Commemorating the 70th Anniversary of the Torpedoing of the USS Houston and Remembering a Father
On October 14, 1944 the USS Houston became the first major ship attacked by Japanese pilots off the coast of Formosa, what is now called Taiwan. The USS Houston left for combat in April 1944 joining Task Force 58, the main striking force in the US Navy in the Pacific Theater. The boat and its crew participated in shore bombardments and covered landings of the island hopping campaign across the Pacific including the Marianas, Roto, Guam, Iwo Jima, Chichi Jima, Philippines, Anguar, Luzon, Mindanao, Leyte, and Samar.
It was just after sunset on October 14, 1944 that the USS Houston’s was struck by a Japanese torpedo after successfully shooting down three of the four attacking planes. The ship was immediately dead in the water without power. During this time, the typical protocol was for the crew to abandon ship and let the vessel sink. The USS Houston was leaning over in the water, and the men were ordered to evacuate the ship.
The vast majority of the crew of 992 survived, but 4 officers and 51 enlisted perished. The Japanese reported that the USS Houston had sunk resulting in newspaper headlines describing that success on the Japanese Home Front. But in fact, the crew of the ship refused to let the USS Houston sink, and over 700 hundred of the crewmen and 33 of the officers were transferred to accompanying US ships and the ship was stabilized to tow. The boat was towed to Ulithi by USS Boston and USS Pawnee and eventually made its way to Brooklyn, New York for repairs that were completed just after the war’s end in 1945. The ship received 3 battle stars for its service during World War II.
To commemorate the 70th Anniversary of this event and to fulfill the last wishes of one of the USS Houston’s crew members, daughter Lori Besselman and son Frank Monte of Jim “J.I.” Monte will be taking a voyage to the coast of Taiwan to put the ashes of their father at rest where he lost his crew.
Born in 1925 J.I., a New Orleans native, joined the US Navy in September 1942 at the age of 17 after much fight with his father to sign for his underage enlistment. After becoming temporarily blind while working as a Welder-Burner at the Delta Shipbuilding Corporation in New Orleans, his family decided they might as well send him to war before he got killed in the shipyard. He served in New Orleans until he was 18 when he signed on for duty. He traveled to Norfolk, Virginia for training and joined as a plank member, the first crew, of the crew of the USS Houston in December 1943.
During the torpedoing by the Japanese on October 14, 1944, J.I. sprained his ankle due to the deck heaving up on the high side of the ship. Because of his injury, J.I. was thrown overboard by his shipmates where he was able to swim to a life raft. He spent the night in the raft with others from the ship before they were picked the following destroyer USS Grayson.
On October 17 J.I. transferred to the cruiser USS Birmingham, and the following day, October 18, he transferred to the escort carrier, USS Rudyerd Bay. The Rudyerd Bay transported him to Ulithi Atoll. There he boarded the USS Typhoon and traveled to Pearl Harbor. Upon arrival in Pearl Harbor, the Typhoon received a welcome by Admiral Nimitz and the Navy Band playing “Anchors Aweigh.” Jim described the scene as well as quite comical because the USS Houston survivors received the welcome while wearing nothing but their undergarments, boxers and undershirts. When the crewmembers were evacuated they were only given those items to wear.
After returning from the Pacific Theater in December 1944, J.I. was stationed at the Alameda Naval Air Station outside of Oakland, California for the remainder of the war. It was here where he met his wife Verna, who was from Iowa, while riding the trolley. Verna was also working at the Naval Air Station painting instrument dials on planes. In July 1945 the couple married, and they ventured back to J.I.’s hometown of New Orleans upon his discharge in October 1945. Together they had 5 children.
From his time in the Navy to working for the US Treasury and the US Customs Department, J.I. accumulated over 40 years of services to the government. When he retired at the age of 65, he stayed active by volunteering and serving as the Gate Chairmen for the Destrehan Plantation Festival. Alongside his wife Verna, he delivered hot meals to people living with AIDS through the New Orleans AIDS Task Force multiple times a week.
Like many WWII veterans, he didn’t talk much about his experience in war until later in life. His wife Verna described that “as he got older, the time he spent in the service became more important to him.” From that time, he became more involved with the Houston Association and hosted a reunion for the ship in New Orleans at the Westin Hotel in 1997 with at least 150 survivors and their families in attendance. He even began proudly wearing a WWII Veterans Cap that was purchased from the Museum’s gift shop. It honored him greatly to receive words of gratitude from people both young and old for his service to our country. In 2010, he received another great honor from Governor Bobby Jindal when he was awarded the Louisiana Veterans Medal of Honor for his service during WWII. Jim “J.I.” Monte passed away on January 18, 2012.
The children of Jim, Lori and Frank, are excited to have made this venture to Asia to fulfill their father’s wishes. They grew up with him saying, “I want my ashes to be in the South China Sea,” and now they have made that wish come true.