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.
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.
GEORGE W. BUSH
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.