USS HOUSTON CA 30
“The galloping Ghost of
"Granddaughter of USS Houston Living Survivor denied Scholarship!"
A 93 year old survivor who has been attending these reunion's for 16 straight years, bringing his family, his Grand Daughter almost every year since she was 3 and the one main reason he hung on to his life this year was to see his shipmate Howard Brooks and his Grand Daughter receive the Scholarship at the 2013 reunion. Three and one half years of hell in a Japanese Prison Camp couldn't do what this did....broke him.
The USS Houston Northampton Cruiser was first launched in the1930’s. Soon after, the Houston gained a place in the annals of US Naval history. President Roosevelt highly favored the beautiful cruiser, calling her a “spit and polish ship”. The cruiser was well equipped with weapons, supplies, and a lightning fast engine. Soon after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Houston acted as a protector for American allies in the South Pacific. For a seeming eternity the fateful morning of March 1st approached. Before the sun even rose to meet the dawn, countless lives were stolen away. The day the USS Houston went down marks a day that will never be forgotten. All of the men who lost their lives that morning deserve our undying gratitude. Through their courage and fearlessness arose a dedication to their country that will forever be remembered. I am honored to be writing on behalf of those who cannot speak for themselves.
“The Great Depression caused the beginning of our families misfortune”, David Flynn said. “Before the War our family led a very privileged life. However, before the War my father lost his job, and we were left with nothing but each other. In High school life progressively became worse. I wore the same pair of shoes for as long as I can remember. The soles of my shoes were covered in magazines to help protect my feet. In those days hitchhiking was a safe way to get to school faster. People would pick you up, knowing that you wouldn’t rob them. It got to the point where you had regular people that would pick you up. One of my rides was a Naval Recruiter from the USS Houston. Every couple of months he would give us new literature, such as, Joint the Navy, learn a trade”. (Flynn, David, personal interview, 2012). During that time David Flynn’s struggle brought him to sign up for the navy. Joining the USS Houston, offered “new shoes and a new life”. “At the time it seemed like a good idea. Millions of people just like my family were out of work, there was no option to not join”. (Flynn, David, personal interview, 2012) David Flynn is my grandfather, and this is his story.
“Life continued on, although I missed my family dearly. I was off to basic training. After many vigorous months I began my job as a Dental Assistant. Although, teeth were not my forte, I didn’t argue. However after many uneventful weeks, I begged my Captain to give me another job and send me to sea! After much deliberation the Captain sent me to sea and I was given the title of Seaman 2nd Class. However once I arrived onboard (the USS Houston) I knew this wasn’t the job I envisioned. Every morning our crew would get up at 5 a.m. and scrub the decks of the ship. Then after breakfast we would continue to do the same thing. I realized that there was no future scrubbing decks”. (Flynn, David, personal interview, 2012)
“Previously I had been an amateur radio operator, I knew that if I put my heart into it that I could do it. As I stood outside the radio shack observing I said to myself ‘oh, I can do that!’ Lieutenant Grove, who was standing beside me, grabbed my arm, sat me down at one of the desks, and put a set of headphones on me. Instinctively I started copying what I heard. At that very moment I knew that this is where I belonged. I became a ‘Radioman Striker’ first, although it wasn’t the most pleasant job, I knew that it was inevitable”. (Flynn, David, personal interview 2012). To get to the top you must first start at the very bottom. “A striker does any task that needs to be done, such as, making coffee. During that time I was taking various courses and studying the material to become a Radioman 3rd Class, which was my goal from the very beginning. The “Radioman 3rd Class, were referred to as the brains of the ship”. (Flynn, David, personal interview 2012). His defining moment finally arrived. With confidence David went up to the communication officer and told him that he was ready to take the exam! As fate would have it, he passed the exam with flying colors and there was an opening, reserved especially for him.
There are certain moments in our lives that define us. For David,
this was one of them. “One year before the war, our Commander in charge
of the Asiatic Fleet, Admiral Thomas Hart was convinced that war with Japan was
just around the corner. We were drilled relentlessly, day after day after
day, general quarters, battle stations, etc”. (Flynn, David, personal
interview, 2012). The following year the ship entered the navy yard at
Cavite, which was just outside of Manila. John Stark (radioman 2nd
class) and David Flynn entered one of the radio stations and communicated with
the PBY’s. “John Stark noticed that the PBY’s picked up Japanese Movement.
After we returned to our station I began to type out a message. Before I even
realize what it was I threw it in the basket. After a moment, I grabbed it from
the basket, the message declared Japan has declared hostilities, conduct
yourselves accordingly. Immediately we were ordered to leave, whatever we
couldn’t carry, we had to destroy. We left Manila about December 1st and headed towards the island of Iloilo. On that
same day, the Captain told us that the Japanese bombed the harbor of Iloilo and
set fire to one of the merchant ship’s.
Coincidently that evening Tokyo Rose broadcasted to the world that
Imperial Japanese forces sank The Houston. Tokyo Rose reported two more times
that the Houston was once again, sunk. This is where the ship received its
infamous name, The Galloping Ghost of the Java Coast”. (Flynn, David, personal
interview, 2012). This was a defining moment for the ship and her gallant crew-
the Houston was more than just a ship, she was a protector and she stood for a
truth that her crew was not going to give up without a fight.
The next several months were spent with convoying ships to help boost our defenses with The Netherlands and Australia. In February forty-nine Japanese bombers suddenly attacked the Houston. Unfortunately one of the bombs hit the Houston, exploding inside Turret #3. The explosion wounded 25 and killed 48 men. One third of the Houston’s battery firepower was left in shambles. “Coincidentally I was assigned there at the time. Doctor Clement Burroughs worked endlessly to help each man that was injured”. (Flynn, David, personal interview, 2012). Through his hard efforts many lives were saved that day. A few weeks later on February 15th the Houston attempted to unite with other troop ships from Port Darwin, Australia. Their hopes were to fight off the Japanese and keep them underway. After being attacked by over 50 Japanese aircraft, Captain Rooks began to formulate a plan! The Houston defended the convoy by “circling at flank speed and drawing the full attention of the planes. Captain Rooks learned a new technique for avoiding bombs, he would lie on the deck, on his back, and ten seconds after the Japanese planes had their bombs, he would order a hard turn to port or starboard”. (Flynn, David, personal interview, 2012). This strategy caught the Japanese completely off guard! The bombs would hit the side of the ship rather than hitting inside the ship. The Houston was not going to give up willingly and neither were her crewmembers.
forces intended to advance toward the South China Sea and the Makassar Straits.
Their intent was to destroy everything in their path. The Houston headed north
to meet up with the new allied fleet in order to slow the enemy advance. From
the very inception the plan was doomed. The Commander in charge was a Dutch
Admiral. There were ships from different nations including England, Australia,
Holland, and the U.S. who had never worked with each other before. The only
problem standing in their way was language. To solve the problem a Dutch
officer was put onto each ship, Doorman would give the command in his native
language “Dutch” and after some time the command would be executed. The
American, British, Dutch, and Australia (ABDA) force was created. On February
27th the ABDA
and the Japanese met head on for what was the biggest naval battle since Jotland in World War one. “This also marks the last time
that ships met toe to toe for a traditional surface battle”. (Flynn, David,
personal interview, 2012). For over
seven hours the ships fought against each other and to defend themselves. Each
side suffered grievous losses. The HMS Perth and the Houston were the only two
Allied ships left standing. Both ships were commanded to disengage the enemy
and travel to the western port of Jakarta, refuel, and then proceed to the
Southern port of Tjilatjap. After arriving in Jakarta
on the morning of February 28th the Houston and the Perth found the port in utter chaos. The Dutch
already left and evacuated the scene. The Dutch air patrols reported that there
was no Japanese activity within the 250-mile span. The Houston along with the
Perth was confident that they could evacuate their troops to Australia and
finally get the rest they needed and deserved.
“Our supplies and ammunition were running dangerously low. We never once lost hope, we knew in our hearts that we would make it and save others along the way. We never predicted that this would happen. At 11 p.m. we were just outside of the Sunda Straits at the Western end of Java when the Perth spotted several Fubuki class Japanese destroyers. We were completely outnumbered, there were over 55 Japanese transports unloading troops, four cruisers, 13 destroyers, and many torpedo boats. About an hour later the Perth took her fourth torpedo and went down. The Houston stood strong until taking her fourth torpedo on the morning of March 1st, 1942. At 12:25 a.m. an abandon ship command was ordered. The Japanese trapped us from every corner of the sea. As tears welled up in my eyes, I knew it was time. I climbed up the leg of the mast and began to run. I believe I was one of the last men to leave the ship. Torpedo’s and bullets were flying all around us. As I took a chunk of shrapnel to my knee I watched as Captain Rooks was hit with a bullet”. (Flynn, David, personal interview, 2012). After David left, another crewmate, Ensign Smith, noticed a prone figure lying unconscious on the floor; to his surprise it was his Captain! “The left side of his head, left breast, and left shoulder were covered with blood”. (Page 141, The Ghost That Died At Sunda Strait). Ensign Smith injected the Captain with two shots of morphine, a few moments later the Houston’s dauntless Captain passed away. As Ensign and his partner Smith were about to abandon ship they noticed a small man cradling the captain’s lifeless body. As they walked back they saw “Ah Fong, who was the captain’s plump Chinese steward, he was called Buda. Buda kept rocking the Captain back and forth as if he were peacefully sleeping. Buda kept repeating this phrase over and over Captain die, Houston die, Buda die too”. (Page 141 The Ghost That Died at Sunda Strait). The Captain and his loyal steward went down with the Houston that fateful night.
As destiny would have it David Flynn kept racing towards the top of the ship, preparing himself to “abandon ship”. “Once I reached the top of the ship, I looked around at her beauty for one last time. After returning from a daze, I noticed my crewmate Henry Stark lying on the ground. He threw me his life jacket saying that he didn’t need it anymore; this life jacket was intended for someone who would live. Without Henry Stark I may not be alive today. I gave him my thanks and jumped off the ship into the water”. (Flynn, David, personal interview, 2012). The Houston acted as a mother for all the men on the ship, protecting and guiding them. Her legacy represents a message to the world; that we must always be ready for the unexpected and treat today as if it were our last. For David Flynn it could have been his last breath if it weren’t for Henry Stark.
“As my body hit the
water, I felt total darkness come upon me. When I opened my eyes I knew that I
had to keep going. I told myself to keep swimming and maybe I’d make it to
land! I held my breath for as long as I could, only coming up for air when I
desperately needed it. Explosions jarred me as I swam. It felt like somebody
was tearing my stomach out! (Flynn, David, personal interview, 2012) He was in
the water for over 12 hours, when suddenly a Japanese boat came and fished him
out of the water. For the next three and a half years he served as a “Prisoner
of War” in Jakarta formally known as Java.
During this time, an insurance agent visited David’s mother. Many believed that David, along with the crew of the USS Houston, were all dead. However, his mother’s love was so strong that she knew her son was still out there somewhere. Even though there was the possibility that he might be dead, she never gave up hope that her son would return to her.
“Never once, did I give up hope. My motto I lived by for the next three and a half years was, it might not be tomorrow, but the next day I’ll be reunited with my family. As the Japanese were deciding what to do with us, they placed us into a small movie theatre. All of the seats were removed, each prisoner was seated in a cross legged manner. During this time, food was barely served. If we got anything it would be a pittance of rice, boiling water, and Java Rabbit (which was a cat). Each day more and more prisoners died of starvation and from sanitary conditions. My left leg continued to swell, finally an Australian doctor from the Perth operated on my leg”. (Flynn, David, personal interview). A few weeks later David and the remaining survivors were transferred to a bicycle camp in Jakarta. The Japanese selected many prisoners that appeared to be strong and able to work on the Bridge on the River Kwai. “I guess they took a look at me and figured that I would never make it down on the dock, so I stayed there in the bicycle camp. We were ordered by the Japanese to sign a document saying that we worked for Dai Nippon, and we would never make an attempt to escape. Our officers ordered us not to sign. However, every 15 minutes the Japanese would send what is known as the bashing squad. They would yell, scream, and beat us senselessly with their rifle butts. We knew in our hearts that this paper didn’t define us, so we signed the crummy piece of paper. After that life settled into a monotonous routine of work parties, being sick, and beating, etc. The working parties was extremely nerve racking, we never knew what the Aussie’s were going to do let alone say. The Australians were very blunt with the officers, they would cuss yell and at times fight back against their superiors. To punish us the Japanese made us stand on a box while they hit us back and forth in the face, they were ruthless when it came to their prisoner’s, at times they would even mutilate people!” (Flynn, David, personal interview, 2012).
After years of torture and brutalization, David and the surviving men recall a moment that gave them the strength to live again. “One day the guard who spoke a mixture of Japanese and English began describing huge explosions. At the time, we didn’t know what it was, but it turned out to be the bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Food and clothing were air dropped and the majority of the Japanese officers vanished from our campsite. The army/air corps arrived and took the remaining survivors to Singapore and then to Calcutta. From there we remained in an Army Hospital for a few weeks to recover. Eventually, from there I went to a hospital in New York City. I arrived back in the United States in either late September or early October. I was ecstatic to see my cousin Joanie and my mother. All I can remember is tears of happiness as I hugged them both”. (Flynn, David, personal interview, 2012). 1945- and Freedom had arrived!
Even though the Houston sank and vanished into the sea, her memory continues to live on through her remaining survivors. As a child I remember attending majority of the USS Houston’s memorial services. Throughout the years, as I grew older and understood their pain, I realized how much they all affected my life. Without the Houston and her brave soldiers, many of us would not be alive today, if it weren’t for their struggles. Our hardships and pain are nothing in comparison to what those men were put through. The Houston represents an inseparable bond between the brothers who would give their life for one another. As each bell sounds with the passing of another survivor, the brothers will unite once more, for an eternity at sea together. Their faces will remain forever young, and their story will remain a timeless wonder. As each generation passes, and a new one takes their place, the USS Houston’s story will continued to be told. Her memory will remain forever cherished and greatly loved.
By Mary Flynn
Granddaughter of David C. Flynn
Living Survivor of Three and one half years of hell.
Japenese Prisoner Of War
The Death Railroad.
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