The Fleet That Lived to Fight Another Day

By Ball, Don | Sea Classics, July 1999 | Go to article overview
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The Fleet That Lived to Fight Another Day

Ball, Don, Sea Classics

Outgunned and outnumbered by the rampaging force of Japan's Imperial Navy, the remnants of America's battered and bruised Asiatic Fleet was never outfought.

December 1941: The Japs bomb Cavite Navy Yard in Manila Bay.

They demolish it, and the 1500 workers killed during the raid are being buried in mass graves. The smell is overpowering. Lieutenant Robert B. Kelly, commander of PT-34 moored nearby the yard wondered, "Where was our air force? What could it mean? Didn't we have 150 planes, most of them fighters? Were our guys yellow, or had some guy gone nuts and told them not to takeoff? It made you sick to think the Japs could get away with this."

What had happened was that 108 Jap bombers and 34 fighter escorts had bombed our B-17s and fighter planes parked at Clark, Iba and Nichols Fields in the Manila area. These planes had been bunched together on the aprons so as to make them easier to guard, thus prevent sabotage. Because of the way they were parked, destroying them was easy. When the attack was over we had lost half our planes; we were left with 17 B-17s and about 40 fighters.

26 February 1942: Tokyo Rose on the radio two nights before the Battle of Java Sea. "Poor American boys. Your ships are being swiftly sunk (there was a certain amount of truth in that). You haven't a chance. Why die to defend soil which never belonged to the Dutch and British in the first place? Go home before the slackers steal your wives and girls."

28 February 1942: At night aboard the US heavy cruiser HOUSTON, Cmdr. Walter G. Winslow talks about his emotions during the Battle of Java Sea. "One after another the Jap flares burst in the sky and slowly fell to the sea illuminating us. They know our every move now and are playing cat and mouse with us. The men speak in hushed tones as if the sound of their voices will reveal us to the enemy. Only the rush of water past the hull and the roaring of the blowers can be heard. Death stood by, ready to strike. No one talked of it, though all thoughts dwelt upon it."

So it was with the men and the ships of the Asiatic fleet, composed of three cruisers, twelve old destroyers, several gunboats, 29 subs, 44 PBYs, and an assortment of tenders, minesweepers and other auxiliaries - 67 ships in all. They would be the ones to buy us time in the Pacific. They would be the ones who knew the odds were against them but didn't know how bad they were. They would be the ones who lived with the fact that capture by the enemy was a distinct possibility. They would be the ones who would spend the longest time in Jap prison camps. But a good number of them were ones who escaped to Australia just ahead of the Japanese onslaught and lived to fight the enemy another day.

Twenty-three ships lost in six months! In just six months after Pearl Harbor, the Asiatic fleet had lost a third of its ships.

Cruiser BOISE, in Makassar Strait on the way to the Battle of Balikpapan, hit a submerged rock, tearing a gash in her bottom. She headed home for repairs 22 January 1942. Repaired in San Francisco, she returned to the Pacific and participated in the Battle of Cape Esperance at Guadalcanal. After a tour of duty in Sicily, she returned to the Pacific and operated in the New Guinea and Philippine Island areas.

Old cruiser MARBLEHEAD took a terrific beating from enemy fire but was still able to limp away from Java on 2 February and head for home, escorted by sub tender OTIS. With limited steering capacity and many flooded compartments she headed for Ceylon, then South Africa where she spent 23 days in drydock. She then continued across the Atlantic to the US, cruising 10,000 miles to reach home. Once repaired she did convoy escort duty in the Atlantic and later participated in landings in the South of France.

Cruiser HOUSTON, attempting to escape to Australia by way of Sunda Strait, was sunk by enemy fire, 1 March, after fighting the good fight in the Java area.

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