HMAS Perth and the Battle of Sunda Strait

HMAS Perth arriving in Port Jackson, Sydney for the first time. Photo Australian Navy
HMAS Perth arriving in Port Jackson, Sydney for the first time. Photo Australian Navy

The Gloucester RSL Sub-branch is conducting a commemoration service for 75th anniversary of the end of World War II conflict in the Pacific - VP (Victory in the Pacific) Day. The service will take place at Memorial Clock Park from 11am on Saturday, August 15. The service will proceed subject to COVID 19 restrictions.

Victory in the Pacific

Commodore Collins ordered HMAS Perth and USS Houston to leave Priok, Indonesia as it was believed no enemy had been sighted in the direction they were planning, via Sunda Strait.

Both the Australian Perth and the American Houston were short of fuel, ammunition, and Houston's one turret had been out of action for weeks. On the evening of February 29, 1942, the ships departed, Perth was leading and Houston zigzagging in her wake. At 10pm Captain Waller told his crew he did not expect to meet the enemy. At the same time Japanese transports with 35,000 troops and at least 35 vessels, made up of destroyers, light cruisers and heavy cruisers, were entering Banten Bay and began to drop anchor.

Perth and Houston were hugging the long dark line of the Java Coast as they headed west. At 10.45pm, they witnesses the gleam of the lighthouse on Babi Island, off their starboard side. Just then, Perth's lookout saw a dark blur in the distance, approximately eight kilometres away and sent out a challenge. The strange vessel flashed back two green lights but the signal was not recognised. Waller said to challenge again but still no reply. The unknown ship turned away and its the silhouette revealed it was a Japanese destroyer.

It was 11.06pm. Perth opened fire with her six inch guns. Seconds later Houston spotted the enemy and also opened fire with her eight inch guns. The battle of the Sunda Strait had begun.

It was not a trap, as the Japanese were equally startled to find the enemy in their midst. Looking both to port and starboard, they saw a forest of ship masts that seemed to be blocking their way to St Nicholas Point and the sea. A member of the Perth crew said, "God they're all around us".

The enemy released torpedoes but due to Waller's skillful evasions they missed the target. Perth sank a minesweeper and one of the transports filled with enemy soldiers, all drowned.

But at 11.26pm, the first shell struck Perth causing damage and loss of life. Their ammunition was at a critical stage and so they began to fire star-shell and practice rounds in the vain but futile hope of breaking away from the enemy. However, the captain saw no other alternative but to make a run for the open sea. They knew that Houston would follow.

As Perth began to increase speed three more torpedoes hit and Waller, recognising all was lost, ordered the crew to abandon ship. Houston following Perth subsequently came to the same fate. Perth complement was 688 sailors, only 353 survived. Houston compliment was 1061, only 368 survived.

On Perth, two crew members were brothers, Vince McGovern who worked below deck was killed, and Frank McGovern who operated the AFT.5 quat gun mounts, at the stern of the ship, jumped into the water, minus his sandshoes,a decision he later regretted. Consequently, he was picked up by the Japanese and so began three long years of deprivation, torture and starvation, before he was freed.

Frank is the last surviving member of the Perth, still alive at 100 years old, last year. F McGovern's grandfather and Frank's father were brothers.

F McGovern, treasurer Gloucester RSL Sub-branch