On September 7, 1927, the U.S. Navy announced that in response to a local campaign, a new heavy cruiser would be named for the city of Houston. The ship's keel was laid on May 1, 1928 at the Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company. On September 7, 1929, the USS Houston (CA-30) was launched, and on June 17, 1930, she was commissioned.
In 1931, the Houston became flagship of the Asiatic Fleet. The Houston left the Asiatic in 1933 to join the Scouting Force, based in Long Beach, California. During the 1930s, avid fisherman President Franklin D. Roosevelt made four leisure cruises on the Houston. The Houston joined the Hawaiian Detachment in Pearl Harbor in November 1939, and returned to the Asiatic in March 1941.
On November 27, 1941, the USS Houston was undergoing some repairs at Cavite Naval Yard in the Philippine Islands when her captain, Albert H. Rooks, received a Navy Department warning about an impending Japanese attack on the Asiatic Fleet. The Houston was ordered to the central Philippines. On December 8, the crew learned of the outbreak of hostilities with Japan.
In January 1942 the Houston became part of a multi-national American-British-Dutch-Australian (ABDA) force. On February 4th, a group of ABDA ships attempted to intercept a Japanese force in the Makassar Straits, but were attacked by Japanese bombers. One of the bombs destroyed the Houston's rear 8-inch gun turret, killing 48 men and injuring 20 others.
On February 27, the Houston was among a fleet of ABDA ships that engaged a Japanese task force that was advancing on eastern Java. In the eight-hour Battle of the Java Sea, the Japanese inflicted defeat upon the ABDA ships, sinking or crippling two Dutch cruisers and three destroyers. Although the Houston was hit twice by Japanese 8" shells, she and the Australian light cruiser HMAS Perth both survived the battle.
On the night of February 28, the Houston and the Perth attempted to pass through Sunda Strait in an effort to reach the safer waters of the Indian Ocean. As they approached the entrance to the strait, they unexpectedly encountered a Japanese force that was protecting the invasion fleet. In the ensuing battle, four torpedoes struck and sunk the Perth. The Houston managed to hit three destroyers and sink a minesweeper, but was struck by four torpedoes and started to sink. Following orders to abandon ship, crew members jumped over the sides and began to swim for the distant shore of Java. The Battle of Sunda Strait and the sinking of the ship took the lives of 700 of the Houston's 1068 crew members.
When news of the ship's sinking reached Houstonians, they raised money to build the light cruiser USS Houston (CL-81), as well as a small aircraft carrier. On Memorial Day, 1942, one thousand "Houston Volunteers" were sworn into the Navy to symbolically replace the Houston's crew, who were all presumed dead.
In Java or its surrounding waters, the Houston crew members who survived the sinking were taken prisoner by the Japanese. They were marched to the town of Serang and held there until April 1942, when most of the men were transported to "Bicycle Camp" in Batavia. There the men of the Houston were joined by troops from the 2nd Battalion, 131st Field Artillery, a National Guard unit from Texas (nicknamed the "Lost Battalion").
In October, the majority of the POWs were taken to Moulmein, Burma, while the rest were sent to work in various camps throughout Asia. There they became slave labor for a Japanese project to build a railroad for transporting troops and supplies from Thailand to Burma. Sixty-one thousand Allied prisoners-of-war and over 200,000 Asian natives worked on the Burma-Thai Railway, which eventually stretched 250 miles between mountains, across rivers, and through jungles. The men were fed starvation rations, beaten frequently, and subject to illnesses such as beri beri, pellagra, malaria, and tropical ulcers.
Nearly 13,000 Allied POWs and 100,000 Asian natives died building the "Death Railway," including 79 men from the Houston. Upon the railway's completion in October 1943, the surviving POWs were scattered to various camps in Singapore, Burma, Indochina, and Japan. On August 16, 1945, the POWs learned that the war was over and they were to return home.
Following the war, survivor Otto Schwarz formed the USS Houston Survivors Association, whose newsletter was named the Blue Bonnet after the original ship's newsletter. Many survivors kept in touch by attending annual reunions with their friends from the Lost Battalion. In 1981, the survivors donated a collection of archival materials and memorabilia to the UH Libraries, which built a Cruiser Houston Memorial Room to display the items. On March 21, 1981, they celebrated the launch of another ship named "Houston," the nuclear powered submarine USS Houston (SSN-713). And in 1995, the Texas Commandery of the Naval Order of the United States dedicated a monument to the USS Houston and her crew in downtown Houston.
In 1991 the Survivors Association formed a complementary group called the Next Generation, made up of children and younger relatives of survivors. Under the direction of Next Generation members Val Roberts-Poss and Lin Drees, and co-editor Otto Schwarz, the Blue Bonnet continues to come out four times a year. Roberts-Poss and Drees also organize an annual memorial service in Houston at the site of the downtown monument.
January 1, 1927: First meeting of the Cruiser Houston Committee
September 7, 1927: Navy announces that heavy cruiser will be named for Houston
May 1, 1928: Ship's keel laid at Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company
September 7, 1929: USS Houston (CA-30) launched in Newport News, Virginia
June 17, 1930: Ship commissioned in the United States Navy Yard
February 22, 1931: Houston becomes flagship of Asiatic Fleet
1933: Houston joins Scouting Force based in Long Beach, CA
July 1, 1934: First cruise by President Franklin D. Roosevelt
October 3, 1935: Second Presidential Cruise
July 16, 1938: Third Presidential Cruise
February 18, 1939: Fourth Presidential Cruise
November 7, 1939: Houston in Pearl Harbor with Hawaiian Detachment
November 27, 1941: Houston ordered to central Philippines
January 15, 1942: Houston becomes part of American-British-Dutch-Australian (ABDA) force
February 4, 1942: Battle of Makassar Strait
February 27, 1942: Battle of the Java Sea
February 28-March 1, 1942: Battle of Sunda Strait and sinking of USS Houston (CA-30)
March 1942: USS Houston crew members become POWs
May 30, 1942: Thousand Houston Volunteers join Navy
June 19, 1943: USS Houston (CL-81) launched
October 1942-October 1943: Burma-Thai Railway built with POW labor
August 16, 1945: Houston crew members learn war is over
1948: Beginnings of USS Houston Survivors Association
March 21, 1981: USS Houston (SSN-713) launched
November 11, 1995: USS Houston monument dedicated