The USS Johnston
was a World War II Destroyer
that fought and died in the Pacific Theatre
in the bravest way possible: in the teeth of a superior enemy force. This is an account of the final hours of her and her gallant crew.
Johnston was assigned to escort four escort carriers to Leyte Gulf, the task force, “Taffy 3,” was set up to defend against submarine and airborne targets. “Taffy 3” consisted of the carriers, and their Destroyer and Destroyer-Escort support; no where in the task force were there any “battlewagons” (Cruisers, Heavy Cruisers, or Battleships).
At 0650, October 25, 1944, an Avenger torpedo bomber on patrol reported a large Japanese formation of ships consisting of four battleships, seven cruisers, and eleven destroyers closing with “Taffy 3” at a speed of thirty knots.
As the masts of the Japanese ships became visible on the horizon (0659) 14-inch shells began dropping into “Taffy 3.” The situation was desperate, the lightly defended carriers were under attack by a fast heavily armed and armored formation. The eleven Japanese destroyers would have been problem enough to contend with.
Adm. Sprague, commander of “Taffy 3” ordered all ships to generate as much smoke as possible, both from their stacks as well as from smoke generators while the carriers launched aircraft. At 0716, with enemy fire increasing in volume and accuracy, Adm. Sprague ordered his light escorts to attack. Johnston was closest to the action and had already engaged the Japanese while keeping her station. She poured on 25 knots, heeled over and charged a column of four Japanese Heavy Cruisers being led by Kumano. All four cruisers opened up on Johnston while she pounded shell after shell into her targets. Johnston closed to ten thousand yards, heeled over and launched ten torpedoes at Kumano’s armored side. Without lingering to see the result Johnston ducked back into her smoke and escaped unscathed. At the time the torpedoes should have hit, large explosions were heard on sonar. When Johnston briefly cleared the smoke, her crew saw Kumano ablaze and slowing. Holed by Johnston’s 5 inch shells and torpedoed, Kumano dropped out of action for damage control. But that is where Johnston’s luck runs out.
At 0730 Johnston was rocked by three 14-inch shells from a battleship and three 6-inch shells from a light cruiser. The after fireroom and engine room were knocked out and all hands in those compartments killed. The steering engine and all three after 5-inch turrets lost power. The heavy radar antennae crashed down on the bridge killing three officers. The skipper, Cmdr. Evans had his shirt blown off and lost two fingers on his left hand. However Johnston was able to duck into a convenient rain squall to make repairs.
At 0750, a scant 20 minutes later, when the squall passed Johnston was making seventeen knots on her one engine with all turrets operational. The rudder was being moved by hand in the engine room.
As Johnston emerged from the rain, Evans saw destroyers Hoel Heerman and Roberts starting a torpedo run, despite being out of torpedoes, Evans ordered his crippled ship to attack to “lend gunfire support” and take some heat off the carriers and other destroyers. A minute later the wounded Johnston engaged a battleship at a scant seven thousand yards, point blank for the nine big 14 inch guns of the Japanese battlewagon. Johnston hammered out thirty 5-inch rounds in only forty seconds. The battleship, Kongo’s few returning shots missed as Johnston ducked back through her smoke to look for more targets.
Johnston next attacked a heavy cruiser which was putting 8-inch shells into a US carrier. Then a Japanese light cruiser and four destroyers were spotted making a torpedo run on the carriers. Without hesitation Johnston charged the five ships, pounding away with her 5-inch guns at the lead cruiser which made a sharp 90 degree turn and headed away. Little did the crew know that the enemy’s hard turn was to launch the dreaded Long Lance Torpedo at the carriers, but thanks to Johnston’s actions they launched too soon and at to great a range; all the torpedoes missed “Taffy 3.” But Johnston’s spirited attack cost her dearly, with their torpedoes away the four Japanese destroyers turned and attacked Johnston. For a hellish thirty minutes Johnston was caught between the enemy destroyers to starboard and a column of cruisers to port. She gamely blasted away at one side then the other, occupying the larger ships and preventing them from closing with the battered American carriers; all the time Johnston was absorbing hit after brutal hit. One forward turret was knocked out and the other damaged, fires started amidships, the mast was severed and hung limply off the side. A forty-millimeter ready-ammunition box caught fire and exploded, showering the deck and superstructure with shrapnel. Fire forced the captain from the bridge; he ran aft and shouted helm orders down through the after steering hatch where sailors continued to steer the ship by hand. When a salvo destroyed Johnston’s only remaining engine, there was no power for the remaining turret.
The captain ordered the depth charges set to safe, and at 0945 gave word to abandon ship. At 1010 Johnston rolled over and sank. The remaining wounded, floating on a survival net saw an enemy destroyer slowly approaching. The crew prepared to be machine-gunned, instead no bullets flew, the captain of the Japanese ship that helped sink Johnston now stood on his flying bridge and saluted the survivors before plunging back into the fight.
Of the 327 officers and men aboard Johnston only 141 survived, her captain was not among them.
Information from Big Ship Little War by Edward P. Stafford and Blood on the Sea, American Destroyers Lost in World War II by Robert Sinclair Parkin.
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