Java Sea (story of the HOUSTON & PERTH):

https://www.britain-at-war.org.uk/WW2/London_Gazette/Java_Sea/html/enclosure_1.htm

https://www.britain-at-war.org.uk/WW2/London_Gazette/Java_Sea/html/commodore_commanding_china_for.htm

https://www.rebellionresearch.com/java-sea-disaster-the-27th-of-february-1942?fbclid=IwAR2tqE4f-QDlK7hjx6-SICzHBTLsz7bPEl88XRoNvd1DIbiJqcc753hQ6vk

The above is largely in Dutch with subtitles.

The USS HOUSTON crew list cited above shows essentially only 2 groups as involved in the sinking of the ship on the night of 28 FEB to 1 MAR 1942: those who died and those who lived to become POWs. But the situation is more complicated than that. It is generally accepted that about half the ship’s complement of 1000 went down with the ship. This group would have consisted of those who were already KIA – to include CAPT Rooks and most of those on the bridge. Many more would have been trapped below decks at their assigned stations and unable to egress. That puts roughly 500 men in the water. Of those, 352 (318 Sailors & 34 Marines) were taken prisoner. Those who abandoned ship would have fallen into as many as 5 categories. Many would have been wounded. We know that only one seriously wounded man was taken prisoner: LT(jg) Weiler; so all of the other wounded must have perished during the overnight ordeal. One survivor recounts how he swam up to a small raft carrying 3-5 badly burned men. Knowing that he could do nothing for them, he swam on towards the shore. Surely though, most of the 150 who did not become POWs were likely un-wounded. What, then, may have happened to them? Some — like Chaplain Rentz — simply disappeared into the sea. He was last seen giving his life-jacket to a wounded sailor then swimming off, never to be seen again. Others apparently made a conscious decision to try to sail away from captivity. One survivor describes how he was on a large raft with about 20 total crewmen. They decided that they wanted to try to ride the current south rather than steer east towards the shoreline. He disagreed and dove off the raft to swim ashore. None of them were seen again. Others were quite likely KIA by the IJN after they abandoned ship. Survivors describe shells and machine guns being fired in the vicinity of the sinking ship any of which could have killed crewmen while they were in the water. All tolled, roughly 150 must have died after abandoning ship. Given the story of GySgt Standish (see Section 3.8), there may very well have been a few other like-minded men who made it ashore but were not counted among the prisoners. No one mentions seeing any wounded men on the beaches (except Lt Weiler). Nor do they mention any bodies. It is entirely possible that they were simply swept up by their captors and moved inland too soon for those bodies to have been washed ashore. There are no accounts of burial parties that I am aware of.

The other thing no one mentions is encountering any fighting. It would seem, therefore, that within the first 24 hours of landing on Java, the IJA had driven the KNIL defenders off the beaches (if they were ever even there) and controlled a beach head several kilometers deep. Most of the HOUSTON POWs were consolidated initially in and around the city of Serang. This is roughly 40Kms from the beaches where they came ashore. Although there were signs of fighting as with a partially fallen bridge, they report no active gunfire as they moved to Serang.

A personal side-story

Overlapping with my research of these brave men, I was working a project to help identify military Veterans among graduates from my Baltimore High School. Imagine my surprise when I came across a familiar name.
Following his 1934 graduation, Joseph Francis DALTON was appointed to the US Naval Academy. Military records show his official enlistment in the Navy as June 1937. By the early 1940’s, he was Lieutenant assigned to the light cruiser USS Houston.

In the early morning hours of 1 Mar 1942, the Houston along with the HMAS Perth were sunk in an intense naval engagement with a much larger Japanese naval force off the coast of Java in the Sunda Straits. He was one of but a handful of Navy officers who survived to be taken as a POW. He did not, however, work the TBR. He was one of 8 officers who in APR ’42 were transferred directly from the Bicycle Camp in Batavia to Japan. He was eventually liberated from the Zentsuji and Rokuroshi camp (aka Chikko) in Japan.

He remained in the Navy and retired as a CAPT (O-6). He passed away on 12-May-1975 in Kilmarnock, Northumberland County, Virginia.

On the official crew list [ www.usshouston.org/crewlist/crewroster.htm ] there are entries attached to some of the names that mention the date 15 DEC 1945. Apparently relatives and others are confused as to why this date is shown as the Date of Death on some official documents. The answer is quite simple: that is the date that US military authorities officially declared many of WW2’s MIA personnel as deceased. Many had been carried on the MIA rolls in hopes that they were POWs, but post-war data showed that they were, indeed, deceased. So rather than the true date of death (often in combat) 15 DEC 1945 appears on some documents.

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