Mike Ragland -Cotton in my Blood

Mike Ragland, Guest Columnist

 

I began wondering, what if we personalize this Independence Day with a short piece on an individual that lost his or her life for our freedom? I was thinking of a serviceman that had not married and had no children. One that would never be remembered as an individual after various cousins, nieces and nephews were deceased. I chose World War II.

The USS Houston (CA-30) was a Heavy Cruiser that was launched in Newport News, Virginia in September 1929. She arrived in Manila in the middle of February and served as flagship of the Asiatic fleet for the next year and a half in the troubled Far East.

She received orders to sail along the Java coast and to intercept and destroy Japanese shipping. At this time in 1942 there was not much Allied presence left in the South Pacific. Houston was assigned to the American-British-Dutch-Australian (ABDA) naval force at Surabaya.

Japanese were everywhere and an assault on Java was evident. This small allied force was ordered to stop the invasion. Air raids were frequent in the area and Houston’s gunners shot down four Japanese planes at the Battle of Bali Sea.

On February 4, 1942, Admiral Karel Doorman of the Royal Netherlands Navy took his little force (ABDA) to engage a Japanese invasion convoy reported to be at Balikpapan. During this battle Houston took a hit, disabling her number three turret. The USS Marblehead, another cruiser, was also hit and Admiral Doorman had to pull out of the battle area.

Returning to Australia, Houston was repaired and departed on February 15 with a small convoy to reinforce the garrison at Timor. Information now came to Admiral Doorman that the Japanese had a formidable surface force and was once again sailing on Java. He decided to meet the enemy convoy and destroy it at sea. He had four cruisers and ten destroyers.

The Japanese had four cruisers and thirteen destroyers. They met in what was to be known as the Battle of the Java Sea. Before the day was over, two cruisers and three destroyers of the ABDA force had been sunk. Doorman ordered the remaining destroyers to retire, and before his ship was sunk and he was killed he had ordered Houston and Perth to retire also.

The following day, Houston and the Australian cruiser Perth steamed into Banten Bay, hoping to damage the enemy forces. The cruisers sank one transport and forced three to beach. They had been attacked by Japanese destroyers at the entrance to the Bay, and had successfully dodged the torpedo’s that had been fired at them.

But now the entrance to Sunda Strait was blocked. This was their only means of escape. Houston and Perth could not withdraw, and within an hour Perth was sunk. Houston would now have to fight alone.

Benjamin Earl “Buck” Weaver was born and raised in Chattooga County, Georgia, not far from the Alabama state line. He and his family moved to Henagar, Alabama in Dekalb County when he was about 14 years old. He worked on the farm until his father died in 1927. He then enlisted in the Navy.

His older brother Roy was already in the Navy and must have given Earl a good report. Anyway, Earl later thought it was a good move. The country was soon embroiled in the Depression and getting into the military was difficult. And very few that were in the Armed Forces were leaving.

Earl Weaver, like many others, decided to wait out the Depression with a secure job, but it was also pretty evident that Buck, as he was called, liked the military. He had worked hard and made steady promotions. Assigned to the USS Concord, he was promoted to Chief Petty Officer in July of 1940 and reassigned to the Houston.

Now this Chief Gunners Mate and native of Northwest Georgia was trapped. He and his friends had no way out and they fought on alone. They were able to get hits on three enemy destroyers and sink a mine sweeper.

But near one o’clock in the morning they took a torpedo hit which slowed them considerably. After the ship had almost come to a stop they were hit by three more torpedoes and enemy destroyers machine gunned the decks.

A few minutes later the USS Houston, the galloping ghost of the Java coast rolled over and sank with her ensign still flying. She was called the ghost because the Japanese kept reporting she had been sank, and she kept reappearing. Out of a crew of 1,061 men only 368 would survive, and many more of those would die in Japanese P.O.W. camps.

Earl Weaver was not among the survivors. The fate of the Houston was not known for nine months. And it would be after the war that the survivors would be able to describe the last voyage and Battle of the Houston. Several of the survivors knew Weaver, and one said he was killed at his gun when the Japanese machine gunned the decks.

There are many little-known battles and ships that are being lost to history, but the sailors and Marines that were on Houston were real people. They had real dreams and real families that grieved for them.

It was just a few days after Christmas in 1945 that Molly Weaver, still living in DeKalb County, received her letter from the War Department. The last paragraph reads like this, “I extend my deepest sympathy to you in your time of sorrow. It is hoped that you may find comfort in the knowledge that your son gave his life for his country, upholding the highest traditions of the Navy.”

Earl and millions more just like him made it possible for us to go to the lake and have a picnic this Independence Day.

May God bless you, Benjamin Earl “Buck” Weaver. You’re not forgotten.

This is a classic Mike Ragland while he takes a week off for the holiday.