16 March 2023
Sailing through the Sunda Strait between border protection operations, the Anzac Class frigate HMAS Perth III paid homage to sailors from HMAS Perth I and USS Houston, which fought in the Battle of Sunda Strait in 1942.
Within sight of the Perth I and Houston wreck sites, Perth III paused to remember their fallen shipmates in a moving service to mark the 81st anniversary. Gathering on the flight deck, the crew heard stories of courage and sacrifice, and a gallant fight in the face of overwhelming odds.
The battle was fought overnight on February 28 into the morning of March 1, when the cruiser HMAS Perth I, under the command of Captain Hec Waller, and the cruiser USS Houston, under the command of Captain Albert Rooks, came upon the formidable strength of the Japanese Western Invasion Force. This force was made up of about 35,000 Japanese troops in 56 transport ships who sought to land on the shores of north-western Java in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia).
The Western Invasion Force was escorted by the 5th Destroyer Flotilla of the Imperial Japanese Navy, which included a light cruiser and eight modern destroyers, with the 7th Cruiser Squadron comprising a light seaplane carrier, four heavy cruisers and four destroyers.
Desperately fatigued and short of ammunition after fighting in the Battle of Java Sea the day before, Perth and Houston faced an inevitable fate. Outnumbered and outgunned, the two ship’s crews fought courageously against the Japanese onslaught before succumbing to their watery graves. Of Perth’s proud crew of 681 on that night, 353 died. The survivors who made it ashore to Java became prisoners of war, forced to work as mining slaves in Japan or to build the Railway of Death between Burma and Thailand. Another 106 of Perth’s men died as prisoners of war.
During the 81st anniversary commemoration, survivors' diary entries and poems were read to highlight the indignity these men faced in their daily struggle to survive as prisoners of war.
One such account was the Ode to Rice, secretly recorded by Able Seaman Arthur Bancroft in a diary he kept hidden. The poem vividly describes the terrible rations endured by the survivors in the many forms of poorly cooked or tainted rice. As a tribute, a small amount of rice prepared in banana leaves was provided to the crew to acknowledge the hardships endured by the prisoners of war. This was followed by the Naval Prayer and the Naval Ode, in addition to messages of reflection from family members of Perth survivors.
HMAS Perth III carries a number of traditions and close ties to her predecessor ships. She not only maintains close contact with Frank McGovern - the sole remaining survivor of Perth I’s crew from the Battle of Sunda Strait - but also to the City of Perth. The ship also proudly displays little red paw prints scattered throughout the decks - a tribute to Perth I’s pet cat, Red Lead, who also perished in the Sunda Strait.
Commanding Officer HMAS Perth III Commander Tony Nagle said the ties to Perth I and Perth II are important to the ship and her crew due to their strong legacies of service to Australia and courage in battle.
“Perth I has a unique place in Australia’s wartime history. Through the tragedy and sacrifice those men faced, Perth I set a fine example of courage and the loyalty to each other that Perth II carried forward and Perth III emulates today,” Commander Nagle said.
“The significance of commemorating the Battle of Sunda Strait on its 81st anniversary in location is something the crew will never forget. It provides us an opportunity to reflect on the legacy of service of those that served under the Perth name before us.”