Ernest Evans may have been a United States Naval Academy graduate, but he came about it the hard way. A Native American with Creek and Cherokee bloodlines, he experienced the prejudices prevalent during his youth growing up in Muskogee, Oklahoma. With hopes of becoming a Marine officer, Evans sought entry into the Academy but was not selected. Undeterred, he enlisted in the Navy. After more than a year of service, Evans was accepted into the Academy’s Class of 1931 through a fleet competition.
During the Oct. 27, 1943, commissioning ceremony of Johnston, Commanding Officer Evans made his mission clear to the Sailors assigned to the ship: “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.” No one did.
As commanding officer, Evans was the rare leader who “appreciated the hidden nature of things, the power of the unseen over the tangible,” according to those who served with Evans, as quoted in The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors, by James D. Hornfischer. He never exploded in anger and seldom upbraided a subordinate in front of others for poor performance. He gave his men the opportunity to fail, knowing they would learn and not fail him again.
His devotion to protecting the Marines fighting onshore went beyond providing them cover with the allotted amount of ammunition. He often ordered his ship in so close to shore it was hit with small arms fire. When Evans demanded more ammunition, he climbed into a wooden gig and motored over to the task group’s flagship to request it in person. And he got it.
On Oct. 20, 1944, Evans and his Johnston crew joined the Seventh Fleet’s Escort Carrier Task Unit 77.4.3, which went by the call name “Taffy 3.” Taffy 3 was defending the north Leyte Gulf, east of Samar and off San Bernardino Strait, and the Leyte beachhead of General MacArthur’s “return to the Philippines.”
At dawn on Oct. 25, 1944, a pilot flying patrol was surprised to see the Japanese Center Force steaming into Leyte Gulf. The remaining force of four Japanese battleships, eight cruisers, and at least 12 destroyers had reversed course under cover of darkness and transited through the unguarded San Bernardino Strait.
There was no question what decision Evans would make, despite having only two hours of fuel. “All hands to general quarters. Prepare to attack major portion of the Japanese fleet. All engines ahead flank. Commence making smoke and stand by for a torpedo attack. Left full rudder.” Every ship in Taffy 3’s screen performed with extreme heroism that day, but as the Gunnery Officer of Johnston, Robert Hagen noted, “we were the first destroyer to make smoke, the first to start firing, the first to launch a torpedo attack. . . .”
Once the Johnston got to within the range of its 5-inch guns, under a hail of Japanese fire, she fired more than 200 rounds and 10 torpedoes at Japan’s heavy cruiser, Kumano. Many shells and at least one torpedo hit, and the Kumano later sank. But Japanese shells found their mark as well. Johnston was shattered, the damage and casualties were horrific, and Evan’s himself was seriously wounded.
Despite grave damage, greatly reduced speed and firepower, and no remaining torpedoes, Evans nevertheless chose to bring Johnston out of the refuge of a rain squall and commenced a second attack on the Japanese, supporting the Hoel, Heerman, and Samuel B. Roberts as they were valiantly sacrificing themselves to protect the escort carriers. In the ensuing melee, limping along on one boiler, Johnston fired nearly 30 rounds in 40 seconds into a 30,000-ton battleship.
Evans then noticed Japanese ships had targeted the escort carrier Gambier Bay (CVE 73). Hagen said his skipper “gave me the most courageous order I’ve heard: ‘Commence firing on that cruiser, draw her fire on us and away from Gambier Bay.’” Hagen continued, “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.”
In The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors, Capt. Bob Copeland, the commanding officer of Samuel B. Roberts, describes the moment he watched Johnston limp by slowly, with her captain calling orders down the hatch where sailors were turning her rudder by hand. He was stripped to the waist and covered in blood with his left hand wrapped in a handkerchief. When he saw Copeland, he waved.
One by one, Johnston took on the Japanese destroyers, bluffing them into thinking she had torpedoes. After the first two turned away, the rest broke off to get out of Johnston’s gun range to launch torpedoes. All missed.
The charge ended Johnston’s improbable two-and-a-half-hour battle. Surrounded by enemy ships and dead in the water with no boilers or power, Evans made the call at 9:45 a.m. to abandon ship. Twenty-five minutes later, the destroyer rolled over and began to sink. One survivor said a Japanese destroyer captain saluted the ship as she went down.
Of Johnston’s crew of 327, only 141 survived. Johnston wasn’t the only ship sacrificed that day. Both Hoel and Samuel B. Roberts sank, along with Gambier Bay, and Heerman was pounded to a hulk. Taffy 3 did its damage, though, sinking two enemy cruisers while stopping the Central Fleet in the Battle off Samar. Evans was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor, and his ship received six battle stars for her service in World War II and the Presidential Unit Citation. In sacrificing his ship, most of his crew, and his life, Evans set an example of incredible resolve, followed by many others that horrible day, that turned an almost certain catastrophe into a hard-fought victory.
“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,” Hagen said. “The Johnston was a fighting ship, but he was the heart and soul of her.”
I wanted to be part of the history that included people like him, and that is why I joined the U.S. Navy.