From August 17, 1941 to February 17, 1942, Lt. Robert B. Fulton corresponded regularly with his parents from aboard the heavy cruiser USS Houston (CA-30), which was sunk on February 28, 1942. After the sinking, the USS Houston’s surviving crew members were made prisoners of war. Fulton’s letters home written prior to the sinking make up the heart of this digital collection. It also includes homefront letters and documents, and cards made in a Japanese POW camp during Fulton’s captivity from 1942-1945.
Fulton’s letters home provide insight into the experience of a naval officer on the USS Houston during the build up to war in the Pacific, and during the conflict’s early months. Fulton describes daily activities on the ship, excursions and picnics, and the mounting tension in the area. Censorship prevents him from relaying the whereabouts or engagements of the ship. Equally interesting are the colorful greeting cards he received in POW camp.
Robert B. Fulton was born in Burlington, Vermont. He attended the U.S. Naval Academy from 1928 to 1932. Following his graduation, he served on various cruisers and destroyers. Fulton attended the Naval Postgraduate School and MIT, earning an M.S. in Marine Engineering in 1941. On August 28, 1941 he became Assistant Engineer of the Houston, flagship of the Asiatic Fleet.
Following the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 and the declaration of war on Japan by the United States, the USS Houston became part of the combined American-British-Dutch-Australian force (ABDA). On February 27, 1942, the ABDA fleet caught up with a large Japanese force. During the Battle of the Java Sea, the Japanese sunk the Dutch cruisers H.M. de Ruyter and H.M. Java and three destroyers.
On February 28, 1942, as the Houston and the HMAS Perth, an Australian light cruiser, attempted to leave the Java Sea, they encountered a Japanese force in what became known as the Battle of Sunda Strait. The Perth was sunk by four Japanese torpedoes, and the Houston was sunk shortly after. Of her 1068 crew members, 700 perished. The survivors were taken prisoner by the Japanese, most sent to prison camps in Burma to become slave labor for the Burma-Thai Railway.
Along with other officers, Fulton was sent to a POW Camp in Japan in June 1942 for interrogation. Fulton spent most of the duration of the war in Zentsuji POW Camp in Japan, where conditions were less harsh than those in Burma. He was liberated from Rokuroshi POW Camp in Japan on September 7, 1945.
Following the war, Fulton continued to serve in the U.S. Navy, reaching the rank of Rear Admiral. He has been an active participant in the USS Houston Survivors Association/Next Generations for over 60 years.
Source: Robert B. Fulton Collection, Veterans History Project, American Folklife Center, The Library of Congress