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"We Asked For the Jap Fleet – and Got It"

By LT Robert C. Hagen, USNR, as Told to Sidney Shalett

First published in The Saturday Evening Post, May 26, 1945

 

On the night of October 24, 1944, while we wore cruising about fifteen miles off Samar Island listening to radio snatches of the naval battle in Surigao Strait, Comdr. Ernest. E. Evans, skipper of the destroyer USS Johnston, said to me.  "Well. Hagen, we're within three days of being one year old. It's been an uneventful year."

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.

"Yes sir," I answered, trying to sound gruff.  "I wouldn't mind seeing a little action."  Of course, we'd only been through four invasions, but since we hadn't even had a flake of paint knocked off us or a man killed by an enemy shell, it was "uneventful."

We saw a little action all right.  Less than eight hours later, we were involved in what seemed to us a practically single-handed surface fight with four Japanese battleships, seven cruisers and nine destroyers; and a couple of hours after that, those of us who were alive were in the ocean, desperately swimming away from the foaming whirlpool of our sinking ship.  The USS Johnston never did make that first birthday.

Somewhere toward the middle of our fifty hours in the Philippine Sea, while I was clinging to a floater net and puffing on an imaginary cigarette through swollen lips, I thought about that conversation with the skipper.  I thought about the stupendous precommissioning party we'd pitched in Seattle, and about the ice cream and cake the skipper had promised us for our first birthday at sea.

Despite the loss of a good ship and the 183 men who lost their lives or are missing in action, I think the Johnston paid her way. In that last fight alone, our torpedoes delivered the death blow to a Jap cruiser five times our weight, damaged two others plus a couple of destroyers, and annoyed hell out of at least one battleship with our peashooters.  If ever a vessel earned the right to be called a "one-ship task force," it was the Johnston.

1 am telling this story because I am the Johnston's senior surviving officer.  The captain and the executive officer are listed as missing in action. I think I can tell the story without undue immodesty because I was only a small part of it.  As gunnery officer, I kept the guns going to the last, trying to get the best possible results.  That was my duty. But it was Commander Evans who fought the ship, far over and beyond the call of duty.

The Johnston was commissioned on October 27, 1941.  I remember a prophetic line from the skipper's speech.  "This is going to be a fighting ship," he told us.  "I intend to go in harm's way and anyone who doesn't want to go along had better get off right now."

I previously had been assistant communications officer on the Aaron Ward, but was wounded in the Battle of Guadalcanal.  I didn't consider myself lucky at the time the doctors were cutting a useless artery from my arm and removing shell fragments from my leg, but those wounds kept me off the Aaron Ward when she went down later off Tulagi.

The "GQ Johnny" - the crew called her that because in her 363-day career, she seemed to be at general quarters most of the time - was a sweet ship.  She was one of our newest destroyers, next in size to the latest 2,200-ton class. Her primary weapons were five 5-inch, 38-caliber guns, ten torpedo tubes and a sizable assortment of 40 and 20 mms for anti-aircraft purposes. Compared with the old Aaron Ward, also a new but smaller tin can, the Johnston seemed almost like a cruiser.

Eighty-five percent of her crew of approximately 300 were green hands. Only one-third of her officers had ever been to sea, and the skipper and I, plus a few of the crew, were the only ones who ever had seen action.  After my first experience with the men I was sup-posed to whip into shape as expert gun crews, I sourly wrote a friend on another ship: "Stay out of our gun range - anything can happen."  A few months later I wrote the same guy: "You now may bring on the Jap fleet."

Three months after the Johnston was commissioned, she was bombarding the beaches at Kwajalein.  I knew, after that show, we had a good ship and a captain who could strike fighting spirit from his men the way steel strikes spark from a flint. Commander Evans was magnificent.  I can see him now: short, barrel-chested, standing on the bridge with his hands on his hips, giving out with a running fire of orders in a bull voice. And once he gave us an order, he didn't ride us, but trusted us to carry it out the way he wanted it done.  It was that quality of leadership which made us all willing to follow him to hell.

We plastered Eniwetok next, then joined the anti-sub patrol at Bougainville.  Three months of this was sheer boredom for us, except for the time we scored a highly probable "kill" against a Jap sub - the first 2,100-ton destroyer to do so.

On August twenty-first, GQ Johnny teamed up with that ghost from Pearl Harbor, the battleship Pennsylvania, to bombard Guam. We outdid ourselves.  In four days, the Johnston poured more than 4,000 rounds ashore. Next, we protected baby flat-tops off Peleliu, Angaur, and Ulithi; and being young, brash, and not at all meek, felt ourselves much misused since we knew by this time we were the finest bombardment ship in the fleet.

That was our fourth campaign.  Our battle casual-ties thus far had consisted of one boy who got the Purple Heart for getting nicked mysteriously by a piece of metal - probably ours - at Eniwetok. But Fate had a bill for us which was about due.

On October twelfth, we sailed for Leyte as part of a task unit of Vice Admiral Kinkaid's 7th Fleet assigned to screen an escort carrier group from submarine or air attack.  Now we were sore - saddled with those pestiferous flattops again!  How were we ever going to keep our shooting hand in, playing nursemaid to plane-toting tubs?  What was the matter with the admiral anyhow? Didn't he know what we'd done at Guam?

So from October eighteenth on, we mother-henned the floating airfields for the fly boys who plastered Leyte, and things were so quiet that the Chief even had time to think about promoting us some ice cream for our first birthday party.

On October twenty-third, we forgot about ice cream.  Early that morning, American submarines discovered the Japanese fleet coming from the South China Sea toward our precarious Leyte bridgehead.  The sub-marines attacked, inflicting some damage, but the Japanese came on, splitting into two forces.  One went through Surigao Strait into Leyte Gulf, where it was neatly and thoroughly taken care of by Vice Admiral Oldendorf's forces.  The other, and larger, force was attacked on October twenty-fourth by Admiral Halsey's carrier planes, and presumably turned back.  Then Admiral Halsey hurried north to meet the large Japanese carrier-and-battleship force that was steaming toward the Philippines.

That left us sitting east of Samar off San Bernardino Strait on the night of the twenty-fourth. You'd hardly have called us "formidable."  There were the destroyers Johnston, Hoel and Heermann, and the destroyer escorts, Roberts, Raymond, Dennis and Butler, protecting the six escort carriers, Fanshaw Bay, St. Lo, White Plains, Kalinin Bay, Gambier Bay and Kitkun Bay.  It never even was contemplated that we would come up against any surface units.

The sea was calm, the wind was gentle, and any poet would have admired the rather picturesque cumulus clouds drifting lazily through the sky.  We had just gone through another dawn alert. I was standing watch and, feeling hungry, had asked the mess boy to bring me a fried-egg sandwich and some coffee.  At 6:50 A.M., hell broke loose. I never did get that fried egg.

One of the pilots flying patrol reported - and not calmly, either! - that what looked to him like the whole damn Jap fleet was steaming through San Bernardino Strait, headed straight for our unit.  Aboard the Fanshaw Bay, Rear Admiral C. A. F. Sprague, in command of our unit, hardly could believe the report. "Get verification," he ordered.  It was true, all right - coming at us were four battleships, the Yamato, Nagato, Kongo and Haruna; seven cruisers and at least nine destroyers.  They were the surviving elements of the central force which Admiral Halsey's fliers had attacked the day before.  Only, after starting to retreat, they had reversed their course, maneuvered the extremely hazardous passage through San Bernardino Strait, and were coming in to attack.

We felt like little David without a slingshot. Admiral Sprague began calling for help.  South of us were two other support units, respectively thirty and eighty miles away.  We were hoping their destroyer screen would come to our aid, but they didn't appear. The big Jap task force was all ours.

These matters, of course, did not concern us aboard the Johnston.  We had only one job - to fight - and we did it.  Commander Evans was out of his sea cabin in ten seconds.  I could see the man from my station in the gun director above the bridge, and I can swear his heart was grinning as he went into battle.  There was not a moment's hesitation or delay on his part; even as he came out, he gave the order:

"All hands to general quarters.  Prepare to attack major portion of Japanese fleet.  All engines ahead flank.  Commence making smoke and stand by for a torpedo attack. Left full rudder."

In less than sixty seconds we were zigzagging between our carriers and the Japanese fleet, putting out a smoke screen over a 2,500-yard front.  We were the first destroyer to make smoke, the first to start firing, the first to launch a torpedo attack.  Even as we began laying smoke, the Japanese started lobbing shells at us and the Johnston had to zigzag between the splashes.  The Jape were using dye in their shells, so they could tell by the colored splashes where each ship was hitting.  The red, green, purple and yellow colors might have been pretty under different circumstances, but at this moment I didn't like the color scheme.

For the first twenty minutes, we were completely helpless because the cruisers and battleships had us within range and our 6-inch guns couldn't reach them.  The part of the Jap force coming at us was composed of three columns: first, a line of seven destroyers; next, one light and three heavy cruisers; then the four battleships.  Off somewhere to the east, to appear later, were three other cruisers and two or three destroyers.  Luckily, up to this point, the Japs' marksmanship was not good.

By seven A.M., our six baby flat-tops had launched all available planes for the attack.  They scored some hits, but still the Japs pursued us.  The carrier formation turned to a southwesterly course away from the Japs.  GQ Johnny was way out in front - she was all there was between our ships and the Japs.

All this time, I had been completely, sickeningly impotent. I had checked my gun stations, seen that everything was in order, but after that there was nothing I could do but wait.  Meanwhile, the skipper had given me an over-all order to commence firing at any Jap target as soon as range was closed, so when it did close, I did not have to wait for permission.  At 7:15, we closed range and I opened fire on the nearest cruiser.  We scored a number of hits.

I presume our first hit made the Japs angry.  Maybe they were insulted by our colossal nerve. At that time, remember, we were within range of even the enemy destroyers.  They were to our starboard, while the cruisers and battleships were in echelon to our port in a position where they could fire all their forward guns at us without shooting over one another.  The Yamato, a 40,000-tonner, had nine 16-inch guns which throw a one-ton shell; the other battleships had both 16-inch and 14-inch guns; the cruisers had 8-inch and 6-inch guns, and between the cruisers and destroyers, they must have had at least 120 5-inch guns to our five 5-inchers.  Later, when I was convalescing, I took a pencil and paper just for fun and figured what those Jap ships could throw at us.  They could put out at least 80,000 pounds of shells; our five batteries could answer with 275 pounds.

The Japanese fire was decidedly unimpressive.  They should have sunk us immediately. Even so, their shells finally started straddling us, and the captain realized we couldn't live long at that rate.  He made one of his lightning decisions to attack with torpedoes.  At 7:15 A.M., we started bearing in straight for the nearest cruiser, a 12,000-tonner of the Tone class.

Looking through my telescope, I could see the cruisers vengefully shooting at us - splash, splash, splash, zing!  One 8-inch shell landed in the water right off our bow and splashed red dye in my face.  I mopped the stuff out of my eyes and said to the five men in the director with me, "Looks like somebody's mad at us."  During the five minutes in which we bore in for the torpedo attack, no less than four of the big ships were shooting at us simultaneously at any given moment. Still they didn't hit us. In those five minutes, we fired more than 200 rounds and scored at least forty hits, inflicting serious damage.

At 7:20, Commander Evans ordered, "Fire torpedoes." We let go with all ten fish, then whipped around immediately and began retiring behind a heavy smoke screen. The torpedoes ran "hot, straight and normal" - a torpedoman's dream.  Two heavy underwater explosions were heard; seconds later, a third and fainter explosion.  We believed - and I later stated this in my official report - that two hits on the cruiser were scored, and that the third explosion possibly was a hit on one of the battleships in the farthest column.  When we came out of our smoke sixty seconds later, the leading cruiser was burning furiously astern. She later sank.

At 7:30 A.M., we got it.  Three 14-inch shells from a battleship, followed closely by three 6-inch shells from a light cruiser, hit us. 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.

I was looking out of the director at the time. Everything happened at once.  A portion of our equipment which we in the Navy familiarly call the "whirling bedspring" came tumbling down past my head, snapped cleanly from the mast by the mere shock of the hits.  At the same time, in almost low-comedy fashion, my helmet, telephone and binoculars blew off, and the cotter pin, which locked my stool in an elevated position so I could look through the telescope, snapped causing me to drop downward and sustain a somewhat inglorious wound - a quarter-inch gash in my kneecap.

I came up yelling with pain from that silly knee blow, scrambled for my equipment, took a look out the hatch, and swore.  The Johnston was a mess.  There were dead men on the deck and gaping holes from the 14-inch shells through which a fat man could have plummeted.  In some sections below deck, as I learned later, almost every man had been killed.  The bridge looked like a kid's B-B target. Lt. (jg) Jack Bechdel, my assistant gunnery officer whom we called "Junior," was lying on the bridge fatally wounded; so was the machine-gun officer, Ens. Gordon Fox. Lt. (jg) Joe Pliska, standing near to the skipper, had been killed outright.

The skipper was standing bareheaded and bare-chested.  His helmet and all but the shoulders of his shirt had been blown away; the hair on his chest was singed, and blood was gushing from his left hand where two fingers had been shot away.  Shell fragments had ripped his neck and face.  The doctor rushed to his aid, but the skipper waved him back saying, "Don't bother me now. Help some of those guys who are hurt."  The skipper then wrapped a handkerchief around the stumps of his fingers and carried on.

I had to take this in quickly, for I had work to do.  "All stations - control testing!" I yelled, waiting anxiously to learn the damage.

They came back, "Gun One, aye! . . . Gun Two, aye! . . . Gun Three, aye! . . . Gun Five, aye! . . . Plot, aye!" All answered but No. 4. In a few seconds, I heard from it. The gun captain, a smart lad named Bob Hollenbough, from Goshen, Illinois, sent a messenger to another station to notify me his communications were out.  Guns 1 and 2 still had power; Guns 3, 4 and 5 were without power and had to fire manually.  Hollenbough was in the worst fix of all; being cut off from the director and plot, which direct the fire against the target, be had to fire by eye.  Sharpshooting was okay for Daniel Boone, but it doesn't lead to much accuracy on a destroyer.

In three minutes, we were prepared to carry on the best we could on one engine and half power.  The ship had to be steered by hand - a terribly difficult thing when your heavy rudder is bucking the sea.  Our strongest-backed men sweated like slaves over the rudder, but they had to change shifts every fifteen minutes.

The Johnston had her share of heroes - men who lost their lives trying to save shipmates from compartments filled with scalding steam; others who passed ammunition until water rose to their necks.  One I never shall forget was Warrant Machinist Marley Polk, of Bremerton, Washington, father of a new baby he'd seen only briefly before going to sea.  Polk took a heavy wrench and swam under a grating in a dark, flooded compartment below deck, trying to shut off a leak.  Just then the ship took additional hits, dislodging machinery that fell on him and trapped him. With the water rising, Polk ordered shipmates, who were attempting to extricate him, to leave him. Then the water slowly rose over his head.

Just after the first hit, a rainstorm came up. It was sheer providence.  We ducked into it. I remember that it got my cigarettes wet; it was the first time in my life I didn't mind having a package of cigarettes ruined.  While we were hiding in the rain, we got off 100 rounds at the nearest Japanese cruiser and at the destroyer leader.

At 7:50 A.M., Admiral Sprague ordered the "small boys" - destroyers - to make a torpedo attack.  That obviously couldn't mean us, for we had no more torpedoes and with one engine, couldn't keep up with the others.  I never believed we would go in for another attack.  The Johnston certainly could have retired with honor after that episode.

The Hoel, Heermann and the destroyer escort Roberts swished by us at full speed.  I thought we would go back to the carriers. But that wasn't Commander Evans' way of fighting.

"We'll go in with the destroyers and provide fire support!" he boomed.  I answered, "Aye, aye, sir!" and added to myself, "Oh, Dear Lord, I'm in for a swim."

We went in, dodging salvos and blasting back.  The other ships got off their torpedoes. As we turned to retire after them, we closed our range to within 6,000 yards of the leading Japanese cruiser.  We shifted fire and managed to pump at least ten shells into her.  I began to feel pretty good about my gunners.

By now we had taken the worst that the Japs had to offer and still were alive, but I wasn't optimistic about our chances of surviving.  Then, at 8:10, we had another paralyzing experience - and it was one of our destroyers that supplied it!

We were coming out of a heavy smoke screen.  Suddenly we saw the Heermann, only 200 yards away, headed straight at us on a collision course.  The skipper bellowed, "All engines back full!" - that meant one engine for us.  With one engine, we couldn't do much more than slow down.  I felt a curious, hopeless, detached sort of wrung-out unconcern as I looked over our bow and couldn't see water - only the Heermann.  Hope we don't batter her up too much, I dreamily thought, for our bow was pointed straight at her bridge.  Finally, the Heermann's two engines backed her barely out of the collision course.  We missed her by less than ten feet.

As soon as we got out of this mess, we resumed all possible speed.  There was so much smoke that the skipper ordered me not to fire at anything unless I could see the ship - it might be one of ours.  At 8:20, 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 that unmistakable pagoda mast, muttered, "I sure as hell can see that!" and opened fire.  In forty seconds we got off thirty rounds, at least fifteen of which hit the pagoda superstructure.  As far as accomplishing anything decisive, it was like bouncing paper wads off a steel helmet, but we did kill some Japs and knock out a few small guns.  Then we ran back into our smoke.  The BB belched a few 14-inchers at us, but, thank God, registered only clean misses.

The Johnston now was headed south-west, several miles behind our main force.  On our port quarter was the Jap cruiser and battleship force, and on our starboard were the Jap destroyers, pouring steel our way.  At all times, the leading enemy ships were within 12,000 yards of us.  At 8:30, we observed that the Gambier Bay was under heavy fire from a big Jap cruiser. Commander Evans then gave me the most courageous order I've ever heard.

"Commence firing on that cruiser, Hagen," he said.  "Draw her fire on us and away from the Gambier Bay."

Again I said, "Aye, aye! sir," and under my breath again I said, Surely you jest.  A crippled tin can enraging in a deliberate slugging match with a heavy cruiser. We closed to 6,000 yards and scored five hits.  Reacting with monumental stupidity, the Jap commander ignored us completely and concentrated on sinking the Gambier Bay.  He could have sunk us both.  By permitting us to escape, he made it possible for us to interfere a few minutes later with a destroyer torpedo attack that might have annihilated our little carrier force.

At 8:40, the captain broke off the futile battle with the cruiser when he saw seven Jap destroyers closing in rapidly on the carriers.  By this time, the Hoel had been severely damaged and was sinking; the Roberts was burning furiously and the Heermann was off with the main carrier force, so the Johnston took them on alone.  Hopeless as it was, Commander Evans outfought them as long as he could.

First we pounded away at the destroyers; they were sleek, streamlined Terutsuki-class vessels, our match in tonnage and weight of guns, but not our match in marksmanship, crippled as we were.  We should have been duck soup for them, but, though we were taking hits, we were giving back better than we received.

First, we scored twelve devastating hits on the destroyer leader.  She quit cold and retired from the fight.  Next we concentrated on the second destroyer and got in five hits.  Then a most amazing thing happened. Instead of coming in for the kill, all six remaining destroyers broke off the battle and began following their vanishing leaders away from the scene.  They waited until they were well out of our effective gun range before launching their torpedo attacks - this was about 9:20 A.M. - and all their fish went wild.

We can only guess what happened, but apparently the Nip admiral got his wind up and decided he must retreat through San Bernardino Strait quickly or face annihilation.  If the Nip had possessed one tenth the courage of our skipper, he would have fought his destroyers five minutes longer and scored some real victories.  Commander Evans, feeling like the skipper of a battleship, was so elated he could hardly talk. He strutted across his bridge and chortled, "Now I've seen everything!"

But we had more fighting to do, and GQ Johnny's number was about up.  At 9:00 A.M., the Gambier Bay was lost, but we still were battling desperately to keep the destroyers and cruisers, which also were closing in, from reaching the five surviving carriers.  At 9:10, we had taken a hit which knocked out one forward gun and damaged the other.  Fires had broken out. One of our 40-mm ready lockers was hit, and the exploding shells were causing as much damage as the Japs.  The bridge was rendered untenable by the fires and explosions, and Commander Evans had been forced at 9:20 to shift his command to the fantail, where he yelled his steering orders through an open hatch at the men who were turning the rudder by hand.

In the gun director, we were having our own troubles.  The place was full of smoke; our eyes were streaming and we were coughing and choking as we carried out our duties.  We now were in a position where all the gallantry and guts in the world couldn't save us.  There were two cruisers on our port; another two cruisers ahead of us, and several destroyers on our starboard side; the battleships, well astern of us, fortunately had turned coy. We desperately traded shots first with one group and then the other.  We knew we could not survive, but we figured that help for the carriers must be on the way, and every minute's delay might count.

Down at one of my batteries, the gun captain, a Texan, kept exhorting, "More shells! More shells!" and one of his gang, even while breaking his back at the task, grumbled, "I'm sure glad there ain't no Japs from Texas!"

By 9:30, we were going dead in the water; even the Japs couldn't miss us.  They made a sort of running semicircle 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 9:45, he gave the saddest order a captain can give: "Abandon ship."

Up in the gun director, what with the smoke and lack of communications, we were a little slow in getting the word.  The five stalwart men in there with me - Himelright, Buzbee, Powell, Gringeri and Thompson - were standing by quietly.  There was nothing more we could do, I peered out and couldn't see a living soul on the foc'sle.

"What the hell are we doing here?" I said.  "Let's abandon ship."

The last word hardly was out of my mouth when the five men as one were out of the director and racing for the rail. I was so surprised that I stood stock-still a moment, then lit out myself.  I made my way to the foc'sle - I couldn't get aft without walking over piles of bodies and, like a man in a dream, very carefully and leisurely took off my shoes and dived in.  Taking off my shoes, incidentally, was the worst mistake I could make; my feet got so sunburned in the water that I limped for days after.

When I got into the water, one of those utterly mad things that you wouldn't believe if it hadn't happened to you, occurred.  My torpedoman, Jim O'Gorek, swam over to me and, as brightly as if he were meeting me on the street corner, said, "Mr. Hagen, we got off all ten of them torpedoes, and they ran hot, straight and normal!"

At 10:10, the USS Johnston rolled over and began to sink.  A Jap 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 the Johnston.  

There is more to the story.  The details are grim, but they seem anticlimactic after the battle story of the Johnston.  Of our approximately 326 officers and men, sixty had been killed in the battle, and more than 120 others died in the water or are missing. Commander Evans last was seen with other officers and men in a small boat; if the Japanese picked him up, we do not know it.

One hundred and forty-one were saved by clinging for fifty hours to three life rafts and two floater nets.  And two seamen, William Shaw and Orin Vadnais, were saved after four days in the water in their life jackets.  I saw thirty-five of my own group die before my eyes or drift away.  One man was killed by a shark. Another, Chief Gunner's Mate Harry Henson, who boasted he had been in the Navy so long he'd become salty, apparently was salty enough to prove distasteful to a shark; one bit him, turned loose, took another bite, turned loose again and swam away - and Henson has two sets of shark's teeth imprints in his right thigh to prove it.  If any armchair ichthyologist ever tells you there is no such thing as a man-eating shark, you can refer him to me! I fell asleep and drifted away once myself, but woke before it was too late to swim back to the raft.

Maybe we were a little bitter about being in the water so long, especially after three separate friendly planes had zoomed us within two hours after the ship sank.  We were very weary, a little sick and maybe even a little crazy from fighting, bleeding, vomiting and seeing our friends die.  We were only fifty miles east of Samar and we had figured we'd be picked up in a few hours with so many ships around.  A lot of men would be alive today if rescue had come sooner.

At noon on the twenty-seventh, the same day and almost the same hour of the Johnston's commissioning a year ago, while I was dreaming of a glass of ice water, an LCI gunboat picked us up.  They say that three Jap Betties attacked us a few minutes after our rescue.  I wouldn't know about that. I was below deck, sleeping peacefully.