As night fell on the Java Sea, the 14 ships of Dutch Rear Admiral Karel Doorman’s Combined Striking Force headed east along Madura Island in search of the anticipated Japanese force. So close to the equator, there was little wind nor sea to contend with as the ships’ prows easily tilled the obsidian-like surface of the sea, making the voyage an easy one, even for the destroyers. A moderately heavy cloud layer shrouded the sea below, so the lookouts peered into charcoal blackness, their weary eyes searching vainly for some glimmer of light.
Intelligence reports, contradictory and sparse as they were, made it clear that Japanese forces were converging on Java, but it was unclear where they were and where they were headed, so Doorman had no choice but to steam randomly along the Java coast, hoping to stumble onto the phantom enemy.
The voyage eastward was uneventful and, at 0100, Doorman ordered his force to turn north for a time, then headed westward back toward Surabaya, before reversing course and heading east again. On through the midwatch and into the next, the mind-numbing routine continued. Desperate for distraction, some of the crew listened to the Japanese propagandist “Tokyo Rose” as she sardonically broadcast, “Poor American boys. Your ships are being sunk. You haven't a chance. Why die to defend foreign soil which never belonged to the Dutch or British in the first place? Go home, before the slackers steal your wives and girls.” While no one said it, the sound of a female voice—even that of an enemy—was soothing, despite her taunting script.
At last, a nearly indiscernible glow due east on the horizon signaled the approach of sunrise. With the welcome light of dawn came the unwelcome sound of droning engines from above the blanket of clouds. At just after 0900, a Japanese plane emerged from the overcast and dropped several bombs that fell harmlessly into the sea near HMS Jupiter. She was about five miles ahead of the flagship, where Doorman had positioned her in the van of his formation as part of an antisubmarine screen made up of the British and Dutch destroyers.
No more bombs fell, but the continuing sound of engines above and the occasional glimpse of an aircraft through a break in the clouds made it clear that the Japanese were shadowing the American-British-Dutch-Australian (ABDA) force and were no doubt reporting their location to the Japanese fleet, wherever it was.
Helpless to do otherwise, Doorman steamed as before until noon, when the destroyers began reporting that their fuel consumption was becoming a concern. Doorman turned his force southward and headed for the Surabaya channel.
‘All Hands Man Your Battle Stations’
In the mid-afternoon of 27 February 1942, the USS Alden (DD-211), following in the wake of the John D. Edwards (DD-216), was about to enter the protective minefield in the Surabaya channel, when Admiral Doorman’s flagship suddenly reversed course and signaled, “AM PROCEEDING TO INTERCEPT ENEMY UNIT. FOLLOW ME. DETAILS LATER.”
It seemed clear that Doorman had received some new intelligence. What was not clear were his intentions, but Lieutenant Commander Lewis E. Coley dutifully brought the Alden about and headed back out of the channel. Once out in the open sea, Doorman ordered the ships into a battle disposition that placed the cruisers into the same column as they had been previously steaming (the DeRuyter in the lead, followed by HMS Exeter, the USS Houston (CA-30), HMAS Perth, and the Dutch light cruiser Java), headed on a northwesterly course of 315 degrees true. Doorman sent the destroyer HMS Jupiter five miles ahead of the flagship to give him eyes over the horizon and placed the other two British destroyers—the Electra and Encounter—three miles ahead, 45 degrees off his starboard bow. The Dutch destroyers Witte de With and Kortenaer were placed equidistant off his port bow.
As the Alden cleared the headland, the shrill whistle of a boatswain’s pipe sounded over the 1MC, followed by the words, “General quarters, general quarters. All hands man your battle stations.” There was an immediate cacophony as boondockers hit the decks at a dead run and ladders clattered as men climbed up those on the starboard side while others descended those on the port side to avoid collisions. It was fast and it was smooth, the result of frequent drilling under Coley’s and Lieutenant Commander Ernest Evans’ demanding eyes.
It was pretty clear that Doorman must have expected the Japanese to be somewhere near due north; the northwesterly advance would unmask the guns of the cruisers in the column should the Japanese be encountered in that direction. Further, his positioning of the more capable British destroyers along that axis and his relegating the Dutch destroyers—which had been hampered by engineering problems—to the more sheltered position, seemed to support that thinking. Evans had remained a student of naval tactics since leaving the Naval Academy, and his reading about naval battles in the past might have caused him to wonder why Doorman had kept his cruisers in a single column that mixed the heavy and light cruisers and did not account for their different gun ranges. The likely answer was that Doorman anticipated problems maneuvering the bilingual force in combat and wanted to keep things as simple as possible.
The wind was blowing out of the northeast at no more than Force 1 or 2 (between 2 and 9 knots) on the Beaufort scale, but the sea was now running with ten-foot swells off the Alden’s starboard beam. Coupled with her rapidly diminishing fuel state, she and the other destroyers were rolling uncomfortably. The whining of her forced draft blowers testified that she was laboring to keep up the ordered speed as she followed the John D. Edwards, with the USS John D. Ford (DD-228) and Paul Jones (DD-230) astern, so it was disappointing but not surprising that Doorman had placed the aged American destroyers in a column off his port quarter. There, on the anticipated disengaged flank of the formation, they would be less likely to get in the way if the cruiser column needed to maneuver quickly. Despite their speed limitations and the small caliber of their guns, the old tin cans did have torpedoes that could be used to advantage once the forces were engaged, but their current positioning would make it difficult to bring those weapons to bear.
A cloud cover masked much of the sky, and Japanese aircraft occasionally emerged from the wooly blanket to drop a few unsuccessful bombs among the Allied ships before again merging with the clouds. With the Japanese controlling several airfields in the region this was not particularly revelatory, but a more telling sighting occurred when the Alden’s after lookout reported three aircraft near the horizon astern, noting that through his binoculars he could see bulky floats on their undercarriages. This told Coley they were likely scout planes from either cruisers or battleships, rather than land-based aircraft. It was becoming more and more apparent that a Japanese surface force was nearby and tracking them.
At 1615, the starboard forward lookout reported that the Jupiter had reversed course and was heading back toward the formation. Through binoculars, geysers were visible leaping out of the sea around the zig-zagging destroyer, indicating that she was under fire. Her signal lamp was frantically winking as she headed back toward the friendly formation, reporting two enemy heavy cruisers, three light cruisers, and many destroyers at 12 miles, 035 degrees true.
From the Alden’s bridge, puffs of light brown smoke could be seen at the northern horizon, apparently the result of the Japanese guns firing. Before long, the distinct pagoda-like masts of the larger Japanese ships pierced the horizon, and it appeared that they were headed on a westerly, gradually converging heading. The heavy cruisers USS Houston and HMS Exeter opened fire with their long-range 8-inch guns, which were elevated for maximum range. Yellow flames flashed from their barrels, and the reverberation arrived several seconds after. A shroud of thick smoke enveloped the firing cruisers, and minutes later the pungent smell of cordite drifted across the water. The Japanese immediately shifted their fire to the Allied cruiser line in response, and splashes appeared on the sea ahead of the DeRuyter.
As expected, the U.S. destroyers were at this stage mere observers, too far away from the firing to participate either as shooters or targets. From their perspective, it was difficult to make complete sense of the tactical picture. There was a great deal of smoke from the exhalations of the many propulsion plants churning away at high speed, the great clouds of burned propellant blossoming from gun barrels hurling projectiles at one another, and the deliberate laying of smoke screens to mask and confuse and provide temporary refuge as many of the combatants dashed about in a chaotic choreography of evasive maneuvering. With their relatively low height of eye, the destroyer sailors’ view was very different from the bird’s-eye views that the battle diagrams in the history books would later afford.
The gunnery officer in the lead ship—Lieutenant Commander William P. Mack—enjoyed a more advantageous view of the developing battle from his elevated gun director in the John D. Edwards. He later recalled what he observed in an August 1943 Proceedings article, one of the earliest accounts of the battle:
I could see the changing dispositions of both forces, and the positions of our ships and the enemy’s ships in formation. I was reminded vaguely of my classroom days at Annapolis where the fleets of Germany and England had battled on our blackboards. This scene in the Java Sea was similar but there were sinister differences. Here was no chalk dust, but powder smoke and flying spray. Salvos of eight to 15 shots were rising about our ships. In the distance I could see the tops of similar splashes temporarily blotting out the enemy. The formation of these flashes was impressive. They rose slowly, remained suspended for seconds, and then collapsed.
Having all the cruisers in one column rendered the shorter-ranged guns of the light cruisers impotent until the distance could be closed. The only way to correct that rapidly would be to turn the formation toward the Japanese, but that would make them vulnerable to a classic “crossing the ‘T’” tactic. Doorman kept the column intact but adjusted the heading to a more westerly tack, still converging with the Japanese force. As the combatants drew closer, the tactical picture clarified a bit. A column of seven Japanese light cruisers followed by two heavy cruisers was screened ahead and to port by a column of four destroyers and two additional columns of destroyers to starboard. Although the Japanese had a numerical advantage (two heavy cruisers, seven light cruisers, and 12 destroyers against two heavy cruisers, three light cruisers, and nine destroyers) and their ships were generally more modern, the Allies were fortunate that there were no Japanese battleships in the force; had there been, the shooting would have commenced at a much greater range with a one-sided barrage of much heavier-caliber shells raining down on the ABDA force long before they could have responded.
The two sides continued to exchange salvos without scoring any hits, although there were some near misses. Based on the limited but fairly consistent intelligence, it seemed likely that the Japanese combatants were keeping themselves between Doorman’s ships and the troop transports that reportedly were bound for Java. If Doorman were to carry out his orders to attack that invading force, he would have to fight his way through that wall of combatants. Accordingly, he turned his battle line more to the north, and the light cruisers at last came into range of each other, causing the exchanges between the two sides to intensify.
As the firing continued, several Japanese aircraft dropped through the overcast and began circling the battling ships below. They were no doubt providing spotting information to their ships, giving them a considerable advantage over the Allied ships, which were limited to their own optical rangefinders. This disparity soon took its toll as the DeRuyter and Java were hit. Apparently, none of the hits were lethal nor even significantly debilitating, as both ships continued steaming and firing. But the Exeter was less fortunate. A mix of black smoke and white steam erupted from her starboard side, telltale signs that her engineering plant had been struck. She began to slow, and to avoid having the Houston—still at ordered speed—close from astern, the Exeter’s captain ordered a turn to port to get out of the way. But the Houston’s captain assumed he must have missed a signal from Doorman and followed in the Exeter’s wake instead of proceeding on course. The Perth and Java followed as well, leaving the DeRuyter to steam on alone. With the formation thrown into confusion and the poor communications system lagging in sorting it out, it took some time for Doorman to get control of the situation and reform his column.
When Doorman had reformed his cruiser column, he turned northward toward the enemy force. With the Exeter limping away to the south, taking half of Doorman’s 8-inch guns with her, his firepower was seriously weakened. The Houston continued firing, but at a diminished rate, either from waning ammunition or crew exhaustion.
As the distance between the converging adversaries closed, one of the Japanese heavy cruisers appeared to be hit and was burning. A Japanese destroyer had also been hit. Any elation over these successes was soon dampened when lookouts reported another Japanese force of two light cruisers and several destroyers coming into view from the northwest. Coming on at high speed, this new force seemed intent upon attacking the main body of the Allied formation with torpedoes. Doorman ordered an immediate course change away, and all the Allied ships turned sharply to the southwest.
Several reports of torpedo wakes in different languages confirmed the anticipated attack. The Alden’s after lookout reported an approaching torpedo on her port quarter, his normally baritone voice an octave higher than usual. The deadly fish passed them by and many of the crew began breathing again.
At about the same time, the Dutch destroyer Kortenaer was not so fortunate. Now off the Alden’s starboard bow, she was hit by one of the torpedoes. The speed of her demise was shocking to these sailors who had no combat experience. She broke in two and the amputated after half went down in less than 30 seconds. The forward half lingered briefly, her prow pointing toward the sky as though trying to escape the pull of the sea, and then that too plunged into the roiling water. Several men could be seen clinging helplessly to her lifelines as she disappeared from view.
Those torpedoes that had missed their targets began self-destructing at the end of their runs. These explosions provoked several unsubstantiated reports of Japanese submarines in the area.
Undeterred by the overwhelming forces arrayed against them, the British destroyers Electra, Encounter, and Jupiter surged toward the Japanese forces and disappeared into a cloud of smoke. Flashes of gunfire could be seen strobing inside the cloud as destroyers from both sides engaged one another at close range. The British attack caused some of the Japanese forces to turn away toward the north. But not without cost. The Electra suffered severe gunfire damage and would eventually sink.
Evasive maneuvering had again left Doorman’s force in chaotic disarray, and now the American destroyers—still in column—were positioned between Doorman’s cruisers and the oncoming Japanese forces. It seemed it was at last time for these destroyers to join the fray. Doorman ordered them to “COUNTERATTACK” but soon after signaled “CANCEL COUNTERATTACK,” then “MAKE SMOKE.” From these confusing signals, Commander Thomas Binford conjectured that Doorman must be attempting to disengage and wanted his destroyers to screen his withdrawal. Anxious to commit his ships to battle, he further concluded that the best way to accomplish that would be to launch a torpedo attack. So he ignored the “cancel” order and carried out the other two. Making smoke, he turned his column almost due north and, with the Edwards in the lead, charged ahead as fast as her weary engines would allow. Heavy black smoke billowed from the Alden’s four stacks as she labored to keep up, and the whole ship seemed to be trembling as she followed in the Edwards’ white wake. A sailor, clinging to a binnacle on the Alden’s bridge, drew a nervous laugh from his shipmates when he said, “I always knew these old four-pipers would have to go in to save the day.”
Japanese salvos intended for the cruisers passed overhead as the destroyers climbed up and over the swells, slamming down into the troughs, foaming white waves at their bows and greenish-white trails churning in their wakes. Sheets of spray cascaded over the crews on deck at their torpedo stations as they struggled to maintain their footing while preparing their weapons for launch.
The Japanese either did not see the American destroyers in the waning dusk light or preferred to concentrate their fire on Doorman’s cruiser column, so the advancing destroyers were able to continue closing the range unmolested. Binford remained calm as he continued to weigh the situation, aware that the closer he could get, the better were the chances of their torpedoes striking their targets but knowing that with each passing second their own vulnerability increased logarithmically. If he waited too long, enemy fire could rip the charging tin cans to pieces before they could deliver their fish.
The lead Japanese cruiser had a tall superstructure that loomed taller as they drew closer; her flared bow with the bright white bow wave below looked like a wolf baring its teeth. Suddenly, her forward guns flashed much brighter than before, a sure sign that she had shifted her aim toward the destroyers. Several plumes of water erupted dead ahead as Japanese rounds fell mercifully short. At that moment, Binford ordered his ships to commence launching their torpedoes. On the Alden, a sailor shouted into his sound-powered phone set, repeating Coley’s orders: “Salvo fire! Fire one! Fire Three! Fire five! Fire seven!” Each of the ships likewise emptied their starboard tubes, and 24 torpedoes splashed into the churning sea. Binford immediately ordered a 45-degree turn to starboard to unmask the tubes on their port sides. Coley ordered “right full rudder” and, as the bow swung rapidly about, more shell bursts could be seen off the port quarter marking the areas where the destroyers would have been had they maintained course a minute longer. Once the column was steadied up on the new course, Binford ordered another salvo, and the Alden’s torpedoes two, four, six, and eight leaped into the sea bound for the oncoming Japanese force.
With all their torpedoes expended, on Binford’s order, the Alden and her sisters turned away from the Japanese force and wisely beat a hasty retreat. In his after-action report, Commander Coley wrote “the rear ship of the enemy column appeared to be on fire aft, and to have a fire in her high forward turret or superstructure.” Whether that was accurate reporting or a product of wishful thinking, the important thing was that the enemy’s main force turned away to evade the oncoming torpedoes, and that gave the remaining ABDA force time to retreat into the gathering darkness.
Despite all the ordnance that had been expended, the DeRuyter, Houston, Java, and Perth had suffered little damage. The Exeter, now farther south, remained afloat and was slowly making way, but she was clearly of little combat value. Doorman ordered his able cruisers into the familiar column formation and headed south toward Java. It appeared that the Japanese had decided not to pursue, although the unsettling droning of engines above continued.
The four U.S. destroyers were left trailing behind. From the Alden’s bridge, the cruisers were invisible in the darkness except when Japanese aircraft occasionally appeared, sporadically dropping flares to illuminate the column. It was a strange sensation to be plowing ahead in utter darkness, then suddenly seeing the formation ahead bathed in the eerie light of flares, strobing as they neared the end of their descent, then winking out as they plunged into the dark waters.
The Edwards’ captain later reported, “We followed the main body endeavoring to regain station, and not having the slightest idea as to his [Doorman’s] plans and still only a vague idea of what the enemy was doing.” One of the other destroyer captains reported, “There were no more signals, and no one could tell what the next move would be. Attempts were made to communicate again with Houston and DeRuyter with no results.”
As they neared the Java coast, without explanation Doorman turned his force westward to skirt the coast, perhaps in a last attempt to intercept the impending Japanese invasion force. It was unclear whether Binford had received orders from Doorman or had taken it upon himself to break off from the formation, but he now ordered his destroyers to retire to Surabaya. It seemed the only logical option because their fuel state had reached the critical point, and that became their foremost priority.
Only later would the Americans learn that separating from Doorman’s remnant force would prove fortuitous in light of what followed.
Bountiful Courage, But Poor Comms
The Battle of the Java Sea was the biggest surface engagement since the Battle of Jutland, nearly 30 years before. Unlike Jutland, where both sides claimed victory with some justification, this battle was clearly a Japanese victory. The ABDA force failed in its primary mission to thwart the Japanese invasion of Java. There had been no shortage of courage, but poor communications and incongruent battle doctrines had severely hampered the ABDA ships in their attempt to thwart the Japanese assault on Java. Even with the best tactics, the result likely would have been similar. It was a lopsided battle from the outset, with the Japanese having the upper hand in both quantity and quality.
Coley and Evans would not learn the fate of the other ABDA ships until much later, and it would not be good news. All of Doorman’s ships that had survived the battle on 27 February were lost; Doorman himself went to the bottom with the DeRuyter. As if that news were not tragic enough, many of those who had survived the sinking of their ships were subsequently captured and would spend the duration of war in terrible conditions as prisoners of war.
A Dutch hospital ship was dispatched to recover survivors of the DeRuyter and Java, but she likely never arrived on the scene. Radio contact was lost with the ship, and an observer in an aircraft reported that he believed he had seen her steaming in company with two Japanese destroyers. She was not heard from again.
The once-proud Houston went down fighting—her loss reported in the American press back home, causing a strong public reaction. In Houston, Texas, more than 1,000 young men volunteered to replace the ship’s crew and were sworn into the Navy on Memorial Day in an impressive twilight ceremony on a downtown street, a replica of the cruiser in the background.
Houston’s mayor read a message from President Franklin Roosevelt, who had once declared the ship his favorite:
On this Memorial Day all America joins with you who are gathered in proud tribute to a great ship and a gallant company of American officers and men. . . . I knew that ship and loved her. Her officers and men were my friends. When ship and men went down, still fighting, they did not go down to defeat. . . . The officers and men of the USS Houston drove a hard bargain. They sold their liberty and their lives most dearly. . . . Our enemies have given us the chance to prove that there will be another USS Houston, and yet another USS Houston if that becomes necessary, and still another USS Houston as long as American ideals are in jeopardy. Our enemies have given us the chance to prove that an attack on peace-loving but proud Americans is the very gravest of all mistakes. The officers and men of the USS Houston have placed us all in their debt by winning a part of the victory which is our common goal. Reverently, and with all humility, we acknowledge this debt. To those officers and men, wherever they may be, we give our solemn pledge that the debt will be paid in full.