History

Why the Navy constantly checks on this sunken cruiser

In the early months of World War II, the United States Asiatic Fleet had been given an impossible job — hold the line against the might of the Japanese Navy. The ships and men did their best, but they were ultimately forced to retreat towards Australia. Unfortunately, not all of them made it.


One of those ships that didn't make it was the Northampton-class heavy cruiser, USS Houston. She was sunk by Japanese forces 76 years ago in the Battle of the Sunda Strait alongside the light cruiser, HMAS Perth. Of the 1,061 men aboard, only 291 survived both the sinking and being held as prisoners of war.

The heavy cruiser USS Houston was assigned to the Asiatic Fleet prior to World War II. (US Navy photo)

In 2014, the wreck of USS Houston, the final resting place of 650 sailors and Marines, including Captain George Rooks (awarded the Medal of Honor), was located. The problem was that the vessel sank in shallow waters, providing easy access for divers.

A 2014 release by the Navy noted that there were signs that the wreck had been disturbed. In 2015, the United States Navy and the Indonesian Navy teamed up to survey the wrecks of Houston and Perth to ascertain their condition.

Navy Divers assigned to Explosive Ordnance Disposal Mobile Unit 11, Mobile Diving Salvage (MDS) 11-7, survey HMAS Perth (D29) during dive operations held in support of search and survey operations of the sunken World War II navy vessels USS Houston (CA 30) and Perth. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Arthurgwain L. Marquez)

The good news was that the survey showed no signs of recent salvaging. However, the same couldn't be said for wrecks from battles that took place off the coast of Indonesia, which have been seriously damaged by illegal salvage operators seeking to acquire the pre-1945 steel onboard sunken warships. Some of the vessels, which are considered war graves under international law, have been almost completely stripped for a few Indonesian rupiahs. Each rupiah is worth .0073 cents.

This past September, the Independence-class littoral combat ship USS Coronado (LCS 4) laid a wreath at the Houston's location. The ceremony took place during the multi-national CARAT exercises, which have sometimes seen divers survey the wrecks.