By Rear Adm. Rick Williams, Commander, Navy Region Hawaii and Naval Surface Group Middle Pacific
The Battle of Sunda Strait was fought 73 years ago this week more than 6,000 miles from Hawaii. The battle against a formidable, trained and determined enemy occurred nearly three months after the attack here on Dec. 7, 1941.
As most of our Pacific Fleet battleships lay alongside Ford Island “battered and smoldering,” in the words of author/historian James D. Hornfischer, far to the east of us in the Java Sea USS Houston (CA 30) was surprised by a superior Japanese task force near Indonesia in what would be the biggest surface naval engagement since World War I.
With an already damaged gun turret from a previous encounter with the enemy—and without the ability to track with radar from afar—Houston was at a disadvantage in the Battle of Sunda Strait.
Meanwhile, the more experienced Japanese navy, with advanced radar, torpedoes and training in night tactics, seized the advantage.
In those early months of the war, our ships’ weapons systems and tactics were outmatched by the adversary’s capabilities. Fierce fighting in the dark of night and shorter range weapons created chaos and friendly fire incidents.
Hornfischer shows how in the decade before the war, USS Houston, U.S. Fleet flagship in 1938, was considered President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “own” – used by him on extended cruises and even on fishing expeditions.
Unfortunately, warfighting readiness and the ability to operate forward were immaterial to the distinctive mythology and polished image that grew up around the former flag-ship. Failure to modernize and adapt to new technology and tactics can have tragic consequences.
Today, the lessons of Sunda Strait reinforce the importance of Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Greenert’s tenets – Warfighting First, Operate Forward, Be Ready. And, directly supporting “warfighting first” is Commander, Naval Surface Force U.S. Pacific Fleet Vice Adm. Rowden’s concept of distributed lethality, using our surface action groups in power projection to protect sea lanes.
Vice Adm. Rowden is leading surface warriors using new tactics and training to ensure our readiness and maintain an upper hand in battle. We take this personally here where we have a large surface action group poised and ready at Pearl Harbor.
Key lessons from the Battle of Sunda Strait:
• Never mirror image an adversary or underestimate their strength and capabilities.
• Don’t fight the last war; commit to innovation and new strategies.
• Train to be ready.
Other lessons in those first few months of the Pacific war: the need for adequate resources, the importance of unity of command, and the strength of cooperative partnerships.
Early on, Imperial Japanese forces, thanks to strong command and control, had the upper hand because of their control over sea lanes and resources, from Manchuria to Southeast Asia, including the Philippines and Java.
In response and in the aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States quickly accelerated its industrial base, created the Joint Chiefs of Staff in early 1942, and worked closely with our Allies – especially the British, Dutch, Chinese and Australians. Australian and American Sailors shed blood together at the Battle of Sunda Strait, in which both USS Houston and HMAS Perth (D 29) were sunk and hundreds were killed or captured and sent to POW camps.
Our partnership with Australia after the Battle of Sunda Strait grew stronger throughout the war and proved invaluable in later advances against the enemy, including at Guadalcanal.
While it’s important to commemorate the Battle of Sunda Strait, just as we memorialize Pearl Harbor Day, commemoration is not enough. To truly honor the sacrifice of the men who fought and died in the Java Sea 73 years ago, we must commit ourselves to learning the lessons and follow the CNO’s warfighting readiness tenets.