World War 2 History: Destroyer USS Johnston Attacks Battleships and Cruisers
USS Johnston and Taffy 3
Early in the morning of October 25, 1944, a small U.S. escort carrier group found themselves under attack from a much larger Japanese fleet. Six small escort aircraft carriers, protected by three destroyers and four smaller destroyer escorts, faced four Japanese battleships, eight cruisers and eleven destroyers. One of the destroyers, USS Johnston, having helped lay down smoke to screen the escort carriers and increase their chance of escaping, then turned to attack the oncoming enemy ships.
The U.S. escort carrier group-- nicknamed Taffy 3-- had been providing support for the Allied landings on Leyte Island, Philippines, where Douglas MacArthur had waded ashore proclaiming “I have returned”. There were two other similar groups-- Taffy 1 and Taffy 2-- in the region, but only the aircraft on their escort carriers were within range of the upcoming battle, leaving Taffy 3's small ships to face the enemy. The main U.S. force, Admiral Halsey's Third fleet, with its battleships and large fleet aircraft carriers, had been decoyed away to the north. In comparison to fleet carriers carrying 100 planes and weighing 34,000 tons, escort carriers had less than 30 aircraft and weighed 7,000–10,000 tons.
Japanese “Center Force” Included the Monster Battleship Yamato
The Japanese ships, code-named “Center Force”, were thought to have been beaten in earlier actions, but they had turned about and broken out through the San Bernardino Strait in the middle of the Philippine Archipelago. With Halsey harmlessly chasing a decoy force, Japanese Admiral Kurita intended to then head south past the island of Samar to disrupt the Allied beachheads. Among his four battleships was Yamato, the largest battleship afloat. Displacing 65,000 tons, with nine 18.1-inch guns, Yamato by itself weighed more than all of Taffy 3's ships combined.
Johnston Goes on the Attack
After ten minutes of laying a protective smoke screen while long-range enemy shellfire fell among the carriers, the first Japanese ships came within extreme range of Johnston's 5-inch guns. At 7:10 AM, she fired back, registering hits on heavy cruisers and getting their attention. As shells from the cruisers began bracketing the destroyer, USS Johnston's Commander Ernest Evans ordered full maximum speed toward the enemy, intending to get within torpedo range.
Five minutes later, the 2,700-ton Johnston, still zig-zagging at maximum speed, started firing on the 13,500-ton heavy cruiser Kumano. As she slowly closed the gap, Johnston fired over 200 shells and managed to hit Kumano 45 times, setting many fires in her superstructure.
“Small Boys Attack”
As Johnston continued her run, Admiral Sprague, aboard the escort carrier Fanshaw Bay, issued the command: “Small boys attack”. The other two destroyers, Hoel and Heermann along with the 1,350-ton destroyer escort Samuel B. Roberts, started their own torpedo runs while aircraft from the escort carriers began attacking the Japanese ships.
At the extreme range of about five miles, Johnston fired her full complement of ten torpedoes before turning back into her own smoke. The Kumano's bow was blown off by two or three torpedoes and the battleship Kongo had to break off its attack to avoid three more torpedoes-- but not before hitting Johnston with three 14-inch shells. Also, three 6-inch shells, possibly from the battleship Yamato, struck the destroyer's bridge. The ferocity of the U.S. attack, however, had sewn confusion in the Japanese who thought they were under attack from cruisers.
Taking and Making Hits
The hits on Johnston knocked out her steering engine and power to the three aft 5-inch guns. Fortunately, a sudden rain squall gave her cover allowing her crew to make some emergency repairs. They managed to get two of the aft guns working again, but Johnston's speed was cut in half. While still hidden in the squall, her crew fired 30 shells at a destroyer five miles away and then at an approaching cruiser. Although she had no torpedoes left, Commander Evans, now missing the fingers of his left hand as a result of the shells hitting the bridge, ordered Johnston to support the other ships making their torpedo runs.
Despite problems with their damaged fire control system, Johnston managed to land hits on the 15,000-ton heavy cruiser Tone and then landed 15 hits on the 37,000-ton battleship Kongo's superstructure, before reversing back into the rain and smoke.
By 8:30, Japanese cruisers were attacking the escort carrier Gambier Bay and Johnston engaged the 13,500-ton heavy cruiser Haguro, scoring hits for ten minutes.
Crossing the T
Next, seven Japanese destroyers approached the escort carriers and Johnston intercepted them by “crossing the T”, a nautical maneuver where the enemy ships were in line behind one another, leaving only the front guns of the lead ships to face Johnston's broadsides. Johnston, though also being shelled, scored a dozen hits on the closest destroyer, which turned away. The next destroyer took five hits before turning aside and then the entire enemy destroyer squadron turned around.
Attacked From All Sides
By 9:00, the destroyer Hoel, escort carrier Gambier Bay and escort destroyer Roberts were all sinking. Johnston, crippled but still in action, took many more hits exchanging fire with four cruisers and several destroyers. The forward turret was knocked out and then the bridge was destroyed. Commander Evans moved to the stern of the ship and gave his commands by shouting orders down through an open hatch to the men manually operating the rudder. By 9:40, enemy fire had finally knocked out the remaining engine. Johnston was dead in the water. The crew knew they didn't stand a chance but continued to fire with every remaining gun-- every minute the enemy was tied down by them gave the carriers that much of a lead. Instead of chasing after the fleeing escort carriers, the Japanese circled Johnston and continued to pour shell after shell into her floating corpse. At 9:45, Evans gave the order to abandon ship.
Commander Evans went into the water with the others, but was never seen again. Of 327 officers and men, 186 were lost. Survivors say that as USS Johnston slipped beneath the waves a Japanese destroyer sailed by, its captain saluting her.
The World Wonders
During the lop-sided engagement, Admiral Halsey and his Third Fleet (decoyed away to the north) received the following message from Admiral Nimitz:
TURKEY TROTS TO WATER GG FROM CINCPAC ACTION COM THIRD FLEET INFO COMINCH CTF SEVENTY-SEVEN X WHERE IS RPT WHERE IS TASK FORCE THIRTY FOUR RR THE WORLD WONDERS
The words before “GG” and after “RR” were meaningless and meant to make cryptanalysis more difficult. However, the intended message, “Where is, repeat, where is task force thirty four?” was translated as:
Where is, repeat, where is task force thirty four? The world wonders.
Halsey took this as sarcasm and a personal slap in the face and went into a rage. For an hour he sulked, doing absolutely nothing while Task Force Taffy 3 fought for its very existence.
There were plenty of heroics on that October morning in what came to be called the Battle of Samar. The other destroyers and escort destroyers and escort carriers each played their part in the seemingly hopeless battle. Although the ships of Taffy 1 and 2 were heading toward Taffy 3, everyone knew they could not arrive in time. However, their aircraft were able to join Taffy 3's aircraft in the battle. Even when the planes had expended their bombs and bullets, they continued to make dry runs against the Japanese ships, keeping them off guard and breaking up their formations.
Admiral Kurita, convinced by the enemy's fierce attacks that he was engaging a much larger force, finally ordered his ships to regroup and then withdraw. His surviving ships eventually made it back to Japanese ports where they ceased to be a threat for the rest of the war. Three of his heavy cruisers were sunk; three other heavy cruisers and a destroyer were damaged.
Taffy 3 lost two destroyers and one destroyer escort and two escort carriers (the escort carrier St Lo was a victim of the war's first Kamikaze attack). Twenty-three aircraft were lost. Three escort carriers, one destroyer and two destroyer escorts were damaged. Only one escort carrier and one escort destroyer remained near full strength.
As a result of the action, Taffy 3 (Task Unit 77.4.3) received a Presidential Unit Citation. The skipper of USS Johnston, Lt. Commander Ernest E. Evans, was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.