Just before the attack on Pearl Harbor, the USS Houston left Panay Island in the Philippines and maneuvered toward Indonesia where she joined the Allied naval forces at Surabaya, a port city on the Java Coast. The USS Houston was involved in several sea battles including the Battle of Bali Sea, the Timor Convoy, in which she shot down multiple Japanese aircraft, and the Battles of the Java Sea and Sunda Strait.
In late February of 1942, the USS Houston, known as the Galloping Ghost of the Java Coast, along with 4 other cruisers and ten destroyers, sailed to protect the island of Java from an approaching Japanese invasion force. After multiple torpedo attacks, several of the allied ships were damaged or sunk. The American destroyers were ordered back to Surabaya as they had fired all of their torpedos and the USS Houston and three other remaining cruisers continued on in a last attempt to stop the invasion of Java. All but Houston and the Australian Perth were destroyed and the two were ordered to retire.
On February 28, 1942, damaged, low on fuel, and short on ammunition, the two ships headed for the Sunda Strait, which they believed to be free of enemy vessels. However, multiple Japanese warships appeared and surrounded the two Allied ships. The two battered cruisers evaded at least nine torpedoes, sank one transport vessel, and forced three others to the beach, but were blocked from getting through the Sunda Strait by a destroyer squadron. Forced to engage at close range, Perth was hit and went down, while Houston, struck by a torpedo, continued fighting, hitting three different destroyers and sinking a minesweeper. Then, Houston was struck by three torpedoes in quick succession and the Japanese destroyers moved in, machine-gunning the decks. A few minutes later, in the early morning hours of March 1st, the USS Houston rolled over and sank.
The men of the “Lost Battalion”, 2nd Battalion, 131st Field Artillery, 36th Infantry Division (Texas National Guard) distinguished itself assisting other Allied forces in the defense of Java Island during the Japanese invasion that took place 27 February-8 March 1942; the invasion the USS Houston was trying to prevent.
The 368 Navy and Marine survivors of the sinking of the USS Houston–along with 534 personnel of the Lost Battalion–were held prisoners by the Imperial Japanese Forces for 42 months until the end of WWII. The POWs were first taken to Java, then Singapore, and then to Burma where they were forced to work on the Thai-Burma “Death Railway” where they suffered beatings, torture, near-starvation and a myriad of tropical diseases. After the completion of the railway, October 17, 1943, most of the POWs were sent to Japan on “hell ships” to work in shipyards or coal mines. They were not liberated until August 15, 1945, at the end of the war and were among the longest-held prisoners of war in all of World War II.
Of the 902 service members taken captive, only 739 returned home alive. One of those who survived this incredible ordeal was Marine Pvt. Lawrence Franklin (L.F.) Battles, father of Nancy Hamilton. He and the other survivors remained close for the rest of their lives, many of them meeting at Lost Battalion Association reunions each August or at USS Houston (CA-30) Survivors Association meetings each March.