A Turn Too Far: Reconstructing the End of the Battle of the Java Sea
By Jeffrey R. Cox
While in modern military history there is little that can compare to the stand of the “300” Spartans (if you ignore their 1300 or so troops from other Greek allies) against the invading Xerxes and his 100,000 Achaemenid Persian troops at Thermopylae, a very good case can be made that the Java Sea Campaign in the early days of World War II in the Pacific does just that. This three-month campaign to defend Malaya (now Malaysia) and the Netherlands East Indies (now Indonesia) from the Japanese with a combined force of American, British, Dutch and Australian (ABDA) forces culminated in the disastrous Battle of the Java Sea, in which organized naval resistance to the Japanese advance was swept away. While there were no dramatic speeches, no tossing of insults, no troops fighting in their underwear, no trolls, no orcs dressed as Immortals – not that there were actually trolls or orcs at the original Thermopylae – no convenient betrayal by a treacherous goat farmer, and ultimately there was not nearly the same effectiveness as Leonidas and his Lakedaemonians, there was every bit the courage in the face of hopeless odds and the determination in the face of death to do everything they could to stop or at least delay the enemy until reinforcements – this time in the form of ships and planes produced by American industrial might – could take the offensive.
The Java Sea campaign has gotten little in the way of analysis in the English-speaking press, and what coverage it has gotten has largely focused on the role of the crews of individual ships such as the US cruiser
Houston, the Australian cruiser Perth and the British cruiser Exeter, particularly in their futile efforts to escape the Java Sea, James Hornfischer’s excellent book
Ship of Ghosts being a case in point. This relative silence is understandable for several reasons. First of all, we lost. Unless the defeat can be used to bash the United States like Vietnam is, defeats tend to get less play in the media. Furthermore, the territory being defended was a Dutch colony, which, since the Dutch mainland was under Nazi occupation, was effectively serving as their homeland, and thus meant much more to the Dutch than the Anglos, who found the campaign small in comparison to their overall war effort in the Pacific.
But a major reason why it has not gotten much examination is simply because of a lack of information, which is exemplified no better than in the ending of the Battle of the Java Sea. This decisive action that took over seven hours ended in what amounted to a midnight fog. The last ditch effort of the ABDA Combined Striking Force under Dutch
schout-bij-nacht (rear admiral) Karel W.F.M. Doorman, now down to only four ships, was literally torpedoed by a Japanese force under Rear Admiral Takagi Takeo just before midnight on February 27, 1942. Most histories simply state that Takagi’s cruisers
Nachi and Haguro torpedoed and sank the Dutch light cruisers De Ruyter and
Java, while Perth and Houston sped off “into the night.” They usually say “into the night,” too. That is usually where the narrative of the battle ends.
Takagi did not survive the war, losing his life on Saipan in 1944, possibly a suicide. For the Allied ships present for that late-night action, neither Karel Doorman, nor the captains of the remaining ships – Eugene E.B. Lacomblé of
De Ruyter, Hector Waller of Perth, Albert Rooks of Houston and Ph.B.M. van Straelen of
Java – nor their respective staffs would survive the following 26 hours.
The only reasonably contemporaneous after-action report and the best source for these last hours of the battle was filed by Captain Waller. But it was filed on February 28, 1942, as Perth was moored up with
Houston in Tanjoeng Priok (now Tanjung Priok), the port of Batavia (Jakarta). Waller, who due to the death of Doorman had become senior officer of the Combined Striking Force and was thus commanding both
Perth and Houston, had much more pressing responsibilities such as trying to get provisions, ammunition and fuel, and planning their escape through the Soenda (Sunda) Strait. With all this going on, it is quite understandable that Waller’s report on the battle was necessarily rushed and incomplete. Consequently, though it is the best source for the end of the battle, the report is in many instances missing information, vague and subject to varying interpretations.
The US Navy’s Office of Naval Intelligence (“ONI”) produced a narrative of the Java Sea Campaign in 1943 (“ONI Narrative”), but it was also missing crucial information. For instance – counterintuitively – the ONI report had better information on the conduct of the Dutch in this last phase of the battle than it did on the US forces, as US Navy personnel on
De Ruyter, assigned to the Dutch flagship as communications liaison, were recovered by the US submarine S-37 the day after the battle and were subsequently debriefed, while Captain Rooks and the American crewmembers of
Houston had not been fully debriefed before their ill-fated sortie into the Soenda Strait.
With so little to go on, the result has been a fuzzy narrative. When histories attempt to get into more detail about the last hours of the battle, questions, some perhaps unanswerable, emerge:
• Most of the survivors have the Allied ships operating in a column going, from front to back, De Ruyter,
Perth, Houston and Java. However, the survivors of Houston, debriefed after the war, are consistent in insisting that
Houston was immediately behind De Ruyter, with Perth somewhere behind
• Both the Allied and Japanese columns were headed north. The Japanese cruisers both used the same firing solution for their torpedoes. But the lead Japanese cruiser,
Nachi, torpedoed the last Allied cruiser, Java, while the trailing Japanese cruiser,
Haguro, torpedoed the lead Allied cruiser De Ruyter.
• Some histories have Java being torpedoed before De Ruyter; others have that order reversed.
• Perth had to take evasive action to avoid colliding with the stricken De Ruyter.
Houston then had to take evasive action to avoid Perth. The histories insist that
Perth had to swerve to port to avoid De Ruyter, while Houston swerved to starboard to avoid
De Ruyter. Yet Houston had to swerve to port to avoid Perth. This set of maneuvers is contradictory and simply does not make sense.
What I have tried to do here is reconstruct these last hours of the Battle of the Java Sea, attempting to accommodate the differing and sometimes contradictory testimonials while answering or at least addressing these lingering questions. What follows is that version of events. I am putting this out there for comment and critique. I will try to identify all the source material I can to facilitate review and see where this theory withstands scrutiny and where it may not.
This reconstruction has gone through numerous rewrites, in an effort to both present a coherent, readable story and the underlying factual support within that narrative. In the end, it became apparent that such an arrangement was too awkward and unreadable. For that reason, only the reconstruction itself is presented here in, not surprisingly, narrative form for readability purposes. The supporting evidence, or statement as to a lack thereof, is presented as endnotes. Anyone reading the narrative is encouraged to read the endnotes to determine if they agree with the conclusions.
Wherever possible, the reconstruction is based original source materials like:
• Waller’s report;
• the ONI Narrative;
• The Fleet the Gods Forgot and The Ghost That Died at Sunda Strait, both by Walter Winslow, a survivor of
• survivors of Houston quoted in Duane Schultz’s Last Battle Station;
• survivors of De Ruyter and Java quoted in J. Daniel Mullin’s Another Six Hundred and A. Kroese’s
The Dutch Navy at War.
Apparent holes are filled in with strong secondary sources such as:
• Samuel Eliot Morrison’s History of United States Naval Operations in World War II, Volume 3: The Rising Sun in the Pacific (based on US Navy records);
• Hara Tameichi’s Japanese Destroyer Captain (commanded the Japanese destroyer Amatsukaze during the battle);
• Paul Dull’s A Battle History of the Imperial Japanese Navy (1941-1945) (ranking Western review of original Japanese navy records);
• A. Kroese’s The Dutch Navy at War (commanded the Hr. Ms. Kortenaer during the battle, and was one of the last to see the four cruisers of the Combined Striking Force pass for the last time on their way to destiny);
• F.C. van Oosten’s Battle of the Java Sea and the Dr. Ph.M. Bosscher’s De Koninklijke Marine in de Tweede Wereldoorlog (both review original Dutch sources; van Oosten also reviewed Japanese sources);
• Tom Womack’s The Dutch Naval Air Force Against Japan: The Defense of the Netherlands East Indies, 1941-1942 (reviewed original Dutch naval air force and some navy records);
• John Prados’ Combined Fleet Decoded (reviewed Japanese communications in the context of the Pacific War);
• Lodwick H. Alford's Playing for Time: War on an Asiatic Fleet Destroyer;
• J. Daniel Mullin’s Another Six Hundred; and
• Australia in the War of 1939-1945, Series Two: Navy; Volume I: Royal Australian Navy 1939-1942, by G. Hermon Gill.
Also of note are websites such as:
• Hyperwar: World War II on the Worldwide Web (where the ONI Narrative and other documents are available): http://www.ibiblio.org/hyperwar/
• The Imperial Japanese Navy Page (tabular records of movement and design specs for IJN ships): www.CombinedFleet.com
• Royal Netherlands Navy Ships in World War II (histories, design specs and damage for De Ruyter and
• The Dutch East Indies Campaign 1941-42 (currently offline);
• US Asiatic Feet site (with a thorough narrative of the Java Sea campaign, “Naval Alamo” by Anthony P. Tully): http://www.asiaticfleet.com/;
• The Australian War Memorial (“AWM”): http://www.awm.gov.au/; and
• The US Naval History and Heritage Command (“USNHHC;” formerly US Naval Historical Center): http://www.history.navy.mil/index.html.
In reading this the reader will see a lot of words of ambiguity such as “probably,” “likely,” “seemingly” and “apparently.” This is because the answers to certain questions are unknown and perhaps unknowable, but such holes can perhaps be filled with deduction or at least informed speculation. Others might be filled with records which I have not yet been able to access (such as most Japanese records). Such holes can perhaps have more than one filling, and I am interested in hearing what those other possibilities might be.
So, with those disclaimers aside, please sit back, relax and enjoy the following piece of detective work about the end of the Battle of the Java Sea.
In a supreme bit of irony, the Japanese had started World War II in the Pacific by attacking Pearl Harbor thousands of miles away in order to end their war in next-door China. Their objective was to secure the so-called “Southern Resources Area” – the Netherlands East Indies, now called Indonesia – to obtain the natural resources they needed to not so much win the war in China but to end that war while saving “face.” By the end of February 1942, the Japanese were on the verge of seizing the Netherlands East Indies, with only the island of Java, the most populous island of the Indies and its commercial and political center, remaining to be conquered – and Java was cut off and ready to fall.
The Allies – the United States, Britain and the Netherlands – had always believed that defense of the Far East against the Japanese was an iffy proposition at best, but the speed of the Japanese advance was still surprising. An attempt was made to pool their slender resources available into an organization called ABDACOM – the American-British-Dutch-Australian Command. The naval component – comprised of the U.S. Asiatic Fleet, elements of the British Far Eastern Fleet, the Dutch East Indies Squadron and elements of the Royal Australian Navy operating under Royal Navy command – was known as ABDA-Float, which by mid-February 1942 was commanded by Dutch Admiral Conrad E. L. Helfrich.
A fully-integrated multinational force, like ABDACOM was then and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is today, was a relatively new-fangled thing. From its inception, ABDA-Float was crippled by three major issues:
1. Communications – Integrating sailors from four different countries and three different navies who spoke two different languages was never going to be easy. The additional pressures of a fast and relentless Japanese advance made it next to impossible.
2. A complete lack of air power – The loss of the US Far Eastern Air Force (caught on the ground and destroyed by the Japanese due to the incompetence of US General Douglas MacArthur) and the British Malaya air force crippled ABDA air efforts, denied ABDA-Float necessary air protection and hampered intelligence gathering.
3. Operational accidents and mechanical breakdowns – The speed of the Japanese advance and the lack of air protection denied ABDA-Float the necessary time and security for maintenance and repair of their ships and rest for the crews. Facilities for such maintenance and repair in the Indies were basically limited to the principal Dutch naval base at Soerabaja (Surabaya), which became a major target for Japanese air attacks, and one floating drydock at Tjilatjap (Cilacap), inconveniently located on Java’s southern coast. The results further crippled Allied efforts.
These factors would show themselves again and again.
By the end of February, ABDACOM had proven to be ineffective and was dissolved, with the remaining ABDA forces placed under Dutch command for the last ditch defense of Java. Defense was more akin to leaving one’s head in a noose, however, as by then Java had been cut off by the losses of Malaya, Singapore and Sumatra to the west, and the islands of Bali and Timor to the east.
Tactical command of the ABDA naval forces was placed in the hands of Dutch Admiral Karel Doorman. Time and again, Doorman would sortie out to challenge the Japanese advance, only to be turned back by Japanese air attacks. So often did this happen that Doorman’s courage was questioned and he was nearly relieved of duty several times. After the Battle of the Java Sea, questions about his courage seemed to vanish. Not coincidentally, so did he.
The Afternoon Action of the Battle of the Java Sea
By the last few days of February 1942, Java itself was now under imminent threat. It was do or die for the Allies. The remaining ABDA warships – heavy cruisers HMS
Exeter and USS Houston; light cruisers Hr. Ms. De Ruyter, Hr. Ms.
Java and HMAS Perth; and destroyers HMS Electra, HMS Encounter, HMS Jupiter, Hr. Ms. Kortenaer, Hr. Ms. Witte de With, USS
John D. Edwards, USS Alden, USS John D. Ford and USS Paul Jones – were combined into the appropriately-named Combined Striking Force. Doorman met with the ship captains on February 26 to plan their action, but with little time or intelligence information, only a limited amount of planning could be done. So desperate were the Allies that, in the event a ship was disabled or sunk, Doorman ordered that it was “to be left to the mercy of the enemy;” the few ships they had were too needed to fight to spare any for rescue missions.
On February 26, two Japanese invasion convoys, with warship escort, were reportedly descending on Java, one consisting of 56 transports for the western end of the island, the other of 41 transports for the eastern end. The Combined Striking Force was sent out under Admiral Doorman, with orders from Helfrich “to continue your attacks until the enemy is destroyed,” in spite of utterly inadequate intelligence, to intercept the eastern convoy. The hope was that the eastern convoy could be destroyed quickly so the Combined Striking Force could retire to Tanjoeng Priok and sortie again to destroy the western convoy. It was a desperate operational plan with little chance of success, but the Allies were long past the point of desperation.
Doorman had his force run a sweep north of Madoera island and Java during the night of the 26th and most of the 27th, found nothing, suffered yet another air attack, and radioed Helfrich that he was returning back to base on account of the exhaustion of his crews, who had apparently been constantly kept at battle stations. This prompted a rather remarkable radio exchange in which Helfrich scolded Doorman for turning back and admonished him to continue poking blindly for the convoy, and Doorman responded by telling Helfrich, obliquely and diplomatically, that if he wanted Doorman to attack the convoy then perhaps Helfrich should tell him where the convoy was.
Nevertheless, Doorman continued the search, but at 12:40 pm on the 27th reported again, “Personnel have this forenoon reached the point of exhaustion;” because of the constant danger of air and surface attack, the crews has been kept at battle stations since their sortie on the 26th. He decided to retire to Soerabaja and let the crews rest until he was given better information.
Typical of Dutch luck in the war, Doorman got the location of the convoy late in the afternoon of the 27th as his force entered the swept channel of the minefield between Java and Madoera, the northern route into Soerabaja’s harbor. He immediately turned around – in the middle of the minefield. In fact, he strayed out of the swept channel into the minefield itself. None of his ships hit any mines, but that luck with mines would reverse itself later on. Also typical of Dutch luck, Doorman’s abrupt about face was witnessed by a Japanese float plane.
Unfortunately for the Allies, the convoy had an escort. A strong one.
Two destroyer flotillas, the 4th with 6 destroyers and the light cruiser Naka under Rear Admiral Nishimura Shoji; and the 2nd with 8 destroyers under Rear Admiral Tanaka Raizo, were sandwiched around two-thirds of the Japanese 5th Cruiser Division under Rear Admiral Takagi, who served as the Japanese Officer in Tactical Command for this action.
The 5th Cruiser Division (“Sentai 5”) nominally consisted of three of the four heavy cruisers of the Myoko class –
Myoko, Nachi and Haguro. But for reasons known only to the Japanese
Myoko had been detached from Sentai 5 and attached to the fourth member of the class,
Ashigara, to serve as “distant support” for the invasion, though in Japanese nomenclature “distant support” more often than not meant “just far enough away to be of no reasonable use.” The only contribution by
Ashigara and Myoko to the campaign was to chase down the crippled
Exeter and a few cohorts. It was a stupid decision, symptomatic of the arrogance, overconfidence and sloppiness that were slowly seeping into the Japanese naval war effort, to blow up in their faces four months later at the Battle of Midway. But this campaign was too far gone for it to have much of an effect at this stage.
So Takagi had Nachi and Haguro, two modern cruisers who each had ten 8-inch guns and sixteen torpedo tubes (eight on each side) capable of firing the legendary Type 93 “Long Lance” torpedo. Takagi also had a stable of float planes on his cruisers to monitor Doorman’s movements. Doorman did not; having expected a night action, he had left his float planes ashore in keeping with Allied doctrine which regarded float planes as fire hazards in night battles.[19 The Japanese, by contrast, were aggressive and creative with the use of their float planes throughout the war. Takagi’s float planes would prove to be a significant advantage and arguably the difference in the battle.
Not that it necessarily should have been. The Allies did have their own seaplanes in the area: Consolidated PBY Catalina flying boats – all three of them – from US Patrol Wing 10. They did not exactly have Doorman on their speed-dial, however, as the Japanese float planes did Takagi. Patrol Wing 10’s reports had to be funneled through the communications center for the Soerabaja Naval District (“Naval Commander Soerabaja”).
In contrast to the modern Nachi and Haguro and the powerful Japanese Type 93 “Long Lance” torpedo, the Allied force, though the crews were brave and well-trained, was a fairly motley collection of ships:
– With six 8-inch guns in three dual turrets plus torpedo tubes, the British heavy cruiser Exeter was nominally the most heavily armed Allied cruiser on hand. Fresh off her famous defeat of the German “pocket battleship”
Admiral Graf Spee off the Rio de la Plata, Exeter’s crew was battle-tested as well. But the cruiser was a little aged, in desperate need of serious maintenance, and had serious and ongoing problems with her fire control (targeting) and the train (rotation) limits of her No. 3 (aft) turret.
Houston – Like most US cruisers, the heavy cruiser Houston was the victim of a monumentally stupid decision by the US Navy in the 1930’s to remove the torpedo tubes from its cruisers, which left them less effective against enemy ships in general and largely defenseless against battleships in particular.
Houston was ostensibly the most heavily gunned Allied cruiser, with nine 8-inch guns in three triple turrets, but her No. 3 (aft) turret had been disabled by a bomb hit three weeks earlier and could not be repaired in theater.
Java – Laid down in 1916, the light cruiser Java was designed to be more than a match for the Japanese cruisers of her time. Unfortunately, her time had come and gone before her completion in 1925, at which point she was already obsolete. By 1942, the light cruiser was arguably not fit for front-line service, but the Dutch were so hard-pressed for ships they had little choice. Though heavily modernized with new fire control, an improved anti-aircraft package and a lot of paint,
Java still suffered from the poor watertight compartmentalization suffered by the ships of her age. Additionally, while she was heavily gunned with ten 5.9-inch guns, her guns were not in armored enclosed turrets with secure access to fortified magazines, but were instead scattered in single-gun mounts across the main deck. She carried no torpedo tubes.
De Ruyter – With an intimidating tower mast and sleek lines, Karel Doorman’s light cruiser flagship was beautiful, but her beauty could not mask the fact that she had been built on the cheap and, consequently, was woefully underarmored and underarmed. While
De Ruyter did have state-of-the-art fire control and a heavy anti-aircraft package featuring five twin-barreled Bofors 40-millimeter anti-aircraft mounts, she carried no torpedo tubes and only seven 6-inch guns. Worse, for reasons known only to the Dutch, only three of those guns faced forward, meaning that most of the cruiser’s main armament faced
– Two weeks earlier, the Dutch destroyer had been slated to take part in the Allied effort to oppose the Japanese landings on Bali. However,
Kortenaer ran aground while navigating the narrow, twisting channel out of Tjilatjap and had to be left behind. The grounding caused damage to her boilers that could not be immediately repaired and limited her speed to 26 knots. By comparison, the slowest of Takagi’s ships were capable of 31 knots.
John D. Edwards, Alden, John D. Ford, Paul Jones – the four US destroyers, grouped for this action into Destroyer Squadron 58, were from the
Clemson class of “flush deckers” from the period just after World War I. The “four pipers” or “four stackers” (so called because of their four smokestacks) were underarmored and undergunned, but contained a powerful battery of 12 torpedo tubes each (six on each side), which the Allies desperately needed right now. The ships were in bad shape, in serious need of maintenance, and suffered from old machinery, leaky feed-water pipes and biofouled bottoms that limited their speeds to 26 knots.
But this was the best the ABDA navies could do. Fourteen ships – mostly old, worn and battered – from four different countries and three different navies speaking two different languages. Crews eager to dish out some of what they had been taking, but pushed beyond the point of physical and mental exhaustion. No chance to train together. No chance to develop a common communications system. Not nearly enough time or intelligence information to develop anything but the most rudimentary battle plan. No accurate intelligence. No air cover whatsoever. If Doorman was to successfully carry out his orders, he would have to make it up as he went along.
The afternoon battle.
A fully detailed account of the afternoon action in the Java Sea is outside the scope of this work. But a brief description of the battle is necessary to understand the setting of its final hours.
Doorman’s general plan, it seems, was to keep the Combined Striking Force between the Japanese and the Java coast, while making periodic thrusts north to try to catch the convoy. The Japanese intent was both to protect the convoy, using its warships as a screen, and neutralize the remaining ABDA naval assets.
Informed of Doorman’s turnabout, Takagi raced to cut off the Allied approach to the invasion convoy. Takagi was a submariner by training and it showed in his conduct in this battle. Takagi and his staff also seem to have been unusually nervous by normal Japanese or combat officer standards, and seemed aghast that their wartime enemies were actually shooting at them. Hara Tameichi, who commanded the Japanese destroyer
Amatsukaze during the battle, wrote his memoirs Japanese Destroyer Captain after the war. His portrayal of Takagi therein is unflattering: an arrogant, cocky and haughty commander. Takagi grumbled at being forced to intercept Doorman, as in his wisdom he had been “escorting” the convoy from 200 miles behind them. Takagi had to race to catch up and got to the battlefield just as both sides sighted each other.
Nevertheless, Takagi managed to block the Combined Striking Force’s initial approach to the convoy. Forced by communication issues to keep his cruisers in a column, Doorman thrust blindly northwest, amazingly enough in the direction of the convoy. With only the 8-inch guns of
Exeter and Houston possessing the necessary range, the Allies engaged the Japanese in a long-range but ineffectual gun duel. Doorman attempted to close the range to enable his light cruisers to engage. But Takagi threatened to “cross the T” of the ABDA column. Doorman was thus forced to turn and close at a much slower pace to attempt to bring his 6-inch guns into range.
With the severe communication issues, Doorman had little choice but to give the Allied ships his famous order “Follow me,” and have them follow him like insect segments from the video game
Centipede. And like the video game Centipede, these segments were picked off one by one:
Exeter – An 8-inch shell from Haguro crashed through a gun mount and exploded in a boiler, knocking 5 of her 6 boilers off line and reducing her speed to between 5 and 10 knots. Spewing forth white steam from her damaged boilers,
Exeter sheered out of column so Houston behind her would not plow into her stern. But the steam obscured the leading
De Ruyter from the remainder of the column, who thought they had missed an order to immediately turn, and they turned out of column just as Exeter had done, throwing the Combined Striking Force into confusion. Ultimately,
Exeter was ordered to retire to Soerabaja.
Kortenaer – The Allied cruisers were thrown into confusion in the path of oncoming Japanese torpedoes. While a number of the torpedoes exploded prematurely, one – also from the
Haguro – struck Lieutenant Commander A. Kroese’s Kortenaer amidships. Her back broken, the destroyer jack-knifed, capsized and sank in a matter of minutes. Not comprehending the torpedoes in their midst had come from the Japanese ships – the Allies had no idea of the extreme range of the Type 93; every Japanese cruiser and destroyer carried torpedoes, and most, also unbeknownst to the Allies, even carried one set of reloads – the Allied crews were convinced they had been ambushed by Japanese submarines.
Electra – To protect Exeter, Doorman signaled “Counterattack” to the British destroyers. While too scattered to mount a coordinated torpedo attack,
Electra, Encounter and Jupiter moved to protect Exeter, supported by Witte de With.
Electra, having just laid a smoke screen for Exeter, now charged into that smoke screen – and came out on the other side to face the entire Japanese 2nd Destroyer flotilla and part of the 4th. Though she managed to temporarily disable the destroyer
Asagumo, Electra’s engines were knocked out by an early hit and her guns were picked off one by one, with
Jintsu administering particular torment. She would succumb to the pounding.
Witte de With – While charging to support the British destroyers, Witte de With was taking the opportunity to drop depth charges on the supposed Japanese submarines. During high-speed maneuvering, one of the readied depth charges was swept overboard and detonated under the destroyer’s stern, damaging her propellers and knocking out two electrical generators. Whether
Witte de With was battle-worthy or sea-worthy after this incident is unclear. She was ordered to escort
Exeter to Soerabaja, where she entered drydock, but was not repaired before the Dutch had to abandon the port and consequently was scuttled.
John D. Edwards, Alden, John D. Ford, Paul Jones – With darkness approaching, Doorman was eager to shake the Japanese escorts and find the convoy. Apparently Doorman took his orders literally and did not consider that by destroying enough of the escorts he could force the convoy to turn back, a sign of Doorman’s relative inexperience, which he shared with most American commanders at this stage of the war. After a confusing series of orders and countermands, Doorman ordered US Destroyer Squadron 58 to “cover my retirement.” DesRon 58 Commander Thomas Binford had no idea what that meant, but with his fuel running dangerously low and not wanting to return to base without firing his torpedoes in anger, he launched a long-range torpedo attack that forced the Japanese to turn away. No hits were scored; whether this was because of the range, Japanese evasion or the almost complete ineffectiveness of US torpedoes is unclear. As it turns out, Binford did exactly what Doorman had wanted and left the Dutch admiral impressed with Binford’s work.
Thus temporarily freed from the engagement, Doorman thrust to the north at dusk before giving up, again typical of Dutch luck, when he was only 20 miles away from the convoy – just over the horizon to the northwest. The US destroyers followed Doorman southward until the Allied column reached the Java coast, then with fuel almost gone, returned to Soerabaja.
It is at this perhaps unusual point that our story begins in earnest, for it is here that one can begin the identification of a subtle but conspicuously missing thread of the last hours of the battle – recorded communications. And it begins with what is probably one of the most freakish incidents of the war.
The loss of Jupiter
Doorman’s turn to the south when, unbeknownst to him, his objective was only 20 miles away was the result of his complete lack of intelligence as to the Japanese movements and dispositions. Doorman had an unfortunate habit of keeping his plans to himself, so it is not possible to know for certain what he was thinking. But if the information and considerations Doorman had are examined, it is possible to assemble a likely scenario of what the unfortunate Dutch admiral was attempting to do during these last hours of his life.
In turning to the south, Doorman had likely despaired of finding the convoy by poking blindly, randomly in the dark in the middle of the Java Sea. He does appear to have developed a better idea: go to the convoy’s landing site and work back along their projected course track.
And Allied intelligence had a prediction of the convoy’s landing site: Toeban (Tuban) Bay, on Java’s northern coast about 50 miles west of the channel to Soerabaja. To prepare for the predicted landing, a Dutch infantry contingent had been stationed at Toeban, and Admiral Helfrich had ordered the minelayer
Gouden Leeuw to lay a minefield at the southern end of the bay. Doorman was informed of these developments.
That the prediction of the Japanese convoy landing at Toeban was little more than an educated guess mattered little. It was not necessarily good information, but it was the best the Allies had, the best Doorman had, and so his best remaining option was to act on it. The placement of the infantry would prove to be fortuitous, though not for reasons the Dutch had been considering; the minefield not so much.
When the Allied column reached the Java coast after dark, Doorman had them turn westward heading for Toeban, hugging the coast in the hopes of evading the notice of the Japanese while staying positioned between the Japanese and the coast. It was a futile effort; Japanese float planes shadowed the Combined Striking Force in the moonlight. At least by heading to the Japanese landing site the Allies had partially nullified the advantage given by the float planes; if the convoy was headed to Toeban it had only a limited number of maneuvers it could make. But the float planes did mean there would be a fight. So persistent were the float planes that the normally calm, stoic Doorman cursed them softly under his breath.
By this time, the Combined Striking Force had been reduced to a column led by De Ruyter, followed by
Perth, Houston, Java and Jupiter. Encounter was still operational and was trying to catch up to the cruiser column after being separated while screening
Exeter, but she was well out of sight and so far behind that she was of little tactical use.
Together this little column steamed along close to the Java coast, too close for Captain Rooks of
Houston. Being the heaviest remaining ship and the only heavy cruiser left,
Houston had a deeper draught than the other ships. Captain Rooks grew concerned that the water was too shallow for
Houston and swung the heavy cruiser out of column onto an offset course – parallel to that of the other four squadron mates. It may have saved his ship.
At around 9:00 pm, as the Allied column passed north of Toeban Bay, Jupiter, last in the column, suffered an underwater explosion on her starboard side that wrecked her No. 2 engine room and caused her to lose all power. She blinkered a signal to
Java ahead of “Jupiter torpedoed,” presumably by a Japanese submarine. Doorman apparently checked on the big British destroyer, but with no power to pump out the water pouring into her hull or to even move, her wound was mortal. Fortunately,
Jupiter was disabled so close to the Java coast that almost her entire crew was rescued from drowning, helped by the presence of the Dutch army contingent. Either seeing or otherwise being convinced that the destroyer was close enough to shore to save most of the crew, Doorman continued onward to the west.
Jupiter sank at 1:30 the next morning.
The cause of Jupiter’s loss has never been conclusively determined. Japanese records examined postwar showed no submarine in the area. The most recent scholarship strongly suggests that Jupiter was the victim of a discarded Dutch mine:
Gouden Leeuw never laid the minefield in the southern end of Toeban Bay as ordered, but en route instead just dumped the mines, only a few of which were active, well north of their assigned position.
Thus, it appears that, again, typical of Dutch luck and reversing Doorman’s luck with mines earlier, the Combined Striking Force just happened to sail through a patch of mines, only a few of which were armed, that had been unceremoniously dumped. And one of those few that were armed just happened to strike a fatal blow against the big, new, overstrength British destroyer
Jupiter. If this scenario is correct, it would be one of the most freakish accidents of the war.
The question of how Jupiter was sunk is only the most prominent of the questions about this incident, but there are others. How was Admiral Doorman informed of Jupiter’s plight? How was he able to check on her condition? There are several plausible scenarios, but none of the available battle reports or survivors’ accounts even hint at a definitive solution.
By most standards, this issue would seem trivial, and understandably so. Normally. Clearly, Doorman was informed of the situation. Clearly he was able to check on it. But how is not recorded. The communications to him and from him are not recorded.
This is an issue that repeats itself throughout these last hours of the Combined Striking Force: communications that obviously took place, but the record makes no mention of them. They are most clearly shown in next incident.
Passing the Kortenaer and the “Magnificent” Dash
Having passed Toeban Bay and not found the Japanese convoy, Doorman proceeded to work his way back along the convoy’s projected route.
De Ruyter led the column on a starboard turn to the north on a base course 0 degrees True. Doorman had the column run at very high speed and, without orders, zig zag slightly. This was a tactic normally used to throw off submarine firing solutions, though at the expense of staying in the vicinity of the submarine. In this case, Doorman probably wanted to confuse the trailing Japanese float planes as well. In this, once again, he failed. The planes continued to spy on the Allied cruisers, dropping magnesium flares attached to little parachutes to backlight the cruisers themselves, and calcium float lights that burned on water to mark their course.
This northward thrust had them cross the area of the afternoon action, and pass the survivors of the sunken destroyer
Kortenaer, still trying to survive on the sea. Kortenaer’s skipper A. Kroese, in his book
The Dutch Navy at War, relates the experience of one of these survivors:
About midnight we heard the sound of movement on the water. We looked up and suddenly we saw, clearly outlined in the moonlight, the shape of ships making straight for us. Would we be picked up? The ships loomed nearer, obviously going at top speed. Soon we saw the rising water foaming at the bows. Still they continued on their course directly towards us. But this was getting dangerous! These were not rescuers, but monsters which threatened to destroy us. They were going to run us down in their mad career and crush us in their furiously churning propellers.
We yelled like madmen, not to be picked up but to warn them off. And then suddenly we saw that they were our own cruisers racing along in the moonlit tropical night. Probably they saw us, too, for the leading
De Ruyter changed course slightly. As they charged past us, almost touching us, the rafts were turned over and over in the wash. But we cheered and shouted, for there high on the gun turrets we could clearly see our comrades. In the noise and turmoil they raced past – the Dutchman, the Australian, the American, and last another Dutchman, four cruisers going at top speed under a tropical moon. I did not know that it could be such an impressive spectacle. While they were speeding past, some Americans on the
Houston’s stern dropped a flare. It floated on the water, a dancing flame on the sea. We followed the ships with our eyes until they were out of sight. They had no destroyer protection any longer and their course was north towards the enemy. Had Rear Admiral Doorman from his bridge on the flagship looked down on us with his quiet smile and given us a sympathetic thought? “This is the last time we have seen them,” said one of the officers of the
Kortenaer as the ships faded from sight. “I hope they smash the ribs of the Japs before they go down themselves,” said a sergeant vindictively, and from the bottom of his heart, added “The bastards!”
All was quiet again around us. Near us danced the flare. We couldn’t take our eyes off it, for it was like a flame of hope. Slowly the hours passed. Then another ship appeared above [sic] the horizon. First we saw it from the beam. Suddenly the vessel changed course and came straight for us. It was some lonely destroyer or small cruiser, seeming a straggler in this sea full of action. Perhaps it was a Jap that had been damaged and was now withdrawing from the scene of battle. We had not been in the water long enough in sea to appreciate being picked up by the enemy to be made prisoners of war. Intently and suspiciously, we watched the approaching ship. “An English destroyer,” shouted one of the officers. “It’s the
Encounter,” shouted another. We all stared silently, then a shout of relief and joy broke out. It was the
Encounter! It almost seemed as if the flare from the Houston shared our joy and danced with pleasure, too. Cleverly, the Commander of the
Encounter maneuvered his ship alongside the rafts. Nets were dropped, and all who could climb swarmed monkey-like up the ropes. The wounded and those who were too weak had to be hauled aboard. When we all had the firm deck of the destroyer under us, our hearts overflowed with gratitude. We could have hugged the British sailors, but even if that’s what you are feeling, you can’t just show it. You give your rescuers a firm hand-shake, and let them see that you appreciate very much the glass of grog they give you and the warm, dry clothes they provide from their own scanty wardrobes.
“Bad luck!” said the British sailors, shaking their heads because we had lost our ship. Poor fellows! The next night
Encounter went down and there were no Allied ships left to pick up her survivors.
The next morning, February 28, Encounter disembarked us in Soerabaja. A Dutch patrol boat brought us to shore .....
This would be the last time anyone would see the Combined Striking Force before its final battle.
This rather simple-sounding incident has its own murkiness, encapsulated by one deceptively simple question: Who ordered
Encounter to rescue the survivors of Kortenaer?
The sources disagree on the answer to this simple question. Some, mainly Anglo, sources say that
Perth’s Captain Waller ordered Encounter to pick up the survivors. Other, mainly Dutch sources, assert that it was Admiral Doorman. The ONI Narrative sidesteps the issue by using the passive voice, stating
Encounter “was ordered” to pick them up. Hornfischer’s work says Encounter “stopped” to pick them up but adds “on whose authority is unclear.”
This incident highlights the further deterioration of already tenuous communications within the Combined Striking Force, but also shows that much of what communication there was, was not recorded.
At some point during the evening, the voice radio used on De Ruyter for communication with the other ships in the task force – a very high frequency, short-to-medium range device known as “Talk Between Ships” or “TBS” – went out.[47 An identical Dutch TBS radio installed on Houston to streamline communications went off-line as well. The cause of these radio malfunctions, which was common in this early part of the Pacific War, was the same – the concussion caused by the firing of the main guns. The Battle of the Java Sea was the first action in which
De Ruyter and Houston had fired their main armaments for extended periods, and the vibrations they caused threw off the delicate settings of the radios.
And that was by no means the end of De Ruyter’s communications problems. During the afternoon action, Doorman had frequently given orders by flags run up the cruiser’s mast – his famous command “Follow Me” was often in the form of a flag. But it was almost impossible to see flags at night. Signal by semaphore was similarly useless. A favorite method of communications at night involved the use of mounted blinker lights. Unfortunately, the same gun concussions that had knocked out
De Ruyter’s TBS radio had also shattered her mounted blinker lights.
De Ruyter’s massive searchlights, which could have been similarly used, were similarly shattered by the concussions. The only method left to Doorman for communicating with his force was by use of a small, hand-held blinker lamp, known as an “Aldis lamp,” flashing signals in plain English.
What seems to have happened is that Doorman, because he had no voice radio, signaled Perth to use her radio to have
Kortenaer’s survivors picked up. Doorman had the authority to order the survivors picked up, but not the means. Waller had the means to order the survivors picked up, but not the authority. Doorman’s signal may have gone straight to Perth’s radio room, without Waller being made aware of it. What is known for certain is a TBS message to that effect was sent out by
Perth shortly thereafter. Encounter picked up the message and acted on it.
Houston had apparently also been informed that the survivors were to be picked up and tossed out a “light” or, as other translations call it, a “flare.” The latter would probably be a calcium floatlight that burned on the water, similar to what the Japanese were using to track the Allied column; the former likely a small lighted buoy.
Houston’s intent here was to mark the position and make it easier to find in the darkness.
By now, the Japanese floatplanes had been forced to retire for lack of fuel, so now Takagi’s advantage of knowing Doorman’s movements was gone. The Combined Striking Force and the Japanese were now equally blind as to each other’s movements. The Allies could have even had an advantage here as P-5, a Catalina with the US Patrol Wing 10, was aloft that night, and did spot the Japanese convoy in the moonlight. P-5 transmitted the convoy’s position to Naval Commander Soerabaja and continued to shadow it, but could Naval Commander Soerabaja get that information to Doorman in time?
Indeed, even with both forces “equally” blind, Doorman had a small advantage, if only he had realized it. Takagi knew the Allies’ last course, courtesy of his float planes. A radical change of course after the withdrawal of the float planes might have left the cocky Takagi fumbling to find the Allied cruisers once again. But without knowledge of the convoy’s location, such a move would have been a dicey proposition.
And so, in desperation, having passed Toeban Bay, Doorman made his last dash north to find the convoy, hoping he had outflanked them to the west. “He had no idea how close he came in this last magnificent attempt.” So says the ONI Narrative, adding a small bit of hyperbole to an otherwise dry missive. But it is not out of place. With four ships, dead tired, low on ammunition and outnumbered, Doorman’s attempt to strike the convoy was the naval version of Thermopylae, if ultimately less successful.
As now the final chapter began at 11:15 pm, when De Ruyter signaled to Perth behind her, “Target at port. Four points.” The Dutch cruiser’s lookouts had sighted
Nachi and Haguro in the moonlight, 45 degrees off the port bow at a distance of about 9,000 yards.
A Running Gun Battle
It is at this point that the reports and other evidence become much more ambiguous or even contradictory. No one agrees on when events took place in relation to other events or in some cases whether those events occurred at all. This is understandable, for much of the evidence for this last phase of the battle consists of eyewitness testimony, normally the least reliable form of evidence in the best of times, and notoriously unreliable in times of extreme stress, for which the Battle of the Java Sea certainly qualifies. Perceptions of time suffer especially in such situations. As such, it is literally impossible to give complete effect to all of reports and testimony.
Presumably for that reason, most histories have only given a quick or general description of the last encounter between the ABDA Combined Striking Force and the Japanese Sentai 5. Here I will try to give as many specifics as possible and try to fill the remaining holes (for there are holes), with deduction, educated guesses and, (hopefully only) when all other options fail, informed speculation, while trying to give as much effect to the as many of the available reports as possible.
For much of the war, the specially-trained and equipped Japanese lookouts, who used oversized and polarized binoculars, would outperform even American radar. Here, where neither the Americans nor their allies had radar, the Japanese had already spotted the cruiser column at 11:03 pm at 16,000 yards. Sentai 5 was in column on a course 180 degrees True – due south. Some sources indicate the Japanese had taken the Combined Striking Force under fire even before
De Ruyter spotted the cruisers, but if so the fire was completely ineffective, as the Allied reports do not even mention it.
The situation for the Japanese appears to have been trickier than is generally recognized. Tanaka, whose 2nd Destroyer Flotilla had been screening the convoy to the west northwest, ordered a course reversal to a northeasterly heading, keeping his squadron between the Allies and the convoy. According to Hara, Takagi, still headed due south, ordered Sentai 5 to slow down so he could develop a good firing angle for his torpedoes. The secondary battery (5-inch) of
Houston fired starshells at a range of 10,000 yards. Starshells – illumination rounds – are intended to reveal a target by backlighting it, but in order to silhouette a target starshells need to burst behind it.
Houston’s starshells fell short. The American cruiser fired two more salvoes of illumination rounds, this time at a range of 14,000 yards. These, too, fell short. The Japanese fired illumination rounds of their own. These fell short as well, but the Allies’ terrible luck held: the glare of the Japanese starshells concealed
Nachi and Haguro behind them, basically blinding the Allied gunners.
Takagi may have intended to launch torpedoes at this point, because he would have had a good firing solution for his Long Lances, but he did not for reasons that remain vague. He may have underestimated the Allied column’s speed or, more likely, he was concerned that a torpedo launch might move his cruisers out of position blocking the convoy and allow Doorman to get behind him. As it was, Doorman was able to get slightly north of the Takagi’s cruisers by perhaps a little more than one mile – not enough to make a difference.
Nachi and Haguro turned to starboard, poured on speed, and spent the next twenty minutes trying to close the range with the Combined Striking Force.
What followed next was the naval equivalent of two exhausted football teams fighting it out in a sudden death overtime of the most literal kind – a slow exchange of fire as the Japanese labored to close the range.
Java kept her guns trained on the Japanese, but since she was outranged – again – she did not fire. Houston ahead of her was down to less than 300 rounds of 8-inch ammunition – 50 per functional gun – a fact which, due to Houston’s lack of a functioning TBS radio, had to be relayed to Doorman by
Perth. In response Doorman ordered Houston not to fire unless she could be certain of a hit. In the action she fired once.
So this last confrontation was between the 8-inch Japanese heavy cruisers Nachi and Haguro and the 6-inch Allied light cruisers
De Ruyter and Java. Not an even match. As it had been through the day, Japanese gunfire was tightly spaced and accurate.
Houston was dangerously straddled. One shell came so close to De Ruyter that the other ships thought she had been hit on her quarterdeck, but Dutch accounts make no mention of such a hit.
The exchange of gunfire, a violent contrast to the peaceful, even romantic backdrop of the bright moon and stars, was slow and sporadic, a result of the dwindling supply of ammunition and the crews’ exhaustion. By this time, the battle had taken seven hours and both sides were extremely tired, the Allies much moreso for having been at battle stations 24 hours beforehand. Having to work the manual labor part of the battle, the gun crews on both sides had had an especially tiring day.
So it is not surprising that the exchange of fire here was slow. So slow was the exchange that it took a moment to register when the Japanese actually stopped firing.
Now why would they do that?
Karel Doorman knew why – the Japanese had launched torpedoes.
The Line Turn
Japanese tactical doctrine called for an ambush of enemy forces in a night attack using torpedoes before opening gunfire.
Nihon Kaigun used this doctrine very effectively during the war in places such as Savo Island and Tassafaronga. But the doctrine depends on the element of surprise, meaning you are not supposed to tip off the enemy that you are launching torpedoes – which is precisely what Takagi did by ceasing fire.
Thus informed, Doorman did exactly what he was supposed to do: ordered an immediate 90-degree turn to starboard in an attempt to comb the torpedoes – that is, turn to a course parallel to that of the torpedoes to present a narrow stern (preferably) or bow profile (as opposed to a wide beam profile) and thus minimizing the chances of a hit. Because each ship was to turn as fast as possible, the result would be a breaking of the column and would result instead in a line of ships four abreast headed east – what is sometimes called a “line turn,” a “simultaneous turn” or an “echelon turn.” Waller does not record whether such an order was flashed back to
Perth, but he did not need the order: the wily veteran had figured out what was going on and ordered
Perth into an immediate 90-degree turn to starboard, conforming to De Ruyter’s turn and leaving Perth behind and somewhat to starboard of the flagship.
One way or another, word was passed back to Houston, who began her own 90-turn to starboard. Word reached
Java, 900 yards astern of Houston. Java began her turn …
But Java would never finish her turn. Time had run out.
At 11:32 pm, while early in her turn, Java suffered an underwater explosion port side aft, the end result of one of eight torpedoes fired ten minutes earlier by
Nachi. Now the cows of Java’s aged design – poor internal compartmentalization, obsolete gun layout – would come home to roost.
“Almost simultaneous” with the first explosion came a second. This blast was not so much larger than the first as it was cataclysmic, sending a huge fireball into the night sky. Horrified lookouts on
Houston saw “bodies flying through the air, silhouetted by flames, the water burning.” The blast was actually felt by crewman aboard
Perth. And in a mass of smoke and fire, the stern of Java disappeared.
Literally. When the smoke cleared enough to see, Java now ended in an abruptly blazing, “jagged,” “tangled mess.”
Nachi’s torpedo had caused Java’s aft magazine, not nearly as well protected as those of her more modern brethren, to explode, blowing off some 100 feet of the cruiser’s stern.
There was no hope for the ship; the truncated stern section could not be sealed off and the engine room was flooding. Captain van Straelen gave the order to abandon ship, but
Java was settling so rapidly there was no time to launch the lifeboats. The fire had also consumed most of
Java’s life vests. Crewmen tossed anything overboard that might float and then jumped after them. Less than fifteen minutes after the devastating torpedo hit, the bow of
Java reared up and the shattered stern led the rest of the ship to the depths. Out of a crew of 528, only nineteen survived.
One can only wonder at the thoughts of Admiral Doorman, helplessly watching the fiery end of this old cruiser that had served under him for so many years. Karel Doorman cared deeply for the men under his command, whether they were Dutch or Anglo. He took every precaution to protect them, did everything he could to make sure that his men were not sacrificed for nothing, so much so that he was branded a coward. So much so that even after he ordered survivors of sunk or disabled ships to be left “to the mercy of the enemy” he avoided doing so when he could – screening the staggering
Exeter and giving her an escort home, checking to make sure the crew of the dying
Jupiter was going to be okay, and even giving up his last, badly-needed destroyer,
Encounter, to pick up the half-drowned survivors of Kortenaer. Every casualty had to affect him deeply.
For the mortified crewmen of Houston, their horror was mixed with a sense of bewilderment. Captain Rooks had to maneuver the ship to avoid torpedoes “that zipped past us 10 feet on either side.” But where had they come from? They were still unaware of the range and capabilities of the Japanese Type 93 torpedo, and
Nachi and Haguro had disappeared into a rain squall. A number of the crew believed they had run into a submarine ambush.
In watching the end of Java, the one thought that had to run through their minds was “There but for the grace of God go we.”
Houston’s own No. 3 turret had been disabled by a bomb hit three weeks earlier that had also killed 50 men, a fact not lost on Admiral Doorman and the big reason he was reluctant to sortie under threat of air attack. The bomb had started a fire in the turret that nearly reached the No. 3 magazine beneath it. If it had done so,
Houston’s stern would likely have been blown off and she would have suffered a fate similar to that of
Java. As it was, she was lucky to escape with only a gutted, useless turret.
So the men aboard Houston could be forgiven for being transfixed on the catastrophe behind them, so much so that they were in danger of missing the catastrophe unfolding in front of them.
A Turn Too Far
While the loss of Java was devastating, it could have been a lot worse. Doorman guessing what the cessation of Japanese gunfire meant and acting quickly on that guess with the 90-degree starboard turn had likely saved his other three ships. His northward column was now a narrow right echelon formation –
De Ruyter in front, with Perth behind her and to starboard, and Houston behind Perth and further to starboard – headed east. He decided it was time to reform the column.
As he had twice earlier in the day, Doorman would reform the column by having his flagship basically circle his remaining ships so they could fall in behind him.
De Ruyter would turn to starboard and cross the bow of Perth, after which
Perth would turn to starboard and fall in behind. Then both ships would cross in front of
Houston, who would then fall in behind Perth. To that end, Doorman ordered De Ruyter to make a further turn to starboard, either in a continuation of the original turn or as the start of a new turn.
Because this turn would take De Ruyter across the track the Japanese torpedoes had followed, Doorman must have been convinced that the threat of the Japanese torpedoes had passed. Possibly his staff had made calculations based on the estimated firing time and torpedo track. More likely,
De Ruyter’s lookouts had seen torpedoes pass by; as it was, Houston had watched torpedoes bracket the US cruiser. Doorman clearly believed the torpedoes had passed. And, indeed, those remaining from
Nachi had actually passed the column and were churning away from the action.
So De Ruyter turned to the southeast, her forward guns swinging around to starboard to remain trained on the Japanese cruisers, apparently convinced the immediate danger had ended.
Which is why there was surprise and extreme consternation on the bridge of De Ruyter when a telegrapher spotted wakes approaching from relative bearing 135 degrees.
“What is that!?!?” The response from Admiral Doorman was calm and matter-of-fact.
“Oh, that? That’s a torpedo …”
The flagship was still turning to starboard when a Type 93 lanced into the starboard side aft, near her reduction gearing. A member of the Dutch Marine Corps remembered, “It was like the ship was lifted from the water; all lights went out, we were listing heavily and fire broke out on the AA-deck…”
De Ruyter was the victim of something of a freak hit. She had been the victim of one of four torpedoes fired by
Haguro. Haguro had fired her spread at 11:23 pm, one minute after
Nachi. That one-minute differential had allowed Haguro, running at high speed, to overtake
Nachi’s original firing position and maybe to even apparently pass it. As a result,
Haguro’s torpedoes had overlapped with Nachi’s torpedo track. Doorman’s quick action to reform the column was too quick, as he had unknowingly led his flagship right into the path of
Haguro’s deadly fish. Whether the one-minute differential was intentional is a mystery.
But the result was not. Haguro’s torpedo does not seem to have been immediately fatal to the positive buoyancy of
De Ruyter, but it might as well have been. As noted earlier, the cruiser lost power, because the hit had knocked out the turbines. The explosion started a fire that spread with extraordinary speed, and within minutes everything aft of the catapult was an inferno. Why the fire spread so quickly is unclear. What is known is that one of the ship’s oil tanks had ruptured and probably leaked flammable bunker fuel both inside and outside the ship. The antiaircraft deck was also rapidly succumbing to the spread of the fire. There the fire was especially dangerous, as it contained the five twin-barreled 40-mm Bofors antiaircraft mounts – and ready lockers full of 40-mm ammunition, which presently began to explode with devastating effect. Walter Winslow remembered, “[A]mmunition, detonated by the intense heat, sent white-hot fragments flying into the night sky like demonic fireworks.”
The cruiser’s damage control teams went to work and may have kept it from immediately sinking, but the damage to the generators, now engulfed in flames, meant no power for water pumps for firefighting or reversing the flooding.
De Ruyter was in a fatal conundrum – you could not put out the fire without restoring power, yet you could not restore power without putting out the fire. The ship was doomed.
As if to emphasize the point, the fire on the antiaircraft deck reached the cruiser’s pyrotechnics locker, and flares, signal rockets and starshells shot into the sky in a ghoulish fireworks display.
The order to abandon ship was given. Captain Lacomblé lamented, “Now it’s all over ...”
But it was not over, not yet, for Perth and Houston. How long it remained that way this night remained to be seen, for
De Ruyter had been crossing in front of the two cruisers, cutting it rather close, in an attempt to reform the column. When the flagship lost power she staggered to a halt – right in the path of the speeding Anglo cruisers.
For Captain Rooks of Houston, aft of and starboard of Perth, the decision was easy.
Houston turned to starboard and came within 100 yards of the stricken flagship’s starboard side and bow before heading off to the southeast.
With the Dutch flagship’s bow pointed to the southeast, away from both Anglo cruisers, a starboard turn would have been the preferred choice for
Perth’s Captain Waller … but for the presence of Houston. A starboard turn by
Perth would have sharpened Houston’s starboard turn, and given both cruisers’ high rate of speed would have almost guaranteed a very damaging collision for the only remaining operational Allied ships in the Java Sea.
The only other option available to avoid shearing off De Ruyter’s blazing stern, which was pointed northwest toward Perth, was a very, very sharp port turn. Waller had to shut down one of his port engines to enable his starboard engines torsion to swing the ship’s bow over further to port.[98 Perth came so close to De Ruyter as to feel the heat of the flames and “smell burning paint and a horrible stink like burning bodies.” But she managed to clear the Dutch cruiser’s stern and head northeast. This desperate swerve may have had an interesting consequence.
On the cruisers of Sentai 5, now northwest of the remnants of the Combined Striking Force, the crews were able to see the explosions of De Ruyter and Java through the rain, and filled the drizzly air with dancing and shouts of “Banzai!” Admiral Takagi determined the Dutch cruisers to be finished. Hoping to finish off the Allied ships, Takagi had
Nachi and Haguro dash in what he thought was pursuit – to the northeast. Hara called it Takagi’s last mistake of the battle. Why he chose northeast has never been determined; it seems
Nachi may have seen Perth, backlit by the burning De Ruyter, in her port swerve to the northeast and may have followed.
But Captain Waller had no intention of continuing to the northeast. He had Perth reverse course, likely to port to keep from being silhouetted again, and head toward the stricken flagship, slowing down slightly. One may speculate here that
Houston, already headed southeast, also slowed down and probably turned to port. Both Waller and Rooks wanted to check on the status of the obviously troubled
De Ruyter and find out what Doorman wanted to do. Doorman had given orders that disabled ships and surviving crews were to be left “to the mercy of the enemy.” But now it was he who would be left behind, who needed saving. Would he change his orders now?
An Aldis lamp on De Ruyter flashed their answer – “Proceed to Batavia. Do not stop to attempt rescue of us.”
While the use of the Aldis lamp requires brevity – “grim and to the point” was how one historian described this message – neither the format nor his innate stoicism could take away from the meaning of this last order of Rear Admiral Karel Doorman, and it has not gotten the attention it deserves.
In movies, it is almost cliché for a soldier to give his life for his comrades, even to shout at them, “Forget about me! Save yourselves!” Yet this was one real-life case where it actually happened. A commanding officer, no less. A commanding officer whose courage had been questioned and ridiculed, telling the remaining ships under his command to leave him behind and save themselves – ships that were not even of his country and whose crews had been among those who had criticized him. Not only did he tell them to save themselves, he
ordered them to do so, giving them legal cover for doing so and hopefully sparing Captain Waller any feelings of guilt for seemingly having abandoned the cruiser’s survivors. Whatever the faults of Karel Doorman, he deserves hero status for this one selfless act.
The nobility of the gesture was certainly not lost on Captain Waller, but he had other issues to worry about. Captain Waller says that at this point as senior surviving officer he “took
Houston under [his] orders,” but exactly what this means is unclear. He probably signaled
Houston to continue heading southeast and Perth would catch up. At around midnight,
Perth caught up to her American brethren, but in a fashion much more dramatic than anyone would have preferred.
Houston was speeding to the southeast towards Soerabaja when her lookouts thought they spotted torpedoes – it bears remembering here that all day the crews, not knowing the capabilities of the Japanese Type 93 torpedo, had thought they were being stalked by submarines, who in their minds had claimed
Kortenaer, Jupiter and now Java and De Ruyter. Now here were more, or so it seemed.
Captain Rooks ordered a hard turn to starboard to avoid the torpedoes – except there were no torpedoes and
Perth was trying to pass the American cruiser to starboard to take the lead position in this now two-ship column. Captain Waller’s difficult turn to avoid
De Ruyter and Houston would have been for naught but for a member of
Houston’s bridge crew, who literally pushed the helmsman aside, seized the wheel and swung it to port. Collision was avoided by 25 yards.
Captains Waller and Rooks took the opportunity of this meeting to discuss their options. Waller recommended they head to Batavia at 20 knots; Rooks countered that they should head there at 30 knots.
And so, as the history books claim, Perth and Houston sped off “into the night” and their own date with destiny and legend, leaving behind the blazing hulk of
De Ruyter. Before Houston lost sight of the Dutch flagship over the horizon, her lookouts had counted nine separate explosions.
At about this time, to add insult to grievous injury, Naval Commander Soerabaja sent out the following signal:
Convoy concentrated to 39 transports in two column, 1500 yards between columns, course north, speed ten. 3 destroyers in column right flank, 1000 yards. 1 cruiser, 2 destroyers in column left flank 1000 yards. 2 cruisers and six destroyers concentrating on convoy at high speed positions probably, Lat 05-36S, Long 112-46E/0227 1842.
The irony is worthy of Alannis Morrisette. The information the Combined Striking Force had been waiting for all day and night was finally available – 20 minutes too late. Now the Combined Striking Force was in no shape to act on it. What would have been precious news was now useless to the beleaguered Admiral Doorman.
Now the Dutch admiral could only oversee the evacuation of the glowing blast furnace that his flagship had become. Amidst the continuing explosions and with the power out, lowering lifeboats and other life preserving equipment was next to impossible. Nevertheless, Doorman could be seen assisting the wounded and giving encouragement to his crew. Not all of the wounded were able to leave, however, and the ship’s surgeon chose to stay with them and share their fate.
So did Karel Doorman. His work finished, he returned to the bridge and was never seen again.
Still aloft was P-5, the US PBY Catalina flying boat that had found the convoy and done its best to get the information to those who needed it most. As it was returning home, it spotted several sharp flashes in the distance, followed by several heavy explosions. Then it spotted two ships in the moonlight, leaving the area at high speed. P-5 dutifully reported the sighting, and wondered what it meant.
On the north coast of Java, people were wondering what was behind the ominous sounds they had been hearing throughout the night from far out to sea. Many thought it was a storm; indeed it was, though not of the meteorological variety. Others, like one American B-17 pilot, knew better: “I could hear a dull rumble in the midnight air coming from far over the water. The people in the blacked-out streets assumed it was distant thunder. I knew it was the little Dutch Navy in its final agony out there in the dark.” Said another pilot, “Java died that night in the gunfire which came rolling in over the water.”
Gunfire and explosions. The sounds would end that night when De Ruyter, the repeated blasts having ruptured her hull, the raging inferno having heated it to near-incandescence, slipped beneath the dark waters of the Java Sea with an unpleasant steaming hiss. The time was 2:30 am.
. See, e.g., Edwin P. Hoyt, The Lonely Ships: The Life and Death of the US Asiatic Fleet, New York, David McKay, p. 257; W.G. Winslow,
The Ghost That Died At Sunda Strait (“Ghost”), Annapolis, Naval Institute Press, 1984, p. 125.
. J.A. Collins, Commodore, RAN, “Reports on the Battle of the Java Sea,” in Ronald McKie,
Proud Echo, London, Robert Hale, 1953, p. 135.
. See, e.g. Winslow, The Fleet the Gods Forgot (“Fleet”), Annapolis, Naval Institute Press, 1982, p. 209 and Ghost, p. 123; “Partial Log As Kept By Survivors, USS Houston,” enclosure (a)(9), 9 September 1945 (found at Hyperwar: World War II on the Worldwide Web (“Hyperwar”): http://www.ibiblio.org/hyperwar/.
Note that nothing in this article should be interpreted as criticism of the survivors of the
Houston, who had to endure three years of brutal treatment in Japanese POW camps before they could be interviewed by Allied authorities.
. H.M.L. Waller, Capt., RAN, “Action Narrative B Day and Night Action off Surabaya, February 27, 1942,” in McKie, p. 139.
. Also spelled “Surabaja,” “Soeurabaya,” “Soerabaya” or somesuch.
. Look, for the last time it’s pronounced “CHIL-a-chap,” OK?
. Such casualties included, in no particular order:
1. light cruiser USS Boise struck an uncharted reef in the Sape Strait and was lost to a planned ABDA counterlanding operation off Balikpapan;
2. light cruiser USS Marblehead blew out an engine and was lost to the same ABDA counterattack off Balikpapan;
3. destroyer USS Whipple collided with De Ruyter in a fog;
4. destroyer USS Edsall dropped a depth charge at too slow a speed and it detonated under her stern;
5. destroyer Hr. Ms. Van Ghent ran aground in the Stolze Strait and had to be scuttled;
6. destroyer Hr. Ms. Kortenaer lost rudder control and ran aground off Tjilatjap and was thus lost to the ABDA counterattack off Bali;
7. destroyer USS Stewart rolled over in drydock in Soerabaja and was scuttled (ineffectually, as it turned out, as the Japanese were able to salvage her);
8. destroyer USS Pope developed a leak in the feed pipes to her boilers and was unavailable for the action in the Java Sea;
9. destroyer Hr. Ms. Witte de With had one of her own depth charges detonate under her stern; and
10. destroyer HMS Jupiter was sunk after she apparently struck a discarded Dutch mine.
. See, e.g., Duane Schultz, The Last Battle Station: the Saga of the USS Houston, New York, St. Martin’s Press, 1985, pp. 109, 117-118.
. Doorman has been subject to severe criticism for his performance in the Netherlands East Indies campaign. Morison obliquely criticized Doorman’s caution. Samuel Eliot Morison,
History of United States Naval Operations in World War II, Volume 3: The Rising Sun in the Pacific, Edison, NJ; Castle, 1948, pp. 310, 311, 340. Morison also notes specifically that the US officers lacked confidence in Doorman. Id., p. 338. John Prados called Doorman “aggressive to the point of recklessness.” John Prados,
Combined Fleet Decoded, Annapolis, Naval Institute Press, 1995, p. 255. Edwin Hoyt notes that Doorman was criticized as “misguided and stubborn.” Hoyt, p. 258. Mike Coppock has probably been the most brutal:
As he yelled "Follow me!" in one of the most desperate and ill[-]conceived sea battles in modem times, an ad hoc fleet of Allied warships was unnecessarily squandered in a do-or-die encounter that became the Armageddon of ego-driven Dutch Admiral Karel Doorman. (Mike Coppock, “The Battle of the Java Sea: A Fleet Wasted,”
Sea Classics, Sept. 2007.)
While a full analysis of Karel Doorman’s performance is beyond the scope of this article, I must put myself on record as finding most of these statements more than a little unfair. In my opinion, while he did make mistakes (for instance, he tried to get “too cute” in action off Bali), Doorman’s actions in the campaign as a whole and in the Java Sea battle in particular were at worst defensible and generally tactically sound. That he was unsuccessful is not so much a reflection on his ability as it is on the situation that was forced upon him, in which he was left with numerous judgment calls with few clear correct answers. I hope that some of the information I provide in this article will help provide a more balanced view of this brave, humane and honorable officer.
. So named, actually, because it was the combination of the Western Striking Force from Tanjoeng Priok in western Java and the Eastern Striking Force from Soerabaja in eastern Java.
. Waller’s report in McKie, p. 142.
. ONI Narrative (found at Hyperwar), p. 53.
. Helfrich signaled, “Notwithstanding the air attack you are to proceed eastward to search for and attack the enemy.” ONI Narrative, p. 55. Not often reported is a second part of this message, “Air attacks had been expected and this attack should not have been a reason for withdrawing from the area of action.” Morison, p. 340. One wonders what went through the mind of Admiral Doorman, in danger at sea, upon receiving this message from a superior sitting safe at a desk in the mountains of Java. In that context, Doorman’s reply was a model of restraint, “Was proceeding eastwards after search from Sapoedi to Rembang. Success of action depends absolutely on getting good reconnaissance information in time, which last night failed me. Destroyers will have to refuel tomorrow.” ONI Narrative, p. 55.
. ONI Narrative, p. 55.
. This rather colorful anecdote is not generally mentioned. J. Daniel Mullin,
Another Six-Hundred, Mt. Pleasant, SC; J. Daniel Mullin, 1984, p. 214.
. The 4th Destroyer Flotilla consisted of the flagship cruiser Naka, serving as a destroyer leader as most Japanese light cruisers did, destroyers
Asagumo and Minegumo, of the 9th Destroyer Division, and destroyers
Murasame, Samidare, Harusame and Yudachi of the 2nd Destroyer Division. F.C. van Oosten,
The Battle of the Java Sea, Annapolis, Naval Institute Press, 1976, p. 42.
. The 2nd Destroyer Flotilla consisted of the flagship light cruiser Jintsu, destroyers
Yukikaze, Amatsukaze, Tokitsukaze and Hatsukaze of the 16th Destroyer Division, and destroyers
Yamakaze and Kawakaze of the 24th Destroyer Division. Destroyers Ushio and Sazanami of the 7th Destroyer Division, which had been operating as a screen for the 5th Cruiser Division, were attached to the 2nd Destroyer Flotilla for this battle. Van Oosten, p. 43.
. Eric Lacroix and Linton Wells II, Japanese Cruisers of the Pacific War (also affectionately known as “The GIANT Book of EVERYTHING You Could Possibly Want to Know About World War II Japanese Cruisers But Were Afraid To Ask”), Annapolis, Naval Institute Press, 1997, pp. 245-250. CombinedFleet.com compares the Japanese Type 93 torpedo’s specifications to those of the US Mark 15 (used by US destroyers) as follows:
It should be noted that early in the war US torpedoes were almost completely ineffective due to a combination of an erratically-performing magnetic detonator, a defective firing pin and a miscalibrated depth-setting mechanism. These problems were not corrected in full until 1944.
. Doorman has been subject to severe criticism for this decision, both by historians, naval analysts and even the crews of the Anglo warships. See, e.g., Mullin, p. 229. In fairness to him, however, it must be restated that he was acting in accordance with Allied doctrine in leaving his float planes ashore for an expected night battle. Unless a float plane could be stowed in a hangar – neither De Ruyter nor Java had hangars – it was regarded as a fire hazard. Tom Womack,
The Dutch Naval Air Force Against Japan: The Defense of the Netherlands East Indies, 1941-1942, Jefferson, NC and London, Macfarland, 2006, p. 197 n.23.
The dangers of such float planes was exemplified the following August in the Battle of Savo Island, when a Japanese cruiser force made a surprise night attack on Allied cruisers off Guadalcanal. The Japanese set fire to exposed US floatplanes, which served as points of aim in the darkness. Four Allied cruisers were lost in this action.
. Allied floatplanes were less capable than their Japanese counterparts by an order of magnitude and were never fully integrated into Allied tactics like their Japanese counterparts were.
. Womack, p. 124.
. Doorman was aware of the air issues and had arranged for US air officers to come aboard to act as liaisons for a flight of US B-24 Liberators to serve the Combined Striking Force. Why he wanted this arrangement over the use of his own floatplanes is unclear, but it may have been because of the Liberator’s superior range, armor and armament. The US air commander agreed to the plan but was overruled by ABDA-Air. Van Oosten, p. 39.
. On the other hand, given the almost total ineffectiveness of US torpedoes early in the war, the decision may have actually made little difference.
. Java’s sister ship Sumatra was indeed deemed unfit for service due to problems with her engines, which considering the dire straits in which the Dutch found themselves is saying something.
. Mullin, p. 224.
. Lieutenant (junior grade) Harold S. Hamlin, Jr., of Houston likened the situation to eleven all-stars playing the Notre Dame football team without a single practice session together. Toland,
But Not In Shame, p. 244. At this point in time, Notre Dame was a national football power.
. Prados, p. 261.
. Hara Tameichi, Japanese Destroyer Captain, Annapolis, Naval Institute Press, 1967, pp. 65, 68-70.
. “Crossing the T” describes a maneuver dating to the Age of Sail in which one or more ships cross in front of and perpendicular to one or more opposing ships, which allows the crossing ship to fire all of its guns (or all of its side guns in the Age of Sail) at the target while the target could only fire back with its forward guns (or none of its guns in the Age of Sail). In the case of the Battle of the Java Sea,
Nachi and Haguro would have been able to fire their combined twelve forward and eight aft guns, for a total of twenty guns, against, theoretically, the three forward guns of
De Ruyter, four forward guns of Exeter, six forward guns of Houston, four forward guns of Perth and four guns of Java, for a total of 21 guns. Doorman’s response here has been heavily criticized by historians. However, it should be pointed out that because the cross of the T formed by
Nachi and Haguro would have been so short, the ranges of all ABDA guns except the three forward guns of
De Ruyter would have been fouled by other Allied ships and, consequently, would be unable to fire.
Prados also points out that had Doorman kept closing the range he would have risked letting Takagi get behind him, in which case the Allies would have been unable to catch up because they were slowed down by the damaged
Kortenaer. Prados, p. 260.
. Kroese was popular with the Americans, to whom he was known as “Cruiser.” John Toland, But Not In Shame: The Six Months After Pearl Harbor, New York, Random House, 1961, p. 254.
. ONI Narrative, p. 68. Some versions state the message was, “British destroyers counterattack.” ONI Narrative, n. 56.
. ONI Narrative, p 78, Ph.M. Bosscher, De Koninklijke Marine in de Tweede Wereldoorlog, Franeker, Netherlands; Uitgeverij Van Wijnen, 1990, p. 286 n. 321.
. Mullin, p. 226.
. There has been some question concerning Binford’s authority to withdraw his destroyers, but a closer inspection shows that the action was correct. Doorman had indicated he only needed the US destroyers, which were otherwise underarmored, undergunned and slow, for their torpedoes. With the torpedoes expended – and especially with fuel almost gone – the destroyers were now effectively useless to the Combined Striking Force. Doorman’s comments during the DesRon 58 attack showed he was aware of their fuel issues. Binford sent a message to Doorman through Naval Commander Soerabaja informing the admiral of his withdrawal. Doorman responded by affirming the decision and ordering DesRon 58 to Tanjoeng Priok for new orders and a new load of torpedoes.
. Mullin, p. 226.
. Winslow, Ghost, p. 122, Fleet, p. 208.
. ONI at 74. Morison, p. 356, has the signal as “I am torpedoed.”
. Mullin, p. 226.
. One survivor of De Ruyter said that the cruiser actually “stopped” to pick up the survivors of
Jupiter. Mullin, p. 226. I have not been able to corroborate this statement.
. That night the Allied crews were not convinced the culprit was a submarine torpedo; postwar research would reveal no Japanese submarine in the area that could have been responsible for the explosion. Allied suspicions instead focused on the Dutch minefield in Toeban Bay. It may very well be that
Jupiter used the term “torpedoed” merely as shorthand.
The explanation that has been accepted is that one of the mines had broken loose and struck
Jupiter. A “drifting Dutch mine” appears to be the most popular description. The most recent scholarship suggests, however, that while that description is not far from the truth, it does not seem to do this bizarre incident justice.
The minefield, it seems, was never laid. En route to the location, Gouden Leeuw was spotted by one of the ubiquitous Japanese float planes. Convinced an air attack was imminent – Japanese float planes were often used in air attacks B –
Gouden Leeuw apparently dumped her volatile cargo, only some of which were armed, and left the area. Van Oosten, pp. 68-69; Womack, p. 197 n. 33.
. Schultz, p. 158. His is the only source to give an exact course. Most sources only say the column headed “north” or “in a northerly direction.” The ONI Narrative seems to assume a course of due north but does not explicitly say so. Other sources dispute the course. Mullin, p. 226, says the column turned northwest. Morison has the column headed north northwest for the remainder of the action, but does not give a course. Morison goes on to say that when Takagi’s cruisers engaged Doorman later that night, they were “almost parallel,” but all sources seem to agree that the Japanese were headed due north. Van Oosten has them turning due north then at some unspecified point in time turning slightly northwest, but again does not give a course. Paul S. Dull,
A Battle History of the Imperial Japanese Navy (1941-1945), Annapolis, Naval Institute Pres, 1978, p. 85, uses van Oosten’s figures. I am using Schultz’s figures, backed up by the ONI Narrative, mostly for simplicity, but keep in mind that the column was also zigzagging. Earlier in the day they had been zigzagging 10 degrees from the base course. “Partial Log As Kept By Survivors,
USS Houston,” Enclosure (a)(11) “Engagement off Soerabaja, February 27, 1942,” (found at Hyperwar). It is possible that the zigzagging accounts for the reported differences in course.
. On the morning of March 1, 1942, Encounter, along with Exeter and the destroyer USS
Pope, would be chased down and sunk by the Japanese cruisers Ashigara and
. Kroese, pp. 89-90. Some translations use “light” instead of “flare.”
. This story would seem to conclusively show the order of the Allied cruisers as they passed by the survivors: “The Dutchman, the Australian, The American and at last another Dutchman.” By this description, the front-to-back order would be
De Ruyter, Perth, Houston and Java. The survivors were in the perfect position to watch the ships as they passed by, one by one, in the hope that one of them would stop. So it would seem that they conclusively determine that the column was in that order, unless they were mistaken in the identities of the ships.
Kroese’s excellent work hints at the possibility of such a mistake. The Dutch Navy at War is illustrated with a few drawings by H.J. Hoowij. One of these drawings shows the Allied cruisers passing by the
Kortenaer survivors. The caption describes the order of Allied ships as
De Ruyter, Perth, Houston and Java. Yet the picture itself appears to show the second cruiser in the column having a tall, tripod mast, which was a characteristic not of
Perth but of Houston. Were the Kortenaer survivors mistaken as to the identity of the cruisers?
The strong likelihood is that they were not. The Dutch sailors were familiar with Houston both as one of the most powerful ships in their little fleet, a ship that had been with them in battle, and, along with De Ruyter and Java, the most visually distinctive. A hint is not enough to overcome the plain words of the witnesses.
. ONI Narrative, p. 75.
. James D. Hornfischer, Ship of Ghosts, The Story of the USS Houston, FDR’s Legendary Lost Cruiser, and the Epic Saga of Her Survivors, New York, Bantam, 2006, p. 91.
. ONI Narrative, pp. 69-70.
. Van Oosten, pp. 72-73, Womack, pp. 126-127. There has been considerable confusion on this point because while
De Ruyter’s TBS radio went out, other parts of the Dutch cruiser’s radio suite apparently remained operational. At two points during the evening, Doorman was able to send short-wave, non-voice messages to Dutch shore installations. One was to Helfrich: “Enemy retreating westward. Contact broken. Where is convoy?” The second was in response to DesRon 58's report that they had retired to Soerabaja. Unable to reach Doorman on the TBS, they relayed a message through Naval Commander Soerabaja, which in turn relayed Doorman’s acknowledgment of their report and new orders for them. But for battlefield communications, the non-voice radio was impractical and even dangerous. Essentially, for the remainder of this action, the Combined Striking Force’s flagship had no radio.
. Mullin, p. 226.
. Van Oosten, pp. 72-73, Womack, pp. 126-127.
. Collins’ report, p. 138.
. Waller’s report makes no mention of such a signal from Doorman, but such a signal had to come. Waller simply did not have the authority to order another ship to pick up the survivors in contravention of Doorman’s order that such survivors were to be left “to the mercy of the enemy.” Additionally, Waller stated that he did not recognize the survivors or their language. Finally, Waller’s report makes no mention of
Perth sending out a message to pick the survivors up, but it is known that such a message indeed went out. The radio message was sent from
Perth, but the order originated with Doorman, not with Waller.
. The radio log of John D. Ford paraphrases a voice message as “...pick up survivors we just passed in a boat.” Report of
John D. Ford (228): “Report of Battle of Java Sea, forwarding of: Extracts from radio log 26 February to 1 March 1942.” Enclosure (B). The sender is unidentified; the intended recipients were listed as two British ships, which Bosscher identifies as, oddly,
Electra and Jupiter. Bosscher, p. 612 n. 379. There was undoubtedly more to the message, giving at least the
Kortenaer survivors’ location. With the voice radios on De Ruyter and
Houston out of commission and Java at the other end of the column, this voice message could only have come from Perth.
. Interestingly, Doorman’s original signal to Perth may have only been to have the survivors picked up without specifying who should pick them up. The message from
Perth was directed to Electra and Jupiter. Doorman knew both were out of the battle; Waller knew about
Electra but not Jupiter. So whoever sent the message did not know that
Electra and Jupiter were out of the battle, which also indicates that the message was written by someone in the radio room who did not have access to the battle situation. It is not known if
Encounter responded to Perth’s signal with a message of her own; Ford’s radio log does not indicate one, but the log by its own admission only contains excerpts.
Encounter picked up 113 survivors and was supposed to return them to Batavia, but upon hearing of a “strong enemy force” to the west, returned to Soerabaja instead. Morison, p. 357.
. Womack, p. 126.
. H.J. Hoowij’s illustration of the cruisers passing Kortenaer survivors shows the forward guns of De Ruyter trained to starboard.
. ONI Narrative, p. 75. The radio log of the John D. Ford shows an almost identical message “BT target on port, four points, VA.” Report of
John D. Ford (228): “Report of Battle of Java Sea, forwarding of: Extracts from radio log 26 February to 1 March 1942.” Enclosure (B). The origin and intended recipients are unknown. This may have been Perth providing a voice message for Java and other ships in the vicinity.
. Id. “Four points” is a reference to the 32-point compass rose, traditionally used in maritime navigation for both true and relative bearings. One point is equal to 11.25 degrees, thus four points equals 45 degrees and eight points equals 90 degrees.
. Dull, p. 84; Anthony P. Tully, “Naval Alamo,” found at the US Asiatic Feet Web site: http://www.asiaticfleet.com/.
. Hara, p. 76. It must be pointed out that Hara actually indicates that Takagi ordered Sentai 5 to slow down after it had reversed course and headed north. This does not make sense. Other reports give the impression of a running gun battle that lasted some 20 minutes, and the proposed torpedo firing solutions that the Japanese ultimately used involved a partial stern chase of the Allied cruisers. It was not an ideal solution and further suggests that Takagi had to catch up to the Allied column.
. Winslow, Ghost, p. 123.
. Waller’s report, p. 141. The evidence disagrees as to when the exchange of starshells occurred, whether it was before or after Sentai 5 reversed course. I have decided to go with before the reversal of course, on the logic that it was common practice when making first contact with the enemy at night to try to illuminate them.
. CombinedFleet.com lists the top speed of the Myoko-class cruisers as 34 knots. No specific speed is given for the ABDA cruisers, but Kroese, p. 89, quotes survivors of
Kortenaer as saying the cruiser column passed them at “top speed.” Royal Netherlands Navy Warships of World War II lists
De Ruyter’s top speed as 32 knots and Java’s top speed as 31 knots. “Top speed” in naval jargon does not necessarily always mean the best possible speed, but given Doorman’s warnings about the slowness of
Kortenaer, it is probably safe to assume the Combined Striking Force was running at a speed of at least 30 knots. If Sentai 5 was trying to catch up with the Combined Striking Force,
Nachi and Haguro had to be running at or near their top speed, likely 32-34 knots. The Japanese apparently pulled just about even with the Allied column after about 20 minutes. For a 20 minute chase the Japanese could have knocked more than a mile off the range.
. Toland, p. 261; G. Hermon Gill, Australia in the War of 1939-1945, Series Two: Navy; Volume I: Royal Australian Navy 1939-1942, Canberra, Australian War Memorial, 1957, p. 615. Sources do not agree as to which direction the Japanese cruisers turned. I have gone with Dull, p. 85.
. Australian diver and photojournalist Kevin Denlay, who dove the sunken wrecks of
De Ruyter and Java as part of an expedition from the southeast Asian wreck diving ship MV Empress in December 2002, found and photographed Java’s portside guns pointing “defiantly upwards.” This position strongly suggests
Java continued to train her guns on the Japanese cruisers at her maximum range. Kevin Denlay, “Cruisers for Breakfast,”
Sportdiving Magazine, 2003, pp. 17-19.
. It is interesting that this particular message was recorded when so many others were not.
. Marvin Sholar, a US Navy signalman who had been assigned to De Ruyter as a communications liaison, said Doorman “suspected another torpedo attack and … turned away.” Mullin, p. 227. There is no agreement as to the firing solution used by the Japanese. Waller’s report says only that the Japanese ships were “a long way off.” Morison says the torpedoes were fired "when the two columns were almost parallel, 8,000 yards apart.” Gill cites one Japanese report as saying 10,000 meters (10,936 yards), adding that the torpedoes struck “after ten or fifteen minutes, the time estimated for them to reach their targets.” Gill also cites another, “more detailed Japanese report” as stating: "00.53 torpedoes started being fired (Nachi 8,
Haguro 4) shooting angle 80 degrees, distance 9.5 kilometers" (10,389 yards). Hara, p. 76, whose figures were later used by Hornfischer, says the solution was shooting angle 60 degrees at 10,000 meters. Though usually reliable, Hara’s figures here must be questioned as would have gotten this information secondhand because he himself was commanding
Amatsukaze during the battle. Additionally, 60-degree firing angle, while acceptable, would have had the torpedoes chasing the Allied ships northward somewhat. I find an 80-degree angle more believable, therefore I use the figures cited by Gill – 80 degrees, 9.5 kilometers.
. Takagi may not have had much choice due to his lavish use of his 8-inch ammunition. Hara, p. 78, states that at the end of the battle
Nachi had only 70 8-inch shells left. Lacroix and Wells, p. 298, appear to disagree, noting that for the Battle of the Java Sea,
Nachi and Haguro, each with a supply of about 1,300 8-inch shells, fired 845 and 774 shells, respectively. Lacroix and Wells go on to say that between 5:47 and 6:50 – the afternoon action – the Japanese fired 1,271 shells, of which only 5 hit, and 4 of those were duds. They attribute the lack of success to the extreme range. According to Hara, p. 78, Takagi was heavily criticized for “his series of blunders,” which included opening gunfire at extreme range and wasting ammunition. One disgusted gunnery officer said of Takagi, “He’s a submariner, and doesn’t know how to use guns.” Lacroix and Wells also point out that of 153 Type 93 torpedoes fired by the Japanese during the Battle of the Java Sea, only three hit – but each of those three hits was fatal.
. The 90-degeee turn suggests that Takagi’s cruisers had pulled even with De Ruyter by this time.
. Pretty much all histories, either in narrative or in map form, have the Combined Striking Force at this point remaining in column and executing a “column turn” or what Morison calls a “column movement” – basically a follow-the-leader move in which each ship turns at the same point on the water and into the same direction as the ship in front of it. The ONI’s diagram illustrating this portion of the action follows this scenario. However, what actually seems to have happened is a “line turn,” a “simultaneous turn,” because ideally all the ships are supposed to turn simultaneously; an “echelon turn” as Jonathan Parshall and Anthony P. Tully,
Shattered Sword: The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway, Washington, DC; Potomac, 2005, p. 346 describe such a maneuver, or what Morison simply calls a “turn” – each ship turning in the same direction simultaneously or as close to simultaneously as they can manage. Morison, p. 347, n. 11. Obviously, this represents a major change in the accepted narrative, but it fits both the known facts and tactical doctrine. Such a major change obviously will require justification. For simplicity’s sake, I will give the general reasons here; the details will follow in this and subsequent endnotes.
1. The standard response to a torpedo attack was an immediate turn to comb the torpedoes. Doorman had already used such a tactic late that afternoon during the final Japanese torpedo attack ending the day action.
2. The Combined Striking Force had also mistakenly executed a line turn when Exeter sheared out of column after being hit by
Haguro. Doorman had to circle his confused ships to reform the column. So the line turn and the reform were something the crews were used to and expected.
3. A ship captain is very unlikely to maintain a course knowing torpedoes are inbound for the sole purpose of staying in column.
4. Survivors of Houston reported that De Ruyter was ahead of her and “slightly to the left,” when the Dutch cruiser was hit. Suggests a slight right echelon formation.
5. The firm belief on the part of the Houston survivors that they were immediately behind
De Ruyter suggests they had an unobstructed view of the flagship when she was hit. This means
Perth was not directly between Houston and De Ruyter, which means she was somewhere to port. Again, suggests a right echelon formation.
6. A line turn explains the heretofore unexplained starboard turn of De Ruyter to the southeast as a way to reform the column, as Doorman had done at least twice that day.
7. Given that De Ruyter was headed southeast when she was hit, if Perth was in column behind
De Ruyter she would not have had to turn northeast to avoid the stricken flagship, as the ONI’s diagram of the incident suggests.
8. If Perth had been in column, her port turn to avoid De Ruyter would have kept her on the other side of the cruiser from the Japanese. But in the line turn scenario,
Perth would have been backlit as she turned northeast. Note that Takagi took his cruisers in pursuit of the remaining ABDA cruisers to the northeast for heretofore unexplained reasons.
9. If Houston had been in column, her starboard turn to avoid De Ruyter would have backlit her heading southeast to the Japanese. This would not have happened during a line turn. Again, Takagi took his cruisers northeast, not southeast.
10. Perth and Houston definitely split up, but instead of splitting up to confuse the Japanese they were forced to do so by
De Ruyter stopping in their paths. Perth had been ahead of Houston in the original column, but as their near collision later on suggests, ended up significantly behind
Houston. Yet there is no mention anywhere of Houston passing Perth.
11. The ONI’s diagram (and many subsequent illustrations) shows Java turning separately from the rest of the column. There is no logical reason for her to turn separately while the other three ships stay in column.
12. Finally, the order for such a maneuver could have been quickly passed back through the column in a similar manner to that used by the Japanese during the collision between
Mikuma and Mogami after the Battle of Midway in June 1942.
From a tactical standpoint, a column turn in this situation simply makes no sense. Combing the torpedoes required an immediate turn or risk a torpedo hit, which neither Waller, Rooks nor van Straelen would do for the sole purpose of staying in column. Furthermore, the subsequent movements of
De Ruyter, Perth and Houston as reported make much more sense if this was a line turn instead of a column turn. Finally, on at least two occasions during the afternoon action, the Combined Striking Force executed line turns, one accidental, the other to avoid torpedoes.
The accepted scenario of a column turn appears to be based on a misinterpretation of Waller’s report. Waller, p. 141, said he and “followed” the
De Ruyter’s turn. Waller goes on to say that Java was struck “whilst the line was halfway round this turn.” Collins, p. 138, said the remaining cruisers “conform[ed].” The ONI Narrative and later historians interpreted that to mean
Perth stayed in column, but Waller did not actually say that. His statement that he “followed”
De Ruyter likely means he turned after the Dutch cruiser did and remained behind her, but not in column. While “the line was halfway round this turn” can be interpreted as a column turn, this is not necessarily so, because the line turn would also have been sequential as the order was passed back. In the line turn scenario, Perth would have been in a slight echelon to starboard.
. The scenario here is a supposition based on the scenario of the Mogami-Mikuma collision after the Battle of Midway. Parshall and Tully, pp. 345-346; Fuchida Mitsuo and Okumiya Masatake,
Midway: The Battle That Doomed Japan, Annapolis, Naval Institute Press, 1955, p. 190. In the foggy early morning hours of June 6, 1941, the Japanese 7th Cruiser Division while proceeding in column sighted a US submarine. Flagship
Kumano ordered evasive action in the form of an immediate 45-degree turn to port. She flashed that signal to
Suzuya behind her and began turning. Suzuya, in turn, flashed the 45-degree turn order to
Mikuma behind her and began her own turn. Mikuma then flashed the order to
Mogami behind her and began her turn. Then Mogami began turning.
But in the foggy predawn darkness the move went awry. Kumano’s turn was so wobbly that she nearly collided with
Suzuya, who had executed the turn perfectly. Mikuma turned 45 degrees and found herself about to collide with
Kumano so she turned another 45 degrees to port. Mogami, last in the column, turned 45 degrees as ordered, but thought the other ships were proceeding without her and may have mistaken
Suzuya, ahead of her, for Mikuma. As a result, she did not see that
Mikuma had turned too far, had turned onto a collision course until Mogami saw
Mikuma’s beam slide in front of her. By then it was too late.
The resulting collision left Mogami’s bow bent forward of her No. 1 turret and limited her speed.
Mikuma suffered minor damage in the form of a pierced oil tank, but that was by far the worse injury.
Mikuma left an oil slick that US carrier attack planes followed to batter the two cruisers.
Mikuma was sunk, and Mogami was so badly damaged that she was, quite literally, never the same ship again.
The Mogami-Mikuma collision helps illustrate the dangers in executing the line turn, even among ships with common signals and experienced crews who had trained together for a very long time. While the Combined Striking Force, as critics claim, may not have trained together very long, they appear to have executed the maneuver perfectly, which should be a testimony to the skill of their crews.
. Winslow, Ghost, p. 124.
. The ONI Narrative and most subsequent illustrations of this action show Java turning separately from the other three cruisers. Why
Java would have turned separately has never been explained and on its face does not seem to make sense. It only makes sense if all four cruisers had turned separately.
. Tully, “Naval Alamo; Van Oosten p. 116.
. Mullin, p. 224.
. Hornfischer, p. 92.
. Denlay, p. 17, 20.
. “Java,” Royal Netherlands Navy Warships of World War II http://www.netherlandsnavy.nl/ recovered 8/19/08.
. Winslow, Fleet, p. 210.
. The attack had also severely damaged the light cruiser USS Marblehead, forcing her retirement.
. ONI Narrative, p. 76; Tully, “Naval Alamo.” Sholar said De Ruyter was hit “as we were turning back.” Mullin, p. 227.
De Ruyter’s turn here is rarely even referenced, and I have not found a reason suggested for this turn. If one accepts the premise of a line turn, then a likely reason becomes apparent: to reform the column.
. This is a supposition that happens to fit the facts and the scenario, but I must admit to finding no hard evidence to support it. Doorman and his staff were well aware of torpedoes in the area and had a rough idea of their track. He would not have knowingly turned
De Ruyter into their firing track. Houston had seen torpedoes pass her.
De Ruyter may have as well. For Doorman to have turned the cruiser in the very tight timeline provided by the known facts, they likely saw
Nachi’s torpedoes pass.
. Mullin, pp. 226-227. Denlay, p. 16, 19, photographed and describes the wreck of
De Ruyter with her forward guns pointing to starboard.
. ONI Narrative, p. 76. This information makes it possible to calculate De Ruyter’s heading when she was hit. If the Japanese report (quoted by Gill) of an 80-degree firing angle is used,
De Ruyter would have been heading 125 degrees True. If Hara’s 60-degree figure is used, De Ruyter was on a heading of 105 degrees True.
. “The Conquest of Java Island, March 1942,” The Dutch East Indies Campaign 1941-42 http://www.geocities.com/dutcheastindies/java.html recovered 8/19/08.
. Tully, “Naval Alamo.” Denlay, p. 18, photographed De Ruyter’s wheel still showing a starboard turn.
. “The Conquest of Java Island, March 1942,” The Dutch East Indies Campaign 1941-42 http://www.geocities.com/dutcheastindies/java.html recovered 8/19/08.
. Van Oosten, p. 116. It must be noted that his is the only source that I have identified to have this one-minute differential. No one else – not Hara, not the Tabular Records of Movement on CombinedFleet.com – show this differential. This one-minute difference, however, would explain why Doorman thought the torpedoes had passed when they in fact had not, and why
Haguro’s torpedoes followed such a similar track to those of Nachi. The possible explanations for these characteristics of Haguro’s attack are much more dubious for a simultaneous launch.
. In the absence of other information pertaining to the spacing between Nachi and
Haguro, I have assumed a spacing of one kilometer, which was typical for the Japanese.
Haguro would have had to travel one kilometer in the one minute between the time of
Nachi’s launch and the time of her own. 1 kilometer = 0.5399568 nautical miles * 60 minutes = 32.397408 knots. Again, per CombinedFleet.com, the top speed of the
Myoko-class cruisers was 34 knots.
. Mullin, p. 227.
. “De Ruyter (I) History,” Royal Netherlands Navy Warships of World War II http://www.netherlandsnavy.nl/ recovered 8/19/08.
. Winslow, Ghost, p. 124, Fleet, pp. 209-210.
. David Thomas, The Battle of the Java Sea, New York, Stein and Day, 1969, p. 212; Hoyt, p. 256.
. “The Conquest of Java Island, March 1942,” The Dutch East Indies Campaign 1941-42 http://www.geocities.com/dutcheastindies/java.html recovered 8/19/08.
. Winslow, Ghost, p. 124, Fleet, pp. 209-210. Houston does not seem to have had a major problem avoiding
De Ruyter. “Partial Log As Kept By Survivors, USS Houston,” Enclosure (b), The Wartime Cruise of the U.S.S. Houston,” (found at Hyperwar) states that the
Houston “had to swerve very sharply else we would have hit her.” But aside from that blurb, none of the
Houston survivors mention any particularly violent or sudden maneuvers to avoid
De Ruyter. Waller, p. 142, says the Houston headed out to starboard. Schultz, p. 160, quotes a survivor as saying, “The
De Ruyter was ahead of us and slightly to our left” when she was hit. Schultz, p. 61 also quotes a survivor as saying, “We saw the tracks of torpedoes astern of us. They just went harmlessly on by.” Both statements put Houston to starboard of
De Ruyter and not in column. Winslow says that De Ruyter had changed course to starboard and “[T]he Houston was about to follow when the flagship was hit. ”The ONI Narrative, p. 76, merely says
Houston “turned out of column to starboard.” However, this version of events is contradicted by the ONI Narrative’s own chart, which shows that neither
Houston nor Perth had any reason for violent maneuvers to avoid De Ruyter because the Dutch cruiser was not in their path. In fact, according to the ONI chart, Houston would have had a more difficult turn to starboard. Notice here that none of these descriptions mentions where
Perth was when De Ruyter was hit, even though if they were still in column Perth would have been right ahead of Houston and at least partially obstructing her view. This leads me to conclude that Houston had an unobstructed view of
De Ruyter when the Dutch cruiser was hit, while Perth was somewhere to port. The temporary loss of night vision due to the explosions of
Java and De Ruyter may have caused Houston to lose track of Perth in the darkness. Combine this with the near-collision later on as
Perth was passing Houston and it is easy to see why the survivors of Houston became convinced that they were immediately behind
. Waller’s report, p. 142. Waller’s exact words are “I just managed to miss her by the use of full helm and one engine stopped.” Collins, p. 138, clarifies by stating Perth “avoided the blazing wreck by the use of full port rudder and one engine.” The assumption seems to be that
Perth had to use these maneuvers to avoid plowing into De Ruyter’s stern from the back, but neither Waller nor Collins actually says that. It is also a bit difficult to fathom such an emergency maneuver to avoid a ship which, if they were in a column formation, would have been presenting a narrow stern profile. Additionally, the ONI diagram shows
Perth making a sharp turn to the northeast, but no reason for this turn is apparent since, according to the chart,
Perth could have just continued to go east. If Perth had already turned southeast to follow
De Ruyter, her port turn would have taken her southeast. I can identify no scenario in which
Perth, if the cruisers were still in column, would have had to make an emergency turn northeast. Accepting the premise of a line turn presents what, to me at least, is a much more believable scenario.
De Ruyter would have presented her stern jutting northwest toward Perth. What seems to have happened is that Perth was in danger of running into
De Ruyter’s stern from the side and, given her high rate of speed, possibly shearing it off. This required
Perth to make a very difficult turn to port, as Collins describes, which was northeast, as the ONI chart shows. It must be pointed out also that none of
Houston’s survivors mention seeing Perth having difficulty avoiding
. Hornfischer, p. 92.
. Hara, p. 76.
. Hara, p. 76.
. This scenario is based on the circumstantial evidence of Takagi’s northeast turn, but it is also deductive. If one accepts the premise of a line turn,
Perth turning northeast to avoid De Ruyter would have been between the Dutch cruiser and the Japanese, and would have been silhouetted by the fires of the blazing wreck.
Houston turning to the southeast would not have been backlit. If the Combined Striking Force had remained in column,
Perth following her port turn would have been on the other side of De Ruyter from the Japanese and would not have been seen. Houston, on the other hand, would have been silhouetted as she passed the blazing
De Ruyter to starboard. Given that De Ruyter was on a southeast heading when she was hit, it would have made more sense for the Japanese to look southeast for
Perth and Houston, not northeast, unless they actually saw Perth turn northeast, which would not have happened if the Allied cruisers were in column.
. Tully, “Naval Alamo;” Bosscher, p. 291. Schultz, p. 161, has the message as “Do not stand by for survivors. Proceed to Batavia.”
. Tully, “Naval Alamo.”
. Waller, p. 142.
. Morison, p. 357. Morison states that Perth and Houston had “separated, hoping to shake off the tracking enemy planes.” But this is incorrect. By this time there were no Japanese planes aloft tracking the cruisers. Additionally, the cruisers were actually forced to separate by their maneuvers, especially those of
Perth, to avoid De Ruyter.
. Winslow, Ghost, p. 124-125; Schultz, p. 161, quotes a Houston survivor as saying “We just barely missed her stern by about two feet.” This incident is usually associated with
Perth’s maneuvers to avoid De Ruyter, as both Winslow and Schultz do, in part because Captain Rooks was trying to avoid torpedoes, but under either a line or column scenario this incident must have happened much later. If the ships had been in column when
De Ruyter was hit, Perth would have been ahead of Houston. She did turn to port to avoid De Ruyter. The near-collision requires
Perth to have been behind and to starboard of Houston. The survivors of Houston make no mention of having passed Perth; they believed Perth was behind them all along, and this incident undoubtedly contributed to that belief. In a column formation,
Houston could have passed Perth while both were passing De Ruyter, but that would have had Houston avoiding De Ruyter, not
Perth and still left Perth to port of Houston. Under the line turn scenario I advocate here, Perth turning to the northeast to avoid
De Ruyter would have left her well behind Houston. The narrow right echelon formation the ships were in would have meant
Houston would have been more focused on De Ruyter than Perth. Again, none of the survivors of
Houston mention passing Perth or even seeing her struggle to avoid De Ruyter. It should be mentioned here that this near-collision by itself shows
Houston had completely lost track of Perth, even though the Australian cruiser was close by to starboard in the darkness.
Houston most definitely could have lost track and likely did lose track of Perth somewhere to port as the cruisers tried to comb the Japanese torpedoes before the hit on
De Ruyter. Finally, at this point in the battle, there were no Japanese torpedoes in the water. False sightings are not uncommon in war.
. The Last Stand of the USS Houston, DVD, Jason Eisenberg, released May 31, 2006.
. In his report, Waller wrote on his decision to withdraw:
I now had under my orders one undamaged 6-inch cruiser, one 8-inch cruiser with very little ammunition and no guns aft. I had no destroyers. The force was subjected throughout the day and night operations to the most superbly organized air reconnaissance. I was opposed by six cruisers, one of them possibly sunk, and twelve destroyers. By means of their air reconnaissance they had already played cat and mouse with the main striking force and I saw no prospect of getting at the enemy (their movements had not reached me since dark, and even then the several reports at the same time all gave different courses) . It was fairly certain that the enemy had at least one submarine operating directly with him, and he had ample destroyers to interpose between the convoy and my approach – well advertised as I knew it would be. I had therefore no hesitation in withdrawing what remained of the Striking Force and ordering them to the pre-arranged rendezvous after night action – Tanjong Priok. Waller, p. 122.
Waller was probably anticipating the rebuke he would receive from Dutch Admiral Helfrich. His comments, and editorial responses from Gill are as follows:
Strictly speaking the return of Perth and Houston was against my order 2055/26 – “You must continue attacks till enemy is destroyed." This signal was intended to make it quite clear that I wanted the Combined Striking Force to continue action whatever the cost, and till the bitter end.
Perth did receive this signal. Both cruisers were undamaged [Houston’s after triple turret was out of action] and it was not right to say in anticipation “It is no use to continue action”, considering the damage inflicted upon the enemy cruisers, which in my opinion must have been severe. [Actually the enemy cruisers were all in battle trim.] However, it is possible that other facts had to be considered, such as shortage of fuel or ammunition. [Houston, as stated above, had very little ammunition remaining.] The decision of the captain of
Perth is even more regrettable as, after all, both cruisers did meet their end. Probably on the night of 27th-28th February they would have sold their lives at greater cost to the enemy. Gill, p. 616.
Gill added his own comments, including an invocation of Thermopylae:
In his desire for “the Combined Striking Force to continue action whatever the cost, and till the bitter end”, Helfrich disregarded a major point in warfare: “When is it the right time to disengage?” On numerous occasions in the history of battles, he who found the right answer to that question has been rewarded with victory – a prize that has seldom been given in recognition of military suicide. Here were no conditions warranting a Thermopylae, with commensurate rewards for the sacrifice. Had none but military considerations governed the use of the Allied naval forces in the Java campaign, the time for their disengagement and withdrawal was reached long before Waller took his absolutely correct action in disengaging and withdrawing the remnant under his command. In that action he did his duty to the Allied cause, which would have been much better served by his saving the two ships and their trained crews for future use. In the event they were lost twenty-four hours later; but even so, most probably at greater cost to the enemy than would have been had Waller decided in favor of an unrealistic gesture on the night of 27th-28th February. (Id.)
As the fall of Java became more and more certain, Helfrich’s actions bordered more and more on the irrational. On top of these sentiments, after the Battle of the Java Sea Helfrich ordered
Perth and Houston to go through the Soenda Strait not to withdraw, but to go to Tjilatjap to continue fighting the Japanese after they had landed on Java. Neither Waller nor Rooks thought Helfrich was serious, that it was preparatory to withdrawing them to Australia. It was in transiting the Soenda Strait where
Perth and Houston ran into an invasion convoy and sunk in the epic stand on the night of February 28-March 1 1942.
Additionally, Helfrich, on at best questionable authority, had ordered the US seaplane tender
Langley, formerly the US Navy’s first aircraft carrier, and the freighter Seawitch to ferry P-40 Warhawk fighters to Tjilatjap. The Langley was carrying 32 P-40’s with pilots, but while the fighters were desperately needed, Tjilatjap had no airfield and no way to get the P-40’s to one.
Langley was sunk on February 27 by Japanese aircraft operating out of Celebes.
Seawitch made it to Tjilatjap, but her aircraft were crated and required assembly. With no time left before the Japanese invasion, the crates were dumped into Tjilatjap’s harbor. There is some belief the Japanese may have recovered and assembled them.
By such actions, Helfrich indicated a willingness to fight to the last Dutch – and American. And British. And Australian. In fairness to him, Helfrich was a European native of Java and was not alone in his incredulousness at the situation in which the Dutch found themselves. Additionally, once the British informed Helfrich of their intention to withdraw, Helfrich ordered the Americans to do the same, and thus spared the US officers pangs of conscience at possibly having abandoned the Dutch. Helfrich ultimately fled to Ceylon where the few remaining Dutch ships fought with the British Far Eastern Fleet. He accepted the Japanese surrender on behalf of the Dutch in 1945.
. “Partial log as kept by Survivors (of the USS Houston),” ONI Narrative, Enclosure (a)(9).
. Womack, p. 126.
. Hornfischer at 94.
. “De Ruyter (I) History,” Royal Netherlands Navy Warships of World War II http://www.netherlandsnavy.nl/ recovered 8/19/08.
About the author:
Jeffrey R. Cox is a litigation attorney in Indianapolis, IN, and an independent
military historian specializing in World War II, ancient Greece and ancient Rome,
which he has studied for decades. He holds a bachelor’s degree in National Security
Policy Studies from The Ohio State University.