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 itself wasn’t discovered until the 1960’s. When the bronze bell was returned to the US government, it was the first bit of concrete evidence that the USS Houston had been found.
It wasn’t until 2014 that divers surveyed the wreck and confirmed it’s identity. As a grave site for the Houston’s crew, it has been respectfully placed off limits to any salvage or recreational diving. The bronze bell that was recovered from the wreck sits atop a granite memorial in Sam Houston Park.
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 where someone asked a POW where he came from and he replied that he was on the Houston.
That scene inspired my Grandmother to start searching for answers. I think she always had a small hope that he would be found on one of the hundreds of islands that make up Indonesia. After all, this was a time when the main form of communication was by telegraph.
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.
Don was born and raised in Grafton. Each morning, 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 of the lost ship. These men were hailed the “Houston volunteers.” It was described as the greatest single mass recruiting drive ever seen in the United States. Don was one of those men.
“Our enemies have given us the chance to prove that there will be another USS Houston, and yet another USS Houston if that becomes necessary, and still another USS Houston as long as American ideals are in jeopardy.” -President Roosevelt
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.
Interesting links about the USS Houston-
USS Houston- The Galloping Ghost of the Java Coast Documentary
The ‘Nightmare’ Night USS Houston Went Down
Since a few years have passed, I think it is time for an update. Covid put an end to our mornings with Don. Since elderly people were particularly at risk, he had to stay home. One day I asked the lady who runs the general store how he was doing and I knew bad news was coming my way. She explained how she has to relay bad news to so many people. See, our little general store is more of a community center.
She told me Don passed away peacefully surrounded by what family he had left. I instantly felt the tears burning in my eyes and wanted to go find his grave site to pay my respects, but I realized that I never knew his last name. When I asked June, she laughed, “You never knew? It’s Lawrence.”
I don’t know why I felt so connected to this man who I just shared a matching hat and a name with. I felt his loss as if he were family. Worst of all, I didn’t know how to tell my kids. The next time I went with Harry, he immediately peeked in the window to look for him and I couldn’t gather the strength to tell him the news.
On Memorial Day, I felt that it was an appropriate time to tell the kids. They each drew cards for Don and we went to the cemetery together. He was laid to rest with his wife and son in a beautiful meadow beside a forest. Lizzie picked flowers and they thanked him for his service. And since the strange coincidences don’t seem to end, I realized we were there the same day he had enlisted as a Houston volunteer.
Since this was written, many people have written to me about losing a family member on the USS Houston. I like that this little corner of the internet can be a community for people to connect. One day I hope to bring my kids to the memorial in Houston, Texas. If you have been, I would love to hear about your experience.