U.S. Navy Photograph
The most ably commanded destroyer of Taffy III, JOHNSTON was repeatedly referenced by the Japanese as a "heavy cruiser." She was credited as the first ship of Taffy III to attack Centre Force and charged the four ships of Cruiser Division Seven at 30 knots. After launching a full spread of ten torpedoes, the heavy cruiser HIJMS KUMANO was hit and put out of action. Aggressively screening the escort carriers throughout the entire morning, JOHNSTON finally sank with a loss of 186 men.
|Length||376 feet 3 inches|
|Beam||39 feet 8 inches|
|Armament||5 (5 x 1) 5-inch radar controlled GP guns
10 21" (2 x 5) torpedo tubes
6 40mm AA guns
11 20mm AA guns
6 depth charge throwers
2 depth charge racks
|Sensors||SC air-warning radar
SG surface search radar
MK-4 fire control radar
|Laid Down||6 May 1942|
|Launched||25 March 1943|
|Commissioned||27 October 1943|
John Vincent Johnston of Cincinnati, Ohio entered the Navy in September 1861 as First Master in the gunboat ST LOUIS. He assisted in the Union gunboat attacks that captured strategic Fort Henry on the Tennessee River in February 1862. The night of 1 April 1862 he was the Navy commander of a combined Army-Navy boat expedition which landed and spiked the guns of a Confederate stronghold. He was promoted to Acting Volunteer Lieutenant for his gallantry in this expedition. After joining in the bombardment of Vicksburg, he took command of FOREST ROSE to patrol the Mississippi and its tributaries. On 15 February 1864 his gunboat repelled the attack of confederate raiders, saving the town of Waterproof, Louisiana and its federal garrison. He died on 23 April 1912 at St. Louis, Missouri.
The FLETCHER Class destroyer USS JOHNSTON was built by the Seattle-Tacoma Shipbuilding Company. She was sponsored by Mrs. Marie S. Klinger, great-niece of LT John Johnston. She was commissioned on October 27, 1943, Commander Ernest E. Evans commanding.
The day JOHNSTON was commissioned, CDR Evans made a speech to the crew, "This is going to be a fighting ship. I intend to go in harm's way, and anyone who doesn't want to go along had better get off right now."
During the Marshall Islands campaign 3 months later, JOHNSTON bombarded the beaches at Kwajalein on 1 February 1944 and made a five-day bombardment of Einwetok from 17 to 22 February. Next she gave direct support to invasion troops there, destroying several pillboxes and taking revetments along the beach under fire. En route to patrol duty in the Solomons on 28 March 1944, she bombarded Kapingamarangi Atoll in the Carolinas. An observation tower, several blockhouses, pillboxes and dugouts along the beach were shelled.
Two days later she came into the mouth of the Maririca River, southeast of Empress Augusta Bay, Bougainville, Solomon Islands. After laying a heavy barrage into that area, JOHNSTON took up anti-submarine patrol off Bougainville. On 15 May 1944 she depth-charged and sank the Japanese submarine I-16.
After three months of patrol in the Solomons, JOHNSTON sailed to the Marshalls to prepare for the invasion and capture of Guam in the Marianas. On 21 July 1944 she teamed up with the battleship PENNSYLVANIA (BB 38) to bombard Guam. The destroyer sent in 4,000 rounds of shells by 29 July. Sending in more than 4,000 rounds of five-inch gunfire, her accurate fire shattered enemy 4-inch battery installations, numerous pillboxes and buildings.
JOHNSTON next helped protect escort carriers which were providing air support for the invasion and capture of the Palau Islands. Following replenishment at Seeadler Harbor, Manus, in the Admiralty Islands, JOHNSTON sailed on 12 October 1944 to Leyte Gulf for the invasion of the Philippines. In the company of the FLETCHER Class destroyers HOEL and HEERMANN, she helped screen Carrier Division 25's four CVE's to Leyte. Arriving on station on 17 October, they joined Carrier Division 26's two CVE's and their screen of four destroyer escorts. The collective force of six escort carriers, three destroyers, and four destroyer escorts was assigned to Task Group 77.4; one of three task units, Task Unit 77.4.3, radio call sign, Taffy III.
On the morning of October 25, 1944, without warning, JOHNSTON and Taffy III were set upon by the Imperial Japanese Navy Centre Force. During the previous night, this powerful enemy force of 4 battleships, six heavy cruisers, two light cruisers, and two squadrons of destroyers had slipped through San Bernardino Strait undetected.
One of the pilots flying patrol reported the approach of the Japanese Centre Force steaming straight for Taffy III. JOHNSTON's Gunnery Officer, LT Robert C. Hagen, later reported, "...we felt like little David without a slingshot." Soon after contact, JOHNSTON was zigzagging between the escort carriers and the Japanese fleet, laying a smoke screen to hide the American task unit from the enemy. For the first twenty minutes the large caliber Japanese battleship and heavy cruiser guns fired upon the Americans without fear of reprisal, the range being too great for the American 5-inch guns. "...even as we began laying smoke, the Japanese started lobbing shells at us and the JOHNSTON had to zigzag between the splashes....we were the first destroyer to make smoke, the first to start firing, the first to launch a torpedo attack...."
As the range closed, JOHNSTON opened her 5-inch battery on the nearest cruiser, scoring damaging hits. About this time an 8-inch shell landed right off her bow, its red dye splashing the face of JOHNSTON Gunnery Officer. He mopped the dye from his eyes while remarking, "Looks like somebody's mad at us!" In five furious minutes, JOHNSTON pumped 200 rounds at the enemy, then Commander Evans gave the order to fire the torpedoes. The destroyer got off a full salvo of ten fish then whipped around to retire behind a heavy smoke screen. When she came out of the smoke a minute later, Japanese cruiser KUMANO could be seen burning furiously from torpedo hits. KUMANO later sank. Shortly thereafter, JOHNSTON took three 14-inch shell hits from a battleship followed closely by three 6-inch shells from a light cruiser. "It was like a puppy being smacked by a truck. The hits resulted in the loss of all power to the steering engine, all power to the three 5-inch guns in the after part of the ship, and rendered our gyro compass useless." Through "sheer providence" a rainstorm came up; and JOHNSTON "ducked into it" for a few minutes of rapid repairs and salvage work.
At 0750, Admiral Sprague ordered the destroyers to make a torpedo attack. But JOHNSTON had already expended her full compliment of ten torpedoes. With one engine, she couldn't keep up with the others "...but that wasn't Commander Evans' way of fighting; 'we'll go in with the destroyers and provide fire support,' he boomed." JOHNSTON went in, dodging salvoes and blasting back with her 5-inch guns. As she charged out of blinding smoke, the ship was pointed straight at the bridge of the gallant task unit destroyer HEERMANN (DD 532), "All engines back full!" was ordered by Commander Evans. That meant one engine for JOHNSTON who could hardly do more than slow down. HEERMANN's two engines backed down hard and the two destroyers missed each other by less than ten feet.
There was so much smoke that Commander Evans ordered no firing unless the gunnery officer could see the enemy. "At 0820, there suddenly appeared out of the smoke a 30,000 ton KONGO Class battleship, only 7,000 yards off our port beam. I took one look at the unmistakable pagoda mast, muttered, 'I sure as hell can see that!" and opened fire. In 40 seconds we got off 30 rounds, at least 15 of which hit the pagoda superstructure....the battleship belched a few 14-inchers at us, but, thank God, registered only clean misses."
JOHNSTON soon observed GAMBIER BAY (CVE 73) under fire from a cruiser. "Commander Evans then gave the most courageous order I've ever heard, 'Commence firing on that cruiser, draw her fire on us and away from GAMBIER BAY'." JOHNSTON scored four hits in a deliberate slug match with a heavy cruiser, then broke off the futile battle as the Japanese destroyer squadron was seen closing rapidly on the American escort carriers.
JOHNSTON outfought the entire Japanese destroyer squadron, concentrating on the lead ship until the enemy quit cold, then concentrated on the second destroyer until the remaining enemy units broke off to get out of effective gun range before launching torpedoes, all of which went wild. JOHNSTON took a hit which knocked out one forward gun, damaged another, and her bridge was rendered untenable by fires and explosions resulting from a hit in her 40mm ready ammunition locker. Commander Evans shifted his command to JOHNSTON's fantail, yelling orders through an open hatch to men turning her rudder by hand. Still the destroyer battled desperately to keep the Japanese destroyers and cruisers from reaching the five surviving American carriers. "We were now in a position where all the gallantry and guts in the world couldn't save us, but we figured that help for the carriers must be on the way, and every minute's delay might count...."
"By 0930 we were going dead in the water; even the Japanese couldn't miss us. They made a sort of running semi-circle around our ship, shooting at us like a bunch of Indians attacking a prairie schooner. Our lone engine and fire room was knocked out; we lost all power, and even the indomitable skipper knew we were finished. At 0945 he gave the saddest order a captain can give: 'Abandon Ship.'..."
At 1010 JOHNSTON rolled over and began to sink. A Japanese destroyer came up to 1,000 yards and pumped a final shot into her to make sure she went down. A survivor saw the Japanese captain salute her as she went down. That was the end of JOHNSTON. From her compliment of 327, only 141 were saved. Of 186 lost, about 50 were killed by enemy action, 45 died on rafts from battle injuries; and 92, including Commander Evans, were alive in the water after JOHNSTON sank, but were never heard from again.
JOHNSTON and her task unit had stopped Admiral Kurita's powerful Centre Force in the Battle Off Samar, inflicting a greater loss than they suffered. Her supreme courage and daring in the battle won her the Presidential Unit Citation as a unit of "Taffy III". Commander Evans was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor; "The skipper was a fighting man from the soles of his broad feet to the ends of his straight black hair. He was an Oklahoman and proud of the Indian blood he had in him. We called him - though not to his face - the Chief. The JOHNSTON was a fighting ship, but he was the heart and soul of her."
USS JOHNSTON (DD 557) received five Battle Stars for her service in World War II.
Source: Dictionary of American Fighting Ships, Vol. III, 1968, Navy Department, Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, Naval History Division, Washington, D.C. and The Battle Off Samar - The Tragedy of Taffy III, by Robert Jon Cox, 1996