Seventy-two years after a Japanese ship fired 8-inch shells into the USS Houston, Palo Alto resident Ned Gallagher still vividly recalls how he escaped the sinking ship near the island of Java during World War II.
From his battle station near the quarter deck, Gallagher, a U.S. Marine, could see the dark water was just 4 feet below. The bugle call signaled for all hands to abandon ship, and the Houston was listing about 20 to 25 degrees. He simply stepped off the side and dropped into the sea, he recalled.
As his shipmates struggled for survival, Gallagher saw the ship's chaplain, a man named Rentz, give his life preserver to another man. Then the chaplain drowned, he said. More than 700 men of the approximately 1,000-person crew lost their lives during the Battle of Sunda Strait.
The Houston was the flagship of the Pacific fleet, a successfully elusive target dubbed "The Galloping Ghost of the Java Coast." It was President Franklin Roosevelt's favorite ship, Gallagher said. The ship was part of an Allied force that included British, Australian, Dutch and American ships. A few days prior to sinking, the heavy cruiser had taken a few hits during the Battle of the Java Sea, but it was not enough to knock the ship out.
On Feb. 28, 1942, only two Allied ships were still afloat: the Houston and the Australian light cruiser HMAS Perth. Shortly after midnight on March 1, a Japanese onslaught overwhelmed them. The Perth went down first; the Houston fought on, lasting about an hour and 15 minutes until it was hit by three torpedoes and numerous shells.
Gallagher was an experienced swimmer. He didn't try to get into the crowded lifeboat. He had a better chance of making it to land than other shipmates, he reckoned. Looking around, he could make out Krakatoa, its distinctive remains after a 19th-century volcanic explosion became his directional gauge.
"I knew that the direction was west from where I was, and I didn't want to go that way," he said. Supported by a life jacket, he headed for the nearest island, Java, a grueling journey that took nine hours.
Looking up at the vast sea of stars, Gallagher became aware that he was entirely alone. No one not his shipmates, the captain nor his mother and father knew where he was.
"No human being knew where I was. Only God knew where I was," he said.
Faith, his constant companion, sustained him through the treacherous swim.
"I had 'escape' in mind all of the time," he recalled.
The sun was breaking when Gallagher hit land.
"When I came ashore on the island, I couldn't see anybody," he said. "I was exhausted and very weak. I tried to stand up and I fell down. It took three efforts before I was successful."
After a time, other survivors arrived on shore. The southern part of the island at the port of Tilpjap had been under Allied possession, and they headed there, he said. In the distance, they saw a group of men. From the shape of their helmets, they thought they were Dutch soldiers. But they were a Japanese platoon, and Gallagher and the others were captured, he recalled.
Back home, he was listed as missing in action, and his prep school, Lawrence Academy, had dedicated a page in its yearbook to him. In his hometown of Waterveliet, New York, someone put his name on a list of men killed in action. His mother stormed into town to have it removed. After a year, his captors allowed him to send a postcard home, he said.
Gallagher and the other men remained prisoners for 3.5 years. They were moved to a prisoner-of-war camp in Japan. They received barely more than a half-cup of insect-infested rice to eat a day, he said. One more year of war, and Gallagher would not have survived. He was emaciated when he got out, he said.
But the men often talked about food. Gallagher kept a tiny notebook hidden in which he wrote down the best places and dishes his imprisoned mates remembered. He still has that notebook. Mendota figs, pecan pie, scrapple; fishing locations in Brownsville, Texas, and local attractions the Snake King, the largest snake farm in the world.
"It actually helped," he recalled.
Gallagher prayed often. One of the older prisoners at 27, on his knees he asked God for a woman to marry when he got out of the war.
No one announced when the war ended, but Gallagher knew, he said. Suddenly the camps were silent; the Japanese soldiers just disappeared. Then food in large cans rained down from Allied planes and the men were rescued by the American Red Cross. He was boarded on the USS Wisconsin, a good omen it would turn out, as his wife, Tay, would come from that state.
Gallagher returned to the U.S. and served a total of 22 years in the Marine Corps, ending his career as a colonel. He went to work at Stanford University as the director of married-student housing. He and Tay, now 92, had six kids. He was elected to the Palo Alto City Council and served as its vice mayor in the 1960s.
Gallagher, who today is slim, handsome, ramrod straight and possessing of a keen mind, is one of eight or nine remaining survivors of the USS Houston. A team of U.S. and Indonesian Navy divers returned to the site where it sank with an archaeologist on June 9 to document its remains. The dive is part of a 20-year U.S. Department of the Navy effort to survey some of the 17,000 sunken ships and aircraft worldwide that are considered fragile cultural resources. These relics of war still safeguard state secrets, often carry environmental and safety hazards, and remain forever war graves.
On June 11, the divers laid a wreath on the Houston's wreckage.
Gallagher this week sat and talked with the Weekly in the living room of his spacious, colonial-style Palo Alto home, with light flowing in through floor-to-ceiling windows that look out onto a yard of flowers. A picture of the Pope and a statue of the Virgin Mary were prominently displayed on a table in the center of the room, amid the blue-and-white Chinese porcelain, family photos and colorful paintings. With July 4 approaching, he said he doesn't spend any time thinking about patriotic holidays. But he does have strong feelings about the importance of dedication to his country.
"I don't think there's any country in the world that has as much to offer to an individual as America. Guide it ... and fight for it when it becomes necessary," he said.
And as he did in the prison camp, every morning and night since then he has prayed.
The lifelong pattern only recently changed, his daughter Mary Gallagher said.
"Because of his age, this year his doctor gave him special dispensation to get off his knees."