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United States Asiatic Fleet
USS Houston (CA-30)
The then-flagship of the Asiatic Fleet, the heavy cruiser USS Houston (CA-30), at Tsingtao, China, on 4 July 1933. She flies the four-star pennant of the fleet's commander-in-chief, Admiral Montgomery M. Taylor and is dressed overall for Independence Day.
Active 1902 - 1907; 1910 - 1942
Country United States
Branch United States Department of the Navy Seal.svg United States Navy
Type Naval fleet

Admiral Frank B. Upham, Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Asiatic Fleet, and his staff officers, ca. 1935.

The United States Asiatic Fleet was a fleet of the United States Navy during much of the first half of the 20th century. Preceding the World War II era, until 1942, the fleet protected the Philippine Islands. Much of the fleet was destroyed that year, after which it was dissolved and incorporated into the 7th Fleet.

The fleet was created when its predecessor, the Asiatic Squadron, was upgraded to fleet status in 1902. In early 1907, the fleet was downgraded to became the First Squadron of the United States Pacific Fleet. However, on 28 January 1910, the ships of that squadron were again organized as the Asiatic Fleet. Thus constituted, the Asiatic Fleet, based in the Philippine Islands, was organizationally independent of the Pacific Fleet, which was based on the United States West Coast until it moved to Pearl Harbor in the Territory of Hawaii in 1940.

Although much smaller than any other U.S. Navy fleet and indeed far smaller than what any navy generally considers to be a fleet, the Asiatic Fleet from 1916 was commanded by one of only four four-star admirals authorized in the U.S. Navy at the time. This reflected the prestige of the position of Asiatic Fleet commander-in-chief, who generally was more powerful and influential with regard to the affairs of the United States in China than was the American minister, or later United States Ambassador, to China.[1]

1902 — 1941

In 1904, all armored cruisers were withdrawn from the Far East. Gunboats patrolled the Yangtze River in the Yangtze Patrol.

In 1922, when the United States Atlantic Fleet was dissolved, the Asiatic Fleet was charged with defending the Philippines and Guam and with upholding the Open Door Policy in China.

In late July 1937 the Asiatic Fleet's commander-in-chief, Admiral Harry E. Yarnell, took his flagship, the heavy cruiser USS Augusta (CA-31), to the Soviet Union's main naval base in the Pacific, Vladivostok, along with four of the fleet's destroyers. The visit, urged by the Soviet government, was an attempt to display solidarity between the Soviet Union and the United States in the face of increasingly aggressive Japanese behavior in China and along the border between the Soviet Union and the Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo in Manchuria. The visit was unsuccessful in deterring further Japanese military operations in either area.[2]

World War II

On July 25, 1939,[3] Admiral Thomas C. Hart was appointed the commander-in-chief of the fleet. It was based at Cavite Naval Base and Olongapo Naval Station on Luzon, with its headquarters at the Marsman Building in Manila. On 22 July 1941, the Mariveles Naval Base was completed and the Asiatic Fleet began to use it as well.

Hart had permission to withdraw to the Indian Ocean, in the event of war with Japan, at his discretion.

Hart's submarines, commanded by Commander, Submarines, Asiatic Fleet (COMSUBAF) Captain John E. Wilkes with six elderly "S"-class submarines (and submarine tender Canopus)[4] and seven Porpoises (in Submarine Squadron 5, SubRon 5),[5] In October 1941, 12 Salmons or Sargos—in Captain Stuart "Sunshine" Murray's Submarine Division 15 {SubDiv 15} and Captain Joseph A. Connolly's SubDiv 16, as SubRon 2—accompanied by the tender Holland, were added. Walter E. "Red" Doyle was assigned as Wilkes' relief.[6] Hart's defensive plan relied heavily on his submarines, which were believed to be "the most lethal arm of the insignificant Asiatic Fleet",[5] to interdict the Japanese and whittle down their forces prior to a landing, and to disrupt attempts at reinforcing after the landings took place.[7] When war began, Doyle's inexperience in Asian waters meant Wilkes remained de facto COMSUBAS.[6]

Problems were encountered almost from the beginning. No defensive minefields were laid.[8] Ineffective and unrealistic peace time training, inadequate (or nonexistent) defensive plans, poor deployments, and defective torpedoes combined to make submarine operations in defense of the Philippines a foregone conclusion.[8] No boats were placed in Lingayen Gulf, widely expected to be where the Japanese would land;[9] in the event, several S-boats, aggressively handled, scored successes there.[10] Nor were any boats off ports of Japanese-held Formosa, despite more than a week's warning of impending hostilities.[9] Successes were few in the early days of the war.[11]

Chinese Detachment

Between 1901 and 1937, the United States military maintained a strong presence in China to maintain Far East trade interests and to pursue a permanent alliance with the Chinese Republic, after long diplomatic difficulties with the Chinese Empire. The relationship between the U.S. and China was mostly on-again off-again, with periods of both cordial diplomatic relations accompanied by times of severed relations and violent anti-United States protests.

In the 1920s and 1930s, the Asiatic Fleet was based from China, and a classic image of the "China Sailor" developed, as a large number of U.S. Navy members would remain at postings in China for 10–12 years then retire and continue to live in the country. The classic film The Sand Pebbles is a dramatization on the life of the China Sailors.

The U.S. military also created several awards and decorations to recognize those personnel who had performed duty in China. The China Service Medal, China Campaign Medal, Yangtze Service Medal, and the China Relief Expedition Medal were all military medals which could be presented to those who had performed duty in China.

With the approach of World War II, the U.S. military in China was slowly withdrawn to protect other U.S. interests in the Pacific. With the rise of Communist China, there was no further U.S. military presence in mainland China, a status which continues to this day.

Early in November 1941, the Navy Department ordered Hart to withdraw the fleet's Marines and gunboats stationed in China. Five of the gunboats were moved to Manila, Wake was left with a skeleton crew as a radio base and was seized by the Japanese on 8 December and Tutuila was transferred to the Republic of China Navy under Lend-Lease.

The majority of the 4th Marine Regiment was stationed at Shanghai, and other detachments were at Peking (Beijing) and Tientsin (Tianjin). These troops were loaded onto two President class liners on 27–28 November (at either Shanghai or Chinwangtao (Qinghuangdao) and arrived in the Philippines on 30 November-1 December.

President Harrison returned to Chinwangtao, to move the remaining Marines, but was captured by the Japanese on 7 December. Those Marines which had reached the Philippines were tasked with defending the naval stations, particularly Mariveles Naval Base.


Manila and Subic Bays (in support of the Harbor Defenses) were mined by the Asiatic Fleet, stationed in Manila Bay. These minefields were designed to stop all vessels, except for submarines and shallow-draft surface craft.

Vessels of the Asiatic Fleet and the 16th Naval District — 8 December 1941

The Asiatic Fleet and the 16th Naval District possessed:

Also stationed at Cavite Naval Base was the Offshore Patrol.

Aircraft of the Asiatic Fleet — 8 December 1941

The aviation elements of the Asiatic Fleet comprised Patrol Wing 10,[13] with two patrol squadrons (VPs or PatRons), a utility unit, and the aviation units aboard the Fleet's two cruisers and the large seaplane tender Langley.

Patrol Wing 10 had been commissioned in December 1940, and included Patrol Squadrons 101 (VP 101) and 102 (VP 102), each equipped with fourteen Consolidated PBY-4 flying boats. By Mid-1941, these 28 PBYs were numbered 1 through 14 for VP 101, 16 through 29 for VP 102. The Utility Unit included Grumman J2F Duck amphibians (1 J2F-2 and 4 J2F-4s), as well as five new OS2U-2 Kingfisher floatplanes, delivered in the late summer. Also, a number of Curtiss SOC Seagull floatplanes were present. Houston carried four, Marblehead two, and Langley two or three, and two more were under repair or in storage at the Aircraft Overhaul Shop (Shop X 34) at Cavite Navy Yard.

As of 8 December, PBYs of Patrol Wing 10 patrolled the northwest and northeast of Luzon daily. These flights were based at either NAS Sangley Point, the Navy's auxiliary seaplane station at Olongapo on Subic Bay, or seaplane tender Childs in Manila Bay. Trios of PBYs rotated down to the southern islands to base on William B. Preston at Malalag Bay on Davao Gulf, Mindanao. These patrols over the Philippine Sea to the east bordered with similar patrols flown by Royal Netherlands Naval Air Service flying boats based in the Netherlands East Indies. Seaplane tender Heron, with a detachment of four OS2U-2s from the Utility Unit, ran morning and evening patrols from Port Ciego, Balabac Island, over the strategically important Balabac Straits from 4–13 December.

Early in the morning of 8 December, Preston dispatched one aircraft on patrol and a short time later was attacked by aircraft from the small Japanese carrier Ryūjō, and her other two PBYs were sunk on the water.

Patrol Wing 10 was ordered south into the Netherlands East Indies on 12 December, when the collapsing defenses of the islands made further operations untenable. Within the first 90 days of the war, Patrol Wing 10 had fallen back to Perth, Western Australia, being reinforced by VP 22 from Hawaii but losing 43 of 45 PBYs—all but four lost to enemy action—together with Langley.

  • PBY-4 (28. Added: 12 PBY-5s from VP 22 and 5 ex-Dutch Catalinas in January)
  • J2F-2 or -4 (4)
  • OS2U-2 (5)
  • SOC-1 or -2 / SON (10-12)

Asiatic Fleet components — 8 December 1941

Asiatic Fleet Headquarters, ashore from mid-1941 at the Marsman Building on the Manila waterfront. The Fleet flagship, Houston, was assigned to lead Task Force 5 (TF 5).

TF 4, Asiatic Fleet: Patrol Wing 10, seaplane tenders, and aviation resources.

TF 5, Asiatic Fleet: surface strike forces, including cruisers and Destroyer Squadron 29 (DesRon 29).

TF 6, Asiatic Fleet: submarines force, including all submarines, tenders and rescue ships.

TF 7, Asiatic Fleet: patrol force, including gunboats Tulsa and Asheville.

4th Marine Regiment

Commandant 16th Naval District (COM16): The Cavite Navy Yard and all the shore establishment on Luzon, including the radio station, ammunition depot, hospital, Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron THREE, naval air station, mine depot, and similar facilities on Corregidor,at Mariveles, Bataan, and Olongpago, on Subic Bay.

The historic Yangtze Patrol was concluded in early December 1941. Of the five remaining gunboats, Tutuila remained at Chungking, Wake was in reduced commission at Shanghai as a radio station for the U.S. State Department, and ComYangPat sailed in Luzon with Oahu for Manila, joined by Mindanao.

Battles Fought by the Asiatic Fleet — early 1942

As the Japanese sought sources of oil and minerals in the Netherlands East Indies and Borneo immediately following Pearl Harbor, the only fleet available to defend against them was the Asiatic Fleet. Outnumbered, outgunned, outmanned, the U.S. Navy, part of the ABDA (American, British, Dutch and Australian) force was unable to stop the Japanese, and could only attempt to slow them down.

Battle of Balikpapan — 24 January 1942

Catching a Japanese invasion fleet of 16 transports, a cruiser and several destroyers anchored in Balikpapan Bay, four U.S. "four stacker" destroyers—John D. Ford, Pope, Paul Jones and Parrott—attacked at night using torpedoes and gunfire to sink four transports and one patrol craft. The Japanese believed that the attack came from submarines, and sent cruiser and destroyers out to sea in pursuit, leaving the transports unprotected. This was the first surface action of the Pacific War and the first since the Spanish-American War. Although it significantly boosted morale, it had a negligible effect on Japanese operations.[14]

Battle of Flores Sea — 4 February 1942

Encouraged by the success of the Balikpapan raid, an attempt was made to break up another invasion when word was received that a Japanese force was planning a landing at Makassar on Celebes Island.

Planning a night attack, the ABDA force had to sail some distance on open water in daylight. It was attacked by Japanese bombers which severely damaged the light cruiser Marblehead and disabled turret #3 on the heavy cruiser Houston. The force retreated to Tjilatjap, Java, having failed to prevent the Japanese landing.

Battle of Badung Strait — February 19/20, 1942

In an effort to break up another invasion, a small force of ABDA ships arrived on the island of Bali after the Japanese had made their landing and had retired, leaving only four Japanese destroyers on station. This attack failed. Three Japanese destroyers were damaged by gunfire, but the Dutch destroyer Piet Hein was sunk and a Dutch and American destroyer were damaged.[15]

Battle of Java Sea — 27 February 1942

This was the largest battle fought in the area. The ABDA force of five cruisers and 11 destroyers, led by Dutch Admiral Doorman[16] sailed against a Japanese force of seven cruisers and 25 destroyers. The Japanese had air cover, while ABDA did not (nor in any of the other battles described here). It was a rout, fought during the afternoon and evening, a running gun battle with Japanese planes constantly dropping flares to illuminate the ABDA ships. The Dutch lost two cruisers and a destroyer, the British two destroyers. One Japanese destroyer was damaged.[17]

Battle of Sunda Strait — 28 February 1942

Retreating south to Batavia after the Battle of Java Sea the day before, the U.S. cruiser Houston and the Australian light cruiser HMAS Perth—while heading at high speed for Sunda Strait, between Sumatra and Java—came upon a Japanese invasion force making a landing in Bantam (now Banten) Bay. In a confused night battle, both ships were sunk inside the Bay and not in Sunda Strait as is usually written. The two Allied ships fought bravely, but were overwhelmed by superior numbers. Four of the Japanese transports were torpedoed, most likely by their own side. The Japanese fired 87 torpedoes in the first half hour of the battle.[18]

Half the U.S. Fleet lost

Of the 40 surface vessels in the Asiatic Fleet on Pearl Harbor Day, 19 were sunk by 5 May 1942, the day General Wainwright surrendered to the Japanese at Corregidor in the Philippines. Most of the surviving ships safely reached Australia.


After the defeats in the defense of the Philippine Commonwealth and the Dutch East Indies, the remaining vessels retreated to Australia. They would fall under the command of the South West Pacific Area which would establish the 7th Fleet in 1943.

Commanders-in-Chief, Asiatic Fleet

The commanders-in-chief of the Asiatic Fleet were:[19]

Rear Admiral Robley D. Evans 29 October 1902 21 March 1904
Rear Admiral Philip H. Cooper 21 March 1904 11 July 1904
Rear Admiral Yates Stirling 11 July 1904 23 March 1905
Rear Admiral William M. Folger 23 March 1905 30 March 1905
Rear Admiral Charles J. Train 30 March 1905 4 August 1906
Rear Admiral Willard H. Brownson `15 October 1906 31 March 1907
Asiatic Fleet abolished,
became First Squadron,
United States Pacific Fleet
Early 1907
Asiatic Fleet reestablished 28 January 1910
Rear Admiral John Hubbard 19 February 1910 16 May 1911
Rear Admiral Joseph B. Murdock 16 May 1911 24 July 1912
Rear Admiral Reginald F. Nicholson 24 July 1912 3 May 1914
Rear Admiral Walter C. Cowles 3 May 1914 9 July 1915
Rear Admiral Albert G. Winterhalter 9 July 1915 4 April 1917
Rear Admiral Austin M. Knight 22 May 1917 7 December 1918
Vice Admiral William Ledyard Rodgers 7 December 1918 1 September 1919
Admiral Albert Gleaves 1 September 1919 4 February 1921
Admiral Joseph Strauss 4 February 1921 28 August 1922
Admiral Edwin A. Anderson, Jr. 28 August 1922 11 October 1923
Admiral Thomas Washington 11 October 1923 14 October 1925
Admiral Clarence S. Williams 14 October 1925 9 September 1927
Admiral Mark L. Bristol 9 September 1927 9 September 1929
Admiral Charles B. McVay, Jr. 9 September 1929 1 September 1931
Admiral Montgomery M. Taylor 1 September 1931 18 August 1933
Admiral Frank B. Upham 18 August 1933 4 October 1935
Admiral Orin G. Murfin 4 October 1935 30 October 1936
Admiral Harry E. Yarnell 30 October 1936 25 July 1939
Admiral Thomas C. Hart 25 July 1939 14 February 1942

See also


  1. Foreword by Kemp Tolley in Winslow, p. xii.
  2. Russell, Richard A., Project Hula: Secret Soviet-American Cooperation in the War Against Japan, Washington, D.C.: Naval Historical Center, 1997, ISBN 0-945274-35-1, p. 3.
  3. Leutze, James (1981). A Different Kind of Victory: A Biography of Admiral Thomas C. Hart. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press. pp. 146–147. ISBN 0-87021-056-4. 
  4. Blair, Silent Victory (Bantam, 1976), p.77.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Blair, p.77.
  6. 6.0 6.1 Blair, p.82.
  7. Roscoe, Theodore, United States Submarine Operations in World War II (Annapolis, 1949), pp.23-24.
  8. 8.0 8.1 Blair, pp.156-160.
  9. 9.0 9.1 Blair, p.158.
  10. Blair, pp.127-156
  11. Stern, Robert C., U.S. Subs in Action ( Squadron/Signal Publications, 1979), p.5.
  12. Blair, p.82fn2.
  13. Alsleben, Allan (1999-2000). "US Patrol Wing 10 in the Dutch East Indies, 1942". Dutch East Indies Campaign website. 
  14. Muir, Dan (1999-2000). "The Balikpapan Raid". Forgotten Campaign: The Dutch East Indies Campaign 1941-1942. 
  15. L, Klemen (1999-2000). "The Badung Strait Battle". Forgotten Campaign: The Dutch East Indies Campaign 1941-1942. 
  16. L, Klemen (1999-2000). "Rear-Admiral Karel W.F.M. Doorman". Forgotten Campaign: The Dutch East Indies Campaign 1941-1942. 
  17. L, Klemen (1999-2000). "The Java Sea Battle". Forgotten Campaign: The Dutch East Indies Campaign 1941-1942. 
  18. Visser, Jan (1999-2000). "The Sunda Strait Battle". Forgotten Campaign: The Dutch East Indies Campaign 1941-1942. 
  19. Tolley, Kemp, Yangtze Patrol: The U.S. Navy in China, Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 1971, ISBN 1-55750-883-6, p. 318.


  • Blair, Clay, Jr. Silent Victory. New York: Bantam, 1976.
  • Gleaves, Albert. The Admiral: The Memoirs of Albert Gleaves, Admiral, USN. Hope Publishing, 1985.
  • Winslow, W. G. The Fleet the Gods Forgot: The U.S. Asiatic Fleet in World War II. Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 1982.

External links

Further reading

  • James D. Hornfischer, Ship of Ghosts: The Story of the USS Houston, FDR's Legendary Lost Cruiser, and the Epic Saga of Her Survivors.
  • Robert W. Love History of the U.S. Navy
  • Kemp Tolley Cruise of the Lanakai
  • Dwight R. Messimer In The Hands of Fate

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