Java Sea Disaster : The 27th of February, 1942
Java Sea Disaster The 26-episode, Emmy-award-winning television documentary from the early 1950’s, “Victory at Sea” does not even mention the Battle of the Java Sea, the loss of the USS Houston (CA-30) and the demise of the U.S. Asiatic Fleet, in what ADM Ernest J. King described as “a magnificent display of very bad strategy,” that cost over 2,000 Sailors killed.
Even the naval historian Rear Admiral Samuel Eliot Morison in his History of U.S. Naval Operations in WWII, addressed the subject reluctantly, stating that he had to write about it because, “I owe it to the brave men who held this successor of Thermopylae” (300 Spartan stand against Persian Empire) and then proceeded to miss many of the instances of extraordinary valor and duty displayed the Sailors of the U.S. Asiatic Fleet. It has always been my view that it is when the chips are down, and everything is going to hell, that you take the full measure of those you serve with.
The outcome may have been a disaster, but the Sailors of the Asiatic Fleet did not let the Navy or their shipmates down; in case after case (more than I can recount here) they fought on against overwhelming odds, with extreme valor and ingenuity, refusing to surrender (despite the collapse and defeatism all around them) in some cases to the last man. They fought in the finest traditions of the U.S. Navy and they deserve to be remembered.
If you are looking for examples of the core attributes listed in the CNO’s Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority (integrity, accountability, initiative and toughness) you will find examples aplenty in the U.S. Asiatic Fleet.
On the 27th of February, a combined Dutch, British, Australian and U.S. task force put to sea from Surabaya, Java, with no air cover, in a last-ditch effort to attack a large Japanese invasion force heading for eastern Java in what became the largest surface action since Jutland to that date.
Under the command of Dutch Rear Admiral Karel Doorman (Commander, Combined Striking Force), embarked in the Dutch light cruiser HMNLS De Ruyter.
The force consisted of the U.S. heavy cruiser USS Houston (CA-30)(the largest, most capable ship in the Allied force, even with her after 8” turret destroyed by previous bomb damage).
In addition, the British heavy cruiser HMS Exeter (victor over the German “pocket battleship” Graf Spee in the Battle of the River Platte in Dec 39), the Australian light cruiser, HMAS Perth (veteran of extensive action in the Mediterranean,) the Dutch light cruiser Java, and 9 destroyers (4 U.S., 3 British, and 2 Dutch.)
Encountering a Japanese force of two heavy cruisers, two old light cruisers, and 14 destroyers, on paper it should have been at least a close match, with the Allied force having an advantage in light cruiser 6” gunfire, that was never effectively brought to bear as the Japanese repeatedly outmaneuvered the Allied force, courtesy of Japanese cruiser scout planes which constantly dogged the Allied force with impunity. Because of this air reconnaissance advantage, the Japanese were able to keep the laden troop and supply transports well away from the battle.
At the time, it was believed by the U.S. Navy and most navies of the world (including Japan) that the state of gunnery fire control had become so advanced that it was expected that surface actions would be decided in minutes.
The Battle of the Java Sea turned into an hours-long late afternoon/twilight long-range gunnery duel in which the Allies and the Japanese both squandered hundreds of rounds per ship with limited result.
(Houston emptied both her forward magazines, and Sailors humped 260 LB shells from the after magazine under the unusable after turret, the length of the ship during combat (no air-conditioning.)) Many accounts say Houston scored the first hit of the battle, on a Japanese heavy cruiser.
Japanese records do not confirm this, although many Japanese records are on the bottom of the ocean. Eventually, Houston was hit with two dud Japanese 8” shells, before HMS Exeter suffered a critical hit, that threw the entire Allied force into confusion, as all the lack of common training, doctrine, incompatible signals, tactics, and language issues manifested themselves. (British and U.S. ships could speak English, but their signal codes were incomprehensible to the other, for example.)
As HMS Exeter fell out of line, and the Allied ships behind her fell into disarray, the Japanese destroyers closed for a torpedo attack. In the melee that followed, the Dutch destroyer Kortenear and the British destroyer HMS Electra were sunk.
The U.S. destroyers countered with a torpedo attack, with what by then had become the standard result – no hits. As night fell, the Allied force blundered into a recently laid minefield, and the British destroyer HMS Jupiter, hit one, blew up and sank.
At this point the U.S. destroyers, low on fuel and with torpedoes expended, were detached to return to Surabaya along with the damaged HMS Exeter, and the Dutch destroyer Witte de Witt, which had survivors on board.
The remaining four Allied cruisers, with no destroyer escort, bravely (some accounts say recklessly) continued through the course of the night to try to get around the Japanese cruisers (low on ammunition themselves) but Japanese superiority in pyrotechnics, night optics, and dogged float plane reconnaissance stymied Doorman’s force.
In the end, the Japanese launched a devastating long-range torpedo attack that the Allied ships didn’t see coming in the night.
Allied reports repeatedly state that they came under submarine attack, even though no Japanese subs were involved in the battle, because they did not know about the extended range (12-22NM) Japanese Type 93 “Oxygen” torpedo. Later known as “Long Lance” coined after the war by historian RADM Samuel Eliot Morison.
Actually, the U.S. did receive intelligence about the Type 93 before the war, but refused to believe it, since we had no similar capability.
The Dutch light cruisers De Ruyter and Java were both hit, exploded and sank, with heavy loss of life; RADM Doorman went down with his ship.
Executing Doorman’s standing orders to break off contact in the event of the loss of communications with the flagship and proceed to Tanjung Priok (port for Batavia – now Jakarta), the USS Houston and HMAS Perth disengaged, and the disastrous Battle of the Java Sea was over, to be followed by a Japanese sweep up of most every other Allied ship in the region.