On 2 February, ABDA naval commander U.S. Admiral Thomas Hart formed the Combined Striking Force in order to concentrate his naval resources to meet the next Japanese move. When a Japanese convoy was spotted assembling at Balikpapan, he ordered a sortie. Hart wanted his warships to strike the Japanese as the convoy approached either Makasser in the Celebes or Bandjermasin in Borneo. Already assembled at Madoera Island, near Java's naval base of Soerabaja, were the ABDA cruisers USS Houston and Marblehead and HMNS Tromp, supported by seven destroyers: the USS Barker, Bulmer, John D. Edwards, and Stewart and the HMNS Banckert, Piet Hein, and Van Ghent. When their air reconnaissance sighted these vessels on 3 February, the Japanese gathered 36 Mitsubishi G4M (known as "Betty" in the Allied recognition system) and 24 Mitsubishi G3M ("Nell") bombers, along with 7 Mitsubishi CSM2 ("Babs") reconnaissance aircraft to seek out and destroy this threat.
On the morning of 4 February, Dutch Rear Admiral Karel Doorman led the Combined Striking Force north. No ABDA air cover was available except for the Houston's three floatplanes. Doorman's concern that his force would be spotted by Japanese aircraft was confirmed at 9:49 a.m. when nine Japanese bombers found his ships passing through the Madoera Strait. For the next two hours, the Japanese concentrated their air attacks on the U.S. cruisers.
The Japanese had only one plane shot down and two damaged. Although the Japanese failed to sink any of the ABDA ships, they did inflict serious damage. The Houston's after-turret was knocked out, and the Marblehead was so badly damaged that she was forced to steam to the United States for repairs. Doorman was obliged to withdraw his force to Tjilatjap on Java's southern coast. U.S. casualties in the battle totaled 63 dead and 84 wounded. Hollywood dealt with the story of the wounded sailors in the 1944 propaganda film The Story of Dr. Wassell, starring Gary Cooper.
Jonathan "Jack" Ford
Morison, Samuel Eliot. History of the United States Naval Operations in World War II. Vol. 5, The Struggle for Guadalcanal. Boston: Little, Brown, 1949.; Shores, Christopher, Brian Cull, and Yasuho Izawa. Bloody Shambles. Vol. 2, The Defence of Sumatra to the Fall of Burma. London: Grub Street, 1996.; Winslow, Walter G. The Ghost That Died at Sunda Strait. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1994.