These were the dark, early days of the war, when Allied forces were struggling to organize themselves and the Japanese Navy was taking advantage of superior tactical integration, air power, and night-fighting training. On 1 January, less than a month after Pearl Harbor, the Allies threw together ABDACOM (American-British-Dutch-Australian Command), of which the Houston was a part.
On 26 February the ABDA naval force, under the command of Dutch Admiral Doorman engaged Japanese forces in an attempt to stop an invasion force bound for Dutch Java. Fourteen Allied ships met twenty Japanese combat ships, including a light carrier, and fought for two days and two nights what is now called the Battle of Java Sea. It was a disastrous defeat for the Allies. The Houston and Perth were ordered to retire by Admiral Doorman as his ship sank.
[caption id="attachment_9687" align="aligncenter" width="546" caption="The Battle of Sunda Strait"][/caption]
It was when they were retiring that the Houston and Perth were trapped, facing what now was their third straight night of combat, this time knowing that there could be no escape as they sailed across the mouth of Banten Bay. From wikipedia:
On 28 February 1942, the day after the Battle of the Java Sea, the ABDA cruisers Perth and Houston steamed into Banten Bay. It is believed that they had no knowledge of the Japanese battle fleet, their last intelligence report having stated that the only Japanese warships in the area were 50 miles away and headed away. It is however possible that they were hoping to damage the Japanese invasion forces there. The two ships were attacked as they approached the bay, but evaded the nine torpedoes launched by destroyer Fubuki.
The cruisers then reportedly sank one transport and forced three others to beach. It is more likely that the transports were damaged by some of the over 90 Long Lance torpedoes fired at the two cruisers by Japanese destroyers. A Japanese destroyer squadron blocked Sunda Strait, their means of retreat, and the Japanese heavy cruisers Mogami and Mikuma stood dangerously near. The Houston and Perth could not withdraw. Perth came under fire at 23:36 and in an hour had been sunk from gunfire and torpedo hits. Houston then fought alone until soon after midnight, when she was struck by a torpedo and began to lose headway.
Houston's gunners had scored hits on three different destroyers and sank a minesweeper, but then suffered three more torpedo explosions in quick succession. Captain Albert Rooks was killed by a bursting shell at 00:30 and as the ship came to a stop Japanese destroyers moved in, machine gunning the decks. A few minutes later, Houston rolled over and sank, her ensign still flying. Of the original crew of 1,061 men, 368 survived, including 24 of the 74-man USMC detachment.
[caption id="attachment_9686" align="aligncenter" width="242" caption="Captain Albert Rooks"][/caption]
Houston's Captain, Albert Rooks, was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions during the disastrous campaign which culminated in this action. Japanese surface naval units would maintain superiority over Allied forces for months more, wreaking havoc on the Allies throughout the Solomons campaign. This would not be the last time Allied sailors would have to engage in a "bar room brawl with the lights turned off". This is Captain Rooks' citation:
"For extraordinary heroism, outstanding courage, gallantry in action and distinguished service in the line of his profession, as Commanding Officer of the U.S.S. Houston during the period 4 to 27 February 1942, while in action with superior Japanese enemy aerial and surface forces. While proceeding to attack an enemy amphibious expedition, as a unit in a mixed force, Houston was heavily attacked by bombers; after evading four attacks, she was heavily hit in a fifth attack, lost 60 killed and had 1 turret wholly disabled. Captain Rooks made his ship again seaworthy and sailed within 3 days to escort an important reinforcing-convoy from Darwin to Koepang, Timor, Netherlands East Indies. While so engaged, another powerful air attack developed which by Houston's marked efficiency was fought off without much damage to the convoy. The Commanding General of all forces in the area thereupon cancelled the movement and Captain Rooks escorted the convoy back to Darwin. Later, while in a considerable American-British-Dutch force engaged with an overwhelming force of Japanese surface ships, Houston with H.M.S. Exeter carried the brunt of the battle, and her fire alone heavily damaged one and possibly two heavy cruisers. Although heavily damaged in the actions, Captain Rooks succeeded in disengaging his ship when the flag officer commanding broke off the action and got her safely away from the vicinity, whereas one-half of the cruisers were lost."
The men of the Perth had been campaigning since 1939, as they had been in Venezuelan waters when the war with Germany began. They hunted for German shipping in the Caribbean and western Atlantic in '39, went into the Med in '40, and fought over Malta and Greece and Crete and Syria. Most of her crew were killed at Sunda Strait. Of her approximately 300 survivors, over a third died in captivity.