Special Holiday Valor Post

| September 7, 2020

USS Houston (originally CL-30, later CA-30) was a cruiser in the United States Navy. Ordered in 1924, she was a light cruiser at launch in 1929. Commissioned in 1930, she sailed for a year before she was re-classified as a heavy cruiser due to the size of her 8” guns after the 1930 London Naval Treaty.

Houston was part of the Pacific Fleet through the 1930s. When war broke out after Pearl Harbor, she fought at several battles;

  • Battle of Makassar Strait (4 February, 1942) – Shot down four Japanese airplanes
  • The Timor Convoy (10 February-18 February, 1942) – Houston distinguished herself with a barrage which made her “like a sheet of flame” shooting down 7 of the 44 planes of the second wave
  • Battle of the Java Sea (27 February, 1942) – The largest naval battle since Jutland in World War I

Captain Albert Rooks was skipper of Houston from 1940. Japanese forces were preparing to invade Java. The USS Houston, the Australian heavy cruiser HMAS Perth, and Netherlands destroyer HNLMS Evertsen were ordered out on 28 February to the Sunda Strait on the south coast of Java. The two cruisers departed at 1900 hours, with the destroyer following two hours later. Despite the impending invasion threat, they were not expected to encounter any ships except some Australian corvettes on patrol. In command of the small fleet was Australian Captain Hector Waller (senior to Captain Rooks).

By chance, at about 2200 hours a Japanese convoy, including the entirety of the Japanese Sixteenth Army being escorted by the 5th Destroyer Flotilla and the 7th Cruiser Division were entering Bantam Bay on the northern tip of Java. In total, the Japanese fleet, including nearby ships, the Japanese Navy line of battle consisted of;
1 light carrier
1 seaplane carrier
5 cruisers
12 destroyers
1 minelayer
58 troopships

At 2306 Perth’s lookout spotted a ship, which they believed to be Australian, but when challenged replied with a gibberish signal. At 2315 the Japanese discovered the Allied ships and began to follow them covertly.

Once Perth deduced it was a Japanese ship they were seeing, Captain Waller reported the contact and ordered their forward guns to engage. The Japanese destroyer launched a torpedo from 3,000 yards and turned to disappear in smoke.

Houston’s rear guns were out of commission due to damage from earlier battles, leaving her with only six of nine main guns for the coming battle.

As soon as the Allied ships realized they were in contact with the enemy, they were surrounded by the much, much larger force of ships. The two cruisers put up a valiant fight against a foe that outnumbered them 39 to 1.

As the battle commenced, the cruisers dodged nine torpedoes early in the battle. Finding themselves with the enemy all around them, to channel Chesty Puller, the enemy couldn’t get away from them. The Allied ships knocked out and sank one transport outright and caused three others to beach.

At midnight, Waller ordered Perth and Houston to push through a line of destroyers to get out of the kill zone they found themselves in and retreat. Making for the enemy line HMAS Perth was hit in quick succession by four torpedoes. Knocked down she continued to fight for another 25 minutes through wave after wave of enemy shells before sinking at 0025 hours on 1 March, 1942.

Captain Waller, a veteran of the First World War and the Spanish Civil War, (who’d already received the Distinguished Service Order [analogous to the American Navy Cross] twice and was thrice Mentioned in Dispatches [comparable to a US Bronze Star w/ “V”]) gave the order to abandon ship. He was last seen standing on the bridge, looking down on the silent guns. He and more than 350 men went down with the ship out of a complement of 680. In 2011 he would be recommended for consideration of a posthumous award of the Victoria Cross (the Commonwealth’s highest award for valor) for his actions at Sunda Strait.

USS Houston meanwhile was continuing the fight with only her forward guns. Running short of shells, the valiant crew manhandled shells forward from the disabled rear turret to the forward ones.

Shortly after midnight Houston was hit with a torpedo. Still moving, she was losing headway. Captain Rooks was killed at 0030 hours by a bursting enemy shell. His ship had scored direct hits on three enemy destroyers and sunk the minesweeper, but was then hit with three torpedoes. As the ship came to a stop, the Japanese destroyers moved in, raking the decks and men in the water with machine gun fire.

Houston rolled over and sank after giving her all. One thousand sixty one men were aboard at the start of the battle, but only 368 survived the sinking.

Captain Rooks would receive a posthumous Medal of Honor for “extraordinary heroism, outstanding courage, gallantry in action and distinguished service in the line of his profession as Commanding Officer of the USS Houston during the period of 4 to February 27, 1942, while in action with superior Japanese enemy aerial and surface forces.”

During this short few weeks USS Houston weathered six enemy air attacks, one significant naval battle, and despite prior damage, inflicted significant enemy damage despite the overwhelming odds in her final battle.

The Dutch destroyer that was following Perth and Houston had been trying to catch up. They saw the flares and tracer fire from the massive battle ahead and attempted to avoid detection. Unfortunately, they were unsuccessful and were hunted down by the Japanese Navy and sunk as well.

For the men in the water from all three ships, only a fraction of the ship’s personnel merely an hour before, the fight wasn’t over. Adrift on flotsam and jetsam, the Japanese were not known for being kind to prisoners. Many died in the water before their capture. Among those in the water was USS Houston’s 59-year old chaplain, Commander George Rentz.

Rentz was an established Presbyterian minister when he enlisted into the Navy in 1917 upon US entry to World War I. He was 35. He was assigned to the 11th Marine Regiment, which was formed in January, 1918. He deployed with the 11th Marines to France as part of the 5th Marine Expeditionary Brigade, but the unit arrived too late to see combat.

After the war, Chaplain Rentz remained in the service. Promoted to commander in 1924, he served on the battleships USS Florida (BB-30) and USS West Virginia (BB-48), the seaplane tender USS Wright (AV-1), and the cruisers USS Augusta (CA-31) and her sister ship USS Houston.

Rentz was loved by the men on USS Houston. He was known to flaunt regulations and provide nips of alcohol to the busy crew. He was less than a year away from being able to retire.

On February 4th, 1942, at the Battle of Makassar Strait, the ship’s first fight in the war, Rentz was out among the men. His position as Chaplain and a senior officer would have afforded him a relatively safe position without anyone questioning the why. Instead, Rentz moved from gun to gun, through enemy fire all around him to encourage the men. The calm, cool stoicism of Commander Rentz shined through to the scared young men battling for their lives. It was said when crew members at the guns “… saw this man of God, walking fearlessly among them, they no longer felt alone.”

At the sinking of Houston, Rentz was again with his flock, but in the water of the South Pacific surrounded by hostile forces. Rentz and some of the men had found a pontoon from a wrecked seaplane and were reasonably safe for the moment.

Rentz saw that there were far more men than could be held by the plane’s float and the pontoon was taking on water. He tried, repeatedly, to give up not only his place on the makeshift life raft but also his own life jacket. He told them, “You men are young, I have lived the major part of my life and I am willing to go.”

None of the men would take the esteemed chaplain’s offer. He had been like a father to these young men for the last few weeks. They respected and loved him too much.

The chaplain tried to jump in the water, opening a spot for another man on the pontoon. Survivor, Private Jim Gee said each time he tried to leave, the generous and self-sacrificing officer was dragged back by the sailors and Marines.

Rentz then told Seaman First Class Walter Beeson that “his heart was failing him; told me he couldn’t last much longer.” Beeson said a prayer with the chaplain, and forced Beeson to take the life preserver.

Refusing to put it on, Beeson and the other men didn’t notice as Rentz finally made good on his intention. He’d pushed off the float one last time and vanished into the dark of the sea, secure in the knowledge that at least one more boy had a shot at going back home. Gee said, “No one realized what had happened. It’s just one of those things that one minute he’s there, and the next minute… he wasn’t.”

It was only after the chaplain was gone that the wounded Seaman Beeson obliged the man’s dying wish and put on the jacket he’d given him.

Chaplain George Rentz was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross for his gallantry in action that night. He was the only chaplain to receive the honor during World War II.

Of the two cruisers Houston and Perth, only 368 and 328 made it off each ship respectively. A handful died once reaching shore, but the remainder were captured and held as prisoners of war by the Japanese.

At the end of the war, the notoriously bad conditions in Japanese POW camps resulted in about 1/3rd of the survivors to die in captivity. Only 291 of Houston’s crew were repatriated at the end of hostilities just three years later. Perth’s survivors had been cut down to just 218 men.

Category: Aussies, Historical, Medal of Honor, Navy, Valor, We Remember

Comments (10)

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  1. MustangCryppie says:

    Wow! February sure was a busy month for Houston!

    Anyone who was part of that crew can hold his head high. Just reading this, the “Band of Brothers” speech comes to mind. Incredible courage!

    “And gentlemen in England now a-bed
    Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
    And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
    That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day”

  2. George V says:

    I am always awestruck from stories of naval combat because of the death toll. Two thirds of the Houston’s crew went down with the ship, and surely the majority were those working in spaces below deck.

    I cannot fathom the courage of the sailors who manned the engine spaces, boiler rooms, ammo hoists and other facilities deep below decks in combat. I would have been curled up in a ball once the shells and torpedoes started. Valor, indeed.

  3. USAFRetired says:

    The Galloping Ghost of the Java Coast. One of the better authors IMO of this genre- James D Hornfischer wrote a book about the Houston Ship of Ghosts. A great read. He also was the author of Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors about the surface action at Samar and Taffy 3.

    According to his book Houston was also known as FDRs favorite ship.

    • USAFRetired says:

      As an aside, while Chaplain Rentz nay have been the only Navy Cross recipient in WWII don’t forget Father Callahan who was a recipient of the Medal of Honor for his actions on the USS Franklin following a kamikaze attack in 1945. Chaplain Callahan survived the war.

      • Mason says:

        Have not done an article on Captain O’Callahan yet, I did do the Four Chaplains. I’ve been thinking I should do a series on chaplains of valor. Capodanno is another one that comes to mind.

  4. AW1Ed says:

    Hand Salute. Ready, Two!

    Thanks again, Mason.

  5. Eric (the OC Tanker) says:

    Do not mourn the deaths of such men. Rather, thank GOD that such men lived.

  6. USAF E-5 says:

    Always glad to remember these heros.

  7. 5th/77th FA says:

    Battery Gun Salute to Pay Honors to these Warriors and the Floating Artillery Platforms that they served on….By the Piece from right to left…PREPARE!….COMMENCE FIRING!!

    Outstand read (as always) and Thanks (as always) Mason. Love these stories of our Heroes.

  8. USAFRetired says:

    Emil Kapaun, in addition to his MOH he is moving through the wickets for canonization. Kapaun Air Station in Germany was named after him as well.

    Capodanno, is also being looked at for canonization.

    Capodanna, Callahan, had ships named after them and I believe some consideration was give to naming a ship the 4 Chaplains