This story starts back in 1942, in the midst of World War II. President Roosevelt’s favorite war ship, The USS Houston and it’s crew of 1,068 set sail for Indonesia. My Grandmother’s brother, George Cummings (pictured far right), was one of those men. Although the US Naval ship was named after the city in Texas, it had quickly become known as The Galloping Ghost of the Java Coast because the enemy thought they had sunk it on many occasions.
As the men were crossing the Sundra Straight, they were attacked by a Japanese invasion force. They took on heavy fire from every direction. Planes dropped bombs on them, they were hit by several torpedoes and they were pounded by close range machine guns from nearby destroyers. They fought a valiant fight until they were out of ammunition. The last thing to be seen as the ship went down was a lone marine up in the mast still firing his machine gun until he reached the water followed by the American flag as it slowly sunk into the sea. Commander Walter Winslow recalled, “It seemed as though a sudden breeze picked up the Stars and Stripes and waved them in one last defiant gesture.”
The Japanese shot at the men in the water while they fought to survive. Many were eaten by sharks. The 368 survivors that made it to shore were quickly caught and lived brutal lives in prisoner of war camps. The men were forced to work on the most notorious slave labor project in World War II- the building of the 250-mile Thai-Burma Railway, known as the Death Railway. 79 men died in captivity, unable to endure the torture, neglect, disease and starvation. Nobody knew what happened to the Houston until survivors were liberated from POW camps in September of 1945. The wreck of the Houston was not discovered until the late 1960’s. As a gravesite for the Houston’s crew, it has been respectfully placed off limits to any salvage or recreational diving.
My Grandmother never knew what happened to her brother. In fact, she had been told that he had last been seen swimming to shore. When the movie, The Bridge on the River Kwai was released in 1957, there was a part when someone asks a POW where he came from and he said he was on the Houston. That inspired my Grandmother to start searching for answers. I think she always had a small hope that he would be found on one of hundreds of islands around Indonesia. She decided to fly to Houston, Texas to attend the annual reunion held for survivors. It was at one of those events that she met a friend of her brother’s. He had been with George the night of the attack and he told her that he had just seen him running below deck as they were hit by a torpedo. From where he was on the ship, he could never have survived. I think it may have been of some solace to her to know that he wasn’t ripped apart by sharks or made to suffer in a POW camp.
Fast Forward to 2018 and I am the general store in the tiny village of Grafton, Vermont. A man wearing the same USS Houston hat given to me by my Grandmother walks past me. I almost tackled him. I couldn’t believe my eyes. That is how I met Don. He was born and raised in Grafton. Each morning we were there, my son Harry and I would run down to the general store for coffee and sit with Don listening to his stories. My son, only four at the time, would be in his pajamas and proudly wearing his USS Houston hat, gazing up at him, hanging on to every word.
On Memorial Day, 1942, one thousand men volunteered to join the Navy in order to replace the crew. They were hailed the “Houston volunteers.” Don was one of those men. This is one of the things that I love about traveling- the connections that are made and how this big vast world can be made to feel so small at times. I learned a lot about my family history and we made made a great new friend… bonding over a tragedy that happened half way across the world over 75 years ago.
Here is a great little documentary about the USS Houston-