Apr 3

South to Java

Saturday, April 3, 2010 12:26 AM



Twenty two years ago I was browsing a local bookstore when I happened upon a blue jacketed book with the exotic title of South to Java. Spying an old four stack destroyer profiled across the cover, I picked it up and when the inside cover revealed it was about an old navy destroyer caught up in the opening battles of the War in the Pacific and the vain attempt to stop the Japanese advances into the Dutch East Indies, it became my companion for the next few weeks. By the last chapter, I felt like I had sailed with the men of the fictional USS O’LEARY and gained an insight of what it was like to face overwhelming odds with what today would be called, “Taking a knife to a gunfight.” Not only did the story relate the Battle of Balikpapan, but told the personal drama faced by both civilians and sailors as the Japanese war machine bore down on them.

The book, penned by Vice Admiral William P. Mack, USN, (Ret) and his son, William Mack Jr. left me with a indelible interest in the Asiatic Fleet and the men who so valiantly served our country in the opening days of World War II. Admiral Mack tells this tale as no other could, because he served aboard the USS John D. Ford, DD-228 as part of Destroyer Squadron 29 in the battle of the Java Sea.

USS John D. Ford


One might question why a work of fiction would show up on a blog about naval historywhere empirical evidence and primary source documents are the rule. I would judge that sometimes fiction based on factual events allows one to recreate scenes of bravery as well as cowardice, without slandering or impugning the memory of someones shortfalls.

USS Houston CA-30

The battle for control of the Java Sea is best know for the loss of the USS Houston CA-30 in the Battle of Sunda Strait on March 1, 1942. Less know, but no less brave is the story of the men who served aboard those elderly tin cans armed with 4″ deck guns, torpedoes, and a single 3″ Anti-aircraft cannon, suplemented by a few Lewis guns and a fifty caliber, to ward off what for several became their method of execution, the air attack.

Sixty years to the day after the Houston was sunk, March 1, 2002 was proclaimed to be Asiatic Fleet Memorial Day by President George W. Bush. It reads:

All of America’s service personnel and veterans deserve our gratitude, and it is fitting to pay tribute to the United States Asiatic Fleet.
The United States Navy’s presence in the Far East dates to 1822. The Asiatic Fleet was formed in 1902, reestablished in 1910, and continued to serve into 1942. Through years of unrest and disturbance, the Fleet protected American lives and interests along the China coast and the Yangtze River, bearing responsibilities that were as much diplomatic as Naval. The Fleet also assisted civilian areas devastated by the forces of nature and by internal warfare.
When the attack on Pearl Harbor thrust the United States into World War II, the Asiatic Fleet played a key role in the defense of the Philippines. Outnumbered and outgunned at sea and in the air, the Fleet was joined by ships of the British, Dutch, and Australian navies to oppose the Japanese advance through what is now Indonesia. The Fleet’s destroyers hit the Japanese at Balikpapan and Badung Strait, and the cruiser Marblehead fought her way through massive air attacks off Bali while submarines, short of fuel and torpedoes, struck Japanese supply lines.
The battle for the “Malay Barrier” reached its climax in the Java Sea. In the opening hours of March 1, 1942, the American cruiser Houston and the Australian cruiser Perth, outnumbered and outgunned by the Japanese, fought to the last in the Sunda Strait. They went down with their guns still firing and were followed hours later by the British cruiser Exeter. The remaining Allied ships were then ordered to make their way to Australia.
The Asiatic Fleet was no more, but its heritage of courage and selfless dedication helped spur our Navy to victory in World War II. Since then, the Seventh Fleet has carried on the Asiatic Fleet’s duties, earning honor in Korea and Vietnam and helping to preserve peace and stability in East Asia. The men and women of our Naval services who saw the Cold War to a peaceful conclusion and won victory in Operation Desert Storm are worthy descendants of the sailors and Marines who earned glory in the Java Sea. As we pay tribute to the memory of the Asiatic Fleet, I call on all Americans to join me in saluting its proud heritage of bravery and honor.
The Congress, by Public Law 105-261, on October 17, 1998, has authorized and requested the President to issue a proclamation in commemoration of the United States Navy Asiatic Fleet.
NOW, THEREFORE, I, GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the Untied States of America, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Constitution and laws of the United States, do hereby proclaim Friday, March 1, 2002, as U.S. Navy Asiatic Fleet Memorial Day. I call upon all Americans to observe this day with appropriate ceremonies, activities, and programs.
IN WITNESS WHEREOF, I have hereunto set my hand this seventh day of June, in the year of our Lord two thousand one, and of the Independence of the United States of America the two hundred and twenty-fifth.



There have been other good books written about this often overlooked series of battles. One, recent release is A Blue Sea of Blood: Deciphering the Mysterious Fate of the USS Edsall and currently out of print, The Fleet the Gods Forgot: The U.S. Asiatic Fleet in World War II from the USNI Press.

Over the years and after a couple of moves, my copy of this exciting tale became lost in the floatsum of a now forgotten move. So it was with great interest that I learned that the U.S. Naval Institute Press had re-released South to Java. I await it’s arrival in the mail so that I can reacquaint myself with the men of the O’Leary.

  • I just read “South to Java” for the first time this summer. Boy, Mack Sr. really had it in for McArthur…Too bad there wasn’t a sequel. Ever thought of doing a post of the history behind “In Harm’s Way”?

  • Hi Cold is the Sea,

    I agree Mack Sr. being that he was on the scene, can rightfully hold McArthur in disdain for several blunders. The first of which was allowing his air assets to be destroyed on the ground, leading to Cavite Navy Base being destroyed two days later.

  • Andy (JADAA)

    @ Cold: Actually ADM Mack wrote a series of novels about destroyer service in WWII. I read the sequel to “South” which takes his protagonist into the Atlantic in late 1942 as the Allied efforts to defeat the U-boat campaign started to jell. Go to Amazon and Alibris and enter his name, I think a number of the books are still available.

  • @HistoryGuy: That scene in the book at Cavite was very vivid. I’m actually not a huge fan of McArthur myself- more for Korean War issues than anything- but Mack Sr. did open my eyes to things I didn’t know about the general.

    @Andy: I did a cursory search after I read “South” but didn’t see anything that seemed like a sequel (mostly because the Macks have been out of print so long that there aren’t a lot of descriptions or reviews on Amazon). I’ll go back and redouble my efforts. Thanks for the tip.

  • Hi Cold is the Sea,

    Andy is right Mack wrote the destroyer series, some of which are still available.

    Here is a list of the books he wrote in that series.

    WWII Destroyer series:
    South to Java, 1987 (Co-author William P. Mack Jr. Four-piper O’LEARY
    starts the Pacific war in the Asiatic Fleet stationed in Manila. With a suicidal captain, and a disgruntled Lieutenant Fraser, it must
    weather the initial Japanese onslaught against the Philippines and
    Dutch Indonesia. Nov. ’41 – Mar ’42.)

    Pursuit of the Seawolf, 1991 (O’LEARY, following refit, is transferred
    to the Atlantic, less Fraser, Arkwright, and the doctor. Meridith is
    CO, a rich Texan, Tex Sorenson, becomes Exec. Takes O’LEARY through
    the worst stages of the Battle of the Atlantic, until she is sunk in
    a duel with a German Seawolf sub. May ’42 – Nov ’43.
    Checkfire!, 1992 (WW I vintage destroyer becomes amphibious transport
    in the Pacific during WW II.)

    New Guinea: A Novel of War at Sea, 1993 (Sorenson, now qualified for
    command takes charge of USS CARSON, a SIMS class destroyer. With
    other survivors of the O’LEARY, the current XO of the CARSON, and an
    ex-naval aviator, Auerbach, he commands the ship during operations
    off New Guinea, the Admiralties, and a fictional invasion of
    Morotai,supporting McArthur’s advance. Nov 1943 — Sep 44)

    Straits of Messina, 1994 (Introduces the BENSON-class DD LAWRENCE,with a new cast of characters, as it provides escort services and offshore support to the Anglo-American invasions of Sicily and Salerno. One or two O’LEARY alumni are aboard in supporting roles, and the O’LEARY
    makes a cameo appearance. Major new characters are “Horse” Phelps,
    commodore of DesDiv 32, Pete Fannon, XO, and “Beetle” Bronson,
    communications officer.)

    Normandy, 1995(Takes LAWRENCE from pre-D-Day build-up, through the
    invasion of Southern France. Phelps is still commodore, but Fannon
    is the LAWRENCE’s captain, Bronson is XO. Book ends with “Beetle”
    Bronson taking command of the GRAYSON, another destroyer in the

  • LCDR Glenn Smith, USN (Ret)

    The stories of the Asiatic Fleet’s 4-stack destroyers is fascinating. In addition to the mentioned Blue Sea of Blood, Deciphering the Mysterious Fate of the USS Edsall, a book worth reading is: Praying for Time, War on an Asiatic Fleet Destroyer. This is the story of USS Stewart DD-224. It follows Stewart through the pre-war years of summers in China and winters in Manila/Olongapo to the forlorn hope of the early WWII battles that swirled around the Netherlands East Indies. Ultimately, Stewart was abandoned by her crew when she fell off her keel blocks in Surabaya. The Japanese salvaged her about 18 months later, and brought her into IJN service as Patrol Boat Number 102, where she served until the end of the war. Repatriated, and returned to USN as RAMP 224 (the name Stewart had been passed to a new ship). Towed back to the USA, but because she was obsolete she was sunk by US aircraft in May 1946.

  • C.Clark, LCDR< USNR-R

    I am in my third reading of South to Java. It is my favorite book. I can somewhat idenify since I served on four Tin Cans that were obsolite at the time. But many years later than the old four stackers. And served in the South China sea. Very familiar with the Phillipines. And some of the locations stated in the book. I found his redition to be right on the money when it came to seamanship.

  • Paul H. Chastain, FCCS(SW),USN Retired

    I was impressed with the details that keep your attention as the story line moves forward by the minute, hour and day in the Fight for survival. The personalities of the Commanding Officer, Wardroom, CPO Mess and the Crew really brings the action to life about the Hell and few short hours of Heaven they shared. What truly amazes me is that this is 1941, no Radar and Digital Fire Control Systems.

    The use of Optical and Mechanical Fire Control Equipment only, and lots of Courage and leadership in the Face of over whelming odds.

    I will read it again. Tin Cans Rule!

    Damn Good Sea Story!

  • LCDR’s Smith and Clark, and Mr. Chastain,

    I appreciate your gentlemen’s comments. I first read this book shortly after it’s first printing and the memory help stir my interest in the War in the Pacific and making it a specialty of my historical focus.

    I totally agree, It’s a “Damn Good Sea Story”!

  • Bryan Garcia

    The Sequel for “South to Java” is “Pursuit of the Seawolf” followed by “New Guinea” with O’lery members