Bridge over the River Kwai, 1943. Artist: Rawlings, Leo. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Following the successful surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese Imperial forces launched a series of campaigns to expand their influence and grab strategic points across China and the islands of the Pacific. In early 1942 the Imperial forces led an invasion of the island of Java, then part of the Dutch East Indies. The American-British-Dutch-Australian Command, ABDACOM (try saying that 3 times fast), mounted an unsuccessful attempt to defend against the invasion.
To defend the sea lanes against the invasion the ABDACOM assembled a fleet of 2 heavy cruisers, 3 light cruisers , and 9 destroyers which meet a Japanese fleet of 2 heavy cruisers, 2 light cruisers, and 14 destroyers in the battle of the Java Sea. The Allies suffered a crushing defeat losing two light cruisers and three destroyers while only sinking 1 Japanese destroyer. After the battle the heavy cruiser USS Houston and light cruiser HMAS Perth were sent to Tjilatap for refueling and resupply of ammunition by way of the Sunda Strait.
The allied ships were under the impression that friendly corvettes were patrolling the straight keeping it free of enemy ships. Unfortunately during the night of February 28 they ran into a larger Japanese invasion force of 2 heavy cruisers, 1 light cruiser, 9 destroyers, and 50 transports. At first the Perth signaled one of the Japanese destroyers assuming it was one of the friendly corvettes. But when the ship fired on them, the Perth and the Houston moved to engage. After an hour or so of fierce night fighting the Houston and Perth were both sunk. Only 368 out of a crew of over a thousand were saved from the Houston and 307 out of over 600 were saved from the Perth. But reports of the survivors would have to wait until they were rescued from Japanese prison camps in 1944.
The survivors of the USS Houston joined the “Lost Battalion”, members of the 2nd Battalion, 131st Field Artillery, 36th Infantry Division (Texas National Guard) of the U.S. Army. The Lost Battalion and the survivors of the Sunda Strait were put to work building up the Burma Railway. The movie The Bridge on the River Kwai is loosely based on that experience
Come join us on February 28 for a special film screening of The Bridge on the River Kwai with an introduction from Captain Jay Thomas, US Naval History and Heritage Command. Then on March 2 join us for a lecture with Captain Thomas on the preservation of the site where the Houston and the Perth lay. You can also read more about the current state of the ships here.
Film Screening – The Bridge On the River Kwai with Captain Jay Thomas
February 28, 2017, 6:30 pm
Join Captain Jay Thomas, US Naval History and Heritage Command for a one-night-only screening of this classic 1957 film. Among the forced laborers who built the bridge over the River Kwai were American and Australian sailors who survived the sinking of the USS Houston and the HMAS Perth in the Battle of Sunda Strait on March 1, 1942. The 250-mile Thai-Burma Railway, known as the Death Railway, cost the lives of more than 12,000 Allied POWs. The River Kwai Bridge was only one of 688 bridges along the route. Cosponsored by AIA, Houston Society with support from Schlumberger. Presented with conjunction with the exhibit “Guardians of Sunda Strait” at the Julia Ideson Library. Members $12, Tickets $18
Secrets from a Watery Grave: USS Houston and HMAS Perth by Captain Jay Thomas
March 2, 2017, 6:30 pm
In the early morning of March 1, 1942, under a clear sky and a full moon, the Japanese Imperial navy sank the USS Houston and the HMAS Perth in the battle of Sunda Strait. During the battle, 696 US sailors and marines aboard the Houston and 375 Australian sailors aboard the Perth, including the captains of both ships, lost their lives. Forced into captivity, the survivors became part of the group of men who built the bridge on the River Kwai. Tonight’s speaker will recount the story of the battle and the efforts to preserve the physical and human remains at this sacred spot. As a researchers, they have both participated in dives to the wreckage. Captain Thomas is curator at Naval History and Heritage Command and has participated in archaeological dives to the wreck of the USS Houston in Indonesian waters. This event is cosponsored by AIA, Houston Society and HMNS with support from Schlumberger. This lecture is in conjunction with the Julia Ideson Library who is presenting the special exhibition “Guardians of Sunda Strait: the Wartime Loss of HMAS Perth and USS Houston.” Members $12, Tickets $18