By Capt. R. Mark Stacpoole, United States Navy, American Legation, US Naval Attaché, Jakarta, Indonesia
Tonight, while you are at home or out, it might be appropriate to spend a minute in remembrance of the 1,082 men of USS Houston. It was 72 years ago tonight that she sailed for the final time into the teeth of enemy fire. In the Sunda Strait, and in concert with HMAS Perth, she ran into a main Japanese invasion force. Low on fuel and with her after turret out of action; this as a result of damage sustained at the Battle of Makassar Strait (where she lost 41 men), she entered the fray. HMAS Perth went down first, fighting to the end, and Houston was left alone surrounded by enemy ships and aircraft.
At some time after 1:30 a.m. after having been hit scores of times, and with fires raging out of control, the order was given to abandon ship. Houston was bathed in the light of Japanese searchlights, still under heavy fire and settling by the bow when her surviving crew gave her to the sea and scrambled over the sides.
As she began her final plunge one survivor wrote that “it seemed as a sudden breeze picked up the Stars and Stripes, still firmly blocked on the mainmast, and waved them in one last defiant gesture.”
Other survivors saw red tracer fire still flaring out of a machine gun platform as one lone Marine, Gunnery Sgt. Standish, continued firing till the sea took him. (Semper Fi, Marine!)
Some 675 Sailors and Marines died with Houston. Most of these men were either taken down with the ship as she sank or died when the pitiless tide washed them into the vast Indian Ocean. Still others were machine gunned as they swam helpless in the water.
Only 366 men were taken into captivity, but their ordeal was far from over. Most would end up in Thailand, where under inhuman conditions they were forced to construct the infamous Burma Rail Road. Of this handful of survivors a further 76 Sailors and Marines died of sickness, abuse, torture, hunger and neglect.
In 1945 only 290 men remained, many broken in body but not in spirit, to return to the United States. Think of them tonight for they paid the full price in defense of our freedoms.
Well Done Houston, Well Done!