One of the most awe-inspiring displays of reckless bravery WWII: ‘This is going to be a fighting ship I intend to go harm’s way, anyone who doesn’t want to go along better get off right now!’

Shahan Russell
 
 
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Commander Ernest Edwin Evans on 27 October 1943 at the commissioning ceremonies of the USS Johnston in Seattle, Washington
Commander Ernest Edwin Evans on 27 October 1943 at the commissioning ceremonies of the USS Johnston in Seattle, Washington

Evans was part Cherokee and part Creek, and had seen combat at the Battle of the Java Sea. He served as a junior officer aboard the USS Alden which had to retreat from battle, something he had never forgotten. When given command of the Johnston, he announced that he intended to get into harm’s way, so if any of his crew didn’t like it, they could get off.

At 6:45 AM on October 25, Ensign Bill Brooks was doing a routine aerial patrol when he had a virtual heart attack. Bearing down on the landing team was Kurita’s fleet with four battleships, eight cruisers, and 11 destroyers. The only thing protecting the landing force were Taffy 3’s 16 small unarmored escort carriers and some destroyer escorts. Completely outgunned, the Americans were sitting ducks.

The USS Johnston was the closest to the oncoming Japanese fleet, so Evans ordered his men to attack. Measuring 376’ 6” in length, it was armed with only 5-inch guns and 10X21-inch torpedoes. Its target? The Kumano cruiser, stretching 661’ 5” in length and armed with five triple 6.1-inch dual purpose guns and Type 93 torpedoes. But Evans intended to keep his vow about getting in harm’s way.

Japanese Cruiser Kumano in October 1938
Japanese Cruiser Kumano in October 1938

Almost half the size of the Kumano, the Johnston charged ahead in a zigzag pattern. It emitted screening clouds of smoke, careful not to lay it on too thick to avoid giving away its position. Evans wanted to sink the cruiser with his torpedoes, but they only had a range of five miles.

To buy time, Senior Gunnery Officer Robert Hagan opened fire when they were 10 miles away. Wherever he pointed his telescopic sight, all five guns would follow by using the analogue fire control systems to automatically compensate for lead angle, azimuth, and ship’s roll.

Knowing his rounds couldn’t penetrate the Kumano’s hull, Hagan carefully aimed at the bridge, blasting it with a 200-round bombardment that rocked the cruiser with some 40 hits. The other destroyers took Evans’ lead, while planes took to the air to harass the Japanese.

The Suzuya Heavy Cruiser
The Suzuya Heavy Cruiser

The Johnston took on heavy fire, but managed to fire its first torpedoes at five miles. It hit the Kumano, but return fire blasted the Johnston’s bridge, burning Evans and killing other crew members. At 7:25 Lieutenant JG William Gallagher fired the Mark 13, America’s first aerial torpedo from his plane onto the Kumano, which sank at 7:27. To this day, no one’s sure if Gallagher or Evans was responsible for the sinking. Possibly both.

The Suzuya cruiser tried to rescue the survivors of the Kumano, but Evans sank the Suzuya with another volley of torpedoes. The Yamato scored three direct hits on the Johnston, but despite heavy damage and a high casualty rate, it continued fighting. By 9:45, however, the Johnston was a complete wreck, and Evans gave the order to abandon ship.

It sank at 10:10 AM, and of the 327 men aboard, only 141 survived.

The Battleship Yamato on 20 October 1941.
The Battleship Yamato on 20 October 1941.

Though they outgunned the Americans, the Japanese were so harassed by US destroyers and planes that they couldn’t coordinate their attacks and lost far more ships and men than did the Americans. With so many of their ships destroyed at the Battle of Leyte Gulf, the Japanese resorted to more kamikaze attacks from ground bases, most of which missed their targets at sea.

As for Evans, he went down with his ship and his body was never found, but he was awarded a posthumous Medal of Honor, having saved the invasion fleet from near certain destruction. He is remembered on the tablets of the missing on the Manila American Cemetery and Memorial.