Off the island of Bali, in the silhouette of mountains made sacred by the favor of local gods, a warship plied the black waters of an equatorial sea. The night of February 4, 1942, found her moving swiftly toward a port on the southern coast of the adjoining island of Java. She had sustained a deep wound that day, an aerial bomb striking her after turret, charring and melting the gun house and its entire stalk. The great blast killed forty-six men. Her captain now sought port to patch his ship and bury his dead with honors. For the flagship of the U.S. Asiatic Fleet, this was the first blow of a war not yet sixty days old.
The USS Houston, a heavy cruiser, was the largest combat vessel the U.S. Navy had committed to the Dutch East Indies. She was bound for the port of Tjilatjap. Its colliding consonants compelled American sailors to give the town the more symphonious nickname "Slapjack" or, chewing their words more bitterly, "that lousy dump." As the thunder of Japan's opening offensive washed over Indonesia in early 1942, Tjilatjap was one of three havens that Allied warships still maintained in these dangerous waters. With the enemy's invasion fleets pressing down from the north and his planes attacking from land bases ever closer to Java, those harbors were fast becoming untenable. The previous day, February 3, Japanese bombers struck Surabaya, the city in the island's east that was home to Adm. Thomas C. Hart's threadbare squadron of surface combatants. To the west, the port at Batavia (now Jakarta) was a marked target too. As Hart's commanders well knew, Japan's aviators had needed just forty-eight hours after the start of war on December 8 to smash American airpower in the Philippines, sink the two largest Allied warships in the region–the British battleship Prince of Wales and the battlecruiser Repulse–and land an invasion force on Luzon. The Imperial red tide knew no pause. Flowing southward, operating at high tempo by day and by night, the Japanese executed a leapfrogging series of amphibious invasions down the coasts of Borneo and Celebes, each gain consolidated and used to stage the next assault. The shadow of the Japanese offensive loomed over Java, where the Allies would make a last stand in defense of the old Dutch colonial outpost and aim to blunt Japan's onrushing advance toward Australia.
At midnight of February 3, alerted by Allied aircraft to the presence of a Japanese invasion fleet in Makassar Strait, north of Java, the Houston had departed Surabaya with a flotilla of U.S. and Dutch warships–the aged light cruiser USS Marblehead, the Dutch light cruisers De Ruyter and Tromp, and an escort of eight destroyers. Under Dutch Rear Adm. Karel W. F. M. Doorman, the striking force steamed by night to avoid Japanese aircraft. But the distance to their target was such that the Allied ships had no choice but to cross the Flores Sea by daylight on February 4. No friendly fighter planes were on hand to cover them. It was about ten o'clock on that bright morning when Japanese bombers began appearing overhead, ending Doorman's mission before it ever really began.
That day had started as so many of them did, with the Houston's Marine bugler putting his brass bell to the public address microphone and blowing the call to air defense. As men sprinted to their general quarters stations, they could look up and see the Japanese bombers droning by, one wave after the next, nine at a time, fifty-four in all, locked in tight V formations, silvery fuselages glinting in the sun. Nosing over into shallow power glides from seventeen thousand feet, the twin-engine G3M Nells began their bombing runs.
Capt. Albert Harold Rooks steered his ship through the maelstrom of splashes, some of the bombs landing close enough aboard to fracture rivets belowdecks, some falling in patterns dense enough to conceal the six-hundred-foot-long ship behind a temporary mountain range of foamy white seawater. Watching the Houston under bombardment, a sailor on another ship said, "All this water just sort of hung in the air. Then it started to fall back, and out from underneath all this stuff comes the Houston going thirty knots." A master ship handler, the fifty-year-old skipper had an intuitive sense of his cruiser's gait. He was expert in dodging the bombs that fluttered earthward in the midmorning sun, never hesitating to stretch the limits of the engineering plant or test the skill and endurance of the throttlemen and water tenders and machinists, who gamely kept pace with the sudden engine orders and speed changes, risking the destruction of their delicate machinery by the slightest misstep. Relying on the smart reactions of his snipes as an extension of his own hand, Rooks maneuvered his cruiser like none the crew had ever seen, accelerating and slowing, ordering "crashbacks" that wrenched his engines from full ahead straight into full astern, thus steering not only by rudder but by counterturning the propeller screws, the starboard pair surging ahead while the port pulled astern. "He handled that ship like you or I would handle a motorboat," said Howard R. Charles, a private in the Houston's seventy-eight-man Marine detachment.
By acclamation Rooks was one of the brightest lights to wear four gold bars in the prewar U.S. Navy. He had been Admiral Hart's aide when the Asiatic Fleet boss was superintendent of the Naval Academy. On the teaching staff at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, in 1940, Rooks showed a keen analytical mind, and it was with no evident sarcasm that colleagues called him the second coming of the great naval strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan. In the few months since taking over the Houston in Manila, the quietly authoritative skipper had moved out of the shadow of a beloved predecessor and won, it seems, a reputation as a sort of minor deity.
An SOC Seagull floatplane was on the Houston's catapult, propeller whipping the air at full throttle, its pilot ready for an explosive-charged launch. Under normal conditions in the days before radar, the SOCs were used for reconnaissance and gunnery spotting. Flung aloft from catapults mounted on the quarterdeck amidships, the biplanes would fly out ahead of the ship, climb to around two thousand feet, and spend two or three hours weaving back and forth on either side of the cruiser's base course heading. In combat, they could loiter over an enemy fleet, signaling corrections to the gunnery department. The Seagulls were light enough to grip the air at a speed as low as sixty miles per hour, permitting a leisurely reconnaissance pattern. But now the idea was to get the vulnerable, combustible planes off the ship before the Japanese got lucky with one of their bombs.
As another formation of bombers crossed overhead, the antiaircraft officer couldn't stand waiting for the SOC to get airborne. His five-inch guns, elevated high, roared. At once the muzzle blast, just ten feet from the plane, tore the canvas skin right off the plane. As Lt. Harold S. Hamlin recalled, "the pilot found himself sitting on a picked chicken–the blast had removed every stitch of fabric from the plane. Pilot and crewman scrambled out, and the forlorn-looking plane, naked as a jay-bird, was jettisoned."
The Houston belched so much smoke from her after stack that the antiaircraft crews lost use of the aft rangefinder, bathed in black soot. So they aimed by eye. Good as the crews on her eight open-mount five-inch guns were, they were shocked to find that their ammunition was of little use. Their first salvo arced skyward right into the midst of the bombers. But only one of the four rounds was seen to explode. That sorry proportion held up through the day. Of the four hundred odd antiaircraft shells the Houston's crews fired, nearly three hundred were duds. In the prewar years, the Navy Department, mindful of costs, had refused to let its ships fire live rounds in antiaircraft gunnery drills. The Houston's gunnery officer had appealed time and again for permission to use live ammunition but was turned down. The projectiles thus saved had been left to sit and age in the magazines. Now, as the realization dawned on them that most of their stored projectiles were little more than outsize paperweights, the antiaircraft crews became "mad as scalded dogs" and fired all the faster, if to little result.
During the bombardment that rained down on them that morning, the light cruiser Marblehead was straddled perfectly by a stick of seven bombs, engulfing the old ship in giant splashes. Two struck home, and a near miss, detonating underwater close aboard to port, did as much damage as the direct hits. Fifteen men were killed as fires raged fore and aft. With part of her hull dished in, scooping in seawater at high pressure, seams and rivets leaking, the Marblehead listed to starboard, settling by the head, her rudder jammed into a hard port turn. Seeing her distress, Captain Rooks turned the Houston toward her to bring his gunners to bear on the attackers. As he did so, another V of bombers passed overhead at fifteen thousand feet. A second flock of bombs wobbled earthward. They missed–all of them except for the stray.
Some say that the lone five-hundred-pounder must have gotten hung up in the Japanese plane's bomb bay on release. With its carefully calculated trajectory interrupted, it wandered from the path of its explosive peers, arcing down outside the field of view from the pilothouse, where Rooks, head tilted skyward, binoculars in hands, was watching the flight of ordnance and conning his ship to avoid it. Unseen until it was far too late, the wayward bomb found the ship. It punched through the searchlight platform mounted midway up the Houston's sixty-foot-high mainmast, rattled down through its great steel tripod, and struck just forward of the aft eight-inch gun mount, whose triple barrels were trained to port, locked and loaded to fend off low-flying planes.
The bomb's blast reverberated all along the Houston's length, and up and down its seven levels of decks. The sickened crew felt the cruiser lift, rock, and reel. When fires ignited the silk-encased powder bags stored in the number-three hoist, a vicious flash fire engulfed the gun chamber and reached down into the powder circle. Yellow-white smoke washed over the fantail.
Intense heat inside the heavily perforated gun house, or perhaps a firing circuit shorted out in the deluge from the fire hoses, caused the center eight-inch rifle to discharge. The untimely blast startled the crew, and they collided with one another diving for cover. The powder-fed storm of flames took nearly four dozen of Captain Rooks's best men. They never stood a chance, not the doomed crew inside Turret Three, nor the men in the powder circle and handling room below them, nor the after repair party, cut down nearly to a man at their general quarters station, right under the hole in the main deck. In nearby crew's quarters, men were found blown straight through the springs of their bunks. Scraps of clothing stuck in the springs were all that remained of them, identification made possible only by the stenciling on their shirts. They could not have known what hit them. But far worse was in store for everyone aft should the flames reach the eight-inch powder bags piled in the magazine.
Fearing a catastrophic explosion, Cdr. Arthur L. Maher, the Houston's gunnery officer, rallied the firefighting crews and sent two petty officers into the scorched ruin of the gun mount searching for survivors. One of them, aviation machinist's mate second class John W. Ranger, played a hose on the other, Charles Fowler, to keep him cool. Then Ranger joined Fowler inside, armed with a carbon dioxide canister to fight the flames, the heat from which was already bubbling grease smeared on the eight-inch projectiles kept in ready storage.
By the light of a battle lantern in the turret's lower chambers, gunner's mate second class Czeslaus Kunke and seaman second class Jack D. Smith dogged down the metal flaps that separated the magazine from the burning handling room and flooded the magazine and powder hoist. "I told John [Ranger] if we had not stopped the fire before it arrived at the magazine he would have been the first Navy astronaut," Smith wrote. Their quick thinking and a measure of good fortune saved the ship from a final calamity.
With the Houston's main battery hobbled and the Marblehead damaged, Admiral Doorman aborted the mission, ordering the wounded cruisers to Tjilatjap for repair. As evening fell, Captain Rooks steered his bruised ship toward safety, out of the Flores Sea through Alas Strait, then west into the easternmost littorals of the Indian Ocean. Steaming in the shadows of the holy peaks of Lombok and Bali, the Houston's crew gathered their dead shipmates on the fantail. The Houston's two medical officers, Cdr. William A. Epstein and Lt. Clement D. Burroughs, exhausted themselves patching up the wounded and easing the worst of them into death. "I'm convinced they were never the same again," wrote Marine 2nd Lt. Miles Barrett. "For weeks their nerves were completely shattered." An ensign named John B. Nelson had the chore of identifying the charred corpses as they lay in makeshift state. Nelson's eyes filled with tears as he studied the remains, identifying some and guessing at others. Then they were covered with a canvas tarpaulin to await burial. A carpenter's mate oversaw the crew detailed to assemble caskets from scrap lumber. Their hammers tapped and tapped, marking time through the night. "War came to us in a real way. It knocked all the cockiness out of us," said Sgt. Charley L. Pryor Jr. of the ship's Marine detachment. "We saw what war could be in its real fury, just in those brief few moments."
A ceremonial watch was set in honor of the dead. Seaman first class John Bartz, a stout Minnesotan from the Second Division, held his rifle at attention on the midwatch, fidgeting in the starlit darkness. What unsettled him was not so much the corpses but their unexpected movements at sudden intervals: arms and legs twitching, rising and reaching in death's stiffening grip.
"I'm telling you, it was spooky," Bartz said. "It was really scary when you're standing there, a young kid about eighteen years old. I was glad to see my relief at four."