OUR LEGACY - World War II
With World War II, and the increased dependence of the nation's economy and war effort on petroleum and its products, came the large-scale development of the petrochemical industry in the city. A vast industrial complex, complete with a continually expanding pipeline system, today exceeding 1,550 miles in length, grew along the Houston Ship Channel. This provided much of the impetus for the subsequent growth of the city. The third largest port after New York and Philadelphia at the outbreak of the war, Houston ranked second after New York by 1948. Research and development evolved into a major industry.
The exploits of the fighting ship, the cruiser USS Houston, have seldom been equaled in the annals of Naval history. On January 7, 1927, a small group of Houston civic leaders formed the cruiser Houston Committee. The Mayor of Houston, Oscar F. Holcombe , named Col. Thomas H. Ball, a former congressman, as its chairman and Commodore William A. Bernreider and Brig. Gen. Maurice Hirsch among its members. The committee induced the Secretary of the Navy to name a cruiser in honor of the city of Houston. The USS Houston was launched at Newport News, Virginia and commissioned on June 5, 1930. During her lifetime she served as the Presidential Flagship and the Flagship of seventeen admirals.
After the Pearl Harbor tragedy, the Houston (as the flagship of Adm. Thomas C. Hart), sailed from the Philippine Islands, under secret orders to raid and destroy Japanese naval units, transports and shipping in the China Sea. On that mission the Houston inflicted heavy damage and destruction to many ships and to vital communications of the enemy and fought in a succession of viciously fought battles against overwhelming odds.
Finally, in the Battle of Sundra Strait (sometimes referred to as the Battle of Java) in February 1942, the Houston engaged in violent combat. With turret blown to bits, decks strewn with the dead and dying, fires aboard, most guns destroyed and all ammunition exhausted, the ship went down. Over 500 men were killed aboard the Houston, some two hundred drowned and some three hundred were captured by the Japanese.
Immediately after receiving the news of the fate of the cruiser Houston, the Secretary of the U.S. Navy, Col. Frank Knox, announced that a new ship named USS Houston II. A remarkable patriotic response occurred in Houston. On a call for volunteers to replace the men of the cruiser Houston killed or captured in the battle, 1,432 men of Houston and its surrounding areas volunteered for service and 1,000 of these were enlisted. In addition, at a rally to provide funds for the new cruiser, over 85 million dollars were subscribed, sufficient to pay for the USS Houston II with enough left over to pay for an aircraft carrier, later named the USS San Jacinto. The cruiser Houston II, following the valorous example of the first, was ordered to the Pacific and was later disabled in battle off Formosa.
A small bronze and marble historical marker at 1000 Main Street marks the site where the men of Houston and Texas volunteered to replace those lost on the first cruiser. A replica in miniature of the Houston is on display in the library of the University of Houston.