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The Last Battle Station

April 14, 1985|Paul Dean | Dean is a Times staff writer and a military history hobbyist.

The Last Battle Station

Duane Schultz (St. Martin's: $15.95; 320 pp., illustrated)

The cruiser Houston--flagship of the Asiatic Fleet, the Little White House that had carried Roosevelt on four cruises--was sunk by Japanese torpedoes and gunfire in February, 1942. It died alone in Sunda Strait near Java. So did almost two-thirds of a 1,064-man crew whose war lasted fewer than 100 days.

With that scenario in place, military author Duane Schultz ("Hero of Bataan: The Story of General Jonathan M. Wainwright" and "Wake Island") transforms bare, heavy naval history into a chronicle with all the pace, color, character and drama of a fine novel in search of a miniseries.

There's an expose here. Of how skinny naval budgets made the Houston, launched in 1929, obsolete and almost criminally ill-equipped for war--with condemned ammunition, minimal armor, no radar, relics for fire control equipment and no live shells for target practice. Of an inept and confused higher command, political conflicts among allies and military intelligence no better than crude guesswork--that combined to send the Houston into Sunda Strait where it was surrounded, outgunned and torn apart like any game circled by hounds.

Yet, by any standard or era of naval gallantry, reports Schultz, the end of the Houston may be set alongside marks of courage left by John Paul Jones, Trafalgar or the little ships of Dunkirk.

Out of ammunition, their ship holed and in flames, the men of the Houston fed their guns star shells . . . Marines continued to fire hopelessly ineffective machine guns mounted atop the mainmast as their ship rolled over . . . an officer, legs blown off, recognized his own death and ordered corpsmen to tend those who could survive with treatment . . . the chaplain who slipped off his life jacket and chose drowning rather than overload a makeshift life raft . . . the heroic captain, eventually awarded a posthumous Medal of Honor, cradled in the arms of weeping steward who chose to die with his skipper.

With a fine hold on human interest and an obvious understanding of the intense fraternity of the sea, Schultz follows the Houston's 368 survivors through 3 1/2 years of slave labor as prisoners of the Japanese--including one job that meant absolutely nothing at the time; work on a makeshift bridge over a nondescript river called the Kwai.

Then he reports a tender return to Sunda Strait in 1981 by survivors and the families of those who died. White petals and wreaths are placed over the sunken Houston. Otto Schwarz, a 17-year-old seaman second when the Houston went down, speaks a prayer.

"Well done, Houston," he whispers at its end. "Well done, men of the Houston."

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