World Battlefronts: Home Is The Sailor

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One of the decisive sea battles of history was fought last week in the placid waters between Java and Borneo. It was the naval battle for Java. It was a battle for the last bulwark against Japanese conquest of the Indies, a battle for the Southwest Pacific, a battle for a great chunk of the world's seas and sea power. It was a battle fought too late and in the wrong place, lost before it began.

The commander of the allied Dutch and U.S. Fleets* knew that the battle was lost. Vice Admiral C. E. L. Helfrich's orders to the Dutchmen and the gentle, excited Indonesians on his own ships, to the hard young men on the U.S. ships, said as much. His orders were to attack the oncoming, superior enemy at all costs, to kill Japs and sink Jap ships regardless of the risk to Allied lives and outnumbered Allied ships. If the Jap could not now be stopped at sea, almost within gunshot of the Java coast, at least he could be made to pay.

The Jap Paid. Dutch and U.S. cruisers and destroyers sighted a great Japanese convoy of 40 transports, 20 warships. The transports stayed well away from the naval combatants-a precautionary measure which they seemed to follow throughout the Java invasion. At twelve-mile range the Allied cruisers loosed their main batteries on the Japanese. Destroyers closed with shell and torpedo fire. A Japanese heavy cruiser sank. Another Jap cruiser-the Mogami, whose main batteries had apparently been converted from 6.1-to 8-in. guns—retired in flames. Hits crippled a third 8-in. gun cruiser. Three Jap destroyers blazed up, appeared to be sinking when the attackers last saw them.

Allied bombers reported hits on two more Jap cruisers; at least 17 Jap transports were bombed, shelled or torpedoed.

But in the Batavia accounts, there was a strangely light accent on air attack. Perhaps the always insufficient Allied bomber force was reserved for the land battle. Perhaps it had been depleted in earlier battles.

The Allies Paid. A lone Dutch destroyer attacked two Japanese cruisers, kept her guns going until she ran aground. In the night, when the Japanese were converging on central Java from east and west, two Dutch cruisers ran straight into an enemy fleet. Both cruisers sank, apparently torpedoed. Two Allied destroyers went down; since Batavia did not say they were Dutch, they were probably U.S. ships. Tokyo boasted that the Japanese had sunk eleven Allied warships, but clouded its claims by ignoring known Japanese losses.

Outnumbered, outgunned, sorely in need of heavy cruisers to bolster their light naval units, the Allies took a beating off Java. The Dutch had started the war with five cruisers: the loss was a severe blow to total cruiser strength in the Indies. For his losses, the Jap got his landings on Java (see p. 16). For the Allies, graver than their total loss in ships was the immediate threat to their last naval base in the Indies.

These things the stolid, seawise commander of the Allied fleets in the Indies weighed at his headquarters in Java. When events go badly for Vice Admiral Helfrich, he does not rant or snarl or gloom. He goes grim. This week he was very grim.

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