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Sunda Strait, Battle of (28 February–1 March 1942)

Naval battle in the southwest Pacific between Allied and Japanese forces. By February 1942, the collective Allied defense of the southwest Pacific, the ABDA (American-British-Dutch-Australian) command, had largely collapsed.

Following the Battle of the Java Sea on 27 February, three Japanese invasion forces continued to steam toward landings on the island of Java. The Western Attack Force, which included the aircraft carrier Ryujo, four heavy cruisers, and several destroyers, under the command of Rear Admiral Kurita Takeo, began landing troops at the eastern entrance to Sunda Strait late on 28 February 1942. Allied intelligence knew of the Japanese intention to land in the region but did not know the exact timetable. Believing a landing would not occur until the following day, overall ABDA naval commander Dutch Vice Admiral Conrad Helfrich ordered the surviving Allied naval forces to reassemble at Tjilatjap in a futile effort to halt the Japanese.

The U.S. heavy cruiser Houston and Australian light cruiser HMAS Perth exited Batavia harbor at 7:00 p.m. on 28 February as ordered. Their escort, the Dutch destroyer Evertsen, was delayed, however, and did not take part in the coming battle. The crews of both Allied ships were exhausted after weeks of incessant action. Morale was also low; Japanese forces had handed the Allies one defeat after another in the Pacific. Neither ship carried a full load of fuel, both were low on ammunition and in need of maintenance, and the Houston's after turret was inoperable following an air attack on 4 February.

At approximately 10:15 p.m. on 28 February, the Japanese destroyer Fubuki spotted the Perth and Houston approaching Bantam Bay on the eastern edge of Sunda Strait. At the same time, the Allied cruisers sighted Japanese transports offloading troops and supplies, and the cruisers immediately attacked. The Fubuki fired a signal flare and launched nine torpedoes. No torpedoes struck the Allied ships, but some ran long and hit the Japanese transports.

By 11:40 p.m., however, Japanese covering forces converged on the Allied ships. In the ensuing melee, minesweeper No. 2 sank, as did the Sakura Maru. The Ryujo Maru—headquarters ship of General Imamura Hitoshi, commander in chief of the Sixteenth Army—was also struck, and the explosion threw the general into the water. He reached shore three hours later after swimming through oil-coated water. Two additional transports were heavily damaged. The heavy cruisers Mikuma and Mogami opened fire with their 8-inch guns. The light cruiser Natori then arrived and commenced firing as well.

Japanese destroyers launched torpedoes as the Allied cruisers attempted to escape. Over the course of the battle, the Japanese ships fired 87 torpedoes. The Perth, struck by multiple torpedoes and several 8-inch shells, sank about midnight. The Houston continued to fight for another 30 minutes, resorting to firing star and practice shells once available live ammunition had been expended. Shrapnel killed Captain Albert Rooks just after he had issued an abandon-ship order at 12:25 a.m. By that time, the Houston had absorbed overwhelming punishment. Four to six torpedoes had struck the American cruiser as well as numerous 8-inch and smaller-caliber shells. A full salvo had struck the after engine room, bursting steam lines and killing the entire engine room crew. The cruiser finally rolled over and sank at about 12:45 a.m. on 1 March. Nearly two-thirds of the Houston's crew died during the battle. The survivors of both ships spent the next three and a half years as Japanese prisoners of war. Excluding the transports, damage among Japanese ships was light. Worst hit was the destroyer Harukaze, which had three men killed and five wounded. The Battle of Sunda Strait finalized the Japanese navy's victory at sea in the East Indies.

Rodney Madison

Further Reading
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.; Schultz, Duane P. The Last Battle Station: The Story of the U.S.S. Houston. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1985.; Winslow, W. G. The Ghost That Died at Sunda Strait. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1984.

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