“The Johnston was a fighting ship, the fightingest destroyer of them all, but he was the heart and soul of her,” said Lt. Robert Hagen, the ship’s gunnery officer and the senior surviving officer of the sinking of the Johnston.
More than 180 men did not survive, including Evans, who was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously.
Hagen, in a story appearing in the May 26, 1945, issue of the Saturday Evening Post, told how he and Evans, on the night of Oct. 24, 1944, as the ship sailed about 15 miles off Samar Island, were listening on the radio to snatches of the naval battle down in Surigao Strait.
“He said, ‘Well, Hagen, we’re within three days of being one year old. It’s been an uneventful year.’ We had been in on four invasions, including pouring more than 4,000 rounds ashore on Guam in support of our landing forces. The crew called her GQ Johnny, because in her 363-day career she seemed to be at general quarters most of the time. But since we hadn’t had a flake of paint knocked off, the commander considered it uneventful,” Hagen said.
Another of the more than 130 men to survive the Johnston being literally blasted out of the water by the big guns of the Japanese ships was Bill Windle, now 85 and living with his wife of 53 years, Lucille, in West Portsmouth.
Windle was a seaman second class striking for fireman
“I think all of us serving under him would have done whatever Commander Evans asked us to do,” Windle said.
He recalled how Evans addressed the crew not long before they went into battle.
“He told us we were going into harm’s way. He said any of us who didn’t want to fight should let him know then, and he would get us off the ship,” Windle said. “I was 18 years old and I didn’t want to die. I wanted to make it back home. But more than that, I didn’t want to be colored yellow.”
The Johnston never made it to that first birthday. On Oct. 25, in the days of the Battle of Leyte Gulf, the biggest naval engagement ever fought, the Johnston and two other destroyers, along with four destroyer escorts, were protecting six “baby” flattops – escort carriers — off the island of Samar.
They were surprised by a large Japanese task force sailing through the straits and coming right at them. Planes from one of the carriers discovered the group. It was made up of seven cruisers, at least nine destroyers, and four battleships, including the Yamato – a 68,000 ton monster with nine 18-inch guns that could throw a one-ton shell. The Johnston and her sister ships had nothing bigger than five-inch guns.
Hagen, while convalescing, took paper and pencil and figured up the difference in firepower between the Johnston and the Japanese task force.
“Those Jap ships could put out at least 80,000 pounds of shells; our five batteries could answer with 275 pounds,” he said.
The Japanese ships were the survivors of the central force which Admiral Halsey’s fliers had attacked the day before. After starting to retreat, they had reversed their course, maneuvered the extremely hazardous passage through San Bernardino Strait, and were headed around Samar Island to attack U.S. invasion forces that had gone ashore on Leyte Oct. 20-21. One of them was Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who had kept his promise made two and one-half years before to return to the Philippines.
The Japanese plan was to sally forth with two task forces combined and annihilate the Americans, both their amphibious shipping and the troops on shore.
Their second task force, made up of two battleships, three heavy cruisers and 11 destroyers, was steaming through the Surigao Strait, south of Leyte. It was a giant “pinchers” movement designed to trap the Americans in the gulf.
The one task force off Samar Island was headed straight for Windle and the Johnston and the small American task force.
“We felt like little David without a slingshot,” Hagen wrote in his Post story.
“It was 6:50 a.m. when all hell broke lose,” he said. “I had just asked the mess boy to bring me up a cup of coffee and an egg sandwich. I never did get that fried egg.”
He said he saw Evans come out of his sea cabin grinning, and barking orders: “All hands to general quarters. Prepare to attack major portion of Japanese fleet. All engines ahead flank. Commence making smoke. Left full rudder.”
The 40 mm gun that was Windless battle station had been wiped out, and he was helping hand up shells for one of the five-inch guns.
“They were shooting us all to pieces, and we couldn’t outrun them,” he said.
When he heard the order for left full rudder, he knew they were turning to go on the attack.
“He went right at them birds. I knew we’d had it then,” he said.
The Johnston and its sister destroyers, Hoel and Heermann, laying down smoke screens over the carriers as they went, charged the Japanese ships, firing spreads of torpedoes and peppering the decks with their five-inch guns.
Evans gave the order to “launch all 10 torpedoes.”
“I saw the bow of a cruiser ripped open,” Windle said. “And evidently one of our torpedoes hit the big battleship’s rudder. It was going round in circles.”
In addition to the black smoke, Windle said a misty-like fog set in, so that for awhile they couldn’t see the Japanese ships and they couldn’t see them.
“God helped us out a little there, I’ll always believe that,” he said.
When the fog lifted he was looking up at the big battleship “like looking up Mt. Everest. We were under their guns. They couldn’t lower them enough to shoot us. And even as we moved away, they were in danger of hitting their own ships if they shot at us and missed.”
As the Johnston tried to make its getaway, though, it was eventually hit repeatedly. After the ship had its steering shot away, he said he saw Evans, part of one hand blasted off, on the fantail shouting orders down an open hatch to those below, who were turning the rudder by hand.
After three hours of fighting, the Johnston lay dead in the water. It went down at 9:55 a.m. The Hoel had sunk an hour earlier. The destroyer escort Samuel B. Roberts was ripped open and plunged out of sight.
The baby carrier Gambier Bay sank at 9 a.m., the only U.S. carrier in World War II to be sunk by naval gunfire.
American seamen watched in amazement as the Japanese commander of the task force, Adm. Takeo Kurita, who appeared to be on the verge of a great victory, broke off at 9:11 a.m. and turned his ships north, ending the sea battle off Samar.
“I think we stopped their battle plans,” Windle said. “They wanted to protect that big battleship that had lost its steering because of a torpedo hit. So they turned back. We turned them back.”
Naval historians believe that the intensity of the destroyer attacks and the strikes by U.S. planes led Japanese Adm. Takeo Kurita to believe he was engaging the big carriers of the U.S. Third Fleet, and that Adm. William “Bull” Halsey’s powerful forces were lurking nearby.
But Halsey had been lured away from the entrances to Leyte Gulf, sailing north to engage four aircraft carriers and two older ships fixed up to look like carriers. The Japanese were willing to sacrifice these in order to “sucker” him away from the main battle.
As the “abandon ship” order passed from crew member to crew member, no one on the Johnston had to be told to do that. Those still able to walk were leaping off wherever they could.
Windle said he “stepped off” the ship’s stern and he and others swam away in their lifejackets as fast as they could to avoid being sucked under by the undertow as their ship went down.
“The Japanese ships were right in amongst us, and we thought they were going to gun us down in the water, but they didn’t,” Windle said. “I could hardly believe what I saw on the deck of one of the Jap ships. An officer, watching the Johnston go down, came to attention and gave the ship a snappy salute.”
Before being pulled out of the brink by a U.S. landing craft from the island, he would spend 54 hours in the water, with no food or water, and fighting off shark attacks.
He first swam to a mattress he spied afloat. But he found one of his shipmates clinging to it, his skin falling away from his face where he had been scalded by steam. He was dying and there was nothing he could do for him. He pushed away when he heard shipmates calling to him. He joined up with a cluster of 44 sailors riding in and clinging to an 18-man life raft.
“That night the sharks came,” Windle said. “I don’t know how many the sharks claimed from the more than 130 of our men who had gone into the water, but I know of at least three they got.”
The next day he and five others, clinging to a 2-by-4, swam to a lifeboat they saw on the horizon.
“We thought it might have some food and water on it, but when we got there — it took us almost all day to make it – we found that even though the sides were still inflated, the bottom had been ripped out,” Windle said.
It was while swimming to the raft that Windle was stung by the stingray.
“It got me on the finger, and by the time we got to the raft I was having hot flashes and, I guess, getting delirious,” he said. “I told the others, ‘Boys, I’m going to go below decks and get us some water.’ They were afraid I was going to drown myself. Someone started slapping me in the face, and I came out of it.”
It was not long afterward that the ship from the island picked them up.
“We were all saddened by the fact that we lost the best commander a man could hope to sail under,” Windle said. “And he was the only true American on board. The rest of us were foreigners. My people came over from England.
“I’m glad I survived. But I can tell you one thing, if I hadn’t have survived, it would have been an honor to go down with a man like Commander Evans.”
G. SAM PIATT can be reached at (740) 353-3101, ext. 236.