SINKING OF THE LANGLEY AND PECOS
TJILATJAP FEBRUARY 27 AND MARCH 1 1942
Desperate as was the situation in Java there was still a bare hope that the island might be held if sufficient fighter planes could be obtained. There was some chance that this might be done. On February 22d, only 2 days after our successful Bali raid, a convoy had sailed from Fremantle, Australia, bound for Ceylon. It was escorted by the United States cruiser Phoenix, and in it were the Langley with 32 assembled P-40E's on deck and with pilots and flight personnel on board, and the Seawitch with 27 crated P-40's in her hold.
Fifty-nine planes were not many to meet a threat of the magnitude of that hanging over Java, especially since half of them would have to be assembled after arriving, but it was a straw at which to clutch. One of Admiral Helfrich's first acts as Chief of the Allied Naval Command in defense of Java was to send orders directly to the Phoenix to detach the Langley and Seawitch from the convoy and divert them to Java.21 For some reason or other, the Langley left the convoy several hours before the Seawitch.
There had been considerable correspondence in regard to the Langley's sailing. It had been originally intended to load her at Port Darwin, but it was found that the planes could not be taken from the field to the dock there, so that she had to go all the way to Fremantle. It would have been desirable to have brought her into Batavia or Soerabaja, where the planes could easily have been taken to the airfield; but both these ports were now too hazardous, and it was decided to bring her into Tjilatjap. There was no real flying field there, and lighters had to be provided, ramps built for unloading her, and streets cleared to permit passage of the planes. Large numbers of people knew that the work had to be completed by a certain time. The voyage of the Langley and the date of her expected arrival were no secrets.
As the Langley approached Tjilatjap she was met on the afternoon of the 26th by a Dutch mine layer and two Dutch Catalina flying boats. After some delay and confusion she left the slow Dutch boat and on the morning of the 27th met the American destroyers Whipple and Edsall, in whose company she proceeded toward Tjilatjap. A large Japanese expedition was approaching the north coast of Java, and it was considered that time was too pressing to permit the Langley to wait and approach the coast at night with the Seawitch.
It was a fair morning with only a few high, scattered clouds and a light northeast wind. The Langley was less than 100 miles south of Tjilatjap when at 0900 an unidentified plane was sighted. Realizing that the enemy had now found the Langley, her captain sent a report to Admiral Glassford and requested a fighter escort. There were not 15 fighter planes in all Java, and none could be sent. The Langley had only half a flightdeck, too short to launch the fighters she carried. At 1140 the Edsall gave the emergency signal "aircraft sighted." The Langley was zigzagging on a northerly course as nine twin-engine bombers approached at about 15,000 feet. Probably they came from Bali.
As the planes approached the bomb release point the rudder was put full right and the bombs fell a hundred feet or more off the port bow. "The ship shook violently" and was sprayed with splinters and shrapnel, but sustained no serious damage. On the second run the planes dropped no bombs, perhaps studying the ship's evasion tactics. As they made their third run she made her turn just an instant too soon. The planes turned too before releasing their bombs. The Langley shuddered under the impact of five direct hits and three near hits. One hit was forward, near frame 68. Two hits were on the flight deck near the elevator, a fourth was on the port stack sponson, and a fifth bomb penetrated the flight deck aft, starting stubborn fires. After the bombs landed six Japanese fighters which accompanied the bombers attempted to strafe the ship, but only one made a very determined attack.
Seldom has a ship been hit more severely by one salvo. Aircraft on deck were burning, there were fires below deck, fire mains were broken, the ship was taking water forward and was listing 10° to port. But she could still be steered and her engines were still running in spite of the water rising in the engine room. "The ship was maneuvered to obtain a zero wind" and the fires were somehow put out. The shattered planes on the port side were pushed overboard and counterflooding was carried out in an attempt to correct the list. It was useless; water continued to rise in the engine room and the list was increasing.
As a precautionary measure orders were given to prepare to abandon ship, but they were misunderstood and men began to jump overboard. Some men had been blown off the ship by the explosions and others had been forced to jump to escape the fire, so that the destroyers were busy picking men out of the water. Fortunately the planes made no further attack but withdrew to the eastward after attacking one of the Dutch Catalinas.
At 1332 the order was given to abandon ship. Edsall and Whipple maneuvered skillfully to pick up survivors with the gratifying result that out of the entire crew there were only six killed and five missing. After checking the disposal of coding apparatus and signal books Captain McConnell left the ship. Whipple fired nine 4-inch shells and two torpedoes into her to insure her sinking. The position was about 74 miles south of Tjilatjap.
Whipple and Edsall with the survivors cleared the area at high speed, going off to the west.
Our tanker Pecos had departed Tjilatjap for Ceylon on the forenoon of February 27th. In the early afternoon she received news of the bombing of the Langley and changed course to give the area a wide berth. A little later she received orders to proceed to the lee of Christmas Island to receive survivors of the Langley from Whipple and Edsall, which were badly needed for other duties. Course was changed to comply, and soon afterwards the destroyer Parrott, which had been escorting the Pecos, left on another mission.
The Pecos arrived at Christmas Island on the forenoon of the 28th. The pilot boat had just come along side with Lt. Comdr. Thomas A. Donovan of the Langley to arrange the transfer, when three Japanese twin-engine bombers appeared from the direction of Sumatra. The pilot boat, which had fouled its propeller in a line, was cut loose and left adrift with Lt. Comdr. Donovan aboard, as our ships left at maximum speed. A stick of six bombs fell at the edge of the cover near the docks, but there was no attack on our ships, which headed into a rain squall to the east and escaped.
As a submarine periscope had been sighted at the time of the bombing, it was decided to transfer the survivors at sea. This was done the early morning of March 1st. The destroyers departed and the Pecos set course for Fremantle.
About 1000, a single-engine Japanese observation plane with retracted wheels appeared from the northeast. The Pecos opened fire on it, but after circling out of range it withdrew. It was only too clear that our men could look forward to an attack by carrier-based planes. They were not disappointed. An hour and 45 minutes later dive bombers appeared and began an attack which lasted 3 hours and finally sent the Pecos under.
The attack came in three main waves about an hour apart. The first wave consisted of six planes, each of which made two runs, dropping one bomb each time. The first three bombs missed, but one of the next three hit, killing many of the crew of a 3-inch antiaircraft gun. Before these planes left a very near hit amidships to port gave the ship an 8° list to that side.
In the second wave there were also six planes. They scored four hits and a damaging near hit. One of the hits blew out the side of the ship for almost 20 feet, mostly above the waterline, and started a fire. The second carried away part of the foremast and radio antenna and destroyed the center line bulkhead, increasing the list to 15°. Another of these hits forced the cutting out of two boilers and reduced her speed. Between attacks our men did what they could to put out the fires and to correct the list. Thanks to the fact that Comdr. Elmer P. Abernethy had previously taken the precaution of blowing the oil vapor out of his tanks with steam, the fires were not serious, but the cumulative damage of the repeated attacks made it more and more doubtful that the ship could be saved. Sometime the rumor started among the passengers aft that the order to abandon ship had been given. No officer had issued or passed such an order, but two boats and several life rafts were put over and several men jumped overboard before the error was corrected.
The third wave of nine planes came. It scored no direct hits, but two near misses were damaging. "Finally a bomb exploded near the ship forward on the port side and the ship slowly settled forward and finally plunged bow first into the sea, leaving the stern poised in the air for an instant before finally sinking." 22 This was at 1548.
At 1530, a few minutes before she sank, the order had been given to abandon ship, and men went overboard with anything that would float. Additional Japanese planes appeared and strafed the men in the water, but a man on the .50-caliber machine gun aft, still at his post, shot fabric from the tail of one of the planes.
When it had become apparent that the Pecos was going to sink a distress signal was sent out. The radio had been jarred off frequency, but the operator on the Whipple was tuning and picked up the call. The destroyer immediately set course for the scene and arrived about 2000. Having prepared cargo nets and life lines en route, she slowed down as she approached the mass of floating wreckage and men. She picked 220 survivors from the water.
Some of the survivors had seen the conning tower of a submarine sometime after sunset, so that when the Whipple picked up the sound of submarine propellors about 2130 she dropped depth charges and cleared the area at once.
Casualties were high. Survivors of the Langley as well as men from the Pecos had not hesitated to man guns as their crews fell. It was estimated that about 50 men were killed and 150 injured directly as a result of the action. There were only 220 survivors from both vessels, 149 from the Langley, 71 from the Pecos. The former had sailed with about 430 men, while the latter left Tjilatjap with 242.
The Seawitch had better luck. She arrived at Tjilatjap without incident on the forenoon of February 28th. But it was too late. On the preceding afternoon and night a major engagement had been fought in the Java Sea in an unsuccessful attempt to prevent an enemy landing. The Japanese did land on March 1st, and there was no time to assemble the crated planes. It was reported that they were destroyed in their crates to prevent their falling into enemy hands when Tjilatjap was abandoned.
21 Comdr. Robert P. McConnell of the Langley says that the orders were received on the evening of the 22d. Admiral Glassford says that it was ordered immediately upon the dissolution of the Wavell Supreme command.
22 From report of Comdr. Elmer P. Abernethy, captain of the Pecos.