World War 2 History: Destroyer USS Johnston Attacks Battleships and Cruisers

Updated on August 4, 2017
UnnamedHarald profile image

I try to make history readable and interesting, warts and all. We must look to the past to understand the present and confront the future.

USS Johnston

WW2: Destroyer USS Johnston DD557
WW2: Destroyer USS Johnston DD557 | Source

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 Battleship Yamato

World War Two: Imperial Japanese Battleship Yamato. 65,000 tons; 9x18.1-in guns; 12x6.1-in guns; 12x5-in guns.
World War Two: Imperial Japanese Battleship Yamato. 65,000 tons; 9x18.1-in guns; 12x6.1-in guns; 12x5-in guns. | Source

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.

Battle of Samar

WW2: U.S. destroyers and destroyer escorts laying a smoke screen during the Battle of Samar, 25 October 1944. Note the splashes from Japanese shells.
WW2: U.S. destroyers and destroyer escorts laying a smoke screen during the Battle of Samar, 25 October 1944. Note the splashes from Japanese shells. | Source

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.

Smoke Screen

World War II: Escort carrier Gambier Bay and her escorts laying a smoke screen early in the battle.
World War II: Escort carrier Gambier Bay and her escorts laying a smoke screen early in the battle. | Source

“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.

Japanese Cruiser Kumano

World War Two: Japanese heavy cruiser Kumano. Image used for identification of ships.
World War Two: Japanese heavy cruiser Kumano. Image used for identification of ships. | Source

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.

Map of the Battle of Samar

WW2: Simple map showing where the Japanese force (red) broke through San Barnadino Strait, rounded Samar Island and attacked Sprague's Taffy 3 on October 25, 1944.
WW2: Simple map showing where the Japanese force (red) broke through San Barnadino Strait, rounded Samar Island and attacked Sprague's Taffy 3 on October 25, 1944. | Source

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.

Aftermath

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.

Nimitz and Halsey

WW2: US Admirals Chester Nimitz (left) and William Halsey
WW2: US Admirals Chester Nimitz (left) and William Halsey | Source

Addendum: Halsey Sulked While Taffy 3 Fought for Its Life

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.

Animation of USS Johnston during Battle of Samar

© 2013 David Hunt

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    • profile image

      TERRY GRANT 4 days ago

      THE JOHNSTON WAS CREWED BY REAL MEN. WE OWE THEM. WE CAN NEVER REPAY THE DEBT. AT LEAST WE CAN HONOR THEM.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
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      David Hunt 5 months ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Jim, awesome to hear from you. I hope I did your Dad's story justice.

    • profile image

      Jim O'Gorek 5 months ago

      My father Jim O'Gorek (my dad and I have the same name) was on the USS Johnston when it was sunk, he survived and lived to be almost 74 years old.

    • profile image

      Addison Leedom 6 months ago

      The video, without showing men or blood, is still profoundly evocative of the gallantry of the ship, Captain, and crew. It's​ a shame this story has never been made into a movie.

    • profile image

      Michael A McGaw 9 months ago

      My dad was at Pearl Harbor on December 7th, the Navy holds a very special spot in my heart. The USS JOHNSTON shows the US sailer to be a great fighting man. Thank you for bring this story out for all to see. Fair winds and following seas.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
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      David Hunt 3 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Thank you, Edward. I needed to write this when I realized it was relatively unknown to the general public. I don't mean it was a secret, but the bravery those "little ships" showed should be known to all.

    • Edward J. Palumbo profile image

      Ed Palumbo 3 years ago from Tualatin, OR

      The officers and men of the USS Johnston conducted themselves superbly and deserve to be remembered and recognized. The individual sacrifices and acts of courage under fire provide an example of initiative and tenacity that will continue to inspire today's sailors. Thank you for writing this.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
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      David Hunt 4 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Thank YOU, Ron. For some reason this hub triggered a "no advertising" stamp. Some formula thought it too violent or too something. A moderator, however, re-enabled advertising. This has happened more than once on my history hubs and I find it a little disturbing, but human reviewers have always set it right.

    • RonElFran profile image

      Ronald E Franklin 4 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

      An exciting story well told. Thanks!

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
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      David Hunt 4 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Thanks for commenting, Theresa. I feel the same way. The Pacific Theater was always confusing to me-- strange names in unfamiliar places really get in the way, even for history buffs and I include myself. That such heroics is not more well-known is a mystery. I wonder how much can be attributed to the fact that the situation that put Taffy 3 in harm's way was not America's shining moment.

    • phdast7 profile image

      Theresa Ast 4 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      This is so well written and you made great use of photographs and maps. I knew absolutely nothing about this topic. I am afraid the Pacific Theater of War is often-times unfortunately ignored. Great Hub. Sharing. Theresa

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
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      David Hunt 4 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Thanks for the compliment, Gypsy. It's always rewarding when someone enjoys reading a bit of history. I envy you living in such a history rich area. Always great to hear from you.

    • Gypsy Rose Lee profile image

      Gypsy Rose Lee 4 years ago from Riga, Latvia

      Voted up and interesting. You drew me into the battle on this one. Terrifying moment for the USS Johnston. Great video. Passing this on.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
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      David Hunt 4 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Aethelthryth, thanks for that succinct sum up :) It's pretty much what I thought when I started looking into it.

    • aethelthryth profile image

      aethelthryth 4 years ago from American Southwest

      Wow. Voted up.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
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      David Hunt 4 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Hi, Steve. I thought the video would be different-- gives a flavor of what happened through animation. Glad you liked it.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
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      David Hunt 4 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Thanks for stopping by, Graham. I wasn't familiar with this story either and can't understand why it isn't more well-known.

    • Steve Lensman profile image

      Steve Lensman 4 years ago from London, England

      Another slice of history I knew little about, good work David.

      I enjoyed the video too.

      Voted Up and Interesting.

    • old albion profile image

      Graham Lee 4 years ago from Lancashire. England.

      Well done David. A wonderful hub full of truth, fire blood and guts. I felt as though I had smoke in my eye after reading it. though I admire the Japanese captain passing by with a salute, there was no thought of rescue for the men. Terrible times indeed.

      Voted up and all.

      Graham.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
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      David Hunt 4 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Pavlo-- great to hear from you. Thanks for commenting.

    • Pavlo Badovskyy profile image

      Pavlo Badovskyi 4 years ago from Kyiv, Ukraine

      They all made their contribution to the victory. Great hub, David!

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
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      David Hunt 4 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Thanks much, gmarquardt. This was challenging-- all the names of people and vessels and places took me a while to winnow things down so I could present mainly Johnston's story with just enough supporting explanation without overwhelming the reader. My biggest fear was that it would take away from the heroics of so many others-- each warranting their own place in history.

    • gmarquardt profile image

      gmarquardt 4 years ago from Hill Country, Texas

      Well written, engaging and accurate. Great job!

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