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USS HOUSTON’s refit at Cavite Navy Yard

February 28 2008 at 7:38 PM
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Nelson Lawry  (no login)
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Questions AND answers of a perplexing nature are nothing new to this forum. If past experience is any guide, these will continue to be meaty issues into the future, as well they should.

Questions continuing to intrigue or plague us in the U.S. of A. revolve around the refit of the heavy cruiser USS HOUSTON (CA 30) at Cavite Navy Yard in late 1941. These questions include: When did she go into the yard? What was intended to be accomplished there? How much of the intended work was completed before her stay was abruptly cut short on 30 Nov 1941? To what degree had she been readied to fight similar vessels of the IJN?

We have incomplete or unpersuasive or no answers to these questions. For example, whereas we know she and consort HMAS PERTH faced overwhelming odds in Sunda Strait and were sunk in the ensuing battle, it remains unclear what damage and havoc they caused to IJN forces. More to the point, what if anything that was accomplished at Cavite permitted HOUSTON to acquit herself more capably and to survive longer? These particular questions and their answers must await some other day.

Surprisingly, the extent of the Cavite refit and what was actually done—or conversely not done—remain either largely unknown or contradictory and least to this writer.

Two questions are clearly intertwined:

When did HOUSTON enter Cavite Navy Yard for her final refit?
How long did she spend at Cavite Navy Yard?

At first glance these would appear to be the same question, as we know she departed the yard for the final time on 30 Nov 1941. But at second glance, they may not be precisely the same, as there have been suggestions that she was not in the yard for the entire period, but rather moved in and out more than once (n.b., I did suggest MAY have).

Two officers aboard HOUSTON have written that she moved into the Cavite yard in October 1941. A friend who is not a participant of this forum suggested that I quote the entire relevant paragraph from Walter Winslow’s THE GHOST THAT DIED AT SUNDA STRAIT (1984). Winslow was an ensign at the time, but not just any ensign: he was one of five pilots who flew the four Curtiss SOC scout planes she had aboard. Those planes and their crews were removed from the ship when she went into the yard and sent over to Sangley Point Naval Air Station to undertake aerial reconnaissance and antisubmarine duties (and the planes would have been removed anyway, because aircraft aboard during refits were perceived as fire hazards). Anyhow, Winslow writes on page 25:

“On 14 October 1941, the HOUSTON put into the Cavite Navy Yard for emergency repairs, work on her degaussing gear, and the installation of four new 1.1-inch antiaircraft guns and four new searchlights. Since the ship was scheduled to remain in port until mid-December, our seaplanes were moved ashore to operate from the seadrome at Sangley Point.”

So, from what Winslow writes, the intention was for HOUSTON to remain in the Cavite yard for two months, and thus the implication is that a signficant amount of upgrading was to be done. Regarding his claim that four 1.1-inch AA quad mounts were to be installed, UNLESS the one in place before HOUSTON left Mare Island, California, was also to be replaced for some reason, the correct number would appear to be three, supplanting the interim 3-inch/50cal AA guns.

I would point out that Winslow should know, for after all, he was at Sangley Point NAS for that period, undertaking those scouting missions.

And these entries from HOUSTON’s deck log for 30 Nov 1941: 0815 tug ILOILO came alongside starboard to assist departure from Machine Wharf [Cavite Navy Yard]; 0900 underway, with three tugs assisting; 1015 anchored off Sangley Point; 1029 sounded flight quarters and hoisted aboard four SOCs; 1110 underway to depart Manila Bay.

Thus far it appears to fit: HOUSTON left the yard, anchored off Sangley Point NAS, and recovered her SOC scout planes before leaving Manila Bay for the last time.

Although I have not yet laid eyes on them, the papers left by then Commander Arthur L. Maher, HOUSTON’s gunnery officer (“Gun Boss”) also would appear to confirm the ship being in the Cavite yard as of October 1941. In this forum on 8 Jan 2008, Don Kehn wrote: “Maher’s account says the ship went into the Yard in October. He says they were still there on Nov 30.”

Maher (USNA, Class of 1923) was the senior officer to survive both HOUSTON’s sinking and the years as a prisoner of war; he retired in 1953 as a rear admiral. His writings, confirming those of Winslow, thus cannot be treated lightly.

But...BIG BUT...some aspects of HOUSTON’s deck log appear to disagree with that consensus. On 21 Feb 2008, Don wrote ”Per her Logs, HOUSTON was NOT, repeat NOT, in the Navy Yard for major work in Oct. 1941. Looks like the final upgrades were in November as I indicated previously.”

Given all of that, I’m certainly perplexed. Don, please clarify and expand on HOUSTON’s deck logs, e.g., “Between 2 and 13 Oct 1941, HOUSTON was at sea or at Tutu Bay, and on 14 Oct she proceeded to....”, whatever. OR, is it that she was in and out for repairs, just not MAJOR WORK? Thanks.


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