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Teusday, March 7, 2000
Houston, Texas
Volume 65, Issue 110

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The Galloping Ghost

By Tom Carpenter
Daily Cougar Staff

"The Galloping Ghost of the Java Coast" haunts the George R. Brown Room at the M.D. Anderson Memorial Library.

All that remains of the heavy cruiser named after the city of Houstonis there,surrounding... the glass-encased Congressional Medal of Honor the ship's commander, Capt. Albert H. Brooks, was awarded posthumously after the USS Houston was ringed by Japanese warships and blasted to the bottom of the Sundra Strait on March 1, 1942.


Pin Lim/The Daily Cougar


A miniature replica of the USS Houston is displayed in the George R. Brown Room in the M.D. Anderson Memorial Library.

The Houston got its ethereal nickname because the Japanese prematurely declared the ship sunk on at least two occasions.

The first time the Japanese believed the cruiser went down was Dec. 7, 1941, when they mistook a large transport in Manila harbor for the Houston. The second time the Japanese claimed the ship was destroyed was off the coast of Java after heavy fighting.

The Houston, the flagship of the American Asiatic fleet, and the Australian light cruiser HMAS Perth were all that remained of the multinational fleet of 14 ships that had been assembled Feb. 17, 1942, to combat Japanese naval forces converging on Java from two directions.

The American, Dutch, English and Australian fleet, formed to buy time for Australia to prepare its defense against a Japanese invasion, was annihilated in less than 24 hours during the Battle of the Java Sea, the first naval engagement in the Pacific of World War II. The Houston and the Perth were the only Allied ships that survived the ferocious combat off the coast of Java.

The two cruisers attempted to escape to Australia through the Sunda Strait, a narrow stretch of water between the Indonesian Islands of Sumatra and Java, when Dutch air reconnaissance reported the strait was clear.


The bell from the USS Houston is mounted for display to re-tell the story of the World War II war cruiser.

Pin Lim/The Daily Cougar

The Battle of Sundra Strait took place at night. The two ships sailed directly into a Japanese invasion fleet that consisted of 60 fully loaded troop transports escorted by at least 20 destroyers, seven cruisers and one aircraft carrier.

The Perth was sunk around 11:45 p.m. after four torpedoes slammed into her hull. The Houston lasted 30 minutes longer, until Japanese ships formed a semicircle around the Houston and illuminated her with searchlights.

Dead from the water from three torpedo hits and listing to starboard, the Houston shuddered and shrieked as round after round of artillery fire chewed her to pieces.
 
 

Brooks was killed when a shell ripped the bridge from the cruiser.

The order was given to abandon ship when a fourth torpedo struck the Houston a few minutes after midnight.

According to retired Navy Capt. Carter B. Conlin, USNR (retired), the Perth and the Houston sunk at least three troop transports and one mine sweeper during the battle.

The crew also inflicted damage on an E-cruiser and four destroyers. One of the destroyed troop transports was the headquarters of invasion fleet commander Gen. Hitoshi Imamura.

Valdon Roberts was a 19-year-old seaman aboard the Houston. During the Battle of Sundra Strait, he was down in the belly of the cruiser supplying ammunition to the guns on deck.

"In battle, you can't leave to go the rest room or get a drink of water," Roberts said. "You just keep doing your designated job until you're ordered to stop. We could hear the turrets going off and the ship would shudder.


1,000 Houstonians gathered in front of the Lamar Hotel in downtown Houston on May 30, 1942, for a mass enlistment to replace the men of the lost U.S. Warship Houston.

"We felt her get hit again," he said. "It was so blessed hot down there. I don't know if we were sweating from heat or fear. By the time we got the word to abandon ship, we were ankle-deep in sweat and urine."

When he got the word to abandon ship, Roberts said he went topside, stripped and neatly folded his clothes as he'd been trained to do, took off his jewelry and put it inside his shoes, then stuffed his socks in his shoes to make sure the jewelry didn't fall out.

"I looked around at the devastation around me. There was debris, blood and parts of bodies scattered all around me. The smell of burned flesh was assaulting my nose," he said. "There were men screaming in pain and agony -- those screams sometimes wake me from my sleep to this day. The smells and sights of battle are raw and evil."

Roberts said he didn't want to leap. Burning oil covered the water, and it must have seemed as if he was going to leap through the gates of hell. Roberts had no idea, as he plunged into that fiery ocean, the depths of absolute horror he would discover when he surfaced into that boiling cauldron of chaos and destruction that used to be the Houston.

Years later, Roberts' daughter, Val Poss, asked him about the scars he had on the front and back of his chest. Roberts told her the scars were from being skewered to the ground for three-and-a-half days when he was "a guest of the Japanese government."

Roberts was in the shark-infested waters for nine-and-a-half hours. When daylight came, Roberts said the Japanese ships passed so close he could hear the enemy soldiers laughing at him.

He said Japanese PT boats roared across the water strafing the floating, defenseless Americans with machine-gun fire. He said some Americans were hauled aboard the Japanese ships, beaten to a bloody pulp, then hurled back into the water for the sharks.

"There was a ship dead in the water with a huge net thrown over the side," Roberts said. "When I finally got to it, I wove my arms and legs in the net and passed out from exhaustion.

"I guess I was out for a couple of hours, then climbed up the net to topside. The Japs helped me up and stood and stared at me. I thought they were trying to decide to throw me back or shoot me," he said.

One of the Japanese sailors gave him a bar of soap, and someone else gave him a bowl of rice. After standing around naked for a while, he was given a pair of pajama bottoms. "Those PJ bottoms lasted me almost two years," Roberts said.

Roberts seldom talked to anyone about his experience as a prisoner of war, even though Poss said she asked her father about it many times.

"My dad told me, 'You love me now. You respect me now. If I told you some of the things I did to stay alive, I would lose both of them,'" Poss said.

The Houston had a crew of 1,065 men on board when the Battle of Sundra Strait began. Of them, 368 men lived to become Japanese prisoners of war.

In the POW camps, 79 died of starvation, disease and mistreatment at the hands of their captors. Only 288 members of the USS Houston survived the war and the brutal treatment at the hands of their enemies.

The Houston's POWs were forced to work on the railroad made famous in the movie Bridge on the River Kwai.

This railroad was to be used to transport supplies from Bangkok, Thailand, to the Japanese army in Burma. Of the approximately 200,000 natives forced to work on the railway as slaves, only 30,000 could be accounted for after the war. 

Even 61,000 Allied prisoners worked on the historic track. Approximately 16,000 of them died during the 15 months it took to build the railroad. More than 150,000 lives were wasted building "The Railyway of Death," as it became known.

When word of the Houston's fate reached its namesake city, a drive was begun to collect money to build a new USS Houston. More than $85 million was contributed by school children, the public and major corporations, enough to construct a new USS Houston and a small aircraft carrier, the USS San Jacinto became proud members of the U.S. Navy.

Displaying a patriotic fervor seldom equaled, Texas responded to the needs of its nation. About 1,000 Texas volunteers formed ranks in front of the Loew's State and Metropolitan theaters on Main Street in downtown Houston on May 30, 1942, to be sworn in to replace the men of the lost USS Houston.

These men would later be known as "The Avengers." A plaque was later placed at the location, to commemorate the ceremony.

Valdon Roberts died May 29, 1989. Only 82 warriors are alive now, and 19 of them are well enough to joined the crew's annual reunion in the Brown Room on Saturday.

Many of the children and grandchildren of these valiant sailors and Marines who served aboard the Houston have picked up the torch that time was slowly dimming by establishing a group they call "The Next Generation." Poss, for example, has taken over the duties of USS Houston veteran Otto Schartz, who originally began contacting all the survivors.

"His vision is failing," Poss said. "I'm just doing this to carry on the memory of the men and the ship."

The purpose of the group is to keep the memories of its members' fathers and grandfathers alive and burning brightly so the men's tremendous bravery and sacrifices can be passed to another generation and their valiant deeds never be forgotten.

Members of the Next Generation contact each other through the group's newsletter, The Bluebonnet. This was the name of the newsletter put out by the USS Houston for its officers and men. The Next Generation also provided many of the artifacts and memorabilia on display in the Brown Room.

The number of these tough men who survived the destruction of the Houston and the prisoner of war camps shrinks each year. If you see one of these elderly gentlemen on campus, introduce yourself and talk to him. Each of these men is a living book filled with tales of adventure, heroism and terror from one of darkest periods of mankind's history. They offer a form of enlightenment seldom learned on a college campus.

"I'm in awe of all of them," Poss said.
 

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