The World’s Deepest Shipwreck Is That of a WWII-Era Destroyer Sunk in 1944

Photo Credit: 1. Vlvescovo / Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0 2. US Navy / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

The USS Johnston was a destroyer that saw service with the US Navy during World War II. She saw the most activity in the Marshall Islands and the Leyte Gulf, the latter of which would be the vessel’s final resting place after an encounter with Japanese naval forces in October 1944.

Service during WWII

The USS Johnston served in the Marshall Islands campaign, bombarding the beaches of Kwajalein and Eniwetok, destroying several revetments and pillboxes. On March 28, 1944, while en route to the Solomon Islands, she also attacked the Kapingamarangi atoll in the Carolines, shelling an observation tower and several pillboxes and dugouts.

The vessel then took up submarine patrol off Bougainville, Solomon Islands, and on May 25 joined with the USS Franks and Haggard to sink the Japanese submarine I-176 using depth charges. After three months of patrol duty, the Johnston sailed once again to the Marshall Islands, this time to prepare for the invasion of Guam.

USS Johnston at sea
USS Johnston, October 1943. (Photo Credit: US Navy / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

On July 21, 1944, the Johnston partnered with the USS Pennsylvania to bombard the island, and by July 30 had fired over 4,000 shells. She then helped protect the escort carriers providing air support for the invasion and capture of Peleliu.

Following replenishment at Seeadler Harbor, the Johnston sailed to the Leyte Gulf, where she continued her role in protecting the escort carriers.

Sinking of the USS Johnston during the Battle Off Samar

On October 23, 1944, American submarines detected units from the Japanese fleet sailing to the area via the South China Sea. The majority of the ships making up the US forces went to engage, leaving the USS Johnston and her small escort carrier task force – Taffy 3 – alone in the north Leyte Gulf, off the San Bernardino Strait.

Portrait of Ernest E. Evans
Ernest E. Evans was the commander of the USS Johnston. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

Two days later, the powerful Japanese Center Force, made up of four battleships (including the Yamato), eight cruisers, and 11 destroyers, snuck through the San Bernardino Strait and into the Philippine Sea, heading toward the Leyte Gulf. The Johnston led the attack, and during the initial encounter knocked out a Japanese cruiser, but suffered extensive damage. However, her crew regrouped and re-engaged the enemy.

After two-and-a-half hours, the Johnston lost power and was surrounded by the Japanese ships. Her captain, Commander Ernest E. Evans, ordered his crew to abandon ship, after which the vessel rolled over and sank. Among the ships that also sank included the USS Hoel. Of the Johnston‘s 327-man crew, 186 died, including Commander Evans, who was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. The ship itself won the Presidential Unit Citation.

USS Johnston being launched into the water
Launch of the USS Johnston on March 25, 1943. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

The Battle Off Samar and the others that made up the Battle of Leyte Gulf were a major victory for the Allied forces, as they prevented the Japanese from attacking those US troops on land as part of General Douglas MacArthur‘s invasion. As well, the ships making up Taffy 3 managed to inflict severe damage upon the ships of the Center Force.

Initial discovery of the shipwreck

In 2019, Vulcan Inc. announced it had discovered what it believed to be the wreck of the USS Johnston. Using a remote-operated vehicle (ROV), the team spotted the debris 20,400 feet below the Philippine Sea, at the edge of an underwater precipice known as Emden Deep.

USS Johnston shipwreck below the water
Bridge and MK-37 Gun Fire Control System on the wreck of the USS Johnston, discovered during a dive on March 31, 2021. (Photo Credit: Vlvescovo / Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0)

The wreck’s depth meant it was impossible to survey it in its entirety, due to fears of losing connectivity with the ROV. As such, the team was only able to determine that the ship was a Fletcher-class destroyer. However, as the Johnston and the USS Hoel had both sank during the Battle Off Samar, they couldn’t be certain the ship was, in fact, the Johnston. They could only surmise based on its location and color.

USS Johnston shipwreck below the water
Gun turret No. 51 on the bow of the wreck of the USS Johnston, discovered during a dive on March 31, 2021. (Photo Credit: Vlvescovo / Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0)

The footage obtained showed the wreck to be well-preserved, but in rough shape with no hull structure. The team noted two five-inch gun mounts, a propellor shaft, two funnels and multiple pieces of mangled metal found on and around the ship.

Confirmation the USS Johnston has been located

In March 2021, Caladan Oceanic announced it had confirmed the wreck discovered by Vulcan Inc. was the USS Johnston. Using the research vessel DSV Limiting Factor, the company fully surveyed and photographed the wreckage, revealing the hull’s number – 557 – and positively identifying the wreck as belonging to the sunken destroyer.

Starboard-bow of the wreck of the USS Johnston was discovered during a dive on March 31, 2021. (Photo Credit: Vlvescovo / Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0)
Starboard-bow of the wreck of the USS Johnston was discovered during a dive on March 31, 2021. (Photo Credit: Vlvescovo / Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0)

According to the team of researchers, the Johnston sits at a depth of 21,180 feet below sea level, more than 100 feet deeper than previously thought, making it the deepest shipwreck ever discovered.