HISTORY OF THE ASIATIC FLEET
by Walter Ashe
If you ever wanted a story to stir the hearts, and yes, even the souls of Americans, a story of dedication, beyond and above the call to duty, a story filled with courage, a story crying for recognition. This is that story!
It is a story of the Asiatic Fleet, that since 1854, under different names, had been the protector of American lives and property in the Far East, predominantly the Philippines and China.
Our Combined Forces, U.S.Navy Asiatic Fleet survivors are uniting in an effort to bring a long overdue recognition to the heartbreaking struggles of that great fleet, as it fought, alone, against the overwhelming modern Japanese Navy subsequent to the disaster at Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941. If you have not heard of it, don't worry, you are not alone, not many have.
The Asiatic Fleet, long the peace-keeper in Asia, was the only American naval force available to challenge the onrushing hordes of Japanese forces, hell bent to conquer the oil rich fields of the east Indies, after the disaster at Pearl Harbor. Between this prize, sailed the proud, although overage ships of the Asiatic Fleet. Three cruisers, 13 WW1 vintage destroyers, 29 submarines, auxiliaries, two large gunboats, inshore patrol boats, 6 motor torpedo boats and 36 PBY's. Their orders were to fight the Japanese, to delay their progress. And fight they did!
The U.S. Marines, Navy men and women, also a part of the Asiatic Fleet Command were fighting a fierce delaying action on Bataan and Corregidor, against the Japanese Army sweeping into the Philippines. You have heard of the Bataan Death March? They were in it!
The Asiatic Fleet's only repair facilities at Cavite in the Philippines was destroyed a few days after Pearl Harbor. MacArthur's priceless airforce was wiped out on the ground. That left practically no aircover for the Asiatic Fleet. A disaster for naval vessels as we found out when the mighty British battleships Prince of Wales and the Repulse were sunk by Japanese planes in a few hours. They had no air cover. Also the Houston found out later when they fired at enemy aircraft that a lot of their anti-aircraft shells were defective and would not explode! The submarines had the same heart-breaking results. Some of their torpedoes bounced off the Japanese hulls without exploding! Relief that they thought would be coming momentarily, never came, but fight they continued doing. Sometimes winning, sometimes losing, but gradually falling back to defending new shores. They were more than heroes. They kept fighting when heroes would have stopped!
Little by little, the enemy became stronger and they had to back off. First they defended the American territories and when the Japanese occupied those, they were ordered to join with the Dutch to try and save the oil rich East Indies. The command was turned over to the Dutch and American Commander, Admiral Thomas C. Hart was relieved and returned to the U.S., with deep regret by the officers and men of the Asiatic Fleet. They fought side by side under a command called ABDA (American, British, Dutch and Australians). When there was not any more land to defend and Japanese Fleet had flooded the whole area with ships and planes, they were told to retire to Australia, as best they could, and what was left of them. Some made it, some did not!
If you were to read the story of the "Battle of Balikpapan" in J. Daniel Mullin's book "Another Six Hundred," where four little U.S. World War I vintage destroyers, USS FORD, POPE, PARROTT, and PAUL JONES, undaunted by much superior Japanese naval forces, made a night time attack on a Japanese invasion fleet, miraculously, not only sank several Japanese ships, but escaped to fight another day. You would be very proud of those American sailors. Also and not heralded, as it should have been, this was the first naval engagement against an enemy force since the Spanish American War! That alone should have brought out banner headlines. The lone heavy cruiser, the USS HOUSTON, and destroyers USS JOHN D. FORD and USS POPE had the honor of receiving the Presidential Unit Citation. The USS JOHN D. FORD and USS POPE also were awarded the Philippine, National China, and the US Army Distinguished Unit Citations. The USS HOUSTON died fighting in the Battle of Sunda Strait, wracked by bombs from Japanese planes (The Americans had no air support), punctured by shells, she died firing at the enemy with her decks awash and sinking.
Our light cruiser USS MARBLEHEAD was so badly damaged that she could not carry on and retired from the battle, buried her dead at Tjilatjap and made it back to the United States via India, using pumps all the way to keep from sinking. They saved their ship. The MARBLEHEAD was awarded the Navy Commendation Citation. The destroyers USS POPE,STEWART,PEARY,EDSALL and PILLSBURY fought gallantly but there were just too many against them. They died like the HOUSTON, blasting away at the enemy until the end.
The aircraft carrier USS LANGLEY tried desperately to bring much-needed planes to the American forces, but too late, as by then the Japanese had control of the area, and she too was sunk. The gunboat USS ASHEVILLE, alone, and having fulfilled her duties was heading for Australia and met a large Japanese task force, and was sunk with only one survivor, who later died in the Japanese prison camp in Makassar from inhuman treatment as did many others.
We lost 22 ships, 1,826 killed, 518 placed in prison camps too horrible to describe. Many died there. They were expendable, so it seemed. There were stories (later verified) about sailors being beheaded and others that were doused with gasoline and set on fire. They were beaten, starved and tortured in those beastly prison camps. Some were herded into old rusted Japanese freighters and removed to Japan. Sadly, American planes, not knowing that their comrades were piled into the vessels cargo holds sank many of those ships.
Many of the men who survived the sinking of their ships were left to die in the shark infested waters or were machine gunned while they cried for help. The story of why the crew from the USS POPE were rescued by a Japanese destroyer was an epoch of naval history. When the POPE had been sunk by a Japanese task force and the surviving officers and men were in the water expecting death, a Japanese destroyer approached. The gunnery officer from the POPE , Lt. William R. "Bill" Wilson, had survived and when the destroyer approached he shouted to the Japanese commander in perfect Japanese. He had previously had duty in the Naval Attaché office in Tokyo and had perfected the language. Unbelievable, the Japanese captain happened to have met him in Tokyo and due to that unforeseen coincidence all the surviving men from the POPE were saved. They were taken to a prison camp, but in spite of the misery there, many survived and were released at the end of the war.
The auxiliary ships, held in ports to repair the crippled ships as they limped back from their battles, had no protection from the steady bombing by the Japanese Air Force. They had to cover their ship with palm fronds, and say a prayer as their only means of protection.
The story of the PBY's that flew against the Japanese naval forces was another heartbreaking tale. They dutifully flew bombing raids over the Japanese fleet without any air protection and their big awkward planes, were torn to pieces by the Japanese fighter planes. There were no other planes available and despite the hazards they flew and many died.
And so it happened. It is almost impossible to believe that after all of this heroism, the bitter struggles to obey orders, that not one word of praise or recognition for this fleet was ever given. Can you believe that a display of the combatants in the Pacific during World War II by the National Archives, did not indicate one word in the display that the Asiatic Fleet ever existed ! Can your further believe that in the National Geographic Magazine of December 1991, a fold out map displayed, likewise, all the naval engagements in the Pacific during WWII, and where the Asiatic Fleet fought, died and were imprisoned, there was placed a big Japanese flag, inscribed Java Seas 27 Feb.1942! The day the USS HOUSTON was sunk and other ships met their doom. Is that fair? Did those men die carrying the American flag, only to be remembered as a Japanese victory ? Why? You may ask? Is it because we Americans don't want to illustrate our defeats? Is it because we don't want to be reminded of our losses? Or is it the embarrassment that we allowed it to happen? Did we look the other way when the Asiatic Fleet needed help? Did we only see the problems of Europe or Hitler? Was the conflict in the far, far away Asia mist beyond our cares? Or lastly was it because they did not want to publish such losses after the disaster at Pearl Harbor? History will have the answer, today we can only question it.
Walter Ashe - [email protected]
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