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The loss of the USS Houston, CA-30

It was the saddest thing I had ever seen

George Washington Coffee

The Japanese have seen fit to cease fighting...


Brooks was born on 30 October of 1919 in Greeneville, Tennessee. He recalls his childhood during the Great Depression. He grew up on a tobacco farm. After he graduated from high school Brooks decided he did not want to be a tobacco farmer.Brooks enlisted in the Navy after Hitler marched into Poland on 1 September 1939. He was accepted and a week later he was sent to the Naval Training Station at Norfolk, Virginia. He enlisted in the Navy because his eldest brother was in the Navy and he had grown up watching his brother in uniform and how happy he was in the service. Brooks recalls that his training was reduced by 3 weeks. He was transferred to a ship after graduating from training. He was assigned to the USS Pyro [Annotator's Note: USS Pyro (AE1)] which was a Navy ammunition ship out of San Francisco before shipping out to Honolulu on the USS Portland [Annotator's Note: heavy cruiser USS Portland (CA33)]. When he reached Honolulu he was transferred to the USS Houston [Annotator's Note: heavy cruiser USS Houston (CA30)] bound for duty with the Asiatic Fleet. USS Houston relieved the USS Augusta [Annotator's Note: heavy cruiser USS Augusta (CA31)] in Manila. Brooks was in Manila when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.Aboard the ship Brooks was assigned to the electricians crew and in late 1940 he became an electricians mate 3rd class. He worked mostly below decks.A week before Pearl Harbor was bombed the ship was stripped for action. All unnecessary material was removed and they took on extra ammunition and spare parts. They left Manila Bay the night before the attack on Pearl Harbor. The same evening that Pearl Harbor was bombed Japanese planes dropped bombs around the USS Houston, but did no damage. Their destination was Surabaya, Java in the Dutch East Indies. From there they were assigned convoy duty from Australia to the East Indies. The Houston joined a convoy of British and Dutch ships.At Suribaya the Houston became part of the American-British-Dutch-Australian Command [Annotator's Note: commonly referred to by the acronym ABDA] and joined up with the American light cruiser USS Marblehead [Annotator's Note: USS Marblehead, CL12], some Dutch ships, the Australian ship Perth [Annotator's Note: HMAS Perth, D29] a light cruiser, the British heavy cruiser Exeter [Annotator's Note: HMS Exeter, 68], several other smaller British and Dutch ships and 4 or 5 American destroyers.Brooks says their greatest handicap was the fact that they had no air support. Even the scout planes from the cruisers weren't much help because they were no match for the Japanese planes.


They made several convoy trips to Port Darwin on the northern coast of Australia. The Japanese moved closer to their positions.The Japanese bombed Port Darwin several times but the Houston [Annotators Note: USS Houston (CA30) was not in port. The Houston was bombed several times at sea during convoy missions.On 4 February 1942 they learned the Japanese were moving into the islands in full force. A fleet was formed to stop the advancing Japanese.On 4 February they sailed out and ran into a number of enemy planes that bombed them for several hours. The last airplane bombed the Houston's 3rd turret and knocked it out of commission killing 52 men. This occured toward the Java Sea, just out of Surabaya. The Marblehead [Annotators Note: USS Marblehead (CL12) was also hit. The Houston escorted her into port at Tjilatjap for temporary repairs.When the turret on the Houston was hit it was lifted off its base. In Tjilatjap the Dutch were able to lift the turret back into place so it looked normal. It had to be welded to the steel deck and was useless leaving them with only the 2 forward turrets. Brooks remembers men from the Houston making coffins for the 52 men that were killed in the attack.They were ordered to remain in the area and continued to make convoy trips to Port Darwin. Every time they went down to Port Darwin they were bombed by Japanese planes.In the latter part of February, the Japanese began making landings on the islands. It was known that the Japanese would soon be landing on Java.On 27 February they were out in the Java Sea; they engaged a Japanese fleet in a surface battle that lasted from mid-morning until late afternoon. During the battle Japanese aircraft continually bombed the ships. The only ships that were not sunk or damaged by the Japanese fleet were the Houston and the Perth, an Australian ship. 


On the evening of 28 February [Annotator's Note: 28 February 1942] they left the area they had been fighting in and steamed into Batavia. The Dutch were reluctant to give them fuel because they needed fuel for their own ships. They did not know and believe them that they had fought the day before and all of the Dutch ships had been sunk.Late that evening they steamed out of the harbor into the Sunda Straight. The plan was to move south from Batavia towards Australia and the Indian Ocean. At 11:00 o'clock that night the battle alarms sounded. He was sound asleep at the time.The captain of the Perth opened fire on a Japanese destroyer. The Houston followed the Perth's lead and opened fire on the Japanese ships. Brooks remembers the sky lighting up by Japanese aircraft dropping star shells between 11:00 o'clock and 12:00 midnight. They were so close to the Japanese destroyers that Brooks could see men on the deck. The Houston was hit by a Japanese torpedo on the starboard side. At midnight the captain gave the abandon ship orders. By that time the ship was on fire from stem to stern. Many men were killed. The Japanese were unmerciful and shot at the men in the water and killed many of them.Brooks saw the ship for the last time at 12:20 in the morning on 1 March 1942. Brooks jumped onto a life raft because he was a poor swimmer. The raft had 4 or 5 men in it that were severely injured. The next day they could see the Japanese transports being unloaded and picking up their survivors. They could see the shore. Throughout the day, Japanese boats came by the raft on several occasions but they left them alone because it was full of injured men. The raft moved with the current. At various times in the day they were close enough to the shore to see trees but they were not close enough to wade through the water to the shore. Some of the men died on the first and second days. They were out of sight from the Japanese ships. By the third day Brooks and 1 other man were the only survivors in the raft. The injured guys had all passed away.That afternoon they made it to the shore. They crawled up the beach and fell asleep. The next morning they woke up surrounded by Javanese natives. They gave Brooks and the other man coconuts and banana leaves with rice in it and coconut milk to drink. The natives motioned them to follow. The natives could say Dutch Army in English. As they walked down the road to look for the Dutch they saw a truck with 2 Japanese soldiers in the back. They saw a big Japanese flag on the truck. That is where Brooks was captured by the Japanese.


Brooks and the other sailor were loaded into the truck and taken to a small camp with other POWs. In the area were some Australians and some other men from his ship. After a while the Japanese loaded them into trucks and took them to a bicycle camp in Batavia which was a former Dutch Colonial Army camp [Annotator's Note: former quarters of the Tenth Battalion, Bicycle Force of the Royal Netherlands East Indies Army]. It was a clean nice place. He saw other men from his ship in the camp.Brooks battle station assignment was with a damage control party when they came under fire on 4 February 1942. He was given orders to repair an ammunition hoist and went to check it out. That was within minutes of the bombing of the 3rd turret. After he felt the bomb hit the ship he rushed back to his damage control station and saw that every man in that damage control party had been killed at that station.On the night the Houston was sunk [Annotator's Note: 28 February 1942], Brooks was at the damage control party station. The damage control party had been reorganized and was all new people.The ship was firing. Brooks was standing on the deck watching the aircraft over head. He didn't have a gun. His job was to help when he was called upon. This is why he was able to see the battle as it went on.Brooks could see the Japanese destroyers as they passed his ship so close that he could see the men aboard them. The Japanese ships had shot out the search lights on the Houston. About 20 minutes before the Houston was sunk the Australian ship was sunk. Now the attention turned to the Houston. The Japanese lit them up with search lights. The Japanese were even lighting up their own ships. Brooks heard the ship being hit by gun fire so he went back under the deck to escape the barrage. The enemy destroyers were firing machine guns at the Houston. The Japanese continued to shoot at the Houston even after the men abandoned the ship. The Houston was burning from stem to stern.


The first place Brooks was taken to was a building. The men were fed once a day by the natives who brought them soup.The Japanese assigned Brooks and the other men to a bicycle camp in Batavia. The Japanese would send them out as working parties. They salvaged cans of grease and oil and equipment at a Dutch oil refinery.At this camp there were soldiers from an American Army unit, the 131st [Annotator's Note: 2nd Battalion,131st Field Artillery]. The 131st had landed in the southern part of Java. The Japanese were landing in the southern part of Java too. Some of the men were taken to a Dutch airfield to work. There were not enough planes to do much good.After being in the bicycle camp for a couple of days Brooks saw a truck load of army guys [Annotator's Note: American Army] wearing clean uniforms which was a contrast to him wearing only his skivvy shorts [Annotator's Note: slang for underwear]. He was especially dirty after having been in the water. The army guys had been captured but were allowed to keep what food supplies they had which they shared with the Navy POWs.They were given clothes but no shoes. The Japanese had taken all of the shoes. Brooks didn't have any shoes. He had taken the extra weight off before he abandoned ship.The sailors were happy to see American soldiers. Brooks was with some of them from the beginning to the end. There were some British and Australian POWs but shortly after they arrived the Japanese separated them.Brooks was at the bicycle camp for 3 months before the Japanese moved them into the mountains to what they called a vacation place. The Japanese said that there would be no work at this place. Brooks and the other men were put on a dirty old transport that took them to Singapore. It took them almost a week to get there. When they arrived the Japanese put them in a British Army camp at Changi. The camp was nice but they were only there for a few days before they were put on boxcars and taken north up the Malay Peninsula.The POWs were put on another transport. When they went aboard they saw that the ship was carrying railroad supplies. As they traveled to Burma planes dropped bombs on the transport ships. Brooks ship was not hit but the other transport was. That ship had a lot of Dutch sailors aboard that were killed. They were marched off the ship into a small town. They stopped outside of a Buddhist temple. Brooks could see the Buddhist monks in their robes. The Japanese told the monks to stay away from the POWs.Brooks and the other prisoners slept on a grassy lawn outside the temple that night. The next they were put aboard trucks and taken to a camp where they would start building the railroad [Annotator's Note: the Thailand-Burma railway, also known as the Railway of Death].


The Japanese kept the Americans and British in separate groups until they started working on the railroad.The food was the same. They started out eating watered down rice for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The American and British officers begged the Japanese for better food and medicine.When they reached the camp a Japanese officer addressed the POWs in broken English telling them that they were at the mercy of the Japanese and they had to do what they said or suffer consequences. The prisoners would work and would honor and obey the Japanese Army.Brooks recalls the work was very hard. They used picks and shovels building the foundations of the railroad. After just few days some of the men came down with malaria and tropical ulcers. When the men developed malaria they would get chills and pass out on the job.They knew they needed medicine. Dysentery was also a problem from poor sanitation. The soldiers had their mess kits to eat out of but the sailors used whatever they could find. Brooks used the base of a light with a piece of wood in the bottom. That was his mess kit for the duration of the war.After they ate the Japanese would boil water in a 50 gallon drum and the POWs would dip them in it. If they didn't have something to cover the mess kits with, the flies would get on them and spread dysentery.They only had 1 medical officer with them, Commander Epstein. He had been the ship's surgeon. He would give them spoon fulls of charcoal to combat dysentery. Brooks had dysentery for several days but got over it.Sometimes they got quinine but it would be liquid quinine which was very bitter and hard to swallow. They never had enough medicine. 25 percent of the men Brooks was with passed away from disease and were buried in the jungle. Some of the men kept lists of everything that went on in the jungle. After the war was over these lists provided the names of the men who died, what camp they died in, and how they died.They had to march 10 or 15 kilometers to the work site and would move their camps as they went. There were various crews working on the railroad. Brooks was on a crew that dug out the dirt and made it level. After that a crew came in to lay stone on top of the fill. Then came the crew laying the railroad ties and the crew laying down the tracks. Brooks worked mostly on the crew that dug the fill but he transferred to the crew that laid the railroad ties. That was very hot and hard work.


The men got up before daylight and took their mess kits and lined up for some soup. Then they immediately lined up in formation and marched off out of the camp. Around noon time they would stop to eat again. At the end of the day they would line up and march back into camp.The men continued to work through the monsoon season. When the rains washed the fill away the Japanese had the prisoners cut brush top to lay down to keep the dirt from washing away.At night it would be dark by the time they got back into camp. The Japanese did their their best to get every daylight hour of work out of the prisoners.All of the naval officers except the medical officer and a couple of other officers had been taken to Japan. All of the officers with Brooks were army officers. They were all nice guys. They were Texans and were not afraid to talk to the Japanese officers. The Japanese would slap them and kick them around and they could do nothing about it. The saddest thing Brooks ever saw was those measly little Japanese soldiers slapping and kicking the army officers around. Brooks also witnessed the Japanese treating their own soldiers the same way.Brooks worked digging the dirt and laying the rail. For 5 or 6 weeks he was on a detail bursting rocks. He was given a small sledge hammer to crush the rocks and bring them up to the railroad. He had to be careful because slivers of rock could hit him and the cuts could turn into ulcers.Brooks was disciplined by the Japanese but never severely. When he got to the 1st camp which a new camp that still had sticks with string tied to them to indicate the borders that the prisoners could not cross he crossed the line and was made to squat down with a piece of bamboo behind his knees and squat down until he was so numb he couldn't move.They never antagonized the guards but would look at them and think to themselves what they planned to do to them when the war was over.There was not a prisoner who wasn't slapped in the face several times. That was the Japanese means of discipline.


Brooks never once had any contact with the Red Cross. At 1 point they were each issued 1 item out of a Red Cross parcel. Brooks got some George Washington Coffee. When he could get hot water he would make himself a cup of coffee. To him it was a luxury. The only other time he received anything from the Red Cross was near the end of the war when he was in Saigon.In June 1942 Brooks started on the railroad. After Christmas and New Year at the end of 1944 [Annotator's Note: early 1945] Brooks was with the group that was near Bangkok, Thailand. The group Brooks was in started at the northern end of the railroad and a group of all British prisoners started at the southern end and the 2 groups met somewhere south of the Burmese border.There was always repair work to do after the railroad was built because of the rain and other issues. Brooks worked on the railroad until the end of 1944 when he got to Bangkok at the lower end of the railroad.In the first month of 1945 the Japanese started taking men to Japan. Brooks group was put on some small trucks and taken through Bangkok to the railroad station. They were put into boxcars and taken to Phnom Penh, Cambodia. There they were put in groups onto river boats and taken down the Mekong River to Saigon [Annotator's Note: now known as Ho Chi Minh City].They day after they got to Saigon they were put in a camp by the docks. The dock facilities had been run by the French and were nice. The camp was right across the street from the docks where some ships were tied up. The next day American planes came in and bombed and strafed the ships in the harbor. The prisoners were excited but were scared at the same time. This went on for an hour or 2. That was their first day in Saigon.


Brooks group was moved to a permanent camp which was an old French Colonial army camp. It was a nice place and the food there was much better.They started out going on local working parties like going into the rubber groves to load oil drums onto vehicles. Sometimes the vehicles were nothing more than a native with a 2 wheeled cart pulled by a donkey. The drums were delivered to a small airport near Saigon. That was a good working party to go out on. The only planes Brooks saw there were nondescript planes. There were never any military planes there. Occasionally a Japanese plane would land there but would leave soon after arriving.For several days Brooks chopped up planes that were being dismantled. They had to separate the aluminum from the rest of the trash. Then they took the scrap metal down to the docks and piled it up there.They were also put on a working party working in a garden planting seeds. Brooks enjoyed that but it didn't last long because it was too easy. He was then sent out on a detail up the railroad to Nha Trang. Near Nha Trang the railroad was built up high and crossed the delta of a river. The bridge over the delta was 2 or 3 kilometers long. After he had been there for a while Brooks saw American planes come in and bomb some of the railroads [Annotator's Note: railroad bridges]. Had the American planes come over while Brooks was working on it he would have had nowhere to go to take cover.The Japanese would store equipment all along the railroad. At the end of the rail line there was an underground area built underneath the railroad that Brooks was sent into to pick up supplies. It wasn't until later that he learned that what he had picked up there was dynamite. When the war ended Brooks was in Saigon. They had been up on the railroad but had walked the whole way back back. On the last day of walking back to Saigon 1 of the Australian guys suffered from an appendicitis attack. Brooks and the other prisoners spent the entire last day of walking back to the camp carrying the man who was suffering terribly.Just a few days before Brooks was at the camp. The pace of everything was starting to slow down. During the last few days elderly French men and women would walk by the gate to the camp and ask the prisoners for medicine. There were fewer and fewer Japanese around but the guards were still in the camp and would not let the French people in. Brooks had seen the French before when they would march through town and the French would try to throw the prisoners small pieces of food.


1 morning the prisoners were called out. They were usually called out every morning so the Japanese could do a head count. This particular morning a young Japanese officer gave a speech to the prisoners. He said that the Japanese had decided to cease fighting because the Americans had killed thousands of Japanese with only 1 bomb. He went on to tell the POWs that they would be free to go home. He then disappeared. The guards left that same morning as well.There were a couple of army officers there who told the prisoners to be careful and that they should not go out into town even though the Japanese had disappeared.A day or 2 before the Japanese officer gave the speech a huge American plane flew over and dropped something that they couldn't identify. The prisoners could recognize American planes. They hadn't seen many Japanese planes in Saigon.The day after the Japanese officer gave his speech a jeep with American soldiers pulled up to the camp. They claimed that the plane had dropped the jeep along with other needed food and supplies. There were candy bars and loads of cigarettes. The guys had a big party.There was a radio in the jeep and the army officers got the names and information of all of the men in the camp and were sending that information out to someone.The next day some 2 engine planes flew into the airport. The prisoners were put aboard some French trucks that Brooks had never seen before and were taken to the airport where they went aboard those 2 engine planes.When they boarded the planes the pilots stood there and talked to each of them. The 2 pilots looked like they were right out of high school they were so young.The prisoners were flown to Rangoon then on to Calcutta, India where they were admitted into an Army hospital. At the hospital they were each allowed to call home. When Brooks had left home his family didn't have a telephone. When he got home his family had a phone and they had electricity. Brooks called home and was able to get in touch with his uncle. His uncle immediately got his mother and dad.Brooks was surprised when he got home to see a telephone, a refrigerator, and even an air conditioner in the window.Brooks had to stay in the hospital for 3 weeks before going home. They had to go through a deworming process and took a medication for it. The former prisoners were treated wonderfully at the hospital. The Japanese had taken over all of Burma. The British Army had been pushed out of Burma and into India. That army was fighting its way back into Burma when the war ended. The Americans were building up a big force there to fight the Japanese [Annotator's Note: unsure as to the accuracy of this statement]. Brooks saw piles and piles of equipment on the docks and there were thousands of American troops in the area.


In the hospital they were treated very nice and given so much food that they couldn't eat it all. There was also entertainment every night. The POWs were given the front row for all of the entertainment. On the 1st night Brooks saw a group including Frank Sinatra perform. Brooks kept the playbill from that night.After 3 weeks Brooks and a few other guys were flown to Cairo then from there up to Casablanca. From there they were flown to an airbase in Greenland, Thule Air Force Base. This was in September 1945. The weather was very cold and they had to stay there overnight. The men were quartered in a Quonset hut with potbelly stoves for heat.The next day they flew down to Washington, DC. From there Brooks was finally able to go home.Information was passed around through the prison camps but Brooks did not personally know about anyone having a radio.At 1 time Brooks was in a Dutch camp with Dutch prisoners up in Burma. It was rumored that they had a radio but Brooks never saw it. Information was spread by word of mouth.Brooks always had faith that at some time they would be liberated. He never thought that he would die there. Even working in the jungle building a railroad they would see planes flying overhead keeping tabs on them. The Allies had complete control of the Bay of Bengal and there were no Japanese planes in the area. All of the equipment the Japanese Army needed had to be moved over land. That was the reason for the building of the railroad.Most of the prisoners had a positive outlook on their situation but there were some who just gave up and died. The guys who were disheartened were usually the guys who had malaria. When Brooks got home he had to be put on medication for about a year to cure his malaria.When the railroad was bombed repair crews would go out to repair it. Brooks never saw any bomb damage to the railroad even though he planes fly over every few days. Seeing that plane fly over gave the men confidence and relief.


Brooks was just past 20 years old when he first entered the Navy. When he came back home it was like coming back to another world. He left for the Philippines in 1940 and didn't get back until late September 1945. He had been gone for a little over 5 years. Coming back it was a different world.There were 8 children in Brooks family. He was number 5. His sister was married and lived close to the family home. When Brooks first got home his sister had gone to the store and when she got to the house she was excited that she had been able to get a half a pound of butter. It was at that point that Brooks learned about the rationing that had been instituted. They had been completely void of any news in the prison camps. They were isolated there in the camps for over 3 years.When Brooks came back his parents were in their early 60s. His youngest sister who is 10 years younger than he is was in high school. When Brooks took the train from Washington, DC to Greeneville, Tennessee his family met him at the railroad station. He didn't recognize his little sister.To Brooks the whole world changed. When he had left home his family didn't have electricity but did when he got back. When he returned he felt as though he was returning to another world.The National World War II Museum puts the emphasis on what this country did and its way of life. Since that time many things have happened that reinforce in him how great this country is. Brooks feels that the Allies did the entire world a favor by defeating the enemy forces that they did. All 5 of the boys in Brooks' family were in the service during the war. 4 of them were in the Pacific. Brooks was a POW. 1 of his brothers was in the Army and 2 were in the Navy serving aboard ships. 1 of his brothers was killed in the landings on Leyte in March 1945.Museums provide a good record of what we stand for in this country and what we are capable of doing.

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