The other day, as I was waiting for my turn to be called at the local VA hospital, an older gentleman noticed me watching the Sox game, and asked me the score. I looked up and saw his ball cap. USS Houston CL-81. He was tall and straight, with a demeanor that belied eight decades of life.

I asked him about his ship, and he was quick to tell me that this was not the “famous” Houston, CA-30, the “Galloping Ghost of the Java Coast”. It was the OTHER one, he pointed out. I asked him his rating and he proudly said “Gunner’s Mate, Second!”. Had qualified as a gunner and trainer on the 20mm and 40mm, and had worked his way up to loader on the 5″-38. He made an aside remark about CL-81 “catching some hell” off Formosa in ’44. Now, being somewhat of a history geek, I was familiar with the incidents he mentioned. Houston caught more than “some” hell. She caught all the hell the Japanese could send her way.

Over the past few days, I have thought a great deal about that Sailor and our conversation. And I believe the story of CL-81 bears a re-telling here. Thanks to Naval Historical center for the below images and the summary of action:


On 12-14 October 1944 USS Houston participated in Task Force 38’s carrier air raids on Japanese air bases on Formosa. The enemy responded with night torpedo plane counterattacks that stopped the heavy cruiser Canberra (CA-70) on the evening of the 13th. The next evening, as Canberra was being slowly towed away, Houston was also hit. A Type 91 aerial torpedo caught her amidships, below the turn of the starboard bilge, causing very severe damage that flooded all four of her machinery spaces and brought her to a halt. Her captain initially believed his ship was doomed, and requested that her crew be taken off. However, damage control parties managed to contain the inrushing water, and abandonment ceased. Instead, in the darkness and not without difficulties, the ship was taken under tow by USS Boston (CA-69).

The two crippled cruisers were slowly towed towards safety, but remained within striking distance of Japanese airfields for several days. To protect them, a task force of two light carriers, with several cruisers and destroyers, maneuvered nearby. Fleet tug Pawnee (ATF-74) took over Houston‘s tow on the 16th, while her sister tug Munsee (ATF-107) picked up the Canberra. That afternoon a large enemy air raid came in from Formosa. Fighters from the escorting light carriers and shipboard anti-aircraft guns shot down many Japanese planes, but a few got near enough to launch torpedos. One of these hit Houston‘s starboard quarter, blowing her aircraft hangar hatch into the air and making another large hole in her hull.

Tug Pawnee kept towing and, despite having more than 6000 tons of water in her ruptured and weakened hull, Houston‘s damage control parties kept her afloat during the eleven additional days required for the tugs and their reliefs to bring her and Canberra to the advanced base at Ulithi, more than 1300 nautical miles from where they were torpedoed. There, and subsequently at Manus in the Admiralty Islands, Houston‘s holes were patched, her hull reinforced and enough machinery repaired to allow her to proceed under her own power to the U.S. for permanent repairs. Few, if any, U.S. Navy ships operating in the open sea had survived such massive underwater damage and flooding.


An incredible tale of bravery, determination, stamina, and knowhow to keep CL-81 above the waves. Seems that GM2 earned every gray hair and wrinkle, and then some. Come to find out there was a hell of a lot of courage under that hat. Mine comes off to him.


Posted by UltimaRatioReg in History, Navy

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  • P.M. Leenhouts CAPT USN (Ret)

    The book “We Will Stand By You” by Theodore Mason (a Pearl Harbor survivor and author of the acclaimed “Battleship Sailor”), at the time a Radioman Chief in USS PAWNEE, is a valuable perspective on the heroic action surrounding their tow of USS HOUSTON.

  • Hayball

    URR: BZ

  • D. E. Reddick

    Similarly, USS Reno (CL-96) was severely damaged in November of 1944. Her quarterdeck was awash following a torpedo attack by IJNS submarine I-41. Afterwards, she too was towed to Ulithi.

    USS Reno was a much smaller Anti-Aircraft CL (later reclassified CLAA-96) than the standard displacement cruisers Houston (CL-81) and Canberra (CA-70). Earlier same-class CLs Atlanta and Juneau were lost during the wild battle melees of Ironbottom Sound between Guadalcanal and Savo Islands. Reno’s survival may be more remarkable than the survival of Houston and Canberra.

    D. E. Reddick

  • Fouled Anchor

    Very nice. We should all take the time to ask simple questions when we run into an old war horse. You never know what story they might have to tell.

    Well done sir!

  • Byron

    Hard to get a “warhorse” to ever talk about what happened to him while he was in combat. Talk about anything else, like what he did on liberty, no problem. My father-in-law was a B-17 co-pilot in WW2, and other than the Swiss not being the nicest people while he was interned there (his AC suffered damage while over the target, and made a forced landing in Switzerland, couldn’t make it back to base in Italy), he won’t say a word about what it was like to fly combat over Germany. Damn shame, too, he must have some stories to tell.

  • Byron

    Almost forgot; I got to talk with a merchant mariner who was on the infamous PQ-17 convoy to Murmansk. Told me he’d never been so scared or so cold in his life. Said he would never, ever live anywhere north of Florida after that.

  • Fouled Anchor

    Byron, true enough, but just as URR found, even asking simple questions like what rate the guy served in, gets you a statement like “we caught a little hell.” That might lead to more questions and answers, or just your own curiosity and research.

    A little sea story if I may. Last year in Hawaii I got a bit lost on Ford Island looking for the UTAH…I could see it but couldn’t find the road to it. I stopped and asked a gentleman how to get there. That led to a conversation (far too short because I was in a hurry) about his experience as a child living in sight of Pearl Harbor on 7 December. This kind old man told me a bit about watching the attacks when he was 5 years old. I wish I could have sat under that tree with him for a while longer. Coulda, shoulda, woulda. I bet he’ll be taking a break under that same tree next time I visit.

  • UltimaRatioReg

    I am forever engaging the older fellas who wear the ball caps and jackets displaying their units or service. The stories sometimes leave one literally awestruck. And they all seem to appreciate being asked.

    My Dad was with ADM Barbey’s 7th Amphib Force (read: “MacArthur’s Navy” by Hoyt) in New Guinea, New Britain, and the Admiralties. He never talked about Cape Gloucester, or Arawe, or Biak, or Hollandia in any detail until I came back from Iraq. But near the end of my Mom’s life, she told me he had nightmares every night for 60 years.

    Quick story about not knowing what you’ll find: Some years ago, I was home on leave, and the man bagging the groceries for my Mom and me was a charming man, no taller than 5-2, African-American (almost none in my home town), pleasant, and always a smile. He saw my USMC t-shirt, and engaged me in conversation. (He had been a very successful business man who took the job after retirement to stay “productive”.)

    Come to find out, he was a Captain, company commander, with the 92nd Division in Italy. Saw some very tough action in the rain near the Gothic Line. Wounded twice. Lost a brother in the Po Valley. We talked there in the store for almost an hour. Well, I say my goodbyes, and turn to leave, and there are all of the young teenage baggers, having overheard our discussion, standing with their mouths agape, some in tears. He had never said a word in three years of working there. A humble hero if ever there was one.

  • Andy (JADAA)

    History is where you find it. As a kid growing up in Coronado, I was a kid first and an airplane junkie second. Jimmy Thach wasn’t a big deal to my unlearned mind, he was just grumpy “Mr. Thach” who hated us kids cutting our bikes across his lawn! It wasn’t until later that I realized just who he was, but the lesson I learned from that was as mentioned here: Stop to listen.

    I have been very fortunate to have learned that lesson. I have had the opportunity to talk to some of the first 100 Naval Aviators and 100 helicopter pilots back in the 70’s, played Horse at the NAS Alameda O’Club bar (R.I.P.) with Tuskegee airmen and learned about the relative handling merits of the P-40, P-51B and P-51D in the 80’s, have dinner with a surviving IJNAF Mitsubishi A6M pilot in the 90’s and sat quietly as surviving members of the Cactus Air Force told their stories just sitting around on a Friday night at Tailhook in this decade.

    Remember this: We, too, are also the repository of history. From Vietnam to OIS it is our responsibility to also record and tell our stories in one form or another, so those who come after know, in some small part, that history is continuity as much as it is anything else. History isn’t just hours of Flags and Generals telling their stories; it’s the snipes, deck apes, Signalmen, GM’s, Plane Captains and Avionics techs. It’s the folks who stayed forever and the folks who just “did their time.” It is the “Big Picture” and the “worm’s eye view,” too.(are you reading this, USNI Oral History people?)

    Thanks for posting this, and thanks for talking to that guy!


  • P.M. Leenhouts CAPT USN (Ret)

    Andy (JADAA): ” .(are you reading this, USNI Oral History people?)”

    Great point! The oral history collection is much smaller than it should be – and would form, I think, the basis for a superlative post for our hosts. Yes, the program costs a lot of money – but certainly our Flags would agree there are more who have contributed to our great Navy. How do we preserve these stories for all to hear?

  • My biggest “OOPS!” was spending a semester in a classroom on Computer Science, as an NROTC Scholarship student, with Captain Amos T. Hathaway, USN (Ret) as the instructor…and never asking him “what did you do in the Navy?” Stupid, stupid, stupid! In an Army related school, there was but a single Navy professor (ROTC I don’t count) int he place.

    When, in 1988, I landed on USS CARR (FFG-52) as the XO, then I realized what I had missed. I tired to get him to lunch on the ship on 10/25/1988, but he was too frail and living in the DC area.

    He, and that situation, is the reason I’ve tried to capture these stories as I can. The best one I’ve done so far was “The Adventures of Jim, Sr” and related ones of Jim Helinger, Sr, who was, as he says, “a damn glider pilot” at Normandy. He has become a good friend, and we see each other regularly.

    I also found a crewman from the USS MASON in my Church. Ben Garrison is another jewel of a man and real history I see weekly.

    10 years ago, I was at the VA and found out the older gentleman sitting next to me had been one of the few transoceanic airline pilots before WWII…he was making $1200/mon then and got “drafted.” He taught the pilots how to fly the Atlantic, from FL to Brazil, to North Africa. He was rattling off names of the big guys like LeMay and Doolittle and several others of note in history, having been one of the inner circle. I didn’t get his address, and it was before I was blogging.

    URR…great post…thanks!

  • PK

    i knew one of the lead navigators of the thousand plane raids over europe. found out about it reading his obituary. he died of some liver desease, the last time i saw him alive he was as yellow as a legal pad.


  • Amber Love