28 Feb. -1 March, 1942
by Vincent P. O'Hara
TIME:  2215 February 28 - 0045 March 1
WEATHER/VISIBILITY/SEA STATE: Clear/night, full moon 6 or 7 miles/calm
MISSION: Allies to escape to Ceylon then attack transports, Japanese to
protect transports. 

The Battle of the Java Sea marked the collapse of Allied seapower in the Dutch East Indies.  After the two Dutch cruisers were torpedoed and sunk around midnight the American heavy cruiser Houston and the Australian
light cruiser Perth, complying with Admiral Doorman's final order, broke off and fled east making for Tandjungpriok, the port of Batavia. The exhausted crews remained at battle (or action) stations all night, but contrary to expectations, the Java Sea was clear of enemy forces at dawn. Perth, followed by Houston (Captain Waller of the Australian cruiser being senior to Rooks, captain of Houston) made port about noon, but when they tied up at the main dock, the port authorities advised that only 1,000 tons of fuel oil remained and this was being reserved for Dutch ships.  After being told that few Dutch ships remained afloat, the authorities permitted Perth to take on 300 tons, bringing her to about 50% of capacity.  They determined that Houston had enough fuel to make Australia.  The two cruisers were also short on ammunition. Houston had about 50 rounds each for her six operative 8" guns while Perth had only 20 rounds for each of her 6" guns.  There was no replenishment available at Tankjungpriok for this critical need. 

His Majesty's Australian Light Cruiser Perth. A camouflage pattern painted upon her before he journey to ABDA.
At about 1400 Admiral Helfrich, the Dutch admiral in command of Allied naval forces, ordered the two cruisers to proceed to Tjilatjap on the south coast of Java along with the Dutch destroyer Evertsen. There the Admiral unrealistically hoped to gather the remnants of the ABDA fleet (less the Royal Navy contingent of the Western Strike Force which had been permitted to withdraw to Columbo the day before) and continue the battle. Aerial reconnaissance made as late as 1500 hours on the 28th indicated the western route via the Sunda Strait was clear and that the Japanese invasion fleet was still ten hours steaming time away. 
The Western Strike Force (light cruises Danae, Dragon, Hobart and destroyers Scout, Tenedos and Evertsen) had already navigated the Sunda Strait bound for Ceylon after an unsuccessful sweep of the waters north of Batavia on the night of February 27-28. Only Evertsen returned to Batavia after being separated from her British and Australian companions by a storm. 

The two cruisers cast off at 1900 on the evening of February 28. Evertsen apparently failed to receive orders instructing her to accompany the cruisers; accordingly she was forced to follow about an hour behind.   The cruisers cleared the channel and reached the open sea by 1930 and set course west for the straits and, hopefully, safety. 
This was a realistic expectation but for one thing: the intelligence regarding Japanese movements received by Waller and Rooks was faulty. The invasion fleet of 56 transports and a powerful escort that was supposed to arrive off the Straits at approximately 0100 hours on the 1st, several hours after the Allied exit, was actually about four hours
ahead of this schedule. 

Japanese scout planes observed the Allied cruisers throughout the day on the 28th so their presence close to the invasion beaches should have come as no surprise; yet, the Japanese dispositions seemed to discount the possibility of opposition.   The invasion fleet divided into three groups.  Ten transports escorted by light cruiser Yura and the 22nd DD DIV (Satsuki, Minatsuki, Fumitsuki and Nagatsuki) sailed for Ajner Lor west of Sunda Strait. The second group, light cruiser Sendai and the 20th DD DIV (Amagiri, Asagiri and Yugiri) split off and made for Semarang, well east of Batavia in central Java.  The main force arrived off St. Nicolaas Point, the extremity of Java marking  the entrance to Sunda Strait,  on the evening of the 28th.  Six transports deployed at Merak on the western side of the Point while 27 transports landed the main body of the 2nd Infantry Division at Bantam Bay east of St. Nicolaas Point.  Heavy cruisers Mikuma and Mogami,light cruiser Natori and destroyers Shiratsuyu, Shirakumo, MurakumoShirayuki, Hatsuyuki, Asakaze and Shikinami deployed at various points north and west of the landing zones, up to a half hour's steaming time away.  Fubuki patrolled the eastern approaches while Harukaze and Hatakaze remained in the bay with the transports along with the 1st minesweeper DIV (W1, W2, W3 and W4).  Further north and beyond the battle zone the light carrier Ryujo, the seaplane carrier Chiyoda, the heavy cruisers Kumano and Suzuya and the destroyers Isonami, Shikinami and Uranami provided distant cover. 

At 2215 Fubuki was about 2,500 yards east of Babi Island (13 miles east and slightly north of St. Nicolaas Point) when she sighted strange ships rounding the island to the east.   She shaped a course that took her north of the island and then turned to follow these suspected intruders.  

Conditions favored a battle.  The sea was calm, visibility good and the moon full.  As the Allied cruisers rounded Babi, Houston, the lead ship, spotted the lights of Point St. Nicolaas marking the path to safety, and then the dark shape of ships maneuvering dead ahead.  Forewarned of the possible presence of Dutch patrol boats, Rooks concluded they were moving too quickly to be friendly and sounded the general alarm. Shortly after at 2244, Perth detected Fubuki which had been following behind for almost a half hour and challenged her by blinker.  Fubuki replied with a series of green flashes that Perth correctly interpreted as unfriendly whereupon she opened fire.  Fubuki turned, made smoke and launched nine type 90 torpedoes from a range of 3,000 yards. The time was 2245.  The Allies realized they had unintentionally stumbled onto the main Japanese landing and opened fire on the ships in the bay. 

The rest of the Japanese forces were scattered, mostly to the north and west.  Once Fubuki fired her torpedo salvo and withdrew north, only Harukaze and Hatakaze were immediately available to shield the transports and their initial activities were passive in nature. Harukaze got under way at 2231 and covered the entrance to the bay with smoke.

Captain Albert H. Rooks, USN, commanding officer of U.S.S. Houston. For his valiant service at the head of his ship until he was slain at midnight on 1st March by shrapnel, Rooks was awarded the Medal of Honor. 
Hatakaze plunged into this smoke heading north.   The Allied cruisers sidestepped Fubuki's torpedoes by making a tight full circle and resumed their course toward the light that marked the entrance to Sunda Strait and, hopefully, escape, shooting at targets they could only imperfectly see.  At  2252 Hatakaze began to return fire. 

For the first fifteen minutes after the first torpedoes were launched, Houston and Perth were the superior force, but at 2300 this position dramatically changed.  Shiratsuyu arrived from the northwest and engaged  from a position roughly 3,000 to 4,000 yards due north of St.Nichaalos Point. Light cruiser Natori, with Hatsuyuki and Shirayuki opened fire from about 5,000 yards north of the point, charging southwest and rapidly closing range.  Asakaze had been cruising north of the point.  She joined Hatakaze and Harukaze in a column about 5,000 yards northeast of the point. The heavy cruisers Mikuma, and Mogami followed by Shikinami were still on their way, sailing south were about 10,000 yards north and just east of the point.   Finally Shirakumo and Murakumo were steaming hard from the west, but were still 7,000 yards west and north of the point.   Houston and Perth were about 5,000 yards directly east of the point and only a few thousand yards northeast of the transports. They turned south, southeast at 2300 under pressure from the increased tempo of Japanese fire and sailed parallel to the transports for about eight minutes inflicting some damage and remaining undamaged themselves. This condition was to rapidly change.

At 2308 the Allied cruisers turned northeast as they neared Penang Island.   The major portion of the Japanese light forces was heading southeast in three columns: Natori, Hatsuyuki and Shirayuki and finally Hatakaze, Asakaze and Harukaze.    Between 2310 and 2319 they laced the waters around the cruisers with  28 torpedoes.  The Allies replied with everything they had from 8" to .50 c machine guns and, in the case of Perth, even four torpedoes.   The nature of the battle from both perspectives was close and confused.   Gun flashes seemed to erupt from all quarters while the waters boiled with phosphorescent torpedo wakes. Houston suffered the first damage, a hit on her bridge that started a
small fire.  Perth remained unscathed despite the constant illumination and heavy fire.  Finally, she took three light hits, but remained essentially undamaged. .  She returned fire with 6"guns under independent control and the 4" pumping out star shell, damaging Harukaze on her rudder and Shirayuki on her bridge. 

At 2319 the Japanese heavy cruisers finally entered the fray sailing west well off the bay.  They fired six torpedoes each at Perth from an estimated distance of about 9,300 yards and then reversed course as they  neared Babi Island.   At about the same time the Allied cruisers turned back toward the St Nicholaas Point.  They were both about out of
main battery ammunition and, perhaps, held a final hope of forcing the straits to safety.   But this hope grew even fainter at 2322: geysers began to erupt around Houston as the Japanese heavy cruisers opened fire from about 12,000 yards, assisted by the searchlights of their destroyers.  Mikuma had to cease fire at 2325 due to a defect in her
electric circuits, but was able to resume several minutes later.   At 2326 the battle entered its decisive phase.  Harukaze and Hatakaze fired five and six torpedoes respectively followed at 2330 by nine each from Shirakumo and Murakumo.   Harukaze was probably the agent of the first torpedo to hit Perth.  She was making 28 knots when it struck killing all but one of the forward engine crew. . By this time her main batteries were reduced to firing practice shells and her 4" guns star shells.  Two more torpedoes, probably from Shirakumo and Murakumo followed at 2335.  These hit the forward magazine and aft under X turret.  At this point Waller ordered abandon ship, but a fourth torpedo found her before she sank at 2342.  Waller went down with his ship. 351 other member of the complement of 686 were lost with their captain. Another 106 crew died as prisoners of war.

While Perth was engaged by the destroyers, Mogami fired six long lances at Houston at 2327.  This was one of the most effective torpedo salvos of the entire war.  They sped pass their intended target at 48 knots directly into Bantum Bay.  At 2335 five explosions erupted almost simultaneously.   The army transports Sakura Maru (7,149 tons gross), Horai Maru (9,162 tons) Tatsuno Maru (6,960 tons) and the special vessel Ryujo (Shinshu) Maru (8,160) tons all sank in shallow water, although the later two were subsequent raised.  Mogami also sank  minesweeper W2 (807 tons full load displacement) in this barrage, although her loss is also credited to action by Houston and a mine. 

Houston continued the fight alone.  Rooks gave up on the idea of escape and turned his ship back toward the transports.  At 2340 Houston suffered her first major damage, a hit in her engine room which massacred the entire crew.   Her first torpedo hit, again from the salvo fired by Shirakumo and Murakumo followed shortly after.  Nonetheless, she fought on. The action was so close and furious a Houston sailor actually shot out a Japanese searchlight with a rifle.  The Japanese appeared to have some trouble separating their target from their own ships. Houston benefited as Japanese ships illuminated each other and their own transports and she was able to damage three destroyers. Harukaze, Shirakumo and Shikinami.  But the end was inevitable.  At 2250 she was hit on her #2 turret, starting a fire; both magazine were flooded.  Finally three torpedo hits followed in quick succession.  At 2355 Rooks ordered abandon ship.   Five minutes later a bursting shell killed the Captain.  In all Houston took 4 to 6 torpedoes, three entire salvos, eleven individual hits and additional hits that may have been shells or torpedoes.   Every source mentions her flag was flying as she sank, perhaps quoting an account by a crewman: " . . .a sudden breeze picked up the Stars and Stripes still firmly two blocked on the mainmast, and waved them in one last defiant gesture.  Then with a tired shudder she vanished beneath the Java Sea."  Only 368 of her crew of 1,061 survived.

On the Japanese side Harukaze was hit by both Houston and Perth suffering 3 KIA and 15 WIA as well as minor damage to her bridge, engine room and rudder .  Houston hit ShirakumoPerth landed a 6" shell on Shirayuki's bridge, inflicting 1 KIA and 11 WIA,  Shikinami had minor damage to her prop due to a near miss that reduced her speed to 24 kts. 
The Allied cruisers do not appear to have severely punished the transports, certainly not to the extent Mogami did, but it is hard to believe they didn't inflict some damage during their two relatively close range passes against the anchored transports.  The Allied survivors of the battle in particular champion the point of view that the Japanese grossly understated their damage and that as many as 15 ships were sunk.  The Ryujo Maru was the flag of the commander in chief of the 16th Army, General Imamura.  He was directing the landing of the second wave when the explosion from the torpedo hit threw him into the water.  He was three hours struggling ashore, but when his aide finally found him sitting on a pile of bamboo, face blacked with oil, he congratulated the general on his successful landing.   Regardless of whether four or fourteen transports were sunk, of the disruption and delay caused by Houston and Perth the aide's congratulations were essentially deserved.  Imamura accepted the surrender of Java just eight days after he swam ashore.  Any landing that result in such a swift and decisive result must be considered successful. 

In an aftermath to the battle the Dutch destroyer Evertsen, originally ordered to accompany Houston and Perth didn't clear Batavia until 2045. Well behind the Allied cruisers (and unsuccessful in her attempts to contact them) she saw the gun flashes from the battle and attempted to detour around it.  She made it into the strait, but, at 0130 Murakumo and Shirakumo, vigilance no doubt enhanced by the events of the previous few hours, caught the Dutch ship in their searchlights.   They opened fire and rapidly scored seven hits.  The Dutch captain didn't appear to fight very enthusiastically, beaching his command on Sebuku Besar. 
Evertsen had only been in commission since December, so her crew as not fully trained, for some reason had only two of her three boilers in operation and she certainly seemed - at best - an unlucky ship.