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Playing for Time
War on an Asiatic Fleet Destroyer
by Lodwick H. Alford
Merriam Press Military Monograph 93
The author's memoir of his service as an officer on board the destroyer USS Stewart (DD-224) of the Asiatic Fleet from before the war through its abandonment in a dry dock in Java in February 1942, also serving as a history of the ship's wartime service, including as a patrol boat in the Japanese Navy. The author also provides a history of the Asiatic Fleet during that time period when it was part of the naval forces that stopped the Japanese juggernaut on their southward expansion in the Pacific.
Review by Vic Campbell: I met Captain Alford at the Asiatic Fleet Reunion in Asheville earlier this month. He came with his son and they were a great team, promoting the book. I purchased one. I am now reading it and enjoying it very much. Capt. Alford describes with vivid texture the life of a young officer aboard a four piper in the Asiatic Fleet. It surprises me, finding myself, a destroyer veteran and officer of Vietnam, experiencing my own life over again through his descriptions in a time 30 years before mine. The wardroom—the staterooms—the watches... One feels the salt air sting the eyes and the protocol stiffen the spine. It all comes back. There is so much tradition in the Navy. It lives from generation to generation. I have only just begun to read the book—but I wanted to say how much I appreciate his style and his contribution to the history of the Asiatic Fleet. The speech I gave at the Asiatic Reunion is "fleshed out" here and a bit more formal than the the version given with notes off my napkin in Asheville.
- Pearl Harbor Attacked
- The Asiatic Fleet: USS Stewart (DD-224)
- Playing for Time
- Saga of the USS Peary (DD-226)
- Japanese Juggernaut Rolls South
- Destroyers Win One
- Impending Disaster
- The Beginning of the End
- Baptism of Fire: USS Stewart
- Abandon Ship!
- Allied Defeat!
- The Enemy Mops Up
- Escape From the Java Sea
- Ordeal of Edsall and Whipple
- Isabel Runs Gauntlet
- “Titivate Ship”
- Born Again—Under the Rising Sun
- Homeward Bound
- Remaining Destroyers and Other Ships
- Recognitions, Decorations and Awards
- Ship’s Company Personnel of USS Stewart (DD-224) at Time of Battle of Badoeng Strait, 20 February, and Abandonment, 22 February 1942
- Brief Biography of Lodwick H. Alford
Speech by Vic Campbell (see post at www.chinagunboat.blogspot.com) also ref www.usshouston.org. Campbell is a Navy veteran of Vietnam. The speech below was delivered to veterans of the Asiatic Fleet who gathered at Asheville, NC to remember their shipmates.
This fleet was wiped out in the first three months of WWII—essentially a sacrifice to stall the Japanese advance on Australia. (The Pearl Harbor Fleet was their planned support fleet).
Well-known movies that touch on this subject in the past are "Sand Pebbles" and "The Bridge on The River Kwai". Few veterans of the USS Houston remain alive. Otto Schwarz (noted in this speech), of Union, NJ (totally blind and in the Lyons Veterans Nursing home). Campbell lives in Sparta. His website www.me3tv.com provides web video features of historical interest, some of which are interviews with veterans of WWII.
I am pleased to be here in such august company. I promise you a good talk, because I placed third in the Future Farmers of America speech competition at Chumuckla High school in 1965 and later graduated in the top ten of my class of 17 students in 1967. My dad was a Navy chief. He was an airdale, having crewed in PBY's in the war. In the early 1950's he was able to get transferred back to Pensacola, near his family's roots. In that way, my brother and sister and I were consigned to the dual roles of Navy Brats and Farm Kids. His duty stations were either at sea or in Jacksonville or Pensacola, so the farm scenario worked out well for a family. As we kids slaved among aunts, uncles, cousins and ourselves to clear land, plant and harvest crops, and herd cattle, we thought we were in a special hell created by Navy chiefs. Little did we know, we were in Chief's heaven.
Sometimes I was fortunate enough to go to work with dad at the VT-4 hangar in Pensacola where so many student aviators earned their wings. The Blue Angels were based there as well. I never actually met the Blue Angels. They were always on tour somewhere. However, I reached the pinnacle of awe once when I had my shoes shined by the man who shined the shoes for the Blue Angels. Could life ever get better than that? I later joined the Navy and went to OCS at Newport. My mom and dad came to Newport to be at my commissioning and dad gave me my first salute (though by then he was retired). My naval service was in a destroyer, in Vietnam. My brother became a Navy corpsman and remained in the reserves after his active tour. Thirty Five years later, and before dad passed away, his captains eagles were pinned on his collar by the old chief. I am proud of my Navy heritage. My Navy family.
Now, I want to talk on the topic of the Forgotten Fleet.
Why are you forgotten?
I am reminded of Otto Schwarz of the USS Houston telling about his trip to the Navy Memorial in Washington DC with his wife. He was blind by this time. His wife, Trudy, read from the inscriptions along the top of the wall ... "The Sea Battles of WWII". She began reading ... "Coral Sea", "Midway" ... and so on. "Well," thought Otto, "whatever happened to the Battle of the Java Sea? If that was not a sea battle, I sure would hate to be in a real sea battle!"
The problem it seems is that the Asiatic Fleet was forgotten. The sea battles in the Pacific supposedly only started some four or five months after Pearl Harbor. In the meantime, it is assumed by the novice reader of history, the American Navy was somewhere safe, licking its wounds and getting ready to begin a long process of re-taking the Pacific.
After your long period of lonely defense of the Western Pacific, the great new fleets began to arrive in large numbers and successes began to take place. There were losses, surely. But the successes were important and they were widely noted. The battles before the Java Sea and the Battle of the Java Sea (and all the surrounding episodes including Sunda Strait), were witnessed and fought by only a few American sailors and marines. There were so few of you. So very few.
In numbers of human beings—sailors and Marines, there were only a few thousand manning your fleet. There were just not that many people. In a year's time from the beginning of the Pacific War when you people took your hit, there were millions of sailors in the Navy. There were hundreds—even thousands of ships.
The public consciousness (the collective memory of America) overwhelmingly comes from those masses of sailors and marines who came into service after you had your turn in the grinder. So looking at the end of the war, there were those millions and millions of sailors and marines who had those battle experiences from late 1942 forward. This compares with only a few thousand of you who were present on the front end of the conflict. And, there were thousands of you who did not come back at all or only came back years later having been POW's. Your stories were delayed and overshadowed by the sheer volume of stories from late 1942 forward.
Those pages of ink and those reels of movie film and the stories that carried the airwaves were coming primarily from the sheer mass of humanity involved in the war from March 1942 forward. Many of you also experienced this later part of the war, but you select few of the Asiatic Fleet, saw things the new Navy would never see.
The great American memory of the time was flooded with the remembrances of a larger Navy, a powerful Navy and a Navy that pressed on toward the total surrender of Japan. Does this imply that the Asiatic Fleet "lost"? Not according to Otto Schwarz, to whom I again refer. Otto says the Asiatic Fleet did not fail. It lost nearly all its ships and its fighting power, but it did not fail in its duty and in its purpose. He says that "without any air power, or large ships to support it, the Asiatic Fleet succeeded in doing its duty to stall the Japanese advance. Had they not done so, Australia surely would have fallen". And then, how hard would be the task of retaking the Pacific? How many lives would have been lost in the ensuing years? Yes, the Asiatic Fleet succeeded in its purpose: At the cost of its existence.
So, we need to improve the visibility of the Asiatic Fleet to the American mind. We need to talk about our heroes. We need to let people know what happened to you. And that is here the next generation comes into play. These are the people who must carry the story forward so our Asiatic Fleet Veterans will be remembered. This generation now has media resources that were not even thought of 20 years ago. In my own experience learning about the Asiatic Fleet, I confess, I never thought about you. I left the Navy after my time and forgot about the Navy for 20 years. When I was in the Navy in 1971-73, it stuck me one day: "This is too much like the military". It was something they must have included in the fine print. Some 20 years later, I was a corporate guy, making a living and those things were not on my mind. I did not even have the Asiatic Fleet on my mind to forget.
Some things happened. I had a chance to ride an Aegis Cruiser, USS Cowpens (CG-63) from Pearl to San Diego and the salt air jogged my memory. I joined the Tin Can Sailors. Then I began to tape interviews with the WWII sailors. One day, I heard a speech about the USS Houston at a Tin Can meeting. An old one-eyed salt was telling about the Java Sea and the Houston and the Perth and the River Kwai. I was shocked! Not at his story—which was shocking enough—but at my lack of knowledge about these battles! I was a Navy officer! I was in destroyers! I thought I knew WWII history. I had heard of the Java Sea... vaguely. Why was I so ignorant? What could I do to fix this problem? From that point, I began to work with the Houston survivors to develop a film presentation of their story. Then I developed a web site to help educate people. As time progressed, the story simply had to include the Asiatic Fleet. Now that web site and many more are all connected and perform yeoman's work to inform the public and help families learn of their heritage. The story of the Chinese mess cooks is one of many stories developing now with the help of the internet resources. The amazing reunion of USS Edsall family was aided by internet resources. This "family" never met before, because their fathers, uncles and brothers had all been lost when the Edsall died. Because of the internet and web resources, people are finding closure to painful times 60 and 65 years after the loss of their loved ones.
The web sites open up a whole new avenue for information about families. I refer you to your own web site (run by volunteers) www.asiaticfleet.com, and www.usshouston.org, and I encourage you to "Google" for other sites referring to the Asheville, the Edsall, the Stewart, the Paul Jones, the Pillsbury, the Blackhawk, the Perch, the Parrott, and so many more. In closing are some points I would like to make regarding the great collective memory of the Asiatic Fleet. Those final battles for the Asiatic Fleet were fought under an "international" banner. There were ships of four nations involved. When you calculate the size of the battle in ship numbers, the writers often focus on the ships of their own nation.
Thus, The Asiatic Fleet talks about the Asiatic Fleet and not about all the Allies in the area with you. The size and scope of the major battles of this time are not scaled properly as a result. Some 1600 Asiatic Fleet sailors and Marines died in those first months. But if you count the losses of the other three Allied nations, the numbers are four to five times greater. In fact it was a huge undertaking. We talk about 22 American Ships lost. Well, the number of ships lost among all the Allies was closer to fifty. Among them are the HMS Exeter, the HrMs Java, the HMAS Perth—there is a very long list. Yet, each nation involved tends to write the history with a close focus on its own ships. The larger picture is not clearly painted in popular literature or national histories.
Another problem with the battles of the Asiatic Fleet is that so little film footage exists. It is practically non-existent. When I made "The Last Stand" (now a DVD), illustrative film came from many sources. The Houston is often represented by the USS Augusta in the film. In one segment, the narrator talks about closing the portholes to prepare for battle. The illustrating footage came from activity shown in a film from the Japanese Navy. I talked with a famous producer who makes many military history films for The History Channel. He said he will not do a film on that era because no footage exists to carry the story. I knew that "Windy" Winslow of the Houston had shot a lot of 16mm film of the battles. ("Windy" was one of the aviators—but his plane could not be launched quickly enough as the Java Sea battle began. The exposed plane was ripped to shreds by the concussion of Houston's own guns in the opening rounds. With nothing else to do, he took out his camera and filmed.) Before he died, I gave "Windy" a talking to. "I know the ship was sinking and shells were exploding all over, but your treasured unprocessed film was in your stateroom. You should have saved it! What were you thinking, Windy?" He had no idea at the time that The History Channel would need that film to tell America about the Asiatic Fleet!
There is also the problem of Navy structure. When individual sailors write or tell their stories, they often focus on one ship—"their ship". It is natural. But one ship might only be 300 men. The numbers of books by sailors is large but the "target market" is small. Sometimes a book will surface that embraces stories of a whole fleet, and this is good. But there can never be enough to compete with the sheer mass of stories from the mass of ships and sailors that followed the Asiatic Fleet. As a fleet organization, you have much more visibility than a single ship organization. I encourage your association to maintain a wide identity and to insert "ambassadors" into other Navy organizations when you can.
The question remains ... Is the Asiatic Fleet forgotten because nearly the whole fleet was tanked by the Japanese? I've met you and people like you who won't forget. I vividly recall a scene painted by "Dutch" Kooper of the USS Houston: The ship was dying from four torpedo hits. "Dutch" was treading water. Searchlights from Japanese destroyers and cruisers probed the darkened ship and pounded it with large caliber shells. A lone Marine remained in a high position, his machine gun chattering away at the searchlights. Occasional enemy shells exploded underwater, the concussions slamming his insides against his backbone. As the ship at last slipped from view, the American flag was caught in beams of light. This is described by "Dutch" as the proudest moment of his life. Two-thirds of the ship's crew of 1200 and the ship itself were dead. But the flag remained in the battle to the death. This is a picture of how the Asiatic Fleet died. Nothing was held back. You gave all you had in battle. You will not forget. We will not forget.
Review by Bernie Ditter at Tin Can Sailors web site: The author, a retired Captain, introduces his readers to largely forgotten, and in some instances unknown, activities immediately preceeding and for three months following Pearl Harbor. The author's naval career started years before 1941 and offers the reader a perspective on the run up to the war, including a unique assessment of the politics of the time. What sets this book apart from others that have as their prime source personal diaries and ship's logs is the author's ability to write. This is a difficult book to put down. Partly because the material is new, as most histories of the Pacific during WWII deal with battles that are won by the allies and not about retreats and losses, but mainly because the author presents the materials in so readable a form. To begin we are introduced to a period preceding the war and experience with the crew the adjustment, overnight, from peacetime to a wartime existence. We are introduced to a fleet of tired, worn out ships who are put in harms way against a superior enemy but who are expected to survive. We are informed along the way of the decisions made by those in command that contribute to the failures and to the inevitable dissolution of the Asiatic Fleet. Perhaps a bias on the part of the author will be off putting to some. Perhaps the situation that gives rise to the subject of the book will compensate. This is a book that all who are interested in the war in the Pacific will enjoy and most will be enlightened by. Overall Rating: Three Stars--Recommended. A solid effort.