This is going to be a fighting ship. I intend to go in harms way, and anyone who doesn’t want to go along had better get off right now. – attributed to John Paul Jones
The men aboard this ship have been fighting for months. They are not on the largest or most formidable ship in the US navy (their complement numbers just over 300, their ship being a fletcher class destroyer), but their fighting spirit is indomitable. The USS Johnston weighed a mere 2700 tons, and its largest guns were 5 five-inch guns (or 127mm). To put that into perspective, the main gun on the Abrahams tank is 120mm.
The battle in store for this crew, however, would prove that it is the men, and not the metal, that truly make the difference.
The group of vessels this crew find themselves amongst are a lightly defended carrier group known as taffy 3. There are 6 escort carriers, lightly armed mini-aircraft carriers. There are two other destroyers, and four destroyer escorts, small light vessels built for escorting ships of the merchant marine.
The USS Johnston was captained by commander Ernest Evans. It is this man, and his crew, that would stem the tide of a Japanese fleet that included the Yamato, the largest battleship ever built, which was more than 25 times the size of his vessel. The sheer size difference would have had most men, if not actually fleeing in terror, at the least hesitating. Where Evans had 5 of his five-inch guns to the ready, the Yamato had 9 eighteen-inch guns. Thus was the playing field for the battle off Samar.
It was the in the morning of the 23rd of October, 1944, when the crew aboard the Johnston would have heard their captains voice over the ships intercom. Every man on board strong in the knowledge of their own abilities, and those of their comrades. Many would have been at their posts. Some were perhaps resting, still others maybe readying themselves for another day of active service in a war zone. These men heard Evans speak, giving voice to a fierce courage they all possessed.
“A large Japanese fleet has been contacted. They are 15 miles away and are headed in our direction. They are believed to have four battleships, eight cruisers, and a number of destroyers. This will be a fight against overwhelming odds from which survival cannot be expected. We will do what damage we can”.
At such proclamation, one that would instil soul rending fear in most men, his loyal crew jumped into action. For as their commander would attack head on the threat presented, so would they.
And even such a dire announcement was lighter than the truth. For in actual fact, the number of destroyers that accompanied the battleships and cruisers was eleven, alone practically matching the size of the American fleet. The other issue presented here was that every vessel flying a Japanese flag had been purpose built for combat, compared to the highly valuable, and highly vulnerable aircraft carriers of the Americans.
Commander Evans and his men fought valiantly, going immediately on the assault, placing themselves in the most dangerous of places to give the carriers a chance of survival. Taking fire well before they were close enough to the enemy to return it, the gunners aboard the Johnston worked like men possessed, delivering hundreds of rounds accurately, and quickly. Their efforts, along with their cohort aboard the ship, saw them cripple the heavy cruiser Kumano, despite having been on the receiving end of enemy fire for 20 minutes without any way of giving it back. Their example also helped spearhead the efforts of the other combat ships in their fleet, showcasing a strength of spirit that enabled a small group of American ships to turn back the enemy, and thwart them in their aims. What should have been a decisive victory for the Japanese was a loss, thanks to Commander Evans and his crew.
When their ship was crippled by enemy fire, and the bridge destroyed, they fought on, the Captain commanding his vessel from the stern, shouting orders down a hatch for the ship to be steered manually. When Evans finally gave the command to abandon ship, after his ship was on fire, unable to move, and sinking, it was only given 25 minutes before the ship rolled over. Commander Evans is believed to have gone down with the ship, as he was not seen amongst the wreckage, nor found on any raft.
The fight these men had presented was so intense that the Captain of a Japanese ship was seen to salute the wreck as it sunk, a mark of respect from their enemy. This battle, and this victory was achieved by each man who gave his life, and by each man who survived. They found themselves amidst righteous company, fighting shoulder to shoulder with men who were dedicated to the last, and men who, when told of their imminent death, gritted teeth, and pressed on.
Vale, to these men. Vale.