THE LOST BATTALION 2nd BATTALION, 131ST FIELD ARTILLERY. USS HOUSTON (CA-30) AND HMAS PERTH SURVIVORS

There have been many questions regarding American servicemen working on the Burma Thailand Railway whilst prisoners of the Japanese. In the main any such men were from the 2nd Battalion 131st Field Artillery and their story is one of the many on the Railway Story. (There are also the coincidences in regard to the 131st Field Artillery, the USS Houston and the HMAS PERTH survivors who became POWs). The following illustrates the connection and coincidences between the three elements. 131ST FIELD ARTILLERY The men of the 2nd Battalion, 131st Field Artillery swam ashore from the Cruiser USS Houston when it was sunk. Only some survived 42 months of “hell" as prisoners of the Japanese. The 2nd Battalion, 131st Field Artillery, 36th Division (Texas National Guard), was mobilized in November 1940. This Battalion was detached from the Division and sent to the Philippine Islands. The Unit sailed from the United States on November 21, 1941 aboard the Army Transport Ship, USS Republic and arrived at Pearl Harbor on the 28th of the same month. A day or two prior to reaching Hawaii a "black-out" and "radio silence" was announced and that an attack by the Japanese was expected at any time. After refuelling in Hawaii, the ship, accompanied by other ships, including the Chaumont, Hallmark, Holbrook, Admiral Halstead, Bloemfontein, Farmer and Gregg and the Cruiser USS Pensacola sailed south, and within a week Pearl Harbor was attacked by the Japanese. On December 7the Unit was informed of the attack on Pearl Harbor. The USS Republic had four 3-inch guns and one 5-inch gun (on the "fan-tail") mounted on her. The convoy made a short stop at Suva, Fiji Islands and then sailed on to Brisbane, Australia. This Unit was among the first American Troops ever to land on Australian soil. The Battalion spent Christmas 1941 in Brisbane but before New Year's Day it was again on the high seas, aboard the Dutch freighter Bloemfontein bound for the Island of Java in the Netherland East Indies, via Darwin, Australia. Coincidentally, the escort vessel for part of the journey was the Cruiser USS Houston. On January 11, 1942, 35 days after the outbreak of War with Japan, the Battalion was on Java, the only U. S. ground combat Unit to reach the Netherland East Indies, before the Dutch capitulated to the Japanese and the Battalion was captured by the Japanese. (They were considered “lost” because no one knew what happened to them until the war was nearly over. To the War Department they had simply disappeared). Prior to the capitulation the Battalion (less E Battery), used its artillery and 50 calibre machine guns (salvaged from wrecked B-17s) in support of an Australian "Pioneer Infantry" group (the 2/2nd Pioneers) which had arrived in Java just prior to the Japanese landing. With what the Aussies called "top-hole" artillery fire, they helped hold up the Japanese advance at Leuwilleng, near the Central Java City of Bandoeng. Of the 558 men and officers who landed on Java on January 11, 1942, 534 became prisoners of war of the Japanese. Within a few weeks, the Japanese had all of the American prisoners from the USS Houston and the 131st (less "E" Battery) together in the 10th Battalion Bicycle Camp, a former Dutch installation in the Batavia (Jakarta) Java Battery "E" remained in the Sourabaya area until moved to Nagasaki and other areas in Japan via Batavia and Singapore in November and December 1942. Thus, two Units of the American Armed Forces, consisting of 902 men, seemingly disappeared from the face of the earth, sacrificed in a clearly hopeless effort to save the Netherland East Indies from overwhelming numbers of the enemy. Now began an unbelievable string of events which, for some, would last three and one-half years and was to weld the "Phantoms" of the USS Houston (CA-30) and the 2nd Battalion, 131st Field Artillery together in a bond closer than blood. This Army and Navy group of POWs suffered together through 42 months of humiliation, degradation, physical and mental torture, starvation and horrible tropical diseases, with no medication. The hardest part was watching friends die slowly, day by day, with the survivors often thinking, fleetingly, that maybe they were the "lucky ones." Of the 902 men taken Prisoner, 668 were sent to Burma and Thailand and worked on the "Death Railway" (of Bridge on the River Kwaii fame). Of the total, 163 men who died in Prisoner of War Camps, 133 died working on the railroad. After completion of the railroad, 236 of the men were disbursed to Japan and other Southeast Asian Countries to work in coal mines, shipyards, docks, etc. and a few remained at the "Bicycle Camp" in Java. Quite a few of the men were killed by American submarines while en-route to Singapore and Japan and more were killed by American bombers. When liberated, the men were scattered throughout locations in Southeast Asia: Java, Singapore, Burma, Thailand, French Indo China, Japan, China and Manchuria, to name most of them. USS HOUSTON A new heavy Cruiser (CA-30) was launched from Newport News, Virginia, on September 7, 1929, christened as USS HOUSTON. In 1940, she was in the Philippine Islands and when the U. S. Navy Department expected an attack on the fleet at any time the USS Houston was ordered to move from the Cavite Navy Yard (across the bay from Manila) to the Port of Ilo Ilo on the Island of Panay where she arrived on the 4th of December, four full days prior to the first air attacks on the City of Manila and the complete destruction of the Cavite Naval Installation. The ship left Ilo Ilo at 6:30 PM on Pearl Harbor day, just before a Japanese bomber attack on that Port. That same evening, the USS Houston was joined by the light cruiser, USS Boise, and on the following day by destroyers USS Stewart and USS Edwards, the seaplane tender, USS Langley and the fleet oilers, USS Pecos and USS Trinity. The convoy turned south, steamed toward Borneo and arrived at Balikpapan on the 15th of December. The next day, the USS Houston was ordered to proceed directly to Sourabaya, Java, to prepare for convoy escort duty between the Netherlands East Indies and Australia. The ship had become part of an allied fleet operating out of Java. On the 4th of February 1942, while searching for a Japanese force, consisting of three cruisers and 20 transports, they were attacked by 54 Japanese bombers. A direct hit knocked out the 8 inch gun turret, blew a 12 foot diameter hole in the main deck, killed 48 men and wounded 20 others. Although the vessel had lost one-third of its major firepower, it participated next in the "Battle of the Java Sea", where 12 Allied ships were lost. These were, Dutch: light cruisers Java & De Ruyter; destroyers Kortenaer and Witte de With; British heavy cruiser HMS Exeter, (of Graf Spee fame); destroyers: HMS Jupiter, HMS Encounter and HMS Electra; American destroyers: USS John C.Ford, USS Alden, USS Paul Jones and USS John D. Edwards. The only vessels to survive the "Battle of the Java Sea" were the Australian cruiser HMAS Perth and the USS Houston and on the night following the Java Sea Battle, the two ships attempted to sail to the south end of Java via the Sunda Strait. A Japanese fleet, consisting of an aircraft carrier, five cruisers, 11 destroyers and several PT boats was in the Strait, covering the landing of Japanese troops from 40 transports. When the HMAS Perth and the USS Houston reached the strait late that night (February 28, 1942) they found themselves surrounded by enemy ships. After putting up a tremendous battle, first the HMAS Perth and then the USS Houston were sent to the bottom. Only 368 of the total complement of 1011 men of the USS Houston managed to reach shore. The remaining 643 shipmates, including their skipper, Captain Rooks, went down with the ship. Within a few days, all the survivors became prisoners of the Japanese. The Lost Battalion remains the "Most Decorated Unit" in Texas of any War and USS Houston CA-30, is the "Most Decorated" vessel of its class in the U. S. Fleet. Each year since 1945, the survivors of the POW "hell" along with their families, meet in August to keep their Bond of Brotherhood inviolate and to remember and pay honour to the 163 who died in Prison Camps and the 504 who have died since liberation and the 646 who died in action. The loss of HMAS Perth, 1 March 1942 HMAS PERTH HMAS Perth, a light cruiser of 6,830 tons, was commissioned into the Royal Navy as HMS Amphion on 15 June 1936 and later purchased by the Australian Government. She was commissioned into the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) on 29 June 1939. She carried a complement of 681. Her early war service was in the Caribbean and the Pacific and she did not reach Australia until 31 March 1940. Until November 1940, the ship was engaged on patrol and escort duties in Australian waters. She then departed for the Mediterranean where she played a minor part in the battle of Matapan. She was involved in the evacuations of Crete and Greece in April and May 1941, in the course of which she was badly damaged by bombing. After repairs, the cruiser was engaged in operations off the coast of Syria before proceeding to Australia for an extended refit. She arrived in Sydney on 12 August. While the ship was refitting, Captain H. M. L. Waller, DSO and bar, RAN, took command on 24 October 1941. After completion of her refit, Perth operated off eastern Australia on patrol and escort work, visiting New Caledonia and New Guinea. On 14 February 1942 Perth sailed for the Netherlands East Indies, arriving at Batavia (now Jakarta) on 24 February, where she was attacked by Japanese aircraft that day and the next without sustaining any damage. The Perth sailed for Surabaya on 25 February, in company with four Royal Navy ships. On 26 February the ship departed Surabaya in company with the Dutch light cruisers De Ruyter and Java, the heavy cruisers USS Houston and HMS Exeter, and two Dutch, three British and four US destroyers. The squadron, under the command of the Dutch Rear Admiral Karel Doorman, proceeded along the north coast of Madura Island, searching for a Japanese invasion convoy. Admiral Doorman received information that the Japanese forces had been sighted to the north and he steamed to intercept. In the ensuing battle of the Java Sea, fought over the night of 27-28 February the Allied force was soundly defeated by a Japanese force which was able to exploit its superiority over the four-nation Allied force in terms of long-range gunnery, torpedoes, night fighting, the freshness of its crews, and its homogeneity. The Dutch cruisers were sunk and Exeter badly damaged, while most of the destroyers were sunk or withdrew as their torpedoes were exhausted. Perth and Houston were able to break off the action with the Japanese and sailed to Tandjung Priok, where they refuelled. Orders were received for the cruisers to sail through the Sunda Strait for Tjilitjap on Java's south coast. They sailed at 7.00 pm on 28 February and set a course to the west for the Strait, Perth leading, with Houston five cables astern. At 11.06 a vessel was sighted at about five miles range, close to St Nicholas Point. When challenged she proved to be a Japanese destroyer and was immediately engaged. The two cruisers had met the Japanese invasion force assigned to western Java. Shortly afterwards, other destroyers were sighted to the north and the armament shifted to divided control to allow more than one target to be engaged. Despite this, the enemy destroyers attacked from all directions during the action; it was impossible to engage all targets simultaneously, and so some were able to close to short range. Nevertheless, Perth was to suffer only superficial damage in this phase of the action. At about midnight it was reported that the cruiser had little ammunition left, so Captain Waller decided to attempt to force a passage through Sunda Strait. He ordered full speed and turned the ship south for Toppers Island. Perth had barely steadied on her new course when a torpedo struck her in the starboard side. The captain ordered the crew to prepare to abandon ship. A few moments later, another torpedo struck just forward of the first hit and Captain Waller gave the order to abandon ship. After five or ten minutes, a third hit torpedo struck well aft on the starboard side, followed shortly after by another on the port. Perth, which had been heeling to starboard, righted herself, then heeled to port and sank at about 12.25 am on 1 March. Houston, still fighting but ablaze, was also hit by torpedoes and sank shortly afterwards. Perth's crew abandoned ship between the second and third torpedoes, but it is doubtful if any boats were successfully launched, although many rafts and Carley floats were. During the abandon ship operation the Perth was under fire from many destroyers at close range and many hits were sustained and casualties caused. Many were killed or wounded in the water by the explosion of the last two torpedoes and by shells exploding in the water. Of the Perth's company of 686, which included four civilian canteen staff and six RAAF personnel for operating and servicing her aircraft, only 218 (including one civilian and two RAAF) were eventually repatriated; the remainder were killed during, or soon after, the action, or died as prisoners of war. Captain Waller was lost with the ship.

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