The following post has been updated to correct the number of ships involved in the Battle of Samar.
A few days past the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Samar, researchers from Vulcan Inc.’s research vessel R/V Petrel believe they’ve found wreckage from the engagement’s famed Fletcher-class destroyer, USS Johnston (DD-557).
Images of twisted metal, a destroyed deck gun, a propeller shaft and other less recognizable debris were posted to Petrel’s Facebook page Wednesday, with a video narrated by Rob Kraft, Vulcan’s director of subsea operations, and Paul Mayer a submersible pilot with the team started by the late billionaire and philanthropist Paul Allen.
“This wreck is completely decimated,” Kraft says in the video. “It is just debris. There is no hull structure.”
Petrel’s crew found the wreckage about 20,400 feet below the water’s surface, just at the edge of a steep undersea precipice and at a depth that pushes the limit of their underwater search equipment.
Without finding identifying material – such as a portion of the hull with the hull number 557, other equipment with the ship’s name, personal effects of the crew – positively identifying the wreckage as Johnston is difficult, Robert Neyland, the Naval History and Heritage Command’s Underwater Archaeology Branch Head, told USNI News.
Neyland, who was familiar with Petrel’s search efforts, explained researchers might have enough evidence to confirm the wreckage is from a Fletcher-class destroyer. However, when Johnston sunk, another Fletcher-class ship, USS Hoel (DD-533), was also in the area.
“There was a lot of confusion in that battle,” Neyland said.
Some of the wreckage appears to be equipment such as blast shields behind guns that researchers know were on Hoel, based on old photos of the ship. Equipment could have been added to Johnston after the few confirmed pictures of the destroyer were taken, Neyland said.
The location of the wreckage, in the southern part of the area where the battle took place, suggests the wreck is Johnston, Kraft said. Johnston was the last ship to sink.
On Oct. 25, 1944, a Japanese force of four battleships, six heavy cruisers, two light cruisers, and 11 destroyers surprised a U.S. task unit. The Japanese force was trying to run-down six U.S. small escort carriers, three destroyers including Johnston and four destroyer escorts defending the north Leyte Gulf, east of Samar, retired Rear Adm. Samuel Cox, director of the Naval History and Heritage Command, told USNI News.
“Johnston, under Cmdr. (Ernest) Evans was the first on to conduct an attempted torpedo attack on the Japanese force,” Cox said. “Evans made the attack without waiting for orders to do so because he knew it was clear that unless he did something, the Japanese were going to run down the slower U.S. force, and they had the power to wipe it out.”
Evans knew his ship and the others in the task unit were outgunned, yet he attacked anyway, Cox said. In hindsight, such action isn’t surprising. A year earlier, Evans predicted he’d take such actions during Johnston’s commissioning.
“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,” Evans said at Johnston’s commissioning in Seattle on Oct. 27, 1943, according to the Naval History and Heritage Command.
Of the crew of 327 men, 141 survived the battle. Of the 186 sailors lost, 50 were killed by enemy action, 45 died from battle injuries on rafts, and 92 men – including Evans – were alive in the water after Johnston sank but were never seen again, according to the Naval History and Heritage Command.
Johnston was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation. Evans, a 1931 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy who was believed to be the third Native American graduate, was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, Cox said.
“He also said that he would never run from a fight, and on the 25th of October, 1944, he proved true to his word,” Cox said.