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Second World War at Sea: Java Sea
Fall of Java

By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
February 2024

With Java outflanked to the east and west, and secure airfields within range for both fighters and bombers, the Japanese began their move on 18 February, when the Western Invasion Force set out from Cam Ranh Bay in Indochina bearing the reinforced 2nd “Courageous” Infantry Division. The Eastern Invasion Force departed Jolo in the south-western Philippines a day later, carrying the reinforced 48th “Formosa” Infantry Division.

These convoys would have much heavier escorts than the small flotillas that had supported the moves against other islands. In addition, there would be a support force north of Java, and a powerful force to the south of Java built around two fast battleships and tasked with intercepting and destroying any Allied warships and transports that tried to escape the fall of Java.

Dutch Admiral Conrad Helfrich matched that by splitting his own limited surface forces into two groups, each built around one of his two heavy cruisers. At the last minute he reconsidered, sending the most effective ships from the western group to join Karel Doorman commanding the eastern force, with orders to detect and destroy each of the two Japanese convoys in turn. “You must,” Helfrich ordered Doorman, “continue attacks until the enemy is destroyed.”

Doorman, suffering from diarrhea, ordered his captains – from four different naval services – to press any attack against the Japanese transports, and to make no attempt to rescue the crews of disabled Allied vessels. But the Allies could not find the enemy, having left all of their cruiser floatplanes ashore to reduce the danger of fire in case of a surface action. Finally, in the early afternoon of 27 February a Dutch flying boat reported the Japanese eastern invasion convoy just 50 miles from Java. Doorman’s cruisers and destroyers rushed to intercept.

Before she battled Godzilla, destroyer Yukikaze fought in the Battle of the Java Sea.

The Japanese cruisers had retained their floatplanes, one of which spotted the approaching Allied force. The Japanese commander, Takeo Takagi, concentrated his forces and sent them south to meet Doorman with four cruisers and fourteen destroyers. Doorman had five cruisers and nine destroyers, but none of his ships could match the firepower of the Japanese heavy cruisers Nachi and Haguro, or the torpedo arrays of the Japanese Special Type destroyers.

The Battle of the Java Sea began as what would be unusual in the Pacific War, a long-range daytime gunnery duel. The two Japanese heavy cruisers exchanged 8-inch shells with the two Allied heavy cruisers (the British Exeter and American Houston) for about an hour, with neither side able to inflict any significant damage on the other. Takagi ordered the standard response dictated by Japanese doctrine – a mass attack with the huge and top-secret Type 93 oxygen-fueled torpedoes. Unknown to the Allies, these could be effectively launched from beyond the gunnery range of Doorman’s light cruisers and destroyers.

The Japanese loosed 39 of the big fish, and scored exactly one hit – a torpedo from Haguro blew apart the Dutch destroyer Kortenaer, taking 40 of her 153 crew with her. It would be the longest-ranged torpedo hit of the war, striking the unfortunate Dutch boat from over 20,000 meters away (it took 21 minutes for the torpedo to travel from its launching point to its target).

The Japanese followed their torpedoes, intending to finish off the many crippled ships they expected to find. A shell from Haguro knocked out six of Exeter’s eight boilers along with electrical power to her main battery, and dropped her speed to 11 knots. She veered out of formation, causing the Allied battle line to fall apart, and Doorman turned his flagship De Ruyter back to re-form, sending his three British destroyers to make a torpedo attack of their own to buy him the needed time.

Dutch light cruiser Tromp missed the Battle of the Java Sea and survived the war.

Takagi ordered another mass torpedo attack, and this time the Japanese launched 98 more of their big torpedoes at the Allied ships. Every one of them missed. Soon after, the three British destroyers made their attack, but Japanese gunfire sank Electra. Doorman gathered his remaining ships, detailing the British destroyer Encounter and Dutch destroyer Witte de With to shepherded the crippled Exeter back to Java as darkness fell.

Takagi, following Allied movement thanks to his floatplanes, believed his enemies to be retreating. But Doorman had his orders to attack at all costs, and was only regrouping to try again. He at first ordered his four American destroyers to make a torpedo attack, then belayed that order and told them to lay down a smokescreen. That confused the American captains, who followed through with the torpedo attack anyway; all 41 torpedoes launched failed to find any target.

Now down to four cruisers and five destroyers, none of them retaining any torpedoes, Doorman returned to the attack, trying to get around the Japanese escort to reach the troop convoy. With daylight fading, both Japanese heavy cruisers had stopped to collect their floatplanes, but the Allies failed to spot them in this vulnerable condition (and lacked the torpedoes to quickly finish them off even if they had). At this point, the commander of the American Destroyer Division 58, Commander Thomas H. Binford, deserted Doorman. “I’m not going in there after Doorman,” he told his flagship’s conning officer. “That Dutchman’s got more guts than brains.”

Binford would later cite his lack of torpedoes and low fuel as justification for this decision; his bosses in Washington apparently agreed (or didn’t wish to highlight the abandonment of an ally in the face of the enemy), awarding him the Navy Cross. The British destroyer Jupiter, in contrast, remained with Doorman but struck a mine and sank.

Japanese floatplanes overhead dropped flares, tracking Doorman’s progress as the Allies sought the convoy, but the flagship lost contact with the plane and the two heavy cruisers moved cautiously toward where the Allied cruisers were thought to be found. The two forces blundered into each other at 2322, and the Japanese cruisers launched their last dozen torpedoes. One torpedo hit the Dutch light cruiser Java and another the Dutch flagship De Ruyter. Java’s after magazine exploded and she went down quickly; De Ruyter foundered more slowly but per Doorman’s orders the surviving Allied ships made no effort to find survivors. Doorman refused to leave his station and went down with De Ruyter.

The two remaining Allied ships, the American heavy cruiser Houston and Australian light cruiser Perth, turned away and headed back to the Dutch naval base at Tandjong Priok on the northern coast of western Java. The base had no ammunition for them, and only limited fuel. They took on what they could and set out again on the evening of the 28th, heading west to slip through the Sunda Strait between Java and Sumatra and from there on to Australia. The Dutch destroyer Evertsen followed about an hour later.

The Japanese are landing on Java.

They stumbled into the Japanese Western Invasion Convoy, caught with their escort to the north and the transports unloading their troops and cargo. The Japanese reacted quickly, and a confused night action developed as Capt. Hector Waller of Perth, holding command of the two ships by virtue of seniority, tried to get at the vulnerable transports.

Perth had finished the Battle of the Java Sea with just 160 shells for her 6-inch main battery (right at 10 percent of her standard load) and Houston had 300 for her 8-inch guns (out of her full load of 1,350). Houston’s aft turret had been put out of action by a Japanese air attack on 4 February and could not be repaired by the facilities available on Java; most of her remaining ammunition lay in the aft turret’s magazine. While the battle raged around them, the unemployed crew of the aft turret manhandled shells from the aft magazine to the two forward turrets. Soon enough, Hec Waller’s gunners aboard Perth were firing practice shells at the Japanese for lack of anything else.

As had occurred during the previous night’s battle, the Japanese launched massed waves of torpedoes, all of which missed their intended targets. But four of the six fish from the heavy cruiser Mogami sped past the Allied cruisers to the Japanese transports well beyond, each hitting and sinking one transport including the amphibious assault ship Shinshu Maru, the world’s first “gator freighter.” A fifth torpedo from the same spread sank the minesweeper W2.

That did not save the Allied cruisers. A torpedo from the destroyer Harukaze hit Perth in the engine room just after midnight, slowing her as three more struck in quick succession. She rolled over and sank, with Hec Waller last seen standing on her bridge and ordering his crew to abandon ship. Houston likewise took four torpedoes, and a shell killed her captain. Albert Waller. As the crew abandoned ship, Japanese destroyers approached to spray machine-gun fire over the men collecting on her decks and those in the water.

About 90 minutes later, the trailing Dutch destroyer Evertsen arrived, to find the Japanese altered and waiting. After a brief firefight with two Japanese destroyers, she was set afire and her commander, Lt. W.M. de Vries, ran her aground to allow his crew to escape. They were taken prisoner by the Japanese.

British heavy cruiser Exeter sinking.

Now Allied efforts shifted to escape from Java. Binford’s four American destroyers slipped through the Bali Strait east of Java, finding it guarded rather lackadaisically by four Japanese destroyers which contended themselves with a brief exchange of fire. The damaged cruiser Exeter, now able to make 23 knots after hasty repairs, attempted to steam west around Java accompanied by two destroyers, but ran into a force of four Japanese heavy cruisers and all three ships were lost. The seaplane tender Langley, converted from an aircraft carrier, had already been destroyed by Japanese aircraft on the 27th.

Only a pair of American destroyers escaped the fall of Java. The destroyer Edsall avoided shells from two Japanese battleships and two heavy cruisers, plus dive-bomber attacks, for 17 minutes before finally sinking. The Japanese rescued eight crewmen, took them ashore and beheaded them. The American Pillsbury likewise fell victim to the waiting Japanese cordon, lost with all hands, as did the old British destroyer Stronghold, though fifty of her sailors survived Japanese captivity. The gunboat Asheville was destroyed by a pair of Japanese destroyers, and the Japanese murdered her one survivor.

The last defenders of Java surrendered on 8 March. It had been a swift, well-conducted campaign, marked by a pattern of widespread war crimes against both prisoners of war and civilians.

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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and NASA Journalist in Space finalist, he has published a great many books, games and articles on historical subjects; people are saying that some of them are actually good. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children, and new puppy. He misses his lizard-hunting Iron Dog, Leopold.

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