The crew of the HMAS Perth were the first to detect the noticeable shift in the weight of enemy fire, from the battered van of the ABDA line of battle (HMAS Perth) to its rear (USS Houston and Dutch Java). With the two main IJN CA heavy units now sunk and crippled respectively, the rapid firing 5" destroyers became ABDA's main antagonists.
HMAS Perth (bottom middle below) drew inexorably ahead of these now slowed and damaged Japanese destroyers but the USS Houston (middle right below) and trailing Dutch Java still had yet to pass through the "eye of the storm". Although large and heavily gunned (8") the USS Houston was comparatively lightly armoured (just a CL). Both IJN destroyer flotilla's were within "minimum range" and under "rapid fire" capability so their light frames were capable of punching far above their weight penetrating the CL armour. The Dutch Java (middle right below) had already experienced this pain and was now also contending with the IJNS Jintsu, a IJN light cruiser, closing on her rear. All ABDA cruisers had taken non-trivial damage but most importantly to date they had been able to maintain an effective "escape/breakthrough" speed.
The most dangerous and potent Japanese threat was determined as the three closing destroyers (see below) positioning themselves on the starboard side of the ABDA line to deliver a last-gasp torpedo attack for next turn. The sorry sight of the burning and dead-in-the-water HMS Exeter is seen just in camera (bottom right), behind the IJNS Naka positioning herself to enter the fray (top left) and a group of Japanese destroyers shielding-off the American WWI vintage destroyer flotilla (below, top middle-right). All three ABDA cruisers turned their turrets and delivered withering broadsides at minimum range.
The results of this deadly exchange were soon clear to see. The Dutch Java received a series of telling hull hits. The IJNS Jintsu had her range, her shooting was excellent and scored critical bulkhead damage in addition to a punishing hit below the waterline. Further IJN destroyer fire stopped the Java dead in the water, yet her armaments were still able to fire on furiously. The USS Houston received telling but not fatal hull and armament box hits and stubbornly pressed on maintaining just enough speed to out pace the damaged destroyers. A fierce fire (another destroyer generated critical hit) burned dangerously in her aft. Although no Japanese destroyers were sunk, all received telling fire taking their armaments and noticeably their speed away. Any IJN pursuit was now in the hands on the light cruiser IJNS Naka.
The Java was not going to make it, the USS Houston stood perhaps a evens chance and the HMAS Perth barring a lucky hit from the IJNS Naka should get through. The WWI American destroyers had an outside chance of joining the Australian Perth if they could get in close enough to do some damage to the modern Japanese destroyers in their way.
The light was now noticeably fading and the end game had but a few moves left. The Captain of the HMAS Perth maintained a granite stare at the forlorn Dutch Java and battered USS Houston, there was nothing he could do but press on.