On the night of Feb. 28, 1942, as Allied ships sped toward Australia via the Java Coast of Indonesia, they knew they would be facing the Japanese Imperial Navy and would be severely outnumbered. Thus began the infamous Battle of Sunda Strait.
“There was no doubt in anybody's mind they weren't coming back,” said Elbert County veterans services officer Ric Morgan.
The USS Houston had a reputation for surviving the closest-of-shaves in battle, and was known as the “Galloping Ghost of the Java Coast,” said Morgan, who lives in Elbert.
The Houston went down valiantly, “her guns still blazing,” Morgan said.
Although 700 of the 1,068 aboard the USS Houston lost their lives in the battle and the ship's sinking, the mettle of the Americans — teamed with an Australian ship the HMAS Perth — helped to sink the ship carrying the commander of the Japanese Army.
A native son of Elbert County played a part in this powerful piece of World War II. Thomas “Steve” Cantrill lost his life aboard the Houston 75 years ago in the two-day battle against the Japanese Imperial Navy.
Cantrill had worked his way up the ranks to Petty Officer First Class. His job aboard the Houston as a machinist mate meant he was likely at his station in the engine room below decks when the ship sank.
Don Cole of Elbert was related to Cantrill through marriage. He remembers spending time with Cantrill as a young man.
“He would round up he guys to play a little bit of football,” Cole recalled.
“Before the war he went one of my aunts, Mildred Peterson,” Cole said, referring to a brief courtship his aunt had with Cantrill.
There were 368 who survived the sinking, but they were taken as POWs to help build the Burma-Thailand Railway. Of those, 291 survived the nine months in the Japanese camps in Thailand, according to the U.S. Naval Institute.
It was when these POWs were released that the fate of the Houston was revealed.
Cantrill's family received a letter from the U.S. Navy but never opened it.
“They obviously knew what it was and didn't have the heart to open it,” said Don's daughter, Natalie Cole.
The exact location of the ship was discovered and several dives were made to examine the condition of the ship.
“It's in remarkably good condition,” Morgan said, although there had been looting and illegal scavenging of the steel and other parts prior to the official dives.
Since it is an official gravesite of the U.S. military, disturbing it is illegal. And although 700 crewmen were laid to rest within the Houston, some would like to see them repatriated.
“Right now there is a lot of concern over environmental issues,” Morgan said. A main concern is the petroleum oil actively leaking from the site.
In October 2014, the U.S. military laid a wreath on the waters over the Houston to honor the sailors who lost their lives on it.
But the idea of bringing Steve Cantrill back to Elbert still pleases his family.
“That just gave me chills,” Natalie said.
The sentiment was echoed by her father. If Steve Cantrill's body were laid to rest at the site reserved for him in the Kiowa-Elbert cemetery, it would give Don “a good feeling,” he said.