The air raid on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941 marked the opening of an amphibious blitzkrieg designed by the Japanese to seize control of Southeast Asia and the East Indies. In the weeks that followed, this great offensive became a virtually uninterrupted triumphal procession. Japanese forces invaded Thailand and Malaya on 8 December. An air attack off Malaya on the 10th sank the British battleship Prince of Wales and battlecruiser Repulse. Most of the B-17 bombers vital to the defense of the Philippines had been destroyed by the 13th. Wake Island fell on the 23rd, Hong Kong on Christmas Day, and Manila on 2 January 1942.
A day after the occupation of Manila, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill announced the creation of a unified American, British, Dutch, Australian (ABDA) Command charged with coordinating resistance to the Japanese onslaught. ABDA’s aim was to halt the enemy at the so-called Malay Barrier stretching from Singapore through the Netherlands East Indies to western New Guinea. This task proved beyond its capabilities. The supposedly impregnable bastion of Singapore surrendered on 15 February. By that date, it had become clear that the forces available could not hold the East Indies, and on 25 February the ABDA Command was dissolved.
During the command’s brief existence, its naval component (ABDAfloat) had organized a cruiser-destroyer force with the ambitious mission of opposing the inevitable invasion. Placed under the tactical command of Rear Admiral Karel W. F. M. Doorman, Royal Netherlands Navy, this Combined Striking Force included ships of the U.S. Asiatic Fleet sent south from the Philippines in December, the Dutch East Indies Squadron, and a number of British and Australian vessels.
Java was the linchpin of the defense of the Indies. Between 4 and 17 February, Doorman led three sorties from its northern coast to disrupt enemy operations in neighboring waters. The first two of these futile thrusts broke off when the Striking Force came under heavy attack by Japanese aircraft; the third resulted in an inconclusive night action. Cost to the Allies was the loss of two Dutch destroyers and the effective loss of two cruisers, the USS Marblehead (CL-12) and HNMS Tramp, which sustained such severe bomb damage that they had to leave the theater for repairs. Another bomb destroyed the after 8-inch turret of the heavy cruiser USS Houston (CA-30), but despite her crippling wound, the ship remained with the force.
Despite these setbacks, Doorman’s resolve did not waver. In a signal to his command on 22 February, he declared: “Every opportunity for offensive action must be seized and sacrifices must be made. ... I fully trust that every man shall understand the earnestness of this message and will realize that we must do our duty until the last moment.”
On the evening of 25 February and again the next night, Doorman took his ships to sea in vain efforts to intercept Japanese forces known to be converging on Java. Entering Surabaya (Soerabaja) on the afternoon of the 27th, he learned that an enemy formation had been sighted approximately 150 miles to the north and immediately turned back to sea.
He made contact at 1612. The Striking Force consisted of two heavy cruisers—the USS Houston and HMS Exeter; three light cruisers—HNMS de Ruyter (flag), HNMS Java, and HMAS Perth; and nine destroyers—the USS AIden (DD-211), John D. Edwards (DD-216), John D. Ford (DD- 228), and Paul Jones (DD-230), HMS Electra, Encounter, and Jupiter, and HNMS Kortenaer and Witte de With. The Japanese surface action group commanded by Admiral Takao Takagi was composed of two heavy cruisers—the Nachi and Haguro; two light cruisers—-the Jintsu and Nalca; and 14 destroyers.
Superficially, the odds against the Striking Force did not appear high; but in reality they were very steep. Although individually the ABDA ships were efficient, they had not had time to shake down into a team; their crews were physically exhausted; and they had left their spotter planes in port two nights earlier. In contrast, the Japanese ships were accustomed to operating together; their crews were fresh; and their planes would perform stellar service in correcting the fall of shot and reporting the ABDA force’s movements. Finally, the Japanese enjoyed the advantage of the Type-93 Long Lance torpedo, the best in the world.
The action, destined to last seven grueling hours, opened with the two forces exchanging fire on parallel, westerly courses. This phase ended at 1708, when the Exeter was hit by a shell that cut her speed in half and veered out of line. Assuming that she did so in response to a signal from Doorman, the following ships steered in her wake, throwing the Striking Force into disorder. Minutes later, a Long Lance blew the Kortenaer out of the water. Doorman then ordered the British destroyers to counterattack. This they did with great gallantry, damaging two enemy destroyers but losing the Electra. Meanwhile, the Allied line reformed, and the Exeter began limping toward Surabaya under escort of the Witte de With. At 1800, Doorman began a series of twists and turns to the south and southeast in hopes of losing the enemy screen and closing with the invasion force. Apparently the result of a signals misunderstanding, the U.S. destroyers rounded on the enemy at 1809 to deliver an unsuccessful attack in which they expended all of their torpedoes. Shortly thereafter, the opposing forces lost visual contact.
Around 1820, the Striking Force resumed a northerly course that led to a brief clash with the Jintsu and three destroyers. Both sides gave way. After a run to the south, Doorman turned west at 2100, still intent on reaching the enemy transports. His chances were doomed by two Japanese spotter planes that kept him unwelcome company until 2200. By then, the U.S. destroyers—low on fuel and out of torpedoes—were steering for Surabaya to replenish. Doorman’s destroyer screen was further depleted when at 2125 HMS Jupiter blew up and sank, the victim of either a Dutch mine or a Japanese submarine.
A few minutes later, Doorman swung back to the north. His new course led the ABDA force past the position where the Kortenaer had gone down. Survivors were sighted, and the Perth ordered HMS Encounter to rescue them and return to Surabaya. This humanitarian action left the four cruisers unescorted.
At about 2300 the Haguro and Nachi were sighted coming down from the north. They reversed course upon contact, and a running battle ensued. After 20 minutes the Japanese cruisers launched torpedoes at a range of approximately 8,000 yards. Both the de Ruyter and Java took mortal hits. Doorman deliberately chose to go down with his flagship. His last signal ordered the Houston and Perth to withdraw. In the past month, some American officers had come to question the Dutch admiral’s tactical ability, but no one could doubt his courage now.
The aftermath of the Java Sea battle was as melancholy as its end. Of the surviving Allied ships, only the U.S. destroyers escaped being sunk or captured in succeeding days. Ashore, Java’s lightly armed defenders were quickly overwhelmed. Lieutenant General H. ter Porten, commander-in-chief of the Netherlands East Indies Army, unconditionally surrendered the island on 9 March. The Japanese tide of conquest had engulfed the Malay Barrier.
For further reading: Samuel Eliot Morison, History of United States Naval Operations in World War II, Vol. Ill: The Rising Sun in the Pacific (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1975); P. C. van Oosten, The Battle of the Java Sea (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1976); H. P. Willmott, Empires in the Balance: Japanese and Allied Pacific Strategies to April 1942 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1982).