Albert H. Rooks receives the Medal of Honor on June 24, 1942.

  • By Duane Colt Denfeld, Ph.D.
  • Posted 9/25/2014
  • Essay 10926

On June 24, 1942, Captain Albert H. Rooks (1891-1942) is awarded the Medal of Honor while missing in action, and Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox (1874-1944) presents the award to Captain Rooks's son, Harold R. Rooks (1922-2012). The award recognizes Captain Rooks's heroic actions during the period of February 4 to February 27, 1942. Captain Rooks commanded the heavy cruiser USS Houston. The Houston fought gallantly against much larger and more powerful Japanese naval and air forces. On March 1, 1942, it was sunk in the Sunda Strait by enemy torpedo and naval gunfire. In April 1943, Captain Albert H. Rooks will be declared killed in action, and his widow will receive the Medal of Honor. Captain Rooks grew up in Walla Walla and lived in Seattle. He demonstrated great skill in naval tactics guiding effective antiaircraft fire and ship maneuvering. 

Joining the Navy

Albert H. Rooks was born on the family homestead in Colton, Washington. The Rookses were pioneer Whitman County farmers. The family left the farm when his father, Albert Rooks (1859-1932), became a Deputy United States Marshall. Albert H. Rooks attended Walla Walla High School. He entered the United States Naval Academy in July 1910, and graduated June 6, 1914. In his early career, he served on a number of ships, including the USS West Virginia and USS St. Louis. Albert H. Rooks also had submarine duty. In 1919 he went aboard the submarine H-4 in San Pedro, California. During the period 1921 to 1925 he was assigned to the Twelfth Naval District, San Francisco.

In 1922 Lieutenant Commander Rooks married Edith Redfield (1893-1970) of Seattle. They moved from naval base to naval base, but managed to visit Seattle regularly. On July 1, 1940, he was promoted to captain. Edith and their youngest son visited Albert at Pearl Harbor in the spring of 1941 after he had learned he would go to sea. On August 30, 1941, he assumed command of the heavy cruiser USS Houston. Edith returned to Seattle and their Tudor style house at 705 McGilvra Boulevard, Seattle, which was their permanent home. Captain Rooks already had served for 27 years and expected to come home after the war. Edith R. Rooks later lived in the home for many years.

"The Galloping Ghost of the Java Sea"

Captain Rooks' bravery and incredible skills were recognized in his Medal of Honor award. His heroic actions took place during the period of February 4, 1942, to February 27, 1942, while commanding the USS Houston. The Houston in early 1942 joined the Allied American-British-Dutch-Australian naval force at Surabaya, Indonesia. It was later given the nickname "the Galloping Ghost of the Java Sea" since it was reported sunk so many times.

On February 4, 1942, as part of an Allied naval force, the Houston advanced toward a Japanese invasion force at Balikpapan, Indonesia. During the advance, the Allied forces came under aerial attack. Japanese bombers made multiple attacks and heavily damaged the Houston's number three turret. Captain Rooks displayed cool and smart defense during the repeated attacks. He returned to port but the turret could not be repaired, leaving the ship one turret short.

On February 15, 1942, the Houston sailed from Darwin, Australia, to escort a convoy taking troop reinforcements to Timor. The convoy came under Japanese aerial attack. Captain Rooks was familiar with Japan's bombing techniques and made sharp turns while his antiaircraft guns fired heavy barrages. The attackers were driven off and there was no serious damage to the ship. The convoy continued for Timor but was ordered back to Darwin, reaching the port on February 18. Receiving an intelligence report of a major Japanese invasion force approaching Java, the Allied naval force planned an operation to destroy the enemy forces.

On February 26, 1942, four cruisers and 10 destroyers sailed to intercept a more powerful Japanese force in the Java Sea. The Battle of the Java Sea started on the afternoon of February 27. Both forces fought a bloody surface engagement, with the Allied forces suffering heavy losses. The Dutch navy suffered the greatest loss. The Houston, with two functioning turrets, was able to hit an enemy cruiser, but it also took hits. Captain Rooks received orders to slip away to Batavia and reached that port early afternoon February 28. The Houston refueled and departed at dusk. The HMAS Perth and USS Houston sailed into Sunda Strait and found themselves trapped by a large Japanese naval force. The Houston fought for hours and damaged three destroyers and sank a minesweeper.

During the battle the Houston was hit by naval gunfire and torpedoes. The Perth took repeated hits and sank shortly after midnight. Turret two on the Houston was hit and exploded with heavy casualties. On March 1, 1942, 30 minutes after midnight, Captain Albert H. Rooks gave the order to abandon ship and he was hit by gunfire and killed. The USS Houston sank 10 minutes later, killing about 700 crew members. The survivors were captured and taken to Japanese prison camps. Twenty-six of the ship's survivors died in captivity.

The Medal of Honor 

On June 24, 1942, at the Navy Department, Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox presented the Medal of Honor for Captain Albert Rooks to his son, Harold R. Rooks. Harold Rooks was a junior and Reserve Officer Training Corps (R.O.T.C.) cadet at Harvard University. Captain Rooks had been declared missing in action in April. Harold Rooks graduated on May 27, 1943, and was commissioned an ensign. He served as a gunnery officer on the USS New Orleans. After the war he attended Harvard Law School and became an attorney in Seattle.

During 1942, Edith R. Rooks received letters from navy officers that suggested that her husband was alive and a prisoner of war. However, in April 1943, Captain Rooks was declared killed in action. With the change of his status to killed in action, the Medal of Honor was then awarded posthumously to his widow. Edith Rooks actively supported naval events including navy relief activities. She sponsored the USS Breton, an escort carrier built at Todd Pacific Shipyards in Seattle.

In June 2014, divers from the United States Navy and from Indonesia examined the Houston. They recorded its condition and looked for evidence of looting, as illegally acquired artifacts from the ship had shown up.  

Remembering Albert H. Rooks

On June 6, 1944, Edith R. Rooks, widow of Captain Rooks, christened a destroyer launched at the Todd Pacific Shipyards. Albert H. Rooks Jr. (1929-1993), at the time a student at Lakeside School in Seattle, assisted. The destroyer was named the USS Rooks in honor of the Medal of Honor recipient and naval hero. The Rooks served in the Pacific and saw considerable action in the battle for Okinawa. It earned three battle stars in World War II and two more in the Korean War. The destroyer was transferred to Chile in July 1962, and scrapped in 1983.

In 1956, a park in Walla Walla, Washington was dedicated in memory of Captain Albert H. Rooks. It was named Rooks Park to honor the hometown hero.


Donald K. and Helen L. Ross, Washington State Men Of Valor (Burley, Washington: Coffee Break Press, 1980); James D. Hornfischer, Ship of Ghosts: The Story of the U.S.S. Houston, FDR’s Legendary Lost Cruiser, and the Epic Saga of Her Survivors (New York: Bantam Books, 2006); "Whitman County Boy Had Great Honor," Pullman Herald, October 17, 1919, p.7; "Dinner Honors Lieut. Rooks," Seattle Star, January 11, 1922, p. 10; "Lost Cruiser Chief From Northwest," The Oregonian, March 15, 1942, p. 14; "Wife Retains Hope Houston Captain Lives," The Seattle Daily Times, March 15, 1942, p. 9; "Destroyer Is Named Rooks," Ibid, June 7, 1944, p. 8; "Memorial Rites Scheduled for Edith Rooks, War Widow," Ibid, August 27, 1970, p. 58.
Note: This essay was corrected on August 13, 2016.

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