In February 1942, less than three months after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor – 79 years ago this weekend – the Japanese scored a decisive victory in one of the first actual sea battles in the Pacific, the Battle of Java Sea.
Among the losses to the United States Asiatic Fleet, more than 2,000 sailors and 10 ships: including the U.S. Navy’s first-ever aircraft carrier, USS Langley; and its biggest warship in the Far East at the time, the heavy carrier USS Houston, in battles a day apart in the Java Sea. Both ships had strong ties to California.
Built at Vallejo’s Mare Island shipyard and originally commissioned as the collier (coal transport) USS Jupiter in April 1913, the Navy converted the ship to an aircraft carrier and recommissioned it the USS Langley seven years later. America’s first flattop carrier – also the Navy’s first electrically propelled ship – played an important role over the next two decades. The Navy used it in training and experimental operations that led to the development of bigger carriers and better-trained pilots. The ship returned to Mare Island in 1936 for yet another conversion, this time to a seaplane tender.
The Navy commissioned the heavy cruiser USS Houston – the second ship by that name – at Virginia’s Portsmouth Navy Yard in 1930. President Franklin D. Roosevelt boarded the ship for a 14,000-mile cruise in 1934. In 1937, it helped celebrate the opening of the Golden Gate Bridge and, a year later, again welcomed Roosevelt for a fleet review in San Francisco.
The day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the USS Langley departed Cavite in the Philippines for Borneo, then to Australia. It left Freemantle on Washington’s birthday, 1942, to deliver nearly three dozen P-40 Warhawk planes to the port of Tjilatjap (also known as Cilacap), Java.
On February 27, 1942, the USS Langley joined up with a pair of destroyer escorts roughly 75 miles south of Java. Nine Japanese bombers attacked and five bombs struck the Langley, destroying planes on the deck and disabling the ship’s steering; 16 crewmen died. Crippled beyond saving, the destroyer escorts sent the Langley to the bottom for good, and a piece of American Naval history went with it as the Battle of Java Sea commenced.
The following day, in the Sunda Strait on Java’s north coast, the USS Houston and an Australian light cruiser, the HMAS Perth attacked Japanese forces. They sank one ship but found their exit from the strait blocked by a Japanese destroyer.
Confused by their own smoke screen, the Japanese fired upon their own troop ships, sinking one and driving three others into the beach. When the smoke cleared – figuratively and literally – the enemy refocused on the Allied ships, according to the U.S. Navy’s history website, and sank the Perth in less than an hour.
The Houston fought on alone. Even after a bomb took out a gun turret, followed by a torpedo hit, the Houston sank a minesweeper and inflicted damage to three Japanese destroyers. The ship’s captain was killed by a fragment from a Japanese shell. Commander David W. Roberts, the ship’s executive officer, took command and ordered crew to keep attacking until “all hope of further damage to the enemy was lost.”
The ship, however, took three more torpedo hits that ultimately sent her to the bottom. Roberts orchestrated the abandoning of the ship, and then went down with it. He posthumously earned the Navy Cross. Of the 1,061 sailors aboard, only 368 survived to spend the rest of the war in Japanese POW camps.
Though Japan no doubt dominated in the early days, the Allies broke through with victories at Midway (June 3-6, 1942) and at Guadalcanal (August 7, 1942-February 9, 1943) that began to change the course of the war in the Pacific.