By Jay Jamison
February has many special days, including the commemoration our two greatest presidents. Unfortunately, some important historical February events have largely been forgotten. In a recent advertisement for a veteran’s organization on TV, the narrator said one of the worst things to befall a disabled veteran was to be forgotten. The idea of veterans being forgotten, and February, dredged up old memories.
About 30 years ago, a grey-haired man came into my screen-printing shop on East State Street in Jacksonville. He identified himself as a World War II navy veteran and asked if I’d print some golf shirts for a reunion he and his shipmates were planning. He showed me a picture of his ship. I immediately recognized the type: A flushed deck, four-stacked destroyer of early 1920’s vintage. I also recognized the name of the ship, USS Whipple.
Here’s a trivia question: What United States Navy fleet was virtually destroyed by enemy action in World War II? If you guessed the fleet at Pearl Harbor, you would be wrong. With some major exceptions, most of the damaged ships at Pearl Harbor were refloated, repaired and rejoined the Pacific Fleet.
Most of our memories of World War II often overlook the period between the Pearl Harbor disaster and the victories in the spring of 1942. Those forgotten weeks were a period of unmitigated disaster for the United States naval forces in the Far East. It is a difficult period about which to read. The destroyer man who came to my shop three decades ago was not only a veteran, but he was also a survivor from the U.S. Asiatic Fleet, a force which was bombed and torpedoed into virtual extinction in the early months of 1942.
I learned about the Asiatic Fleet from my uncle Bob Galloway, who served on the USS John D. Edwards, a destroyer of the same class as the USS Whipple. His stories about serving in the Asiatic Fleet, and my further reading, informed me about the men and ships of that force. The USS John D. Edwards and USS Whipple were part of “The Fleet the Gods Forgot,” which is also the title of a book about the Asiatic Fleet. I Googled “Asiatic Fleet memorial” to see if any commemorative monument exists. I was unable to find one. I did discover that in 2002, President George W. Bush declared March 1 to be Asiatic Fleet Memorial Day. It took 60 years after its destruction for any major official recognition to come forth for the officers and men of the Asiatic Fleet.
The story of the final days of the Asiatic Fleet is both heroic and heartbreaking. Based in Manila, in the Philippines, the U.S. Asiatic Fleet was mostly comprised of ships that were antiquated vessels unsuited for front line service in 1942. Yet, following Pearl Harbor they were eventually tasked with stopping the Imperial Japanese Navy from seizing Java, in what is now Indonesia. Even with units of our then new allies (Great Britain, Australia and the Netherlands), it is clear in retrospect, that their mission was virtually hopeless. One by one, the old ships succumbed to air attack, torpedoes and shellfire, culminating in the Battle of Java Sea (February 27, 1942) and subsequent encounters, after which the Asiatic Fleet effectively ceased to exist. With no reinforcements or supplies from home, the men of the Asiatic Fleet went into battle facing fearsome odds which is the hallmark of valor. They should not be forgotten.