Thursday, February 24, 2011


From the Dive Team
Dave Phillips – ROV Operator/Diver

Greetings Houston Family and Friends:
In 2006, I received an unusual request.  Scott Bentley, president of VideoRay LLC, who manufactures small underwater remotely operated vehicles gave me a call and wanted to know if I was available to go to Indonesia in a few days to do a project on the USS Houston which had been sunk in World War II.  In addition to working in law enforcement, I do training and consulting for underwater robotics and sonar, so I told them “sure, no problem” and was soon on my way to Jakarta.  As I soon learned, this was less of a vacation and more of an expedition.   And I will be the first to admit I was clueless about this moving story and piece of American history.
Upon arrival in Jakarta I had to somehow make contact with a guy by the name of Jerry Ranger.  Prior to clearing customs I was approached by a local individual who guaranteed that for $10, I could pass through customs without being searched.  I declined.
 I knew Jerry only by his southern drawl on the telephone but figured he’d be the only Caucasian male in the airport.  I kept my back to my many cases of equipment, fending off the many offers to “help” move my boxes of underwater equipment, with the occasional offer to buy watches or other trinkets.  In this mob I finally caught up with Jerry and diver Brad Gift.
A couple of days later would find us on an old motorboat northbound through the Sunde Strait.  Small fishing boats dotted the area as we approached the dive site.  There, we caught up with the Barracuda Java, a 60 foot government owned tug that Jerry had hired for the dive.  My first impression of this boat was that it was listing to port in a rather unsettling fashion.  The crew spoke no English but they caught on quickly to what we needed for the dives and underwater equipment operations.  At night-time they would grab pieces of cardboard and sleep wherever they found room on the deck.  Jerry and I slept in the “crew quarters” and spent much of the time battling large cockroaches, whose curiosity of us was only matched by the creeping feeling we had of them crawling on us as we tried to sleep.

The importance of what we were doing really struck me on the first dive I did on the Houston.  Her large ghostly shape lying on its starboard side, with sweeping hull shape and masts still in place; she lets you know that she is still a proud Navy vessel with great command presence.  Massive forward gun turret openings sit empty, exposing beautifully symmetrical round openings where the massive guns had once sat- they became unseated when she sank and fell over starboard.  It occurred to me that we were looking at a moment in Naval history frozen in time.  This was all the more struck home to me when, at slack tide, bunker oil was still floating to the surface- similar to the USS Arizona in Pearl Harbor.  After 65 years this is very moving to see.
After this first trip, I had to learn more.  I read and re-read Hornfisher’s book three times, poured over charts.  We had to go back.  Jerry and I talked each other into it.  If Jerry is involved in something, it will happen.  If you ever work on a project with him, you will be peppered by emails and phone calls to the point of driving you nuts as he drives the project in the direction it needs to go.  In 2008, we returned and built upon the previous two dives that Jerry had organized.  This time Jolene Ranger-Stewart came along with her big brother and it was fun to see them both diving on the Houston.

The trip to the Houston and diving it is not a vacation and not for the faint of heart.  Sixty plus years of fishing lines and nets drape her like a web and divers constantly have to avoid these entanglement snares and must presume that they will have to cut themselves out.  Currents are continually changing and visibility and conditions can change on a dime.  Sea-life has taken over the USS Houston.  Corals grow on her hull that can cut and sting divers.  Lion-fish, whose sharp fins sting like a hornet, followed us like curious pups as we dove.  On one occasion the current changed and I found myself pivoting to face the current over the top of a stone-fish whose bite can be poisonous.  Fortunately, he was also busy pivoting into the current.  Sting-rays are quite prevalent and it is important to stay off the sea bottom.  What struck me about the sonar images is that schools of thousands of fish call the Houston their home as an artificial reef.  And the Houston has provided fish for over sixty years to the villagers that dot the Java coast.

But the goal of these trips is documentation of this beautiful ship as she lies on the bottom.  The sailors that fought and died here and those that were prisoners of war are part of our Nation’s history.  The wreck symbolizes a moment in time; an incredibly brave naval battle where these brave men took a stand against the Empire of Japan, and did the best they could with what they had.  Battles like this are a part of our Nations fabric; from the Revolutionary war to Gettysburg to our current conflicts.  These are stories of individual soldiers and sailors fighting their part of a war and making a difference by their individual actions- and trying to survive.

I had the opportunity to attend the 2009 Houston reunion.  It was very important to me to meet some of the survivors.  I found myself in awe in their presence; they had gone through hell and back and had come home after the war and continued on with life.  These veteran heroes are what this nation should celebrate and remember.  Professional athletes only play a game and are idolized.  But this World War II generation saved the planet from being subjects of the Japanese Empire and Nazi Germany.  I fear my generation has not acknowledged or remembered this fact.

Survivor Howard Brooks inspects the VideoRay underwater camera at the reunion

We are planning another and perhaps final trip back to the Houston June of 2011.   VideoRay is again offering sponsorship support and many of you have already committed your support.  What you need to know is that our team treats this site with the utmost care and reverence.  There are charter dives out to the Houston and Perth from Java for recreational purposes and I’m sure there has been plundering over the decades.  But we still have opportunity to bring home sonar and video images of this beautiful ship before she corrodes into the sea.  Politics of Indonesia are still favorable towards westerners visiting the region but I fear this may not always be the case.

If you are able to help with this next trip it would be much appreciated.  Donations of frequent flyer miles (for Jerry) and any contribution to help defer costs would be appreciated.   We want to make the Houston family proud- we will do our very best and are unaware of any similar effort to document this site.  Please call, email, write Jerry Ranger if you can help.

Thank You!
Dave Phillips
Diver/ROV operator

1 comment:

Nancy Carlyle Harlan said...

My Uncle Edward Carlyle died in the sinking of the Houston. My dad saw his brother's clothes stamp at a recent ceremony in Washington, DC. The stamp was recovered from the dive. We are looking for pictures of this clothes stamp for my dad. Can someone help me?