USS Johnston (DD-557) was a World War II-era Fletcher-class destroyer in the service of the United States Navy. She was the first Navy ship named after Lieutenant John V. Johnston. The ship was most famous for its bold action in the Battle off Samar. The small "tincan" destroyer armed with nothing larger than 5" guns and torpedoes would lead the attack of a handful of light ships which had inadvertently been left unprotected in the path of a massive Japanese fleet led by battleships and cruisers. The sacrifices of Johnston and her little escort carrier task unit "Taffy 3" had stopped Admiral Kurita's powerful Center Force in the Battle off Samar from attacking vulnerable US landing forces, and inflicted greater losses than they suffered.
Construction and commissioning
Johnston was laid down 6 May 1942 by the Seattle-Tacoma Shipbuilding Corp., Seattle, Washington; launched 25 March 1943; sponsored by Mrs. Marie S. Klinger, great-niece of her namesake; and commissioned 27 October 1943, Lieutenant Commander Ernest E. Evans in command.
The day Johnston was commissioned, Cmdr. Evans made a speech to the crew: "This is going to be a fighting ship. I intend to go in harm's way, and anyone who doesn't want to go along had better get off right now."
World War II service
During the Marshall Islands campaign, Johnston bombarded the beaches at Kwajalein 1 February 1944, and made a 5-day bombardment of Eniwetok 17–22 February. She gave direct support to invasion troops there, destroying several pillboxes and taking revetments along the beach under fire. En route to patrol duty in the Solomons 28 March 1944, she bombarded Kapingamarangi Atoll in the Carolines. An observation tower, several blockhouses, pillboxes and dugouts along the beach were shelled. Two days later she came into the mouth of the Maririca River, southeast of Empress Augusta Bay, Bougainville, Solomon Islands. After laying a heavy barrage into that area, she took up antisubmarine patrol off Bougainville. During this duty 15 May 1944, she depth charged and sank the Japanese submarine I-176.
After 3 months of patrol in the Solomons, Johnston sailed to the Marshall Islands to prepare for the invasion and capture of Guam in the Marianas. On 21 July 1944, she teamed up with the Pearl Harbor "ghost", the battleship Pennsylvania, to bombard Guam. The destroyer had sent in more than 4,000 rounds of shells by 29 July. Her accurate gunfire shattered the enemy 4 inch battery installations, numerous pillboxes and buildings. Johnston next helped protect escort carriers providing air support for the invasion and capture of the Palau Islands.
Now the time had come for General MacArthur's long awaited return to the Philippines. Following replenishment at Seeadler Harbor, Admiralty Islands, she sailed 12 October 1944 to help protect the escort carriers maintaining air supremacy over eastern Leyte and the Gulf, sweeping the enemy off local airfields, giving troops direct support on the landing beaches from 20 October, and even destroying vehicle transport and supply convoys on the roads of Leyte itself. Johnston was operating with "Taffy 3" (Escort Carrier Task Unit 77.4.3) comprising Rear Admiral Clifton A. F. “Ziggy” Sprague's flagship Fanshaw Bay, five other escort carriers, three destroyers including herself, and four destroyer-escorts. "Taffy 3" was one of the three units of Rear Admiral Thomas L. Sprague's Escort Carrier Task Group 77.4, known by their voice calls as "Taffy 1", "Taffy 2", and "Taffy 3".
Engagement of Taffy 3
Battle off Samar
On the morning of 23 October 1944, American submarines detected and attacked units of the Japanese fleet coming in from the South China Sea toward the precarious Leyte beachhead. The battleship-cruiser-destroyer Southern Force was decimated as it attempted to enter Leyte Gulf via Surigao Strait the night of 24–25 October 1944. The more powerful battleship-cruiser-destroyer Center Force under Vice Admiral Takeo Kurita had been pounded by Admiral “Bull” Halsey's attack carrier planes and presumably turned back from San Bernardino Strait. Admiral Halsey then raced north with his attack carriers and heavy battleships to engage a decoy Japanese carrier–battleship task force off Cape Engano. This left Johnston and her small escort carrier task unit lonely sentinels in north Leyte Gulf, east of Samar and off San Bernardino Strait.
As enemy ships fled the Battle of Surigao Strait at daybreak of 25 October 1944, the powerful Japanese Center Force slipped through San Bernardino Strait and into Leyte Gulf. It steamed along the coast of Samar directly for Johnston’s little task unit and the American invasion beachhead at Leyte, hoping to destroy amphibious shipping and American troops on shore.
One of the pilots flying patrol after dawn alert of 25 October 1944 reported the approach of Japanese Center Force. Steaming straight for "Taffy 3" were four battleships (including Yamato), seven cruisers, and at least 12 destroyers. Johnston's gunnery officer, Lieutenant Robert C. Hagen, later reported, "We felt like little David without a slingshot." In less than a minute, Johnston was zigzagging between the six escort carriers and the Japanese fleet and putting out a smoke screen over a 2,500-yard front to conceal the carriers from the enemy gunners: "Even as we began laying smoke, the Japanese started lobbing shells at us and the Johnston had to zigzag between the splashes.... We were the first destroyer to make smoke, the first to start firing, the first to launch a torpedo attack...."
For the first 20 minutes, Johnston could not return fire as the enemy cruisers and battleships' heavy guns outranged the Johnston's 5-inch guns. Not waiting for orders, Commander Evans broke formation, and went on the offensive by ordering Johnston to speed directly towards the enemy—first a line of seven destroyers, next one light and three heavy cruisers, then the four battleships. To the east appeared three other cruisers and several destroyers.
As soon as range closed to within ten miles, Johnston fired on the nearest vessel, Kumano, scoring damaging hits. In five furious minutes, Johnston fired over 200 rounds at the enemy, then, under the direction of torpedo officer Lieutenant Jack K. Bechdel, made a torpedo attack. She got off ten torpedoes, then turned to retire behind a heavy smoke screen. When she came out of the smoke a minute later, Kumano could be seen burning furiously from a torpedo hit; her bow had been blown completely off, and she was forced to withdraw. Around this time, Johnston took three 14-inch shell hits from Kongo, followed closely by three 6-inch shells, from either a light cruiser or possibly the Yamato, hitting the bridge. The hits resulted in the loss of all power to the steering engine and all power to the three 5-inch guns in the after part of the ship, and rendered the gyrocompass useless. A rainstorm came up and Johnston "ducked into it" for a few minutes of rapid repairs and salvage work. The bridge was abandoned and Commander Evans, who had lost two fingers on his left hand, went to the aft steering column to conn the ship.
At 7:50 a.m., Admiral Sprague ordered destroyers to make a torpedo attack: "small boys attack". Johnston, unable to keep position with her damaged engine, and with her torpedoes already expended, nonetheless moved to provide fire support for the other destroyers. As she emerged from a smoke screen, she nearly collided with Heermann. At 8:20, Johnston sighted a Kongo-class battleship, only 7,000 yards away, emerging through the smoke. The destroyer opened fire, scoring multiple hits on the superstructure of the much larger ship. The return fire from the battleship missed clearly.
Johnston soon observed Gambier Bay under fire from an enemy cruiser, and engaged the cruiser in an effort to draw her fire away from the carrier. Johnston scored four hits on the heavy cruiser, then broke off as the Japanese destroyer squadron was seen closing rapidly on the American escort carriers. Johnston engaged the lead ship until it quit, then the second until the remaining enemy units broke off to get out of effective gun range before launching torpedoes, all of which went wild. Then the luck of the Johnston ran out – she came under heavy fire from multiple enemy ships, and right when it was most needed, the damaged remaining engine quit, leaving Johnston dead in the water.
Under attack from all sides
The enemy ships closed in for an easy kill, pouring fire into the crippled destroyer. Johnston took a hit which knocked out one forward gun and damaged another, and her bridge was rendered untenable by fires and explosions resulting from a hit in her 40 mm ready ammunition locker. Evans, who had shifted his command to Johnston’s fantail, was yelling orders through an open hatch to men turning her rudder by hand. Crewmen from Samuel B. Roberts spotted Evans at the fantail, asking "isn't that their captain", waving to them with what they did not realize was his only good hand.
At one of her batteries, a crewman kept calling "More shells! More shells!" Still the destroyer battled to keep the Japanese destroyers and cruisers from reaching the five surviving American carriers: "We were now in a position where all the gallantry and guts in the world couldn't save us, but we figured that help for the carrier must be on the way, and every minute's delay might count.... By 9:30 we were going dead in the water; even the Japanese couldn't miss us. They made a sort of running semicircle around our ship, shooting at us like a bunch of Indians attacking a prairie schooner. Our lone engine and fire room was knocked out; we lost all power, and even the indomitable skipper knew we were finished. At 9:45 he gave the saddest order a captain can give: 'Abandon Ship.'... At 10:10 Johnston rolled over and began to sink. A Japanese destroyer came up to 1,000 yards and pumped a final shot into her to make sure she went down. A survivor saw the Japanese captain salute her as she went down. That was the end of the Johnston."
From Johnston's complement of 327 officers and men, only 141 were saved. Of the 186 men lost, about 50 were killed out-right by enemy action, 45 men later died on rafts from wounds; and 92 men, including Commander Evans, got off the Johnston before she sank, but were never heard from again.
Hoel and Samuel B. Roberts also sacrificed themselves to save the escort carriers and to protect the landings at Leyte. Two of four Japanese heavy cruisers were sunk by combined surface and air attacks, and Admiral Clifton Sprague was soon amazed by the sight of the retirement of Kurita's entire fleet. By this time, planes of "Taffy 2" and Taffy 1" and every available unit of the Fleet were headed to assist "Taffy 3". But Johnston and her little escort carrier task unit had stopped Admiral Kurita's powerful Center Force in the Battle off Samar, inflicting greater losses than they suffered.
Johnston was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation as a unit of "Taffy 3" (Task Unit 77.4.3). Lt. Cmdr. Ernest E. Evans was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor: "The skipper was a fighting man from the soles of his broad feet to the ends of his straight black hair. He was an Oklahoman and proud of the Indian blood he had in him. We called him—though not to his face—the Chief. The Johnston was a fighting ship, but he was the heart and soul of her.
In addition to the Presidential Unit Citation, Johnston received six battle stars for service in World War II.