In late January 1942, the Dutch East Indies (present-day Indonesia) became the newest last-line-of-defense facing Imperial Japan’s southward-advancing armed forces. Assorted foreign units trickled in to fight alongside the Dutch—including an aging U.S. Naval Reserve physician named Wassell. The ensuing days would become the most dangerous and demanding trial of the doctor’s life, exemplifying the phrase “devotion to duty.” The seeds of his epic exploits were planted on 4 February 1942, in the Flores Sea.
The sea was calm that day. From the west, nine Japanese planes headed in at 15,000 feet through a mostly clear, blue mid-morning sky. Far below, a Dutch and U.S. task force of four cruisers and seven destroyers reacted defensively as soon as the approaching aircraft were spotted. Spreading their attacks over the next two hours, some 54 twin-engine Mitsubishi G3M Type 96 “Nells” walloped the warships twisting across the surface of the Flores Sea. Two cruisers were hit badly, ending an attempt to intercept a Japanese invasion fleet in the Makassar Strait and compelling the Allied task force to retreat toward its base at Surabaya, Java.
Corydon M. Wassell obituary, Arkansas Gazette, 12 May 1958.
James Hilton, The Story of Dr. Wassell (New York: Atlantic–Little, Brown, 1943), vii–xi, 10.
James Hornfischer, Ship of Ghosts: The Story of the USS Houston, FDR’s Legendary Lost Cruiser, and the Epic Saga of Her Survivors (New York: Bantam Books, 2006), 8.
Edwin P. Hoyt, The Lonely Ships: The Life and Death of the Asiatic Fleet (New York: David McKay, 1976), 224, 270–4, 281–4.
The Lucky Bag, U.S. Naval Academy, Class of 1920.
Dwight R. Messimer, Pawns of War: The Loss of the USS Langley and the USS Pecos (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1983), 92–3, 96–101, 131, 147.
Edward Pinkowski, “Dr. Wassell’s Boys” Our Navy, January 1945, 12–14.
CAPT W. G. Winslow, USN (Ret.), The Fleet the Gods Forgot: The US Asiatic Fleet in World War II (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1982), 165–73, 244.
CAPT W. G. Winslow, USN (Ret.), The Ghost That Died at Sunda Strait (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1984), 87–94, 206.