HMAS PERTH - The Gallant Ship
HMAS PERTH - THE GALLANT SHIP
"Fight and Flourish"
Saturday 28th February 1942, following the mauling of the previous night's Java Sea battle, Captain 'Hec' Waller, RAN, had no hesitation in withdrawing to the prearranged rendezvous at Tandjeong Priok (Indonesia).
He was now in command of the last remaining ships. He had one undamaged 6" cruiser and one 8" cruiser, USS HOUSTON, with no guns aft and its ammunition seriously depleted. Day and night they had been constantly shadowed by Jap aircraft. He could only guess at the opposing forces, but thought at least six cruisers and possibly twelve destroyers and also submarines. In fact there was to be considerably more.
Perth's Ship's Company new that there were large Japanese forces north of Java closing in on them as they sailed that afternoon from Tandjeong Priok in company with Houston.
Both ships were critically short ammunition for their main armament and also fuel oil. The Sunda Strait was deemed to be clear of enemy shipping therefore it looked to Captain 'Hec' Waller that he could force his way through to the Indian Ocean before the Japs closed the door.
The night sky was clear with a large moon and the sea like glass, visibility was 6 - 7 miles. At 2306 a vessel was sighted and challenged, it replied strangely and turned away making smoke, it was a Jap destroyer and unknown to Perth had launched nine torpedoes.
Perth opened fire immediately and altered course to bring all guns to bear. More destroyers were sighted northward, then one cruiser and five destroyers. Reports indicated that the first destroyer was sunk but the fight had only just begun.
Destroyers engaged from all directions and it was difficult to judge just how many enemy opposed them. It was soon evident that the odds were overwhelming. In fact they had run into the entire Japanese invasion fleet, consisting of at least two heavy cruisers, a light cruiser with ten destroyers. Also closing from the north were four heavy cruisers, an aircraft carrier and more destroyers. Perth's four 6" turrets went to independent control in a frantic attempt to engage as many of the enemy as possible that surrounded her. The 4" pounded out star shell in an effort to illuminate the enemy. The action was point blank.
HMAS PERTH WWII
The Jap destroyers pressed the attack and managed to illuminate Perth at close range with their searchlights. Shellfire was heavy, the sea around her seemed to be boiling. Houston was hit first and was set afire in the bridge area, her main (8") armament ceased to fire, perhaps her ammunition already expended. Her lighter guns continued to engage, the tracer spitting out horizontally telling all that it was at very close range.
Perth remained unscathed and she launched her torpedoes into the congested sea, multiple hits were observed, and she was taking a toll on the enemy. In an attempt to cover Houston's defenceless stern she started taking hits, by midnight the 6" ammo was all but gone.
Captain Waller made a bid to force a passage through Sunda Straight, two cruisers and two destroyer flotillas barred the way. With the ship making 28 knots the first torpedo struck. In one hour eighty seven torpedoes had been launched at Perth and Houston and now the first hit Perth.
Perth took a mighty blow below the water line, wiping out, apart from one, the entire forward engine room crew. Both the forward 4" mountings were wiped out to a man.
The remaining 4" guns, now out of H.E. ammunition, continued to engage with starshell and nonexplosive practice ammo. The few remaining 6" rounds were fired. Their luck had been incredible to last this long. Another torpedo hit the forward magazine, although empty, the damage spelt the end for her, it jammed the hatches shut trapping the men inside the magazine and causing considerable casualties. Then came the order to "Abandon Ship!" A great roar erupted as a third torpedo struck, from under 'X' turret a huge geyser of water erupted, the ship gave a violent, nervous twitch. Against the ice-white light a mass of figures shot into the air, spinning over like acrobats and rag dolls, some fell into the sea others back on board, some alive, some dead. The shock waves of the explosions killing all those immersed in the water within a certain radius, crushing their insides.
The glare of the searchlights was constant first from one ship then another, she was encircled now. From bow to quarter she was pulverized, with shells continuing to rain down upon her, causing great carnage. A fourth torpedo struck.
Captain Waller continued on at half speed in an effort to stop the ship taking more men with her when she finally went. Then her bows dipped gently down, her stern raised out out the water, only one of her four screws still turning. It was said she did not sink but 'steamed out'. Her much loved Captain last seen in the glare of the flames, on the bridge, giving orders.
Houston, after a similarly heroic performance also went down. Perth's total complement was 681. Of these 353 were lost in action, 4 died ashore and 324 were captured, of these 106 died whilst prisoners of war 53 of them on the infamous Burma-Siam railway.
In all the Japanese had lost fifteen ships and could not believe that a Battleship was not present. A report in the Syonan Times in Japan in 1942 read - In the terrific battle in Sunda Strait many ships on both sides were sunk. It must be remembered, however, that the lighter Nipponese ships were fighting a superior force which included a battleship".The Japan Times made a similar admission.
The last resting place of young 'Otto' Lund,
Aft 4" Gun Deck Ammunition Handler,
at Kanchanaburi Cemetery, Thailand.