Last month, a manned submarine owned by the Caladan Co. found the front two-thirds of the sunken destroyer USS Johnston at a depth of 21,180 feet off Samar Island in the Philippines. The Johnston went down after a heroic fight against a superior Japanese fleet in an ultimately successful effort to protect the small aircraft carriers in its own task force.
The skipper of the Johnston was Commander Ernest E. Evans, the first Native American to captain a US Navy ship. He was the skipper of the Johnston for its whole life.
The USS Johnston would have a very short but honorable life. The time from her commissioning to her sinking would encompass just one year, but during that time, she would participate in battles at the Kwajalein and Enewetak atolls, supporting the U.S. Marine and Army landings to retake those territories from the Japanese. She would then be assigned to participate in the battle to retake the Philippines.
The USS Johnston was laid down in Seattle, Washington, and commissioned in October of 1943. She would go down fighting furiously in October of 1944. When she was commissioned, Cmdr. Evans was made her first commander, and he would be her only commander. At the commissioning ceremonies, Cmdr. Evans said, “This is a fighting ship. I intend to go into harm’s way, and anyone who doesn’t want to can get off now.”
The small fleet that the USS Johnston was protecting, along with other destroyers, was surprised by a larger Japanese force off of the Philippine island of Samar. The sea battle was incredibly fierce, and the Johnston and the other destroyers entered into the fight like pit bulls in an effort to protect the small carriers they were escorting and let them get away.
It is said that the USS Johnston was the closest to the enemy and that she fought with great heart and accuracy for three straight hours. She did considerable damage to the enemy but was herself hit many times. She was being fired on from several Japanese warships at the peak of the battle, but despite the barrage, Cmdr. Evans kept her going forward toward the enemy, even though, towards the end, she was down to only one working gun. Finally, at 9:45 p.m., the USS Johnston mortally damaged and Cmdr. Evans himself wounded, the order was given to abandon ship. The Johnston went down quickly in about 25 minutes. Cmdr. Evans and 185 crewmembers were lost in the fight.
In March, the Caladan expedition’s submarine found the remains of the USS Johnston and the crew was able to take pictures of the front portions of the ship. They were able to identify her by the hull number “557” painted under her bridge. The US Navy pilot of the Caladan submarine, Victor Vescovo said, “No human remains or clothing were seen at any point during the dives, and nothing was taken from the wreckage.” They were able, though, to get pictures of two large gun turrets, twin torpedo racks, and multiple gun mounts.
The skipper of the Johnston for its whole life from commissioning in 1943 to its sinking one year later in 1944, Cmdr. Ernest E. Evans was born in Pawnee, OK, to a Cherokee mother and a father who was half white and half Creek Indian. Despite the racial prejudices in this country at that time, he was admitted to the United States Naval Academy and graduated in 1931. He was 36 years old when his ship went down off of Samar Island in that battle. For his actions during this battle, Cmdr. Ernest E. Evans was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously. He was the first Native American to have received the nation’s highest award for bravery in battle.
The Veterans Site honors the memory of Cmdr. Ernest E. Evans and of his gallant ship and the crew of the USS Johnston. Where she, her skipper, and her crew went down, and where she lies now under 21,180 feet of water, is and will remain sacred ground. Rest easy! You are not forgotten.