ANOTHER MOVE TO THE SOUTH
On February 14th Admiral Hart surrendered Operational Command of Allied Naval Forces in the Southwest Pacific to Vice Admiral Helfrich, and shortly afterwards returned to the United States. Admiral Helfrich was succeeded as CZM (Dutch Naval Commander) by Rear Admiral van Staveren. The Chief of Staff of the Allied Naval Command, Admiral Palliser, was British, so that the United States was left with little representation on the High Command. Our senior naval officer in the area was Admiral Glassford, who had been since the end of
January Commander of United States Naval Forces in the Southwest Pacific, a position which he continued to hold under Admiral Helfrich as ABDAFLOAT until the first of March, when the Allied Command was dissolved.
The situation which now confronted Admiral Helfrich was desperate. The Japanese in Sumatra would soon be in a position to advance on Soenda Strait, perhaps close it and invade Java from the west. The Japanese in Borneo and Celebes were ready to advance on Bali or Soembawa or even eastern Java and close the eastern straits. The danger of finding our ships trapped in the Java Sea was already apparent. The need for keeping them there to meet the next Japanese advance toward Java was equally evident.
Upon taking command of the American fleet, Admiral Glassford remained at Bandoeng, to which he moved his operational staff from Soerabaja. He left at the latter place only an Administrative Office under his Chief of Staff, Admiral Purnell. The Dutch Admiral, van Staveren, also moved from Batavia to Bandoeng, so that the Dutch and American commands were together and near General Wavell at Lembang.
Soerabaja was being bombed daily, so that our ships could use it only when darkness grounded the Japanese planes. (Their fields were not equipped for night operations.) If the Japanese should occupy Bali, as it appeared they might, the port would become utterly untenable. Accordingly the American administrative office was shifted to Tjilatjap on February 19th and our smaller auxiliaries soon followed. This amounted to the practical abandonment of Soerabaja as a base. Only our submarines and our reconnaissance aircraft continued to operate from there, the former submerging during the daily air attacks and the latter being well dispersed and instantly moved. It was with great reluctance that our forces left Soerabaja. Its fuel supplies were ample, its repair facilities good, and its recreational opportunities of considerable value to our men.
It was clearly realized that even Tjilatjap could be only a temporary stopping place. Its remoteness from Japanese air bases in Borneo and Celebes gave it a comparative security for the moment, but the Japanese advance in Sumatra already imperiled it and their establishment in Bali would make it unusable. Admiral Glassford expressed surprise that the Japs did not bomb the ships concentrated in Tjilatjap before we left it, and attributed it to a kind Providence. But the next base on our line of
retreat would have to be far away, so that we kept our ships at Tjilatjap until the enemy actually landed on Java. Port Darwin was the closest available base, but it had already been found unsatisfactory. Neither was it secure, as it was soon to be amply demonstrated.
Accordingly it was decided to prepare for our leaving Java by sending our auxiliaries south. Too little was known of the harbors of western Australia and adequate charts were not available, but Exmouth Gulf was chosen as the nearest point out of range of enemy shore-based planes and yet close enough for our forces to strike at the enemy. The Holland, accompanied by two submarines in need of overhaul left Tjilatjap on the 19th. The Black Hawk left the following day with the destroyers Bulmer and Barker, which had been badly shaken up by bombing near Banka Island.
The tanker Pecos was held till the 25th in an attempt to remove some of the oil from Tjilatjap, but the Dutch could not bring themselves to believe that Java could be lost and consequently were unwilling to remove oil from either Soerabaja or Tjilatjap until it was too late. The fuel situation was becoming actute. The Erling Brovig, under charter to our Navy, had been sent to Ceylon for fuel, and the Trinity had sailed for Persia on the same errand. The George D. Henry had been filled at Darwin and was waiting at Fremantle for orders.