Purloined trumpet tells story of life on USS Houston
CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — A rusty trumpet with mother-of-pearl finger buttons rests in an alkaline solution at the Naval History and Heritage Command headquarters in Washington, D.C. Rendered silent by the sea, mangled by a symphony of violence, the fate of its owner is a mystery.
Recently, a diver illegally recovered the trumpet from the USS Houston, the flagship of the Asiatic Fleet at the outset of World War II.
Known as President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “favorite ship,” the heavy cruiser stared down a Japanese invasion fleet of 12 ships on March 1, 1942, and now lies at the bottom of the sea off the Java coast, along with almost two-thirds of her crew.
Since its formation in 1996, the Heritage Command’s underwater archeology branch has been charged with preserving U.S. Navy history, such as the trumpet, as well as doing its best to protect the hallowed resting places of America’s fallen heroes. That mission includes working alongside criminal investigators, veterans’ associations, diving groups and foreign governments to retrieve looted artifacts.
This month, some of the command members plan to accompany U.S. Navy divers, assisted by the Indonesian navy, to survey the Houston as part of the Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training 2014 exercise, Navy officials said. The survey will determine the vessel’s current condition and whether she has fallen prey to illegal salvage — like the removal of the trumpet. The state of the ship’s preservation will be documented using divers, sonar sensing systems and a remotely operated vehicle. The findings will then be released in a report.
There are about 3,000 shipwrecks from the Continental period through World War II, along with possibly 13,000 aircraft, according to Robert Neyland, underwater branch director. The Houston was brought to the branch’s attention in the early 2000s, after scavengers had cut away equipment from the war grave.
Since then, multiple groups have done dives to the ship. Most just observe and refrain from removing anything, however, some believe it is “finders keepers” when it comes to shipwrecks.
Under the principles of international law, a sunken warship is the sovereign territory and property of the country it belonged to at the time it sunk, unless it had been surrendered or captured in battle, Neyland said.
Americans or foreigners living in U.S. who try to remove items could face charges under the Sunken Military Craft Act.
The long road home
It has been a long road — more than 10,000 miles — for the trumpet, going from the Houston’s wreck to the branch’s archaeology and conservation laboratory at the Navy Yard in Washington.
The trumpet was discovered by an Australian scuba diving enthusiast who dove recreationally on the wreck, Neyland said. The diver observed the bent trumpet several times before finally giving in to temptation and taking it home, along with a ceramic saucer and cup.
Exposed to the air after more than 70 years at the bottom of the ocean, the trumpet began to react as the salt crystalized and led to extensive corrosion, Neyland said.
The more the trumpet corroded, the worse the diver felt for removing it from the wreckage.
He took to the Internet and looked up the USS Houston CA-30 Survivors Association & Next Generations to discuss a donation, according to John Keith Schwarz, association executive director and son of Houston survivor Otto Schwarz.
The removal of the trumpet outraged members.
“Approximately 1,000 brave American and Australian servicemen lost their lives when the USS Houston (CA-30) and HMAS Perth were sunk in action during the early morning hours of 1 March 1942,” the association wrote in a statement to Stars and Stripes. “Our Association is disturbed over and vehemently condemns any salvaging operations being conducted on USS Houston (CA-30) and HMAS Perth.”
The association declined to work with the diver and instructed him to contact the U.S. Navy, Schwarz said.
So the diver called the U.S. Embassy in Canberra and talked to Navy attaché Capt. Stewart Holbrook, who called underwater archeology, Neyland said.
The trumpet arrived in Washington in November 2013.
“It’s amazing the human story one artifact can relate,” Neyland said. “It’s more than a trumpet. It tells a story of an event, of the individuals, the heroism, the tragedy and the sense of endurance.”
The Galloping Ghost
The Houston was launched in September 1929, according to a website for the University of Houston, which houses a collection on the ship. It twice became the flagship of the U.S. Navy’s Asiatic Fleet and participated in relief missions in China and made port visits in Japan. It was longer than two football fields, equipped with three turrets, each with three eight-inch guns and four five-inch guns per side. There were also eight .50 caliber machine guns.
Roosevelt embarked on the ship four times, logging thousands of miles from Haiti to the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico to Columbia, the website states. The ship was fitted with special elevators and handrails to accommodate the president’s disability.
The beginning of the end for the Houston began just after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.
With its crew of 1,050, the Houston had just left the Philippines when the war broke out. Between Dec. 7, 1941 to mid-January 1942, the Houston performed convoy duty between the Philippines, Dutch East Indies and northern Australia before joining the American-British-Dutch-Australian Naval Force, whose mission was to raid and destroy Japanese Naval units in the China Sea and southwestern Pacific.
By February 1942, Java was in Japanese crosshairs.
Petty Officer 3rd Class Howard Brooks was a 22-year-old electrician’s mate on the Houston when the ship was committed to the deep. Now 94 and living in New Jersey, Brooks arrived on board the Houston in early 1940. He recalled tense times after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
“We had gathered together with the British, Australians and Dutch; our mission was to prevent the Japanese from sailing down and capturing Java and Sumatra,” Brooks recalled.
On Feb. 4, 1942, Japanese bombers attacked. Brooks recalls waves of nine Japanese fighters coming in, with three breaking off at a time to drop their payloads.
The Houston’s crew had been given faulty shells for the five-inch guns, and the projectiles did not explode, Brooks said.
Not a single Japanese plane was hit; the American ship was not so lucky.
It took a direct hit to the aft turret killing 48.
Brooks was saved by being called to repair an ammunition hoist. When he returned, he saw the bodies of his shipmates.
“The concussion had been so great, it blew their clothes completely off,” he said.
The ship then went ashore for repairs and to offload the dead.
The Japanese had reported the Houston sunk. But when it was learned the mighty Houston was still sitting atop the water, it earned the nickname the “Galloping Ghost of the Java Coast.”
On Feb 26, the Japanese would attack again. A Japanese invasion fleet of two heavy cruisers, two light cruisers, 13 destroyers and 41 troop ships, battled 14 warships from the American-British-Dutch-Australian Naval Force.
By the end of the battle, two Allied light cruisers and three destroyers were sunk, with many other ships damaged and rendered inoperable.
No Japanese ships were destroyed.
Only the Houston and the HMAS Perth survived, but not for long.
Shortly before midnight Feb. 28, as they sailed toward the Sunda Strait, the Perth and the Hoston were greeted by the Japanese invasion fleet of two heavy cruisers, one light cruiser, nine destroyers and troop ships unloading thousands of Japanese soldiers on shore.
About two hours into the battle, both trapped ships were stricken.
The Perth sank at 12:30 p.m. March 1.
The Houston expended the rest of its ammunition as the Japanese closed in. Capt. Albert Rooks made the call to abandon ship while two Marines courageously manned .50 machine guns as the ship went down. Rooks was killed by a shell and would later be awarded the Medal of Honor.
Brooks survived by hanging onto a life raft, exposing only his head above the surface.
“They were so close you could throw a baseball and hit them,” Brooks recalled. “They were shooting right at us at point-blank range.”
By 12:46 p.m. the Houston was gone.
During the battle, the Japanese fired 87 torpedoes. About half of the Perth’s crew — about 350 sailors — survived and were taken prisoner. Only 368 survived from the Houston and they were also taken prisoner.
As for Brooks, he and one other servicemember survived by clinging to the life raft full of the dead. After three days at sea they landed, linking up with Indonesian natives who led them toward Dutch Army encampments. However, they were intercepted by the Japanese invaders.
Brooks was subjected to brutal conditions while building the Burma-Thai Railway and other forced labor projects across Southeast Asia for the remainder of the war, forced to bury comrades in jungle graves along the way.
For the crew’s courage and sacrifice, the Houston received the Presidential Unit Citation.
The last performance
Preserving the Houston trumpet is less of a sprint and more of a marathon, according to the archaeologist in charge of the project, Kate Morrand. The horn will remain in solution until the liquid becomes saturated with salt. Then the solution will be changed and the process continued until there is no salt present.
“The goal is stabilization, not restoration,” she said.
The trumpet will then be placed in National Museum of the U.S. Navy, which has a Houston exhibit.
Despite the anger directed at the Australian diver, Neyland said surviving veterans get a kick out of seeing or touching something from their lost ship, which makes recovering stolen artifacts gratifying.
Brooks called seeing the trumpet “marvelous.”
The band was a huge part of his life onboard the Houston, long before ships were fitted with televisions and video game systems.
The Houston band had 18 members who played at noon every day, before movies, on shore and every evening.
Marlene McCain’s father, R. Edgar Morris, played trombone and piano. She began researching the band in 2011, 18 years after his death. When the trumpet was recovered, she attempted to find out who it belonged to. She thinks the trumpet was expensive — because of the pearl buttons — and privately owned.
McCain has identified the ship’s 18 band members. Severyn Dymanowski, bandmaster George Galyean, Albert “Hap” Kelley and Walter Schneck are known to have played the trumpet. However, she has only been able to identify the instruments of half of the band’s musicians. None is alive today.
McCain said it could have been Kelley’s trumpet, since he was a professional musician before the war, or it could have belonged to Galyean, the leader and master of several instruments.
“They are our two guesses, but they are just that — guesses,” she said. “I would love to solve the mystery, but it’s been 70 years since the ship went down. There are only 12 survivors left and most are in their 90s. I think there are some mysteries that I’ll never solve before I go to my own grave.”
Brooks said he can still hear the music when he closes his eyes. He can see the Houston’s band playing their final performance on Java while they took on fuel shortly before departing for their final battle.
A lone Japanese plane flew close overhead. They didn’t fire on the plane because they were expecting one of their own, he said. For some reason, the Japanese pilot did not fire.
The band played on.
“The pilot must have been laughing seeing us take on oil,” Brooks said. “I just loved the music from the band.”
Anyone with information about the Houston, its band or the trumpet can email firstname.lastname@example.org.