The Battle of the Java Sea—The Fall of the Netherlands East Indies, February 27, 1942
By Margaret Laurens
Photo: map developed from Dull, “A Battle History of the Imperial Japanese Navy.” Original map by Donald Hoegsburg
“The beginning of the end of the Dutch East Indies” is how military historians describe the Battle of the Java Sea, one of the most decisive battles of the Pacific Campaigns of World War II which took place 71 years ago on Feb. 27, 1942 in the Dutch East Indies.
The Battle of the Java Sea is still remembered today as one of the most significant and tragic confrontations of World War II’s Pacific Theater. Solemn commemorations are held every February by the children, grandchildren and families of the men, including members of the Indo community, of the ABDACOM – the American British Dutch Australian Command — who fought so valiantly on that ill-fated day.
The ABDA naval forces led by Strike Force Commander Rear Admiral Karel Doorman, who was killed in the battle, and Admiral Conrad Helfrich, knew at the outset that they were strategically outnumbered and outmatched by the Eastern Invasion Forces, led by Rear Admiral Takeo Tagaki. Despite the Allies’ military air force advantage, the Japanese invasion fleet boasted superior artillery power. Inclement weather also hampered vital radio communication between the four Allied forces.
Against all odds, the brave ABDA commanders persevered, but despite several daring and courageous maneuvers executed by their ABDA naval forces, many excruciating hours of exchanging artillery fire ensued from mid-afternoon until midnight, and the battle ended in the overwhelming defeat of the Allied Forces.
Wikipedia calls The Battle of the Java Sea “a decisive naval battle… that sealed the fate of the Netherlands East Indies,” and it is well-documented in many history books, in accounts which can be found on the internet, through interviews and poignant eye-witness accounts with WWII veterans, survivors of the Battle from the American, British, Dutch Australian contingents and even the Japanese naval troops, many of which can be viewed on Youtube.
Strategically, the Japanese benefited enormously from gaining control of the oil-rich islands of Indonesia — their domestic supply of oil reserves was insufficient to wage war successfully.
Here are some logistical details: The Allied naval forces were comprised of four separate navies, with two heavy cruisers, three light cruisers, nine destroyers.
When the battle was over, the ABDACOM casualties and losses were indeed heavy:
2 cruisers sunk: HNLMS DeRuyter, (killing Rear Admiral Karel Doorman) and HNLMS Java.
3 destroyers sunk
2,300 sailors killed
In stark contrast, the more powerfully armed forces of the Imperial Japanese Navy consisted of 2 heavy cruisers, 2 light cruisers, 14 destroyers and 10 transports.
Their losses: 1 destroyer damaged, 4 transports sunk.
In these statistics a terrible tale of human tragedy, and the Fall of the Dutch East Indies is told, as summarized in the Wikipedia account:
“The Battle of the Java Sea ended significant Allied naval operations in South-East Asia in 1942, and Japanese land forces invaded Java on 28 February. The U.S. and Royal Air Force then started to retreat to Australia. Dutch troops aided by British remnants fought fiercely for a week. In the campaign the Japanese executed many Allied POWs and sympathizing Indonesians. Despite their logistical problems, the decisive factor in Japan’s favor seems to have been air power. Eventually, the Japanese won this battle of attrition and ABDA forces surrendered on 9 March.”
For more information about this crucial World War II battle in the Dutch East Indies, please follow the links below:
Hi Margaret, your info about the edsall is1000percent correct my 3yrs.of Research has paid off brother was aboard! Jack Adolfi any info you may need feel free to call
The photo you use purpoting to be USS Pope, often misdescribed as such, is actually USS Edsall sunk south of Java, that is not during the Battle of the Java Sea itself. This has been proved beyond doybt.
A little late but researching another issue I came across this web-site. My father Johannes was a marine who served on the Dutch ship De Kortenaer which was sunk during this battle, unfortunately I know very little about the period he was rescued from the water until he worked (slaved) on the Burma railway line. Was he transported via Singapore, were there many survivors from his ship, how did he return back (eventually) to Soerabaja? So much I just don’t know and sadly I have possibly left it to late to gain more knowledge about this period in my father’s life.
No problem Margaret. As for the photo, I think it is a typical “Indisch huis” with the open front part, the “voorgalerij”.
This house was build on a cement slab with teak wooden frame and support beams with matted bambu walls the socalled “gedek” where the air could flow through for cooling.
I’m the little kid squatted “jongkok” next to one of my brothers in front of the house under the watchfull eye of our nanny at the corner of the house. Another older brother Theo is standing in the driveway to the garage where the chrome dual bumper of the T-Ford is visible.
I will see if I can write something as “buitenkamper” during the war in the village of Wero and the Bersiap years.
I have sent Priscilla my story when I left Indonesia for the Netherlands as a stow away.
Did you know that we have a surviving crew member of one of the Dutch cruiser which sank in the Battle of the Java Sea? His nameis Mr. Welcker and he lives in Orange County CA. Please contact his son Ernest Welcker on FB.
Thank you for the caption to the photograph Mr. Von Stockhausen; I especially like the reference to the “chrome dual bumper of the T-Ford” which had the headlights you used for visibility during the air raids!
We would certainly welcome your memories as a buitenkamper. Please submit it to the Stories page of our website. Also, The Indo Project will shortly have some news about a new documentary film about the buitenkampers, so your memoir will be very timely and perhaps we could feature it together with the news about the documentary. We will also try to contact Mr. Ernest Weicker in reference to his father, a surviving veteran of the Battle of the Java Sea. I’m sure that Mr. Weicker has some fascinating memories about this wartime tragedy in the Indies.
During that time we lived in this company house of the Dutch Indies Forestry department. It was the collection yard of all the teakwood, the socalled “stapelplaats” in the city of Gombong in south central Java. Our father was already drafted into the Dutch Indies Army to protect against the Japanese invasion. I was 5 years old then and knew we had a war. I had a piece of unprocessed rubber which they used for shoe soles on a string around my neck. If we were attacked by planes we were instructed to run to the emergency shelterr my dad dug up in the front yard and we were supposed to bite on the piece of rubber to protect our eardrums against the blast. The lights on our T-Ford had their head lights covered and just a circle the size of a dollar coin was cut out to have some light on the road but not visible from airtplanes.
This house had a long driiveway to the main road of Gombong, the Grote Postweg. We were used to the usual trafic of military trucks prior to and during the war. But a few days after above date the kind of military trafic was different. We saw red cross vehicles and trucks full of wounded solders all bandaged up. Later we found out that they were the wounded of the Battle of The Java Sea and retreating forces on the way to the South Java port of Cilacap , the only escape route available to them to Australia. We found later out that they must be survivors of the HMS Exeter and USS Houston. My brother told me that they were British and Americans. One of the British officers approached my brother and asked where the closest “petrol station” was.
Some Indonesian staff member who worked with my father suggested that we move to his house in the hills of Sedayu because they expected some fighting in the garrison town of Gombong and our house being an “industrial target”. So we moved to his house close to present Semprong dam North of Gombong next to some river. Apparently we were not the only ones with that idea. One day the river was green with all kind of military uniforms and gear abandon by soldiers so they could dissolve into the village population in the hills. As kids we were fascinated by all that military gear and started collecting it but it was a bad idea and we had to throw it back in the river.
It never came to fighting in Gombong because there were no military left to fight and we moved to the village of Wero next to Gombong in another company house till the end of the war.
Thank you for your response, Mr. Von Stockhausen, and the interesting photo, perhaps you could give us more details about the photo? It was fascinating to read your dramatic memories as a five-year old boy of the immediate aftermath of the Battle of the Java Sea.
I wonder if you would be interested in submitting a more detailed memoir of your life in Indonesia, or the following years. If so, please go to our Stories submission page. The Indo Project is organizing a Digital Archive documenting the stories, including memoirs, photos and artwork, of the Indo community, in English.
Many thanks for your interest,
Board Member-at-Large, The Indo Project
Great article Margaret, There is never enough that can be done in the cause of remembrance. It is all to soon that the Old Soldiers that are left grow old and and the reasons why they fought are forgotten. But we know that we are a people because of those tragic and horrible events. I take comfort that those that perished did not die in vain, even in defeat there sacrifice was so that others could live.
Thank you for your comments Jack. My father Jan served in the Allied Air Forces,; he was stationed in Canberra, Australia. Through these remembrances succeeding generations of Indos can learn about the history of the tragic events our parents lived through and survived. We can also continue to honor and remember those who perished in these WW II battles of the Pacific Theater. Please let others know about this important battle of the Java Sea!