March 1st marks grim events in Southeast Asia 75 years ago. The Japanese Empire had recently bombed Pearl Harbor and also begun its invasion through the Malay Archipelago. Now it was poised to take over the Dutch East Indies. By late February 1942, a Japanese convoy was approaching the east end of Java.
Dutch Admiral Karel Doorman was put in command of Allied craft on hand and headed from the East Java port of Surabaya to confront the invaders. His fleet comprised five cruisers and ten destroyers, of mixed Dutch, British, American and Australian flags. Light cruiser HMAS Perth had already served with distinction in several theatres of war before arriving in the East Indies, while heavy cruiser USS Houston had seen action in the region for some weeks previously, becoming nicknamed ‘the Galloping Ghost of the Java Coast’ because the Nips had reported her sunk so often.
What would be called the Battle of Java Sea began mid-afternoon on 27 February and consisted of intermittent engagements in which Allied vessels were repeatedly repulsed by Japanese naval forces, with heavy losses to the Allies. One by one, Allied craft came to grief or had to retreat. Admiral Doorman was a casualty, going down with his ship. Obeying orders, Perth and Houston fled westward to Batavia (Jakarta), the capital of the Dutch East Indies. Next morning, the Japanese dispatched the remainder of the Allied fleet, except for four American destroyers that escaped south to Australia.
This battle was the largest surface engagement since World War One. The Allied forces had been wiped out as a naval threat to the Japanese, whose invasion of Java was delayed by a merely a day, at cost of over 2,000 Allied lives but without the loss of a single Japanese ship.
THE BATTLE OF SUNDA STRAIT
Next day (28 February), Perth and Houston arrived at Batavia harbour, where they took on oil but could only access limited amounts of ammunition. Both ships had suffered considerably from previous action. Orders were received to sail with Dutch destroyer HNLMS Evertsen to the port of Cilacap on the southern coast, on the Indian Ocean. To to this, they would have to sail around
the western end of Java, through the Sunda Strait (top left of map) between Java and the massive island of Sumatra. The Americans and Australians duly set out at seven that evening, while the delayed Evertsen followed an hour later.
Perth’s Captain Hector Waller, higher in rank to Houston’s Captain Albert Rooks, decided to sail directly to Sunda Strait, without making a curve around the invasion forces as ordered by Admiral Helfrich, commander of Allied naval forces in the region. Waller and Rooks were apparently unaware of the exact deployment of Japanese navy vessels. In fact, the Nippon navy had a number of invasion forces at hand, including a cruiser and four destroyers at Merak in the Sunda Strait, plus a cruiser, eleven destroyers and fifty transports in Bantam Bay on the north coast near the entrance to the strait, as well as other vessels elsewhere.
Doubtless the Japanese in Bantam Bay were surprised to see enemy ships appear in their midst in the dark, but wasted no time in engaging them. At
about10.30 pm a Nippon destroyer loosed off torpedoes at the Allied duo, but in vain. The two cruisers now saw the enemy forces in the bay and fired at transport ships there. Stronger Japanese vessels closed in on the Allies, effectively surrounding them. Perth and Houston replied with gunfire and, in Perth’s case, also torpedoes. There was some mutual but limited damage inflicted at first. However, the battle quickly escalated with attacks from all directions, sometimes at very short range.
By 11.30 pm, the Allied cruisers were nearly out of ammo and could only hope to cut and run for safer waters. As she attempted to do so at a few minutes past midnight, Perth was struck by four torpedoes in succession. Following orders, most of her crew abandoned ship during the strikes but incurred many casualties in the process, especially from exploding ordinance in the water. Still under fire from several destroyers and with its last guns blazing back, Perth heeled over
and sank at about 12.25 am on 1st March, taking half the crew down with her. The good ship lost 375 men, including Hec Waller. Of the three hundred or so who survived, more than one hundred died in captivity, with 214 men repatriated after the end of hostilities.
Meanwhile Houston fought valiantly on, badly on fire and with only smaller guns left operational, but she gave of her best. Then a torpedo struck her and she
began to lose headway. Her gunners managed to strike three enemy destroyers before Houston took three more torpedo hits around 12.30 am. Captain Rooks was killed by flying debris and, minutes later, yet another grand ship heeled over and sank, taking two-thirds of her crew down with her. Out of over a thousand men just 368 survived, only to be interned in Java and elsewhere.
While the two cruisers were fighting for their lives, Dutch destroyer Evertsen had arrived on the scene, saw the flashes of battle, tried to bypass it, ran into enemy fire, altered course, managed to escape, re-entered the strait (reason unclear), ran into the enemy again, and escaped again but with her stern on fire. Still under attack, her captain beached Evertsen on a reef and the crew escaped just before their ship exploded. Nearly all were captured and interned, with their captain dying in captivity.
In the whole battle, Japanese casualties were relatively light and – all up – only four transports and a minesweeper were sunk, possibly all by ‘friendly torpedoes’ rather than by the Allied ships; two of these vessels were refloated. The Nippon victory secured the vast resources of archipelagic Southeast Asia and established a defensive arc stretching from Malaya, through the entire East Indies, across the north of New Guinea and finally on to the Southwest Pacific. It would prove a hard perimeter to crack.
The full story of Perth and Houston’s last stand was unknown until war’s end in 1945, when survivors were released from concentration camps. The ships, captains and crews are now honoured in plaques or shrines in a number of towns and cities in America and Oz. Regrettably, the wrecks of both cruisers have suffered from illegal salvage to the point of disappearance.
“There are no great men – only ordinary men who, from time to time, are called upon to do great things.” – Admiral William F. Halsey.
Carlton, M. 2011, Cruiser, Heinemann, Australia
Morton, L. 1962, The War in the Pacific: Strategy and Command, Dept of the Army, Washington.
Thompson, P, 2008, Pacific Fury, William Hienemann, Sydney.