ACTION OF MADOERA STRAIT15
Action of Madoera Strait
On February 1st our air reconnaissance had reported a considerable enemy convoy at Balikpapan, presumably preparing for an advance on Makassar or Bandjermasin or both. It was reported to consist of 20 transports, 3 cruisers, and 10 destroyers. Enemy aircraft carriers were thought to be at Kendari or operating south of Celebes. Our plan was to strike this convoy before it could reach its objective. The words of Admiral Doorman's directive were: "Enemy transports will be attacked and destroyed in a night attack."
Admiral Doorman's striking force consisted of four cruisers, the De Ruyter (Admiral Doorman's flag), Houston, Marblehead, and Tromp; American Destroyer Division 58 led by Commander Binford on Stewart, with the Edwards, Barker, and Bulmer; and a Dutch destroyer division commanded by Lt. Comdr. Krips on the Van Ghent, with the Piet Hein and Banckert.
Our ships were at anchor in Bounder Roads, Madoera Island, when the Japanese planes passed over to bomb Soerabaja on February 3d and of course sighted our force. Nonetheless Admiral Doorman proceeded with his plans. Leaving in separate groups about midnight our vessels were to rendezvous at 0500 on February 4th, 5 miles north of Meyndertsdroogte Light. After assembling they were to start their run up Makassar Strait.
Having assembled according to plan, our force was zigzagging on an easterly course with a good trailing breeze and a moderate sea. The sky was partly overcast, but the mountains of Kangean Island could be seen rising out of the sea 35 miles to the north, and from time to time the high mountains of Bali and Lombok appeared through the clouds to the south. At 0935 Admiral Doorman warned his ships that 37 Japanese planes had been reported on their way toward Soerabaja on a southwest course. At this time our cruisers were in column 700 or 800 yards apart, with De Ruyter at the head, followed by Houston, Marblehead, and Tromp in order. The American destroyers were disposed as an antisubmarine and sound screen, while the three Netherlands de-
stroyers formed an antisubmarine guard astern. Our ships were at latitude 7°28' S., longitude 115°37' E., when at 0949 enemy bombing planes were first sighted. There appeared to be about 37 planes in groups of about 9.
As our ships scattered, the plane groups separated to choose their targets. Their attack, which was to last all forenoon, was directed at the cruisers. Apparently the destroyers were not molested. The Houston successfully evaded all except the last bomb dropped at her. She had just maneuvered to avoid the attack of a group of planes when a single straggler came over. Its bomb, falling at a considerable angle, struck the leg of the mainmast and exploded on the main deck near the after turret. Fragments penetrated the barbette and turret and ignited the powder. The hit killed 48 men, wounded 20 more, and started an extremely serious fire. The after turret was so badly damaged that it was useless for the remainder of the campaign.
The Marblehead (which has turned in the most complete account of the action) fared no better. When the enemy planes were first sighted she manned all her antiaircraft batteries, while in the engine room all boilers were lighted off in preparation for full speed. At 0954 nine planes at about 17,000 feet approached the Marblehead. Their V-formation was so shallow that they were almost in line as they entered a power glide down to about 14,000 feet for a bombing approach. As they came in it could be seen that they were twin-engine, twin-tail, with a high-wing dihedral somewhat resembling the German JU86K. (The resemblance of the Japanese bombers to Junkers had been remarked at the time of the destruction of Cavite Navy Yard.) Our antiaircraft batteries opened fire and the ship maneuvered to keep them bearing. When the planes reached their bomb-release point the ship turned sharply. The planes did not release but passed and circled to gain altitude for a second approach.
During the next few minutes the planes made several runs. The Marblehead ran at full speed, heeling far over as she maneuvered. On one of the runs our pointers got the range and one of the planes began to smoke. At 1018 a flight approached from starboard-apparently the same that had made the first attack. Our gunners hit one. Its bomb load exploded and the plane disintegrated in the air. The others dropped their bombs, but the ship was swinging with right full rudder and a stick of seven fell 50-100 yards away on the port bow. That was close enough, for the shrapnel sprayed the ship so that the men below decks
described the sound as "like gravel thrown against the ship" or "like the ship's scraping over a gravel shoal." A minute later another plane, apparently damaged by our fire, was seen spiraling downward on the starboard bow in an effort to crash into the ship. Our 50-caliber machine guns opened fire on it; the tracers could be seen tearing through it and it broke into fragments as it struck the water 1,000 yards off the port bow.
It was too much to hope to go on dodging bombs indefinitely. This flight was immediately followed by a new one of seven planes of a different type. These single-engine planes were seen approaching at 1026. The ship turned with left full rudder but the evasion did not work. A stick of seven bombs straddled the ship perfectly for two direct hits and a very near hit which was almost as damaging.
One hit was in the forward section (frame 47) about 10 feet from the starboard side. It sheared the inboard side of the starboard motor launch, which probably started its fuse mechanism, so that after passing through the upper deck it exploded as it entered the main deck. The upward force of the explosion bowed the upper deck about a foot, starting seams and rivets. Laterally the blast spread destruction far and wide through that section of the ship (the wardroom and officers' country), and bent the forward uptakes. The downward force of the blast demolished the sick bay and fragments penetrated the top of the fuel tank below the sick bay. All electric, steam, and water lines (except the fire main) in the area were ruptured; but the sides of the ship were not penetrated. Fires were started throughout the area.
The second bomb hit on the fantail, abaft the after twin mount and close to port. It passed through the main deck and exploded in the hand-steering room. The explosion lifted the main deck and blew a flap of it upward against the under side of the guns of the twin mount, which was put completely out of action. This, however, permitted some of the force of the explosion to escape aft and probably reduced the damage which might otherwise have resulted. The chief petty officers' quarters and the adjacent crew's quarters were demolished. All steering gear and the hand-steering room were utterly disabled, and the rudder was jammed full left. Fuel tanks were ruptured and fires started. There were several ruptures in the sides of the vessel.
The near hit exploded below the turn of the bilge, on the port side at frame 24, tearing a hole about 3 by 9 feet in the bottom. The deck was driven up 10 inches over a length of about 8 feet, but did not break.
The "dished in area" formed a great scoop which forced water into the ship at high pressure as she continued steaming. Moreover, the opening of seams and rivets started leaks in other forward sections, so that the peak tank was flooded as were most of the compartments below the first platform deck and forward of frame 34.
The shock of the explosion gave the ship a sharp list to starboard, and she settled by the head, so that her draft forward ultimately reached 30 feet. Fortunately the main engines were not damaged, and after firerooms 1 and 2 had been secured because of ruptured uptakes she was still able to do 25 knots. Because of the jammed rudder the ship was steaming in a circle to port.
This was as good a defense against air attack as was available at the moment. Not long after the hits more planes appeared on the starboard bow, but disappeared without attacking. A few minutes later two flights appeared on the port bow. Our gunners opened fire with all they had, but the forward director was wrecked, the fire control circuit was broken, and only voice telephones were working. The planes passed but soon circled back. A little later our men could see geysers springing up close to the De Ruyter. Subsequently the De Ruyter reported that she had been straddled on two occasions by near hits which put her antiaircraft fire control out of action. Again planes approached the Marblehead, but they broke off their attack too soon and their bombs fell 2,000 yards away. Shortly afterwards a reconnaissance plane circled the ship at 3,000 feet.
Several times Tromp approached Marblehead to take off survivors if it should become necessary, as it seemed it well might. Fires were raging fore and aft. Damage-control crews and all unengaged men were busy fighting them or caring for the wounded. The executive officer had come to the bridge severely burned and his place had been taken by the gunnery officer. The damage-control officer supervised the fire fighting and efforts to free the rudder. By 1100 the fires were under control, but arcs from broken electric cables constantly started new ones in the oil-filled compartments. It was not till 1300 that the rudder angle was reduced to about 9° left.
There were 70 or 80 casualties, several fatal and many serious, in addition to many minor injuries which did not take men out of action. The forward battle dressing station and collecting station had been destroyed and the amidship station was untenable, so that the wounded had to be
carried aft to a makeshift station in the torpedo workshop. This was no easy task on slanting decks made slippery with oil.
Some time after noon the Japanese planes left. The Marblehead, steering with her engines, began working south toward Lombok Strait. Submersible pumps were in action and in addition bucket brigades were formed to remove water from the CPO quarters and the sick bay area forward. Work was impeded by some 20 tons of water loose on the main deck, chiefly from within the ship.
At 1255 Admiral Doorman ordered his ships westward and the Marblehead changed course to comply. Edwards and Stewart formed an anti-submarine screen for her. At 1415 Admiral Doorman gave permission for the Marblehead to proceed via Lombok Strait to Tjilatjap for repairs, and she again turned south, escorted by Destroyer Division 58. Her speed was about 20 knots, which was high for a ship in her condition; but it seemed advisable to get as far to the south as possible and to get well into Lombok Strait before dark, especially as a strange plane was sighted in the evening, apparently shadowing our ships. The De Ruyter and the three Netherlands destroyers accompanied the American ships until midnight, when the strait was cleared. All through the night the bucket brigade kept at work and the water was controlled, although at the time 26 watertight compartments were completely, and 8 more were partially flooded. It seemed that the ship was kept afloat as much by the determination of her captain and crew as by her own buoyancy.
Through the forenoon of the 5th a plane shadowed our ships, so that they held to a southerly course till noon in order to conceal their destination. They approached Tjilatjap in the early morning of the 6th, and soon after noon the Marblehead was berthed alongside the Houston.
The commercial floating drydock at Tjilatjap was large enough to raise only one end of the Marblehead at a time, and this proved a delicate and difficult task. The bow was raised sufficiently to patch the hole in her bottom, but the ship could not be entirely emptied of water or made completely watertight. The stern could not be lifted clear, so that the rudder could not be repaired, but a wooden deck was built over the fantail, the ship was cleared of debris and was made habitable.
Work was pushed day and night, for it was realized that the Japanese might raid Tjilatjap at any time. When the leaks had been patched so that the submersible pumps could cope with the water the ship put to sea.
This was February 13th. She was scarcely seaworthy, but it was thought that she would be safer at sea than in Tjilatjap. The story of her return home does not lie within the scope of this narrative, but it is one of the great stories of the sea. In the 48 days which followed the action the ship steamed more than 9,000 miles, touching Trincomalee (Ceylon), Durban, Port Elizabeth, and Simonstown (South Africa). Almost half this distance was covered without a rudder and the remainder of the voyage was made with the rudder controlled from the steering engine room.
The Houston, although her after turret was demolished, was otherwise seaworthy and was still the most powerful ship available in the area. It was hoped that she could be sent home for repairs when the Phoenix arrived, but meanwhile she was sent to escort troops from Darwin to Koepang (Timor) to aid in defending the airfield there. This field was of some importance not only because it partially covered the approach to Darwin, but because it could be used as a stop for our fighter-plane ferry. We had been flying P-4o's from Darwin to Java via Timor, but the flight was too near the limit of their range. So many were lost that General Brereton finally had to halt the use of this route. It was this that made the Langley's voyage important.
While the American cruisers stopped at Tjilatjap, Admiral Doorman with his remaining ships continued westward and eventually arrived at Batavia via Soenda Strait. While our striking force was in the west, an enemy convoy was south of Celebes for a day (February 7th-8th). Our planes scouted it, but our ships were not within striking distance. As soon as Admiral Doorman's retirement was known to ABDAFLOAT he was ordered to send his ships back to eastern Java, while the Admiral himself came to Tjilatjap for a conference with Admiral Hart.
15 This action is variously described as "Action North of Lombok Strait" and "Battle of Flores Sea."