The Destruction of the Asiatic Fleet: how Allied ineptitude led to a catastrophic defeat

Carlton Meyer, “The Destruction of the Asiatic Fleet” ( Tales of the American Empire, 13 May 2022)

You’d have to be Rip van Winkle or Sleeping Beauty in repose for 100 years not to know of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in Hawaii on 7 December 1941 that brought the United States into World War II in its Pacific theatre – but few Americans, it seems, know of an even worse wartime disaster that befell the US Asiatic fleet in the Dutch East Indies in February 1942. The combined navies of the United States, Britain, the Netherlands and Australia suffered catastrophic defeat from the Imperial Japanese Navy in the Battle of the Java Sea on 27 February 1942; the Allied navies lost 2,300 sailors at sea and many more were taken prisoner by the Japanese. Some of these prisoners were forced to work on the Thai-Burma railway line in 1943 and others were subjected to experimentation in Japan’s notorious biological / medical research labs in China. Japan’s victory in the Battle of the Java Sea enabled it to conquer the whole of the Dutch East Indies and the colonised people of that colony realised that their former overlords were fallible after all.

Meyer’s riveting mini-documentary on the Battle of the Java Sea shows that much of the blame for the disaster lies with Allied mismanagement of the combined forces and conflict among the Dutch, British and Americans in the Allied command over strategy and war priorities. The Americans had already retreated from the Philippines thanks to General Douglas Macarthur’s inept handling of the war against Japan in that archipelago – one would think the Americans would see that a second US defeat, this time in the Dutch East Indies, would make retaking the Philippines harder and more arduous. The Dutch understandably wanted to defend their East Indies colony while the British were more concerned about defending their prize colony of India.

Much of Meyer’s film covers the misfortunes of the USS Houston and HMAS Perth, both of which were sunk with the loss of over 1,000 men in the Battle of the Sunda Strait. Many of the surviving crew became POWs forced to work in coal mines in Japan or on the Thai-Burma railway. Meyer concludes by noting that the Battle of the Java Sea and the Battle of the Sunda Strait are mostly ignored by US historians and media aimed at the general public, as these battles contradict the general popular narrative about US participation in World War II: that on the whole the US was successful in all its battles due to the quality, intelligence and skill of its military leaders and its superior firepower compared to those of Japan’s leaders and military armaments.

Though the film is much shorter than other episodes in Meyer’s TotAE series, it is very succinct. Archived historical film bulks up the video and, unusually for this series, the documentary allows the archived material to tell the disastrous story in sound and sight. There is less detail in the coverage of the battles and more emphasis on the blunders, incompetence and stupidity of the Allied commanders in charge of the battles. Stories such as this, deliberately hidden from the public, demonstrate how ultimately Allied victory in World War II depended much more on luck and on the Japanese becoming over-stretched in their conquests of East and Southeast Asia, having to hold onto their empire with the forces they had and making blunders that the Allies could exploit.