Four U.S. Navy ships have carried the name Houston, but only one captures the spotlight and deservedly so. During the few weeks after Pearl Harbor, the heavy cruiser U.S.S. Houston bore the brunt of U.S. naval efforts in the South Pacific. With no air support, the Houston took on a vast Japanese armada and heroically went down swinging.
The 1,100 man cruiser was commissioned on June 17, 1930 and spent her years before the war with the U.S. Pacific Fleet. She visited her namesake city only once before the war. In February, 1942, the Houston joined a combined Allied fleet based on the Java coast at Surabaya. Things were not going well for the Allies; Singapore had fallen to the Japanese and an invasion of the Dutch East Indies was underway. In a stunning display of naval air power, Japanese bombers sank the British battleships H.M.S. Repulse and H.M.S. Prince of Wales. The way was open for Japan to conquer all of the South Pacific. The only obstacle was a tiny fleet of Australian, British, Dutch and U.S. warships.
Under the command of Dutch Rear Admiral Karl Doorman, the Allied fleet set out to engage a Japanese convoy invading Java. Instead of one convoy, they encountered two covered by a naval force of three cruisers and fourteen destroyers. Japanese warships were armed with the superior "Long Lance" or Type 93 torpedoes which they used with great success. At the Battle of Java Sea, on February 27, 1942, the Allied fleet was reduced to just two cruisers, the Australian H.M.A.S. Perth and the Houston. Doorman was killed when his flagship, the DeRuyter, was blown to bits by a torpedo. So many reports emerged that the Houston was sunk that she was nicknamed "The Galloping Ghost of the Java Coast."
The next day, the Perth and Houston steamed to Tanjung Priok near Jakarta. There they received orders to steam west through the Sunda Strait, take on the Japanese invasion fleet, and escape into the Indian Ocean. Through lack of intelligence, the two cruisers didn't know the Japanese had sealed off the strait; the Houston and Perth were heading toward their doom. At midnight, they encountered a fleet of Japanese transports landing troops near Batavia. A point blank exchange of naval gun fire ensued in which two of the transports and a minesweeper were sunk. On board one of the sinking transports was the commander of the Japanese invasion force, Lt. General Hitoshi Imamura. He was forced to jump overboard and swim ashore. Japanese cruisers and destroyers closed in on the Allied cruisers and sank both of them with torpedoes and shellfire. The Houston's skipper, Captain Albert Rooks, was killed along with 693 crewmembers. Commander Walter Winslow of the Houston recalled, "It seemed as though a sudden breeze picked up the Stars and Stripes and waved them in one last defiant gesture." Captain Rooks was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.
The survivors were picked up by the Japanese and sent to prison camps in Southeast Asia. Not until after the war would all the details of the Houston's sinking and the fate of her crew be learned. Only 291 survivors would make it back to the U.S. after the war. Many of them had been forced to help build the "Death Railway" made infamous in the movie, "The Bridge on the River Kwai." Actor William Holden played a survivor from the Houston.
What happened three months latter was a massive, Texas size response to the Houston's sinking. In an inspired recruiting drive, navy recruiting officer Clarence C. Taylor attempted to recruit 1,000 men from the City of Houston to replace the lost crew of the Houston. The response was electric. Under the motto "Avenge the Houston," thousands jammed the streets of downtown Houston to watch the swearing-in of 1,400 men into the ranks of the U.S. Navy.
Seventy two years later, in August, 2014, U.S. and Indonesian Navy divers discovered the wreck of the Houston in the Sea of Java. As a gravesite for the Houston's crew, it has been respectfully placed off limits to any salvage or recreational diving.
Check out James D. Hornfischer's fine book, "Ship of Ghosts: The Story of the U.S.S. Houston, FDR's Legendary Lost Cruiser, and the Epic Saga of her Survivors."