Seventy years ago Thursday, a Japanese fleet sunk the ship off the coast of Java. The ship carried 1,068 crewmen, but only 291 sailors and Marines survived both the attack and being prisoners of war.
Fifteen of the original crew members are still alive, but Howard Brooks of New Jersey and David Flynn of Florida, both 92, are the only ones expected to attend the reunion of the USS Houston CA-30 Survivors Association. They'll join shipmates' relatives Saturday at the monument in downtown Houston's Sam Houston Park.
The Japanese sank the USS Houston and the Australian light cruiser HMAS Perth shortly after midnight on March 1, 1942, during the Battle of Sunda Strait.
After the Perth went down, the USS Houston's crew fought for a half-hour until all ammunition was spent.
"We had no planes in the air at all, but the Japanese had planes and they were dropping what we called star shells," Brooks said. "They would light up the whole area around like daylight, and we could see the ships firing at us. We were so close we could see sailors on the decks of the Japanese destroyers."
The warship was listing and ablaze when the order came over the public address system: "Hear this: All hands abandon ship!"
"At that announcement, you sort of froze for a second," Flynn, who was a radioman on the warship, tells the Houston Chronicle (http://bit.ly/zGnyQR).
When Flynn jumped into the water, he was bleeding from shrapnel wounds. He was fished out of the water by a Japanese boat.
Brooks, who was unhurt, clung to the side of a life raft for three days. When it washed ashore, Brooks, too, was captured by Japanese soldiers.
Both men spent the next 3 1/2 years as prisoners of war. Brooks was among those forced to build the Burma Railway, made famous in the 1957 film "The Bridge on the River Kwai."
In Houston, the destruction of the warship resulted in a mass recruiting drive for volunteers to replace the lost crew, as well as an $85 million fundraising campaign to pay for a new cruiser and an aircraft carrier, the USS San Jacinto.
According to a 1949 Houston Chronicle article commemorating the event, word of the USS Houston's fate "aroused a fever pitch of patriotism in Houston."
"Her loss made the war something more of a personal conflict to more than half a million people," the article reads. "Official news of her destruction ... slapped the city squarely between the eyes, and set off a series of events that stands unequaled in the nation."