USS Johnston – The Little Ship That Could
The United States Army’s Sixth Army launched the Battle of Leyte on October 17th, 1944. Supporting the landings as well as providing cover against the Japanese Navy was William “Bull” Halsey’s powerful 3rd Fleet, which was located near Samar to provide carrier support for the invasion of the Philippines. Japanese Admiral Ozawa’s strategy was to use his carriers to lure Halsey away from the landings, leaving the landing forces vulnerable to a Japanese naval strike force. When 3rd Fleet departed to chase the decoy fleet, Halsey left behind a small task force by the nickname of “Taffy 3”, composed of six escort carriers, three destroyers, and four destroyer escorts of 7th Fleet.
Once the 3rd Fleet had left the area, the large Japanese Center Force steamed through the San Bernardino Strait, wheeling back around towards Taffy 3. The Japanese Center Force was made up of four battleships, six heavy cruisers, two light cruisers, and eleven destroyers – a total of 23 combat ships headed straight for the outgunned and outranged ships of Taffy 3. One of those ships was the USS Johnston, commanded by Ernest E. Evans. When a pilot spotted the approaching Center Force and relayed their positions to Taffy 3, Cmdr. Evans reportedly declared to his men, “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.”
The USS Johnston was armed with no more than a few 5-inch guns, leaving it seemingly defenseless in the face of such a strong Japanese force. When the Japanese Force came into sight of Taffy 3, Evans commanded his small ship to steam full-speed towards the Japanese force, zig-zagging back and forth while deploying smoke screens to protect the escort carriers to his rear. When he within 10 miles of the Japanese, the Johnston fired, scoring a number of hits to a Japanese heavy cruiser. In a 5-minute sprint to close within torpedo range of the Japanese force, the Johnston fired over 200 rounds at the enemy ships before firing off all of its torpedoes, heavily damaging the Kumano, whose bow was on fire. Shortly afterward, the Johnston took several hits, one of which struck the bridge, resulting in the loss of two fingers on his hand. Evans would continue commanding the shit, yelling his orders through the hatches to keep the ship firing. It was not until they were out of ammunition, having fired even their smoke rounds and training rounds that Evans would give the order to abanded ship. The Japanese commander saluted the USS Johnston as she sunk, finding her to be a worthy opponent. It is said that Japanese sailors were throwing floatation devices to the American sailors, shouting “Samurai! Samurai! Samurai!”
The Johnston’s intrepid assault on the Japanese force was followed by the remaining American destroyers, which engaged and heavily damaged the Japanese fleet. By the end of the battle, three Japanese heavy cruisers were sunk and three damaged. The little ships of Taffy 3 had inflicted more damage on the Japanese ships than had thought been possible.