USS Johnston (DD-557)
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|Namesake:||John V. Johnston|
|Builder:||Seattle-Tacoma Shipbuilding Corporation|
|Laid down:||6 May 1942|
|Launched:||25 March 1943|
|Commissioned:||27 October 1943|
|Presidential Unit Citation, 6 Battle Stars|
|Fate:||Sunk 25 October 1944, Battle off Samar|
|Class & type:||Fletcher-class destroyer|
|Displacement:||2,700 long tons (2,700 t)|
|Length:||376 ft 6 in (114.76 m)|
|Beam:||39 ft 8 in (12.1 m)|
|Draft:||17 ft 9 in (5.4 m)|
|Installed power:||60,000 shp (45,000 kW)|
|Propulsion:||2 × geared steam turbines
2 × shafts
|Speed:||35 kn (40 mph; 65 km/h)|
|Range:||6,500 nmi (7,500 mi; 12,000 km) @ 15 kn (17 mph; 28 km/h)|
|FD fire-control radar
SC air search radar
|Notes:||Equipped with Mark 1A fire control computer|
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 inch (127mm) 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" helped stop Admiral Kurita's powerful Center Force from attacking vulnerable U.S. landing forces, and inflicted greater losses than they suffered.
Construction and commissioning
Johnston was laid down on 6 May 1942 by the Seattle-Tacoma Shipbuilding Corp., Seattle, Washington; launched on 25 March 1943; sponsored by Mrs. Marie S. Klinger, great-niece of her namesake; and commissioned on 27 October 1943, Lieutenant Commander Ernest E. Evans in command.
The day Johnston was commissioned, Cmdr. Evans made a speech to the crew, in which he quoted a phrase attributed to John Paul Jones: "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 on 1 February 1944, and made a five-day bombardment of Eniwetok from 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 on 28 March, 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 anti-submarine patrol off Bougainville. While performing this duty, on 15 May she depth charged and sank the Japanese submarine I-176.
After three 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, 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's 4 in (100 mm) battery installations, numerous pillboxes and buildings. Johnston next helped protect escort carriers providing air support for the invasion and capture of the Battle of Peleliu.
Now the time had come for General MacArthur's long awaited return to the Philippines. Following replenishment at Seeadler Harbor, Admiralty Islands, she sailed on 12 October 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
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. 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 as 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, the powerful Japanese Center Force slipped through San Bernardino Strait and into The Philippine Sea heading toward 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 that morning reported the approach of Japanese Center Force. Steaming straight for "Taffy 3" were four battleships (including Yamato), eight cruisers (two light and six heavy), and 11 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 yd (2,300 m) 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 Johnston's 5 in (130 mm) guns. Not waiting for orders, Commander Evans broke formation and went on the offensive by ordering Johnston to speed directly toward 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 heavy cruiser Kumano—the nearest ship—and scored several damaging hits. During her five-minute sprint into torpedo range, Johnston fired over 200 rounds at the enemy, then—under the direction of torpedo officer Lieutenant Jack K. Bechdel—made her torpedo attack. She got off all 10 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 in (360 mm) shell hits from Kongō, followed closely by three 6 in (150 mm) shells—from either a light cruiser or Yamato—which hit 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 aft part of the ship, and rendered the gyrocompass useless. A low-lying squall 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 07:50, 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 fellow destroyer Heermann. At 08:20, Johnston sighted a Kongō-class battleship—only 7,000 yd (6,400 m) 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 missed. Then, Johnston's luck ran out; she came under heavy fire from multiple enemy ships, and right when it was most needed, the damaged remaining engine quit, leaving her dead in the water.
Under attack from all sides
Some time into the battle, a Japanese battleship, the Kongo fired two from their main cannons. One round punched right through the thin, weak side armor of the Johnston and cut a hole clean through the engine room. Her speed was cut in half. 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 the destroyer escort 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 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 Cmdr. Evans—got off 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 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.
USS Evans (DE-1023), was the Dealey-class destroyer escort named for Ernest E. Evans. She was launched in 1955 and stricken in 1973. No current ship carries the name of Evans, but there is another USS Johnston. By contrast, three current ships—USS Copeland (FFG-25), USS Samuel B. Roberts (FFG-58), and USS Carr (FFG-52), all guided missile frigates—were named for Samuel B. Roberts and members of her crew.
The second USS Johnston (DD-821) was a Gearing-class destroyer launched on 10 October 1945. On 27 February 1981, Johnston was stricken from the Naval Vessel Register and transferred to the Republic of China (Taiwan). She served in the Republic of China Navy as ROCS Chen Yang, and was later reclassified a guided missile destroyer, DDG-928. Chen Yang was decommissioned on 16 December 2003.
- The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors by James D. Hornfischer (Bantam, 2004), History Channel program
- Dogfights History Channel, "Death of the Japanese Navy"
- Battle off Samar
-  Robert Jon Cox. Accessed 4 July 2007.
- Dogfights: Death of the Japanese Navy. History Channel. TV. Arthur Drooker.
- This article incorporates text from the public domain Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships. The entry can be found here.
- Cox, Robert Jon (2010). The Battle Off Samar: Taffy III at Leyte Gulf (5th Edition). Agogeebic Press, LLC. ISBN 0-9822390-4-1.
- Hornfischer, James D. (2004) The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors (1st Edition). Bantam Books ISBN 978-0-553-80257-3.
- WW2DB: Johnston
- Dead in the Water by Evan Thomas
- The Battle Off Samar - Taffy III at Leyte Gulf website by Robert Jon Cox
- NavSource.org - DD-557
- USS Johnston-Hoel Association