The Cruiser Houston and Civic Pride
(All illustrations from the Cruiser Houston Collection, courtesy of Special Collections, University of Houston Libraries.)
By Stephen James
Less than three months after the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor, the cruiser U.S.S. Houston (CA-30) fought valiantly in an early naval battle of the War in the Pacific. Outnumbered by Japanese warships in the Battle of Sunda Strait off the coast of Java, the Houston and much of its crew perished on March 1, 1942.
The story of the U.S.S. Houston has always been a tale of wartime heroism, but it should also be recognized as an important chapter in the history of the city of Houston. In the early years of the 20th century, as Houston grew to become the largest city in Texas, the cruiser was a source of civic pride and a focus of the city’s boosterism.
In the 1920s, Houston city fathers successfully campaigned to have the U.S. Navy name a warship after the city. The ship was launched on Sept. 7, 1929 in a ceremony attended by city representatives, with Mayor Oscar Holcombe’s daughter acting as the ship’s sponsor. In 1930 the newly commissioned cruiser sailed up the Houston Ship Channel, to the delight of the many citizens gathered along its banks. It soon became the flagship of the Navy’s Asiatic Fleet.
During a fierce engagement with the Japanese navy at the end of February 1942, the Houston and several Allied ships sustained heavy damage and sank. Many survivors were captured and suffered harsh treatment in Japanese prisoner-of-war camps.
After news reached Houston, 1,000 men from the city enlisted to replace those lost on the ship. Houstonians then raised $85 million to pay for construction of a new ship. In 1944 the new cruiser Houston (CL-81) was dispatched to the Pacific. It was severely damaged in heavy fighting but later returned to the United States.
The exploits of the Cruiser Houston (CA-30) are still remembered in the city. A monument to the lost ship stands in Sam Houston Park and another, at 1000 Main Street, commemorates the 1000 “Houston Volunteers.” In addition, the University of Houston Libraries, Special Collections houses the Cruiser Houston Collection and related archival collections, which document the history of the ship and its crew. To learn more, visit http://info.lib.uh.edu/about/campus-libraries-collections/special-collections/uss-houston-and-military-history and http://digital.lib.uh.edu/collection/hca30.
Author Dr. Stephen James is Curator of Architecture & Planning Collections at the University of Houston Libraries, Special Collections Department.
Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.