The Harrowing Last Day Of The USS Houston

The Navy has officially confirmed that a wreck in the Java Sea is that of the USS Houston, which sank in 1942. NPR's Scott Simon speaks to historian Jim Hornfischer about the ship's history.

Copyright © 2014 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This week the site of the wreck of the second world war cruiser, the

USS Houston, was officially confirmed by the U.S. Navy. The ship was sunk alongside an Australian ship, the Perth, in a battle with the Japanese in the Java Sea in 1942. The ship's captain, Albert Rooks, was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. Out of a crew of over 1,000, only 368 sailors and Marines survived the sinking and three years in a Japanese prison camp. Seventy-seven would die in captivity.

Jim Hornfischer is an historian and author of "Ship Of Ghosts: The Story Of The USS Houston." He joins us from Austin. Thanks very much for being with us.

JIM HORNFISCHER: Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: The site of the wreck of the Houston's been known for quite some time. Why just the official confirmation now?

HORNFISCHER: Well, the Navy became concerned over the years that the wreck was being salvaged by trophy hunters and commercial concerns overseas. Recreational dive companies have been leading dives on the Houston as well as the Perth, for years. But they began to fear for the integrity of the wreck. And it is a war grave. It's also custody of the U.S. Navy, even though it's been undersea for more than 70 years now. And so what they did was, they launched an official expedition to document the state of the wreck and the first step in that process was to authenticate the identity of the ship, and so that's what made headlines this week.

SIMON: Captain Rooks received the Medal of Honor for what?

HORNFISCHER: He led the Perth into battle on that night and was quickly fallen upon by a far superior Japanese naval squadron. They had several heavy cruisers, a whole bunch of destroyers and the Japanese were masters of the art of nighttime naval combat. They would demonstrate this time and again through the early months of the war.

And so these two ally's ships were absolutely overmatched. Rooks did not try to avoid the battle; he offered himself to it. And in the end these two allied ships were absolutely overwhelmed by the power that fell upon them - Japanese torpedoes and shells, hitting them left and right. The Houston was finally hit by four torpedoes, which opened up her hull to the sea and the ship slowly began to settle in about 140 feet of water to the site of the wreck that the Navy's exploring today.

SIMON: And could you tell us, please, about the ship's chaplain because he won the Navy Cross.

HORNFISCHER: He did. Commander George Rentz was the oldest man on the ship. He was 59 years old on the night the Houston was sunk. He was clinging to a pontoon that belonged to one of the Houston's floatplanes. This pontoon was riddled by shrapnel, was taken on water, but it was literally a life raft for about a dozen or more Houston sailors.

He said to the sailors who were with him, he said, you men are young. I've lived the major part of my life; I'm willing to go.

And he kept on trying through the night to leave the raft and hand his life jacket to younger sailors and they - each time he tried to leave, they swam out, they grabbed him. They pulled him back to the float. Well, finally he prevailed upon them - I should say, he managed to escape. In the middle of the night he slipped away. He tossed his vest to a young sailor, told him his heart was failing and it was time for him to go. And he disappeared. He kicked away from the float and disappeared so that a younger sailor could take his place and survive.

SIMON: They survived, but it's not like they were back at a comfortable hospital stateside within a few weeks is it?

HORNFISCHER: No, their reward for surviving was Japanese captivity. And you know, what lay ahead for them was famously fictionalized in the movie "The Bridge On The River Kwai," the so-called Burma-Thailand Railway, which was a - it was a war crime, really. These POWs were set to work for the Japanese, building this railroad through the jungle up in Burma and Thailand. And it was a case, literally, of the survivors in some sense envying the dead. 20 percent of the survivors would die in captivity. And so out of that 1,100-man crew, fewer than 300 came home.

SIMON: It seems good here to remember the words that President Roosevelt said after the sinking, quote, "our enemies have given us the chance to prove that there will be another USS Houston and yet another USS Houston, if that becomes necessary. And still another USS Houston, as long as American ideals are in jeopardy."

HORNFISCHER: Well, he spoke those words, I believe, it was on Memorial Day, 1942. The president had a special relationship with this ship and its crew. Four times during the '30s he took world cruises on the Houston. It got to the point where when he called the Navy Department and said, bring the boat around, the admirals on duty knew exactly which ship he meant; he meant the Houston.

And so when the ship went down, the city of Houston turned out to raise money to build another USS Houston. They were so successful, they built not only a new Houston, but a new aircraft carrier as well. But this was a battle cry, literally, and driven in part by FDR's special love for the ship and its crew.

SIMON: Yeah. And there's a Houston today, isn't there?

HORNFISCHER: There is. There's an attack submarine, the USS Houston, patrolling the Pacific. So the memory, in that sense, does live on.

SIMON: Jim Hornfischer, author of "Ship Of Ghosts: The Story Of The USS Houston," speaking with us from the studios of KUT in Austin. Thanks so much for being with us.

HORNFISCHER: Thank you.

Copyright © 2014 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.