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US Navy divers to visit wreck of USS Houston in Indonesia

USSHouston.jpg

USS Houston (CA-30) is seen off the coast of San Diego, Calif., in October 1935, with President Franklin D. Roosevelt on board. (U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph)

Divers from the U.S. Navy will visit the World War II graveyard of the "Galloping Ghost of the Java Coast” — the sunken USS Houston — later this month in a bid to determine what remains of the ship, which went down with more than 700 sailors off the coast of Indonesia.

The wreck of the Northampton-class heavy cruiser, which was sunk by the Japanese during the World War II battle of Sunda Strait on Feb. 28, 1942, will be surveyed by Navy divers working with their counterparts from Indonesia. The ship lies about 125 feet deep, near Java, Indonesia, where it has become a popular dive site for scavengers. Navy officials now want to find out what's left of the sacred site, especially given that it rests in corrosive waters in an unstable region.

“Working with our Indonesian Navy partners, CARAT 2014 offers an excellent opportunity to conduct this diving exchange as part of our shared training goals, while also allowing us to determine the condition of a ship that is an important part of the U.S. Navy’s heritage in the region,” said Rear Adm. Cindy Thebaud, commander of Task Force 73 and commander of Naval Forces CARAT.

The mighty, 570-foot ship was sailing at night with the Australian ship HMAS Perth when they ran into the Japanese destroyer Fubukim, which quietly shadowed them for the next half hour before the encounter culminated in what became known as the Battle of Sunda Strait. Houston scored hits on the Japanese ship Mikuma, then managed to elude a torpedo barrage from Fubukim. But other Japanese destroyers engaged the two Allies' ships, first sinking Perth and then sending Houston to the bottom just after midnight.

Of the crew of 1,061, some 368 survived, including 24 of the 74-man USMC detachment aboard. The crew became prisoners of the Japanese for the remainder of the war, with dozens dying at the hands of their Japanese captors.

The wreck remains the property of the United States. The upcoming effort will be aided by Alexis Catsambis, an underwater archaeologist from the Naval History and Heritage Command (NHHC) who will, among other things, assess whether the ship has fallen prey to illicit salvage. Personal inspection by the divers, sonar sensing systems and a remotely operated vehicle will all take part in the effort, Naval officials said. Once completed, a formal report on the ship’s condition will be released.

The ship is just one of many 17,000 archaeological sites around the world, including plane and ship wrecks, that the Navy considers fragile cultural resources. Many serve as war graves with great historical value, while at the same time containing potential environmental and safety hazards. Naval officials say they take seriously the task of ensuring the final resting places of those who made the ultimate sacrifice remain in a respected, solemn condition.

Many of those who survived the wreck gathered in 2012 to mark the 70th anniversary of its sinking. Radioman David Flynn remembered hearing a chilling order come over the public address system as the ship, engulfed in flames, listed: "Hear this: All hands abandon ship!"

"At that announcement you sort of froze for a second," Flynn told the Houston Chronicle.

"We knew it was the end," electrician's mate Howard Brooks told the newspaper.

Brooks, of New Jersey, and Flynn, of Florida, were in their early 20s when they jumped for their lives from the burning ship into a bloody sea. The men, who were 92 years old in 2012, told the newspaper they still carry visceral memories of that day.

"To me, it's a very quick 70 years," Brooks told the Chronicle.

Bill Ingram, then a 17-year-old who had been on the ship for just 45 days, said he still clearly remembers the overnight attack.

"It was early in the morning, like 1 or 2 o'clock, and it was very dark, I remember that," Ingram told FoxNews.com. "I was inside a turret and everyone on the bridge had gotten killed. Then we got the word to abandon ship."

Ingram said he entered the water following a second notification to abandon the ship and stayed in the water overnight. The next morning, Ingram was picked up by Japanese soldiers and was questioned briefly before being thrown off the vessel, he said.

"They took my life ring and pushed me into the water, about a 40- to 50-foot drop," Ingram told FoxNews.com. "And then they shot at me."

Ingram, who now lives in Florida and will turn 90 later this week, said he was ultimately rescued by a small Navy vessel after swimming to safety. Ingram said many details of the experience stick with him to this day.

"It brings it back," Ingram told FoxNews.com. "For years, I never said a word about being a POW. But I'm not bragging about it. I was very scared."

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