The USS Houston: The Galloping Ghost of World War II

Image via United States Navy/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

During World War II, with so many far-flung combatants, there were many battles fought on the sea. The USS Houston was one of the Allies’ most successful ships. Despite her small size, Houston continuously did battle against much bigger opponents. And she became such a pain for the Japanese that they claimed to have sunk her on six different occasions.

Construction and  the early days of the USS Houston

Franklin D. Roosevelt and Admiral Claude Bloch inspect the USS Houston in 1935
Franklin D. Roosevelt and Admiral Claude Bloch inspect the USS Houston in 1935 (Photo by Press Association Incorporated/Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)

Construction on the USS Houston began in Newport News, Virginia in May of 1928. She was first launched in September 1929. Owing to her thin armor, Houston was first designated as a light cruiser but was later changed to a heavy cruiser because of its 8-inch main guns.

The first action of the cruiser was to act as a deterrent during the 1931 war between China and Japan. Houston was also used to ferry President Roosevelt from Annapolis, Maryland, through the Caribbean and then to Portland, Oregon. She spent some time in Pearl Harbor before departing for the Philippine Islands in 1940. Houston became the flagship of the Asiatic Fleet, commanded by Thomas C. Hart.

The Early Engagements of World War II

On the night of the attack on Pearl Harbor, Houston took off from the Philippines to Darwin, Australia. It did not take long for the cruiser to be involved in a battle. Houston took part in the Battle of Makassar Strait, near the Java Sea, on February 4th of 1942. The battle did not go well for the Allies and resulted in a Japanese victory. Houston took a hit, which disabled her third turret

For her next action, Houston joined a convoy, ferrying troops to defend Timor. Along the way, the convoy faced a Japanese attack. As waves of planes approached the convoy, the crew of the USS Houston distinguished themselves by launching a ferocious counter. It would later be said that the Japanese bombers were flying into a “sheet of flame.”

Battle of the Java Sea

Karel Doorman, the Commander of the American-British-Dutch-Australian Strike Force was killed during the Battle of the Java Sea
Karel Doorman, the Commander of the American-British-Dutch-Australian Strike Force was killed during the Battle of the Java Sea (Via Ministerie van Defensie/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain)

With losses mounting, Dutch Strike Force leader Karel Doorman was desperate to turn the tide. He decided to attack the convoy of Japanese ships attempting to approach Java. The Allies took ten destroyers along with Houston, Perth, De Ruyter, Exeter, and Java. On February 27th of 1942, the ships did battle against thirteen Japanese destroyers and four cruisers.

The Allied forces were soon overwhelmed by the Japanese. In total, two of the Allied’s cruisers, Java and De Ruyter, were sunk along with 3 destroyers. Doorman, who was traveling on his flagship, the De Ruyter, was killed in the attack. Prior to the sinking of De Ruyter, Doorman ordered Houston and Perth to retire to Tanjong Priok.

The Battle of Sunda Strait

Following the devastating battle of the Java Sea, Houston was desperate to restock on ammunition and fuel up. The ship was able to reach Tanjong Priok, but the area was short on ammunition and fuel. The boat then headed off towards Tjilatjap, hoping to have better luck there. Houston was to sail to Tjilatjap via the Sunda Strait, a body of water they believed was free of Japanese ships.

The cruiser, though, sailing with Perth, soon came into contact with a Japanese destroyer. As the US ships engaged with the destroyer, more enemy ships emerged. Perth and Houston took massive amounts of fire. The cruisers were abandoned and both sank to the bottom of the sea. The crew members were taken by the Japanese forces and brought to prison camps.

The Legacy of the rough and tumble ship

The USS Houston in the Pacific Theater during the 1940s
The USS Houston in the Pacific Theater during the 1940s (Photo by US Navy/Interim Archives/Getty Images)

There were six different occasions when the Japanese believed that they had sunk Houston. The only time where it was true, obviously, was when the ship was actually sunk at the Sunda Strait. Captain Albert H. Rooks, the ship’s commander went down with the ship. He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. Chaplain George H. Rentz also went down with the ship, offering his life vest to a young sailor. He was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross.

The crews of both Perth and the Houston are honored in Australia at the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne. In 2014, while conducting a training exercise, US Navy divers, along with Indonesian personnel, discovered the remains of the ship. It still lies at the bottom of the Java Sea.

Todd Neikirk

Todd Neikirk is a New Jersey-based politics, entertainment and history writer. His work has been featured in psfk.com, foxsports.com, politicususa.com and hillreporter.com. He enjoys sports, politics, comic books, and anything that has to do with history.

When he is not sitting in front of a laptop, Todd enjoys soaking up everything the Jersey Shore has to offer with his wife, two sons and American Foxhound, Wally.