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A Memorial Exercise
by Marge Maggiora ... margemaggiora@aol.com

It began with shreds of memories of World War II as they spilled from my 60-year-old scrapbook of family memorabilia. A Santa Rosa Junior College history teacher had asked me to bring the scrapbook to her class on Monday, November 6. Six members of our autobiographical writing class were invited to tell her young students what it was like for us during the wars we wrote about in our book, O‚er The Ramparts.

On Thursday our writing instructor read her published news story about the grand opening and dedication of the Petaluma Memorial Museum on Veterans Day, November 11, 2000. The 400-plus names of Sonoma County‚s war heroes killed in World Wars I and II, Korea, Vietnam and the Gulf War would be read at the ceremony. The name of my brother, Claude William Lattin, lost on the USS Houston on March 1, 1942, would be one of the names read.

On Saturday I went to the dedication with my son, Craig, a navy veteran and history buff. The small outdoor ceremony deeply touched us. Craig‚s sister, Leslie arrived the afternoon of the dedication. She had many questions about the loss of the Uncle Bill she and Craig had never known.

In the 1970s when Craig was stationed with the navy at nearby Skaggs Island, he located and gave me a 1976 book, The Lonely Ships, The Life and Death of the U.S. Asiatic Fleet by Edwin P. Hoyt. It was the first information I had about the Houston other than my brother‚s having served and died on it.

Later, in 1995, we learned the Houston's bell had been recovered from Sunda Strait and would be the centerpiece of a memorial monument to be dedicated to the ship and her crew on Veterans Day in Houston, Texas. My husband, Bob and I attended the dedication and stayed at the Allen Park Inn where we met a number of the ship‚s survivors, former POWs. Those few days were a tremendously emotional experience which brought a measure of closure for me, although we did not talk with anyone who specifically remembered my brother. There, I obtained another book, The Fleet the Gods Forgot, The U.S. Asiatic Fleet in World War II, by W. G. Winslow.

To better understand the sequence of events during the Houston as last days, Leslie and I decided to re-create the scene on our large dining table, using these two books and more information she found on the Internet. Our idea was to simulate the oceans, seas, islands and battles atop the blue tablecloth.

It was soon obvious as we sketched the area onto the cloth, that there wasn‚t room to begin the story with the Asiatic Fleet as departure from the Philippines before the Pearl Harbor attack. The sheer numbers of vessels in the area also precluded our re-creating the Battle of the Java Sea on February 27, 1942. We decided to confine the exercise to the Houston‚s final seven-hour story on February 28 and March 1.

Craig, enlisted by telephone, did not have time to help with the details but urged us to research the ships, their classes, and countries. He would come Tuesday night when the re-enactment would unfold.

Leslie and I studied the ships of the ABDA (American, British, Dutch, Australian) Allied command. We settled on small pieces of color-coded paper with the class and name of each ship printed by computer: the American vessels were orange, the British were pink, the Dutch were teal, and the Australians were green. We decided yellow was appropriate for the Japanese ships.

The names of the ABDA ships were inadvertently printed in a smaller font than used for the Japanese. The yellow vessels were clearly overwhelming even though a single yellow piece represented the sixty Japanese transports attempting to land troops in Java when the remnants of the Allied ships surprised them.

It seemed to us there was a short period, as Allied cruisers Houston and the Australian Perth entered Sunda Strait, that the Allies might have been able to rally their forces to prevail. Hindsight led our navy veteran to point this out as the battle unfolded. However, documented faulty or non-existent communications, the language barrier and a disorganized Command made this impossible. The February 27th Battle of the Java Sea had already marked the collapse of Allied sea power in the Dutch East Indies. The anti-climactic losses of the Houston and Perth in the Battle of Sunda Strait were pre-ordained when they occurred on February 28th and the early hours of March 1st.

An 8" x 10" photo of Bill, RM 2C, in uniform, overlooked our diorama. A title page proclaimed it the "BILL" LATTIN and U.S.S. HOUSTON MEMORIAL EXERCISE, BATTLE OF SUNDA STRAIT, FEB. 28 Ų MAR 1, 1942." The color key identified the nationalities of the vessels. Landmasses and bodies of water were prominently labeled. We read the battle story aloud as we clustered around the table re-creating Java Sea ship movement to the Sunda Strait events. The overpowering number of yellow destroyers, cruisers, carriers and transports and the sunken Allied ships with black crosses over their names emphasized the Allied defeat.

Ours was an exercise that visually and indelibly reminded us of the sad story of our personal loss as well as that of the aging and inadequate Asiatic Fleet less than three months after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Wednesday morning as I dismantled the diorama, I realized I had not completed the exercise by putting a cross, our symbol for sunken vessels, on Houston, Perth and Dutch destroyer Evertsen which followed them. I wonder, was it happenstance that their names were printed in a smaller font Ų and why did I not put the black cross over their names? Was it because my brother and many of his shipmates are still on watch aboard the Houston in Sunda Strait? Their heroism cannot be erased by such a symbol.

 

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