ABDA, the Allied command in the Dutch East Indies, was a polyglot force lacking training, air support, and a common language. In contrast, the Japanese were superbly equipped and trained, and they possessed superior airpower. Admiral Thomas Hart, commander of the U.S. Asiatic Fleet and ABDA, ordered the ABDA's naval Combined Striking Force to interdict the Japanese convoy headed toward Makassar. Led by Dutch Rear Admiral Karel Doorman in the Dutch cruiser de Ruyter, the mixed fleet included the U.S. light cruiser Marblehead and heavy cruiser Houston, the Dutch light cruiser Tromp, four American destroyers guarding the flanks, and three Dutch destroyers in the rear. Supported by only four flying boats, the Allied formation lacked any form of air cover.
Departing Bunda Roads at midnight on 3–4 February, the force headed north through Makassar Strait. At 9:54 a.m., 37 Japanese twin-engined "Nell" bombers from the Eleventh Air Fleet stationed at Kendari spotted the ABDA formation and attacked. Within minutes, the de Ruyter lost antiaircraft fire control due to a near miss from a bomb. Several bombs also straddled the light cruiser Marblehead, and near misses jammed its rudders to port, caused a loss of steering control, and sprung bow hull plates, resulting in flooding and a 10-degree list to starboard. The Marblehead could only maneuver using its screws. Two bombs then struck the cruiser, tearing open the rear deck and inflicting over 50 casualties. The Houston took a bomb on its 8-inch after-turret, and almost 100 men, including all but 2 of the turret crew, burned to death.
With three cruisers struck or damaged and the Marblehead crippled and in danger of sinking, Doorman retired through Bali Strait toward Tjilatjap. On 4 February, a U.S. submarine torpedoed and sank a Japanese destroyer off Kendari. Doorman, however, never sighted the Japanese invasion convoy, which sailed to Makassar, landing and capturing that town on 8 February 1942.
Mark E. Van Rhyn
Dull, Paul S. A Battle History of the Imperial Japanese Navy (1941–1945). Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1978.; Morison, Samuel Eliot. History of United States Naval Operations in World War II. Vol. 5, The Struggle for Guadalcanal, August 1942–February 1943. Boston: Little, Brown, 1949.; Willmott, H. P. Empires in the Balance: Japanese and Allied Pacific Strategies to April 1942. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1982.