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"In Harm's Way"

The captain and crew of the USS Johnston were the first to fire
and the last to fall in the Battle of Leyte Gulf


By Leonard D. Ash and Martin Hill

Leonard D. Ash is a San Diego-based journalist whose work has appeared in newspapers and magazines in the United States and the Far East. Martin Hill is a newspaper editor and freelance writer who served in both the Coast Guard and Navy Reserve.

Reprinted with permission of the authors. All rights reserved.

Originally printed in Retired Officer Magazine, October 1994.

 

On the night of October 24, 1944, Cmdr. Ernest E. Evans paced the bridge of the destroyer U.S.S. Johnston (DD 557) as he and his gunnery officer listened impatiently to radio reports of the night action in Surigao Strait. The Battle for Leyte Gulf had begun the day before when the U.S. subs Darter and Dace attacked a Japanese battle group commanded by Vice Adm Takeo Kurita, sinking two cruisers, including Kurita's flagship, the Atago.

The submarine attack was an inauspicious start for Operation Sho-Go, the three-prong attack the Japanese hoped would trap and decimate the America landing force at Leyte Gulf in the Philippine Islands. The next afternoon, Kurita's "Central Force" was again attacked in the Sibuyan Sea, south of Luzon Island, by aircraft from Bull Halsey's Third Fleet. Now Rear Adm. J. B. Oldendorf's battle group was making quick work of the Japanese "Southern Force" in the Surigao Strait.

Although a veteran of six star engagements of the Pacific island-hopping campaign, the destroyer's crew had never heard a shot returned in anger, and Evans was beginning the think the Johnston would never see any real action. He turned to his gunnery officer, Lt. Robert C. Hagen. "I want to throw a birthday party for the crew," he said. "We're within three days of being one year old. It's been an uneventful year and the crew is getting restless."

Evans hoped the party would relieve the boredom of their present assignment -- baby-sitting six small escort carriers off Samar Island, which were providing air support for the Leyte beachhead where General Douglas MacArthur had made good on his promise to return to the islands he loved so much just four days before.

The crew never got to celebrate their ship's birthday. Less than eight hours later, the Johnston would rush head-long to meet the remnants of Kurita's force as it sailed south to obliterate the baby flattops of Rear Adm. Clifton Sprague's Taffy 3 task force. For the next three hours, the Johnston and a handful of tin cans like her would engage in one of the most heroic sea battles in naval history. The Johnston and much of her crew would pay the ultimate price, but the beachhead would be saved.

Less than a year before, Evans, a veteran of the Battle of the Java Sea, had given his crew fair warning. "This is going to be a fighting ship," he told them at the October 27, 1943 commissioning of the Johnston. "I intend to go in harm's way, and anyone who doesn't want to go along had better get off right now."

None of the 326 crew members moved.

Edward M. Digardi, the officer of the deck during the Samar battle, recalled: "He stated that he now had a fighting ship and would never retreat from an enemy force. He meant it!"

A Cherokee Indian, Ernest Edwin Evans was born on August 13, 1908 in Pawnee, Oklahoma. A born warrior, Evans served in the Oklahoma National Guard before enlisting in the Navy on May 29, 1926. Evans was appointed to Annapolis from the Navy at large on June 29, 1927. At the Naval Academy, he was called "Chief," a nickname which stuck throughout his career. Evans graduated from the Academy as an ensign on June 4, 1931. He was promoted to full commander on November 1, 1943.

The Johnston was one of the Navy's newest 2,000-ton Fletcher-class destroyers. Unarmored, she carried five five-inch guns, ten torpedo tubes and a handful of anti-aircraft guns. She sailed off to war on January 1, 1944, carrying mostly married draftees. Eighty-five percent of her crew were green; only a third of her officers had ever been to sea. Less than twenty men had seen action.

Three months after commissioning, the destroyer was bombarding the beaches of Kwajalein. She shelled Eniwetok next, then spent three months on antisubmarine duty in the Solomons Islands, where she earned credit for the "probable" sinking of an enemy sub. In August, the Johnston participated in the invasion of Guam. Her next assignment was guarding escort carriers off Peleliu.

The crew quickly grew to respect their captain. He was a "sailor's sailor" -- the highest compliment an enlisted man can pay an officer. Lt Hagen remembered Evans from the Johnston's first engagement off Kwajalein:

"He was magnificent. I can see him now: short, barrel-chested, standing on the bridge with his hands on his hips, giving out 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."

Hell was not far away, at a place called Samar.

As part of Operation Sho, the Japanese launched a diversionary attack from the north with a force of aging battlewagons and largely planeless aircraft carriers. Halsey fell for the feint and sailed his Seventh Fleet north, leaving the strategic San Bernardino Strait between Luzon and Samar islands unprotected. On the night of October 24, Kurita's task force slipped through the strait undetected. By morning, he was in position to attack the Taffy 3 carriers.

Clyde Burnett, the Johnston's chief boatswain's mate, was lying in his bunk when general quarters sounded at 0650. The PA system announced that a huge Japanese fleet was approximately 15 miles astern and closing fast, followed by an order to "stand-by for a torpedo attack!"

"I thought someone was just joking until I got topside and looked aft," Burnett recalled. "The whole horizon seemed to light up from the gunfire of the Jap ships. I knew then that this was it. I'm sure the captain knew he was going to sacrifice the ship because I couldn't see any way of coming back out of that."

Evans reacted instantly when the pagoda masts of the Japanese fleet appeared on the horizon. Realizing his ship was closest to the Japanese, he began laying a smoke screen to shield Sprague's carrier force consisting of his flagship Fanshaw Bay and the St. Lo, Gambier Bay, White Plains, Kalinin Bay, and Kitkun Bay.

Without waiting for orders, Evans ducked a salvo of Japanese shells and steered his small ship into the midst of the enemy fleet. At 0720, after closing within 10,000 yards of the 12,000-ton cruiser Kumano, Johnston fired all ten torpedo tubes then beat a hasty retreat toward a "providential" rain squall. Three torpedoes hit the Kumano, which later sank.

Then the small ship took its first hits. Despite Evans' evasive action, three 14-inch shells, followed closely by another trio of six-inch projectiles, tore into the tin can before she could reach the squall.

The hits knocked out all power to the steering engine and the after three five-inch guns, and killed several crewmen. One shell struck near the bridge, killing three officers and blowing the port lookout, Robert M. Billie, out of his shoes. When he regained consciousness, Billie found his shoes "by my head, neatly tied."

The bridge blast ripped off Evans shirt and helmet, and peppered the captain with shrapnel. Two fingers were torn from his left hand. A corpsman rushed to his side, but was brushed away. "Don't bother me now," Evans said. "Help some of the guys who are hurt."

The squall afforded a ten-minute respite and permitted the crew to extinguish fires that were raging in the after engine room and to effect emergency repairs. Then an order from Sprague was received for all destroyers to launch torpedo attacks. The destroyers Hoel and Heermann, and the destroyer escort Samuel B. Roberts, sped toward the Japanese fire.

Quartermaster Third Class Neil Dethlefs [cq] remembers thinking: "Thank God we already fired our torpedoes and won't have to go in there again." Dethlefs was badly mistaken. Evans calmly said, "We'll go in and provide fire support." He moved his con to the fantail, shouting courses into the after steering room where sailors labored to turn the rudder by hand. Limping along on one engine, the Johnston fell in astern of the Hoel, Heermann, and Roberts, and rejoined the fray.

Hoel and Roberts did not survive the attack, and the Heermann, badly damaged, withdrew. But Johnston fought on. Her guns blazing, she moved into the middle of the Japanese formation, drawing fire away from two more DE's making torpedo attacks. At 0820, Evans ordered his ship to attack a 30,000-ton Kongo-class battleship. The Johnston headed straight for the warship, firing as fast as she could with her remaining guns. She scored at least 15 inconsequential hits before ducking back into her smoke.

The destroyer was back in action in less than ten minutes after Evans saw the ill-fated carrier Gambier Bay under attack from a Japanese cruiser. "Commence firing on that cruiser, Hagen," Evans ordered the gunnery officer. "Draw her fire on us."

Evans brought the Johnston within 6,000 yards of the cruiser, scoring five hits before breaking off the attack when he sighted a squadron of Japanese destroyers led by the light cruiser Yahagi moving in on other carriers. The Johnston took them on alone, turning back the attack. No one was more surprised than Evans. "Now I've seen everything," he said.

The Johnston, however, had taken several more several hits. At 0930, the Japanese closed in for the kill. The Johnston took hits from two cruisers off her port side, two ahead, several destroyers on her starboard, and a battleship astern.

"It was like a bunch of Indians firing on a prairie schooner," Lieutenant Hagen recalled.

An avalanche of shells delivered the final blow. The destroyer was abandoned at 0945 and sank 25 minutes later. As she went under, an enemy destroyer slipped past close aboard. Robert Billie and several other crewmen watched as the Japanese captain saluted the sinking Johnston. "Strange things happen in the heat of battle," Billie said.

The battle with the Japanese was over, but the crew of the Johnston spent two more days battling sharks, thirst and the ocean. On October 27, one year to the day after her commissioning, 141 survivors from the Johnston were rescued. Cmdr. Evans was not among them.

The Johnston was lost, but not the battle. His battle force confused and in disarray, Kurita ordered a withdrawal. The only carrier lost in the action was the Gambier Bay.

Years later, a member of Kurita's staff, Rear Adm. Tomji Koyanagi, admitted that the repeated attacks by the Johnston and the other destroyers convinced Kurita he was under attack by cruisers.

Courage was in no short supply that day off Samar Island, not among the men of the American surface ships or the carrier pilots who attacked the Japanese warships with empty guns and bomb bays. But no where was it in more prominence than among the officers and crew of the U.S.S. Johnston. For their actions that day, the crew was given presidential citations by both the U.S. and Philippine governments. And on November 24, 1945, Cmdr. Ernest E. Evans, Cherokee warrior, was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.