Picture at left shows Bill in same spot in San Francisco 1941 and 2012
Bill Ingram at the tender age of 17 joined the Navy for one reason-- to join his brother Robert on the USS Houston He requested duty on the USS Houston upon enlistment in June, 1941. On December of 1941, he was on the Chaumont an old troop transport, and he was to catch the Houston in the Philippines. But the Houston had departed from Manila and set out towards Iloilo, 238 miles south of Manila, to get out of harms way. Bill was four days out at five knots an hour on the Chaumont when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. He said, “We were hardly out of sight, but they didn’t catch us.
Next he boarded the Pensacola heavy cruiser. He sailed on that ship until he reached port in Darwin, Australia. If he had stayed on the Pensacola he says, ‘I might have missed a lot of excitement. “ First, he almost missed getting on the USS Houstonbut managed to find the ship and he was assigned to the first division and told to man the front turret, partly because he could fit in the small hatch. “I was 17 and weighed a little over 100 lbs."
Once on board he found his brother, Robert, had recently departed from the USS Houston and been taken to Corregidor, eventually to be captured as a prisoner of war and sent to Japan. Robert “Inky” had been a signalman on the ship. Once in Corregidor, he joined the Admiral’s flag division.
The USS Houston was attacked on Feb. 4 with a shower from Japanese bombers. The crews on the Houston’s guns fired their 5 and 8 inch guns only to find that three-fourths of their rounds didn’t explode. Like much of the equipment in the early days of the Pacific War, the guns had not been tested with live ammunition in drills. The captain of the Houston, Captain Rooks tried to help the light cruiser Marblehead, which was being showered with bombs. The captain turned towards the Marblehead so that his gunners could fire at the Japanese planes. One of the Japanese bombs had gone astray, and Rooks looking for the trajectory missed seeing the bomb as it passed out of view. The 500-pound bomb hit Turret #3 setting off fires as it ignited the gunpowder bags. Forty-six men died from the blast and one of the men aboard stated that war had come to them in a real way .
The USS Houston was patched up and ship fitters replaced the gun house roof by putting in a large steel plate and draping canvas over the turret’s side making it appear as though the aft turret was ready for combat. They replaced the old projectiles with 500 live rounds from the Boise, which had been sidelined. The crew was eager to go back out and Capt. Rooks roused their fighting spirit by saying they could beat the Japanese with the two turrets that were remaining.
On Feb 14, the USS Houston went out to escort four troop ships to reinforce troops on Timor, hoping to keep the island in Allied hands. Around noon, the bugler sounded the call for the men to take positions for air defense as a Japanese Mavis came into view. The gunners sent shells towards the Mavis. A P-40 chased the Mavis. Nine more Mavises and 36 Mitsubishi Type 97 bombers formed to attack the Houston. Capt. Rooks circled his charges and the smoke from the boats guns created a smoke screen. The new ammunition made a difference and the bombers retreated. Seven Japanese bombers took a hit. The crewmen celebrated their victory but were disheartened as Timor had fallen.
It wasn’t long before the USS Houston would face the Japanese again, this time in a battle that would cause severe losses. A fleet of ABDA ships gathered to search for Japanese forces headed for eastern Java. On Feb. 27th they met up with the Japanese and the first major surface battle of the Pacific War, the Battle of the Java Sea, ensued. After 8 hours, two Dutch cruisers were sunk as well as three destroyers. The Japanese hit the Houston twice with 8-inch shells, but the USS Houston and the Australian ship HMS Perth had survived. The next day, the 28th, the two ships partially refueled at Batavia before attempting to pass the Sunda Straits and head towards safety in the Indian Ocean and towards Australia. They met the Japanese invasion fleet made up almost a dozen destroyers, three cruisers, many torpedo boats and minesweepers. HMS Perth went down after being hit with four torpedoes, and after midnight, the Japanese targeted the Houston with a torpedo. Then a shell from the Japanese destroyed the number 2 turret and Capt. Rooks told the men to abandon ship. Capt. Rooks died when a shell hit a gun mount and the shrapnel hit him as he came down a ladder from the signal bridge. The order to abandon was remanded and the men from the Houston fought on, hitting three destroyers and a minesweeper.
But then the the Houston was torpedoed and started sinking. The crew swam away. Red Clymer got a life ring for Bill who was now grateful he had taken swimming lessons at the YMCA. He was told to swim fast and as he looked back he could still see the ship and it was in flames. He said, “I was in the water from 2 in the morning until about 3 PM. Being in the dark was frightening because I didn’t know what I would bump into--a dead sailor, a dead Japanese or a dangerous fish.” The Japanese picked him up and they interviewed him, and clobbered him when they didn’t like his answers. Finally they threw him overboard. He swam to get a life ring and was eventually picked up by a fishing boat whose owner was letting people on the boat in exchange for gifts. Ingram said, “All I had on was a pair of navy shorts, white shorts, and a white belt and my knife…I gave him my jackknife to get on board."
The currents in the sea headed the men towards Java. Finally, the men on the boat had enough of the trading system and chucked the native overboard. Once on shore, the men walked into what they thought was a Dutch Red Cross site and instead found it was a front for an old prison and the Japanese took them prisoner. His first beating took place when he said Roosevelt was the greatest man, and not Tojo. After the Japanese sergeant hit Bill with a rifle and dug him with hob nailed boots, Bill Ingram said, “You stand there with blood running all over you and everything, and he (Tojo) becomes number one.” Subservience became necessary to stay alive.
Bill worked on the Burma Road, an engineering feat that has been compared to building the pyramids because so much work was done by human labor. By the end of the war, Bill was suffering from malaria and dysentery and in retrospect he felt that a few more weeks in Burma might have cost him his life. He suffered malaria stupor so that his trip home through Calcutta and New York remained oblivious to him. "I woke from my “stupor” to find myself in a New York bar with some buddies. I had a head of lettuce in front of me and didn’t know why I ordered it.” He started crying and the bartender asked him why he was so disturbed and he said. “I just want to go home."
Back at home while Bill and Robert were just beginning their hardships, their parents read the headlines in the local paper, titled “Parents Who Lost One Son In Sea War Notified Second Boy Missing in Action.” It wasn’t until the captured could send out a postcard home that Bill’s parents could know for sure that their boys were still alive. In the article, Mrs. Ingram said, “I still believe they will come back to me,” in spite of last official reports had them both missing in action. The Navy sent her three reports about Robert, saying he was missing, then that he was alive and then again that he was missing. The postcards sent out by the captured prisoners allowed for choices that said that the men were fine and treated well. But the men coming home knew differently. They had not been fine or treated well. After telling his trials to the bartender in New York, the bartender put Bill on a train to Illinois. Once there, he returned to his childhood home only to find his parents had moved. After several inquiries he made his way to the neighborhood where he was told they lived. Once there, he knocked on doors hoping someone would know of his parents. Finally, he noticed a mailman who told him he was within four doors of his parent’s house. “My mother almost fainted when she answered the door. She was not expecting me. It was a relief to be home, and Bill stayed home for a month, healing at Great Lakes Naval Hospital. Bill decided to stay on in the navy. He met his wife Yvette in French Morocco and they had two children. He retired from the Navy as a Chief Boatswain Mate.
More information can be found about the U.S.S. Houston
CA-30 Survivors Association at
was a favorite of Pres. Roosevelt and he often sailed on the
ship. The museum has resources on the Houston
and the Burma Thailand railway. Its story has been chronicled in
the book Ship of Ghosts by James D.
Hornfischer. Bill Ingram is quoted in the book.
Bill Ingram is quoted in the book.
The number of men on the Houston was over 1,000 and those who survived were 369. Thirteen remain as of March 12,2013
Written by Jane Kraina
Sources: Ship of Ghosts by James D. Hornfischer,
Stolen Freedom DVD
Phone Interviews with Bill Ingram