Ship of Ghosts: The Story of USS Houston

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Surrounded by enemy ships on all offshore bearings, the Houston was about five miles northwest of Panjang Island and about the same distance east-northeast from St. Nicholas Point, on an eastward course at twenty knots. It was a little after midnight. The ship was taking on water and listing hard, restricting both her speed and her maneuverability. Her main guns were silent, Turrets Two and Three shattered and burned out, Turret One starved for ammunition with flooded magazines and hoists. “Because of the overwhelming volume of fire and the sheer rapidity with which hits were being scored on the Houston, it was impossible to determine in many instances whether a shell, torpedo, or bomb hit had occurred,” Commander Maher wrote.

Lost in the numbing stop-time of battle, few of the Houston’s sailors could step back and evaluate the ship’s overall prospects. That was the job of the officers and the captain. Walter Winslow was standing next to Captain Rooks on the signal bridge. Having been forced to leave the conn by the intensity of Turret Two’s flames, Rooks summoned the ship’s Marine bugler, Jack Lee. “In a strong, resolute voice,” Winslow recalled, “[Rooks] spoke the fateful words: ‘Bugler, sound abandon ship.’ ” Pvt. Lloyd Willey marveled at the clarity of the horn player’s tone. “He never missed one beat on that bugle. It would have been absolutely beautiful if it had been anywhere else but at that time.” Lee blew his clean tones into the ship’s PA system. The abandon ship order went out over the battle telephones and the general announcing system.

Their commanding officer had foreseen this. His prescient “Estimate of the Situation” had described the swift, multipronged nature of the coming Japanese offensive. He had predicted Luzon’s vulnerability to air attack, had warned of Singapore’s exposure, and knew Japan would exploit it with its hard-hitting aviation corps. The devastating Darwin raid was no surprise to him either. He appreciated the skill of the Japanese officer corps and the dedication of their enlisted force. The Allies’ chances had never looked very good to Albert Harold Rooks. “If widely dispersed over the Far East, from Manila to Surabaya to Singapore,” he had written, “[the Allied ships] will be capable of only the most limited employment, and many of them will come to an untimely end.”

The captain was descending the ladder from the signal bridge when a salvo hit the number-one 1.1-inch mount on the ship’s starboard side, killing or wounding everyone in its vicinity. The blast threw a torrent of shrapnel into an athwartship passageway aft of the number-one radio room just as Rooks was coming off the ladder. It caught him in the head and upper torso. Ens. Charles D. Smith, the Turret Two officer, saw him stagger and collapse about ten feet from where Smith was standing. Rooks lay there, soaked with blood on the left side of his head and shoulders. Smith ran to him, but “he was too far gone to talk to us,” the young officer wrote.

Smith opened his first aid kit and stuck his commanding officer with two syrettes of morphine. “He died within a minute,” Smith would write. Then he laid a blanket over him and sought out the executive officer, Cdr. David W. Roberts, and the navigator, Cdr. John A. Hollowell Jr., and reported their captain’s death.

One of Captain Rooks’s mess attendants, a heavyset Chinaman named Ah Fong but nicknamed “Buda” by the crew, came across the skipper in his last moments. According to Walter Winslow, “Rocking slowly back and forth, he held Captain Rooks as though he were a little boy asleep and, in a voice overburdened with sorrow, repeated over and over, ‘Captain dead, Houston dead, Buda die too.’ ” The Chinese were generally terrified of the water. Though several others would be successfully urged overboard at gunpoint, Buda wouldn’t budge.

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Listing hard to starboard, settling by the bow, the Houston was bathed from stem to stern in hostile white light, wooden decks splintering under gales of machine-gun fire. She seemed on the verge of capsizing, yardarms nearly touching the sea, when, according to John Wisecup, “she righted herself like a dog shaking water off its back,” perhaps momentarily counterflooded by an unnoted and gratuitous torpedo hit. When that happened, the colors, brought to life by the beams of hot carbon arcs, just seemed to snap to and wave over the watery battlefield. “Perhaps I only imagined it,” Walter Winslow wrote, “but it seemed as though a sudden breeze picked up the Stars and Stripes still firmly two-blocked on the mainmast, and waved them in one last defiant gesture.”

As the Houston sank, going down by the broken bow, red tracers were seen, right to the end, still whipping down from the foremast’s machine gun platform. Gunnery Sergeant Standish, Wisecup wrote, “living up to Marine Corps legend, was a warrior to the end.

“Many years have gone by,” wrote Wisecup, “but I can still vividly recall the scene. The stars and stripes still fast on the mainmast streaming aft in the breeze. The ‘Gunny’s’ fifty-caliber machine gun still sending out a line of tracers toward the Japs as the tired old Huey Maru slowly sank beneath the waters of the straits.

“Not a word was uttered by anyone on the raft as they gazed at the spot where our ship had gone down.”

Once upon a day, William Bernrieder, the booster who had led the USS Houston campaign, called her “the Nation’s safest insurance against foreign aggression—the expression of might upholding the right. . . . May we always regard her as the emissary of peace, but if fight she must—may the Cruiser Houston—the pride of our Navy— never strike her colors to an enemy.” That was the one thing her survivors would remember, as clearly as a first child’s birthday, long after they were left alone in the nighttime sea. She never struck her colors.

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As dawn broke over Bantam Bay on March 1, the Houston’s survivors could at last see the full extent of the Japanese landing operation and their own incidental place in its midst. “The bay was as slick as glass, not a ripple anywhere except in the wake of the landing barges plying between the transports and the shore with their loads of supplies and troops,” wrote Bill Weissinger, floating with a group of Houston survivors led by Lt. Joseph F. Dalton. “The surface was dotted with all sorts of objects: boxes, crates, lumber, all types of containers, and life jackets—some empty . . . some occupied.” According to John Wisecup, on another raft, “Transports lined the beach as far as the eye could see, busily discharging troops and equipment with little visible resistance.” Too tired to swim for shore, the Americans drifted, watching the barges going back and forth, wondering if one might come for them. In time, a barge hauled out in their direction.

As the thirty-footer pulled alongside, Dalton urged his shipmates to remove any insignia that might identify their ship. The Japanese engineer in charge of the craft motioned them aboard, seated them on deck, then began making “strange guttural-snarling sounds which we found out later was the Japanese language,” Weissinger wrote. With the life raft towed behind it, the barge got under way and headed for one of the large transports. The Japanese engineer and his coxswain passed around cigarettes. Then the coxswain approached Lieutenant Dalton.

“Ingeris, ka?”

English? Dalton didn’t hesitate to correct him. “No. American,” he said.

The enemy sailor dismissed this out of hand. “No America. All America finis. Ingeris.” The two men disputed the question of nationality in pidgin for a few minutes until the barge reached the trans- port, then the Japanese sailor gave up.

The coxswain threw over a line, went up the gangway, and conferred with the troop carrier’s officer of the deck. Then without comment he came back down and released the line. The engineer throttled up again and steered the barge toward another vessel. They had no more luck with that one. In all, four different transports refused custody of the Dalton gang. “Nobody wanted us,” wrote Bill Weissinger. The engineer was finally left with no alternative but to cast them loose again. The coxswain cut the line towing the raft listlessly behind, and indicated that the survivors were to swim for it. As they went overboard again, three rifle-armed soldiers on the large transport walked along the rail. The troopship was moving just fast enough to keep the survivors on its beam. The Americans braced for gunfire. Reaching the raft and ducking behind its lee side, they cowered and drifted until they were out of range and their only enemy, once again, was the sea. 

 



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