Chief Machinist’s Mate Thomas H. Marvel (1902–1942)

Thomas Marvel (Courtesy of the Delaware Public Archives)
Home StateOccupation
DelawareCareer sailor
BranchService Number
U.S. Navy2431905
TheaterShip
PacificU.S.S. Houston (CA-30)
AwardsCampaigns/Battles
Purple HeartBattles of Makassar Strait, Java Sea, and Sunda Strait

Early Life & Family

Thomas Henry Marvel was born at 1127 Brandywine Street in Wilmington, Delaware, on November 10, 1902. He was the second son of William Ford Marvel (1858–1923) and Margaret A. Marvel (née Smith, 1878–1956). Marvel had an older brother and two younger brothers. He was Methodist. 

Marvel was recorded on the census on April 15, 1910, living at 420 Taylor Street in Wilmington. His father was working as a fireman at a flour mill. The family was recorded there again on the next census, taken on January 2, 1920. The elder Marvel was listed as a laborer in a machine shop, while the 17-year-old Thomas H. Marvel’s occupation was listed as machinist helper.  


Thomas Marvel (Courtesy of the Delaware Public Archives)

Prewar Navy Career

Marvel’s mother provided the State of Delaware Public Archives Commission with a transcript of her son’s career. It stated that Marvel enlisted in the U.S. Navy on June 25, 1926. After one month of training at the U.S. Naval Training Station, Newport, Rhode Island, Machinist’s Mate 3rd Class Marvel joined the crew of the repair ship U.S.S. Vestal (AR-4) on August 1, 1926. In 1927, Vestal was assigned to the Pacific Fleet, then based in San Diego, California. Marvel was promoted to machinist’s mate 2nd class on September 10, 1928, and to machinist’s mate 1st class on January 1, 1929. Machinist’s Mate 1st Class Marvel was honorably discharged on June 26, 1930, but reenlisted at the same rating in Philadelphia on July 2, 1930.

Marvel was listed on the census taken on April 11, 1930, as living at 13 East 25th Street in Wilmington as a government machinist as of April 1, 1930. His stepfather, Charles W. Vickers, was living with Marvel’s mother and three brothers at that address. His mother’s records indicate that Marvel was still with the U.S.S. Vestal at that point, so it seems that he was listed there because it was considered his permanent address.

Marvel’s mother wrote that her son served aboard the newly commissioned Northampton-class heavy cruiser U.S.S. Houston (CA-30) beginning on August 9, 1930. He sailed aboard the cruiser during its journey from New York through the Panama Canal to the Philippine Islands. Marvel departed the Houston on June 19, 1934, and was honorably discharged in Philadelphia on June 29, 1934. He reenlisted in Washington, D.C., on July 2, 1934. Machinist’s Mate 1st Class Marvel served aboard the New Orleans-class heavy cruiser U.S.S. Tuscaloosa (CA-37) from August 17, 1934 – May 20, 1938. Tuscaloosa was based in the Pacific from April 1935 until early 1939.

Marvel was honorably discharged again in Washington, D.C., on June 21, 1938, but reenlisted there on July 6, 1938. That same day, he joined the crew of the Clemson-class destroyer U.S.S. Dahlgren (DD-187), based on the East Coast. He was promoted to chief machinist’s mate on November 16, 1938. He left the Dahlgren on January 16, 1939, at New York, joining the crew of the Somers-class destroyer U.S.S. Jouett on January 25, 1939. Originally based in the Atlantic, on April 10, 1940, Jouett arrived at Pearl Harbor.

U.S.S. Houston (U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command)

Marvel’s mother wrote that on July 9, 1940, Chief Machinist’s Mate Marvel extended his enlistment for another three years. That same day, he rejoined the crew of the U.S.S. Houston at Pearl Harbor. Shortly thereafter, Houston returned to the Philippines. A new commanding officer, Captain Albert Harold Rooks (1891–1942), assumed command on August 30, 1941.


World War II

Houston was the most powerful vessel in the Asiatic Fleet, though with neither battleships nor aircraft carriers, the Asiatic Fleet was considerably weaker than either the U.S. Pacific or Atlantic Fleets. Moreover, the Asiatic Fleet was totally outclassed by what the Imperial Japanese Navy would soon bring to bear against the western Pacific. As a result, when the Pacific War broke out (in the Philippines, the date was December 8, 1941), most of the Asiatic Fleet’s surface units headed south.

Houston joined a task force composed of American, British, Australian, and Dutch vessels under the overall command of Dutch Rear Admiral Karel Doorman (1889–1942). Their primary mission was the defense of the Dutch East Indies (modern Indonesia). The fleet attempted to attack a Japanese convoy bound for Makassar but came under attack by Japanese bombers in the Flores Sea near the Kangean Islands on February 4, 1942. In his book, Ship of Ghosts, James D. Hornfischer wrote:

A master ship handler, the fifty-year old skipper had an intuitive sense of his cruiser’s gait. He was expert in dodging the bombs that fluttered earthward in the midmorning sun, never hesitating to stretch the limits of the engineering plant or test the skill and endurance of the throttlemen and water tenders and machinists, who gamely kept pace with the sudden engine orders and speed changes, risking the destruction of their delicate machinery by the slightest misstep. […] Rooks maneuvered his cruiser like none the crew had ever seen, accelerating and slowing, ordering “crashbacks” that wrenched his engines from full ahead straight into full astern, thus steering not only by rudder but counterturning the propeller screws, the starboard pair surging ahead while the port pulled astern.

Houston evaded all one bomb. That direct hit, however, wrecked her aft gun turret, killed 48 men, and wounded another 20. Crewmembers flooded the aft magazine, preventing a catastrophic explosion. Another American cruiser, U.S.S. Marblehead (CL-12), was damaged and the Allied fleet withdrew without ever sighting the Japanese convoy.

Captain Albert H. Rooks c. 1940, shortly before he took command of the Houston (Official U.S. Navy photo, U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command)

Houston’s damage would have required major repairs at a shipyard. That she remained in combat was a measure of the desperate situation in the southwest Pacific. The cruiser came under air attack again while escorting a convoy to Timor in mid-February 1942. The ship avoided further damage, though the convoy was ordered to turn back.

At the end of February, the main body of the Allied fleet, including Houston, sortied from Surabaya to intercept Japanese forces bound for Java. The Battle of the Java Sea, beginning the afternoon of February 27, 1942, was a disaster for the Allies. They lost two light cruisers and three destroyers while inflicting only minor damage on the Japanese. The Allied flagship, the Dutch light cruiser H.N.L.M.S. De Ruyter, was sunk and Admiral Doorman killed.

U.S.S. Houston (U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command)

The Houston sustained only minor damage in the battle, and together with an Australian light cruiser, H.M.A.S. Perth (D29), withdrew to Tanjung Priok in northwest Java, arriving on February 28, 1942. Both ships had expended much of their ammunition during the Battle of the Java Sea. Little fuel and ammunition was available in port, although Houston’s crew was able to move some shells from the aft magazine to the forward ones. That same day, the cruisers were ordered to sail to Tjilatjap in south-central Java.

That night, the two cruisers were passing through Bantam Bay (Banten Bay) on the way to transit the Sunda Strait, when they chanced upon a Japanese invasion fleet. Ironically, this was the very kind of target that the Allies had repeatedly attempted to attack but been repulsed each time. Unfortunately, the two cruisers were no match for the convoy’s escorts.

Around 2315 hours on the night of February 28, 1942, the cruisers encountered a Japanese destroyer. Both sides were caught by surprise and a frantic fight began, which would come to be known as the Battle of the Sunda Strait. The Allied cruisers found themselves sailing directly between the Japanese transports and their escorts. The odds were impossible. Such was the mismatch in firepower that the Japanese did more damage to their own ships than the Allied cruisers did; as many as five Japanese ships were sunk or heavily damaged by torpedoes fired at Houston and Perth.

In Ship of Ghosts, James D. Hornfischer wrote:

The men of the Houston’s engineering department had all the work they could handle keeping their complex machinery from yielding to the violent shakedown the cruiser’s helmsman and gunners were giving it. Changes in speed, sudden course adjustments, the impact of hits delivered and received—all conspired against the orderly operation of a steam-driven power plant. […] Machinist’s mates stay busy working thirty-odd pumps to meet the plant’s rapidly fluctuating water demands.

Hornfischer continued:

“We were making full power,” Lt. Robert Fulton recalled. “The throttle was wide open. We were rolling along and the machinery in this one engine room was working just fine.” Around 12:15 A.M., the ship took a grievous hit aft on the starboard side. [In the forward engineer room,] Fulton felt a slight tremor, and no more. Others felt it more heavily, though no one could ever quite tell whether it was a torpedo hit or a salvo of heavy projectiles. Whatever it was shattered the after engine room.

Perth succumbed first to the avalanche of shells and torpedoes fired at the two cruisers. Around 0015 hours on March 1, 1942, Houston’s aft engine room was destroyed by a direct hit. Houston’s men continued to fight even after enemy fire knocked out one of its forward turrets and both forward magazines for her main batteries were flooded, even after the secondary batteries began to fire star shells after running out of other kinds of ammunition. Captain Rooks finally ordered his crew to abandon ship shortly before he was killed by a Japanese shell around 0030 hours on March 1, 1942.

It is possible that Chief Mechanist’s Mate Marvel met his death when the aft engine room was destroyed, though it is unknown whether he was stationed there. Of Houston’s crew of 1,061 men, as many as 500 or so were able to abandon ship. Some drowned or were carried by powerful currents through the Sunda Strait and into the Indian Ocean, where they died of thirst or exposure. 368 men survived to become prisoners of the Japanese, but Chief Mechanist’s Mate Marvel was not among them.

Houston’s survivors endured unspeakable conditions as prisoners of war. Only 291 were still alive at war’s end. In the months after the sinking, 1,000 men, known as the Houston Volunteers, enlisted in the U.S. Navy to avenge the destruction of the ship. In 1943, the U.S. Navy commissioned another U.S.S. Houston (CL-81), a light cruiser which fought briefly in the Pacific.

Chief Mechanist’s Mate Marvel was officially declared dead on December 15, 1945. Marvel is honored on the Tablets of the Missing at the Manila American Cemetery and Memorial in the Philippines and at Veterans Memorial Park in New Castle.

As of January 28, 2022, Chief Mechanist’s Mate Marvel is one of 105 Delawareans whose bodies remain unaccounted for following World War II, according to a list compiled by the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency.


Notes

Transcript

The transcript that Marvel’s mother provided to the State of Delaware Public Archives Commission does not appear to be an official document, though the terminology appears correct. It is unclear if she retyped a U.S. Navy service summary or whether she kept track of his movements and promotions in her own records.


Acknowledgments

Special thanks to the Delaware Public Archives for the use of their photos.


Bibliography

Hornfischer, James D. Ship of Ghosts. Bantam Dell, 2006.

Muster Rolls of U.S. Navy Ships, Stations, and Other Naval Activities, 1/1/1939–1/1/1949. Record Group Number 24, Records of the Bureau of Naval Personnel. National Archives at College Park, Maryland. https://www.fold3.com/image/303144369 (December 1939), https://www.fold3.com/image/303149232 (July 1940)

Thomas H. Marvel birth certificate. Record Group 1500-008-094, Birth certificates. Delaware Public Archives, Dover, Delaware. https://www.ancestry.com/discoveryui-content/view/89027:1672

United States of America, Bureau of the Census. Thirteenth Census of the United States, 1910. National Archives at Washington, D.C. https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/7884/images/31111_4327433-00653

United States of America, Bureau of the Census. Fourteenth Census of the United States, 1920. National Archives at Washington, D.C. https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/6061/images/4295770-00742

United States of America, Bureau of the Census. Fifteenth Census of the United States, 1930. National Archives at Washington, D.C. https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/6224/images/4531893_00100

Vickers, Margaret A. Thomas Henry Marvel Individual Military Service Record and Service Transcript, May 14, 1946. Record Group 1325-003-053, Record of Delawareans Who Died in World War II.  Delaware Public Archives, Dover, Delaware. https://cdm16397.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/p15323coll6/id/19822/rec/3Young American Patriots: The Youth of Maryland and Delaware in World War II.  National Publishers, Inc., 1950. https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/8941/images/md_de1-0268


Last updated on May 13, 2022

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