World War Two: Japanese Imperial Navy; Battle of Sundra Strait-February 1942

The action off Surabaja did no interfere with the scheduled invasion of west Java on the three beaches at Merak, Bantam Bay, and Eretenwetan. Landing began on the evening of 28 February. The Houston and the Perth refueled at Batavia, which was under constant air attack, and sortied at 1900, heading for Tjilatjap by way of Sundra Strait. Forty miles to the west, Japanese troops were coming ashore at Bantam Bay. In the immediate vicinity of eh beachhead were the heavy cruisers Mikuma and Mogami, the light cruiser Natori, and the Destroyers Shirakumo, Murakumo, Fubuki, Shirayuki, Hatsuyuki, Asakaze, and Shikikumo.

The Houston and the Perth heading south and then southwest together saw the lines of transports twelve miles directly ahead as they rounded Babi Island at about 2215 on 28 February. There were only two destroyers, the Harukaze and Hatakaze, then screening the transports. The Houston and Perth had been sighted, however, at the same time that they spotted the transports, by the destroyer Fubuki, which as alone fat to the west on their starboard beam. A chaotic series of maneuvers by the Japanese ships further to the west ensued. As the Houston and Perth charged down onto the transports with their guns blazing, the Harukaze got under way at 2231 on the northwest course making smoke to hide the vulnerable troop ships. The Hatakaze, which was only a few yards behind the transports got under way at 2231 on a northerly course, disappearing into the smoke screen and heading for the main portion of the Third Escort Fleet. This left the Fubuki as the only warship charging the two cruisers. To add to the confusion, the transports were attacked by some of the few lanes left on Java’s airfield.

The main force of Japanese ships were widely dispersed to the west and northwest. Destroyer Division 12 was sixteen miles to the west, and the heavy cruisers Mikuma and Mogami and the destroyer Shikinami were fourteen miles to the north fourteen miles to the northwest. Other units where somewhat nearer but still could not give immediate relief to the transports. They all steamed at flank speed towards the unexpected intruders. Naturally the course of the Houston and the Perth was a straight line, aimed at the transport group. Their only antagonist at that moment was the Fubuki, which rounded the east corner of Bali Island and then followed directly in the wake of the cruisers. It had taken he almost twenty minutes to get into a position where she had a line of fire.

The Houston and Perth were now doomed to pay the price, as three Japanese cruisers and nine destroyers converged on them. The Fubuki chased the two ships for fourteen minutes, taking fire from the after guns of the Perth. At 2244, the Fubuki turned to starboard, and launched torpedoes, and then disappeared to the north in her own smoke. The launch was a dangerous tactic, for if the torpedoes missed the Allied cruisers, they would be directly on course for the transports.

To avoid Fubuki’s torpedoes, the two cruisers made a tight circle and then, heading west, continued on a course which paralleled the transports. But the Western Support Force and Third Escort Force were closing fast; and the destroyer Hatakaze began firing at the cruisers t 2252. It seemed as if all Japanese ships arrived in the small area all at once, with all columns going in different directions, while firing rapidly and launching torpedoes. Under this attack, the Houston and Perth turned south at 2300, then northeast at 2308. At about this time, Japanese torpedoes struck the Houston and Perth (and some of their own transports). Hit by gunfire and two torpedoes, the Perth circled to the northeast , and sank at 2342.

The Houston turned back to the east, but having also been hit repeatedly by shells and three torpedoes, she went under an hour later. In all, eighty-seven torpedoes were launched at the Houston and Perth. Given the melee of Japanese ships, all firing, it seems extremely likely that friendly ships were hitting one another, and that torpedoes were missing their marks but finding other target.

Meanwhile, explosions began taking place among the transports. Minesweeper No.2, part of the transports screen, received a torpedo hit from the Fubuki and capsized. The Sakura Maru, at about the same time also caught one of Fubuki’s torpedoes and sank. Three other transports, including Ryujo Maru, were hit and severaly damaged. General Imamura, commander-in-chief of the 16th Army, was on board the Ryujo Maru directing the second wave of landing craft, when an explosion threw him into the oil-coated water. It took him about three hours to get ashore, he arrived there covered with oil and exhausted. The destroyers Shirakumo and Harukaze suffered battle damage , and the latter had three men killed and five wounded.

The battle for Java was over. The destroyer U.S.S. Edsall and the oiler Pacos were picked off and sunk 1 March while fleeing Java for Australia. The vastly inferior Allied Army could not escape the inevitable defeat, and the Netherlands East Indies formally surrendered to Japan 8 March 1942. A sturdy girder in the arch of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, extending from the Netherlands East Indies through Malaya to Burma, had been put into place. Greater East Asia now had been extended from mid-Sumatra to the Lesser Sundra Islands by this short, efficiently conducted campaign. The reaches of the South Seas now belonged to Japan. The Japanese victory fever rose a few more degrees.

With the fall of Singapore, Bangka, and Java, the sea road to Burma was easily opened and protected. By overland march the Japanese Army had captured Rangoon on 8 March. The Navy took Andaman Island, which had a good airfield, and Nicobar Island on 23 March. When the occupation of Sunatra was completed on 28 March, the Greater East Asia Co[Prosperity Sphere had been completely established; now it would need protection.

THE COMMENTARY GAZETTE®

SOURCE: Battle History of the Imperial Japanese Navy 1941-45; BY: Paul S. Dull

World War Two: Japanese Imperial Navy; Battle of Java Sea

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