During WWII, Allied navies suffered a devastating defeat at the hand of the Imperial Japanese Navy during the First and Second Battles of the Java Sea. The battles, which began on February 27, 1942, led to the Japanese occupation of the Dutch East Indies. During these two battles, the Japanese sank several Allied ships, including HMS Exeter. Most of her crew survived and were taken POW, where they endured horrific deprivation and abuse. About one-quarter died during captivity, and many were buried on Ambon Island and Sulawesi (present-day Indonesia).
Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, the US joined Great Britain, Australia, and the Netherlands to form a multinational fleet. Between December 1941 and February 1942, the Japanese forces captured Hong Kong, the Philippines, Malaya, Singapore, and part of the Dutch East Indies. Allies wanted to check the Japanese aggression and prepared to engage the Imperial Japanese Navy.
On February 25, 1942, HMS Exeter sailed from Batavia (Jakarta) to Surabaya in eastern Java. The next evening, the Allied fleet conducted an overnight patrol but didn’t find any sign of Japanese ships. As the convoy returned to port on February 27, they received an urgent message that the enemy fleet was spotted 90 miles away. With little time to refuel, the Allied fleet of heavy cruisers, light cruisers, and nine destroyers, immediately reversed course and sailed for the island of Bawean, where they hoped to intercept and engage the enemy fleet.
About 4:00 p.m. on the 27th, the Allies spotted enemy ships, and the opponents engaged in a naval artillery battle. An 8-inch shell hit the Exeter and blew up an ammunition magazine. It had the effect of “lifting the whole ship in a remarkable manner,” said the captain. The Exeter was crippled and operating at half power. She turned out of the strategic column formation as other ships provided the disabled vessel with a smokescreen cover. Japanese planes overhead continued to relay the position of the Allied ships and called in firepower. The battle raged intermittently for nearly 10 hours, with the Allies desperately trying to repel the Japanese invasion fleet. The Japanese’s superior firepower dominated, resulting in heavy Allied losses.
Meanwhile, the crippled Exeter withdrew to Surabaya for repairs. Two days later, Exeter conducted a trial run to test the emergency repairs on her damaged boilers. Two Allied destroyers accompanied her out to sea. On March 1, the three vessels spotted ships from the Japanese fleet and attempted to escape undetected. With enemy ships closing in, the Allies soon found themselves under attack. Their engagement is known as the Second Battle of the Java Sea. During the fighting, a shell hit the boiler room on the Exeter, causing a large fire. Steam pressure dropped rapidly, and the power failed. With no possibility of saving the ship, the captain decided to scuttle it to prevent it from falling into enemy hands. He ordered the crew to abandon the vessel, and 1135 men jumped into rafts, floating nets, or held tight to floating debris. As the ship settled lower in the water, a Japanese torpedo hit the Exeter, and she rolled and sank.
About an hour later, some 400 survivors were plucked from the water by two Japanese destroyers. The remaining survivors spent nearly 24 hours in the water before being picked up by a Japanese ship. The prisoners were transferred to a Japanese POW camp at Macassar on Sulawesi, where they endured starvation, deprivation, and disease. Petty Officer George W. Castro was one of the men scooped from the Java Sea when the Exeter sank. The father of two survived the deadly POW camp for more than three years, until May 31, 1945, when he succumbed to disease from a lack of nutrients. His death came less than three months before the Japanese surrendered. About one-quarter of the prisoners saved from the waters of the Java Sea died while being held POW. The remaining POWs were freed after the war ended.