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Battle off Samar - USS Johnston

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Battle off Samar
The forces
Taffy 3 comes under attack
USS Johnston
USS Hoel
Carriers under attack
Japanese take hits
Seventh Fleet's calls for help
Criticism of Halsey
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USS Johnston

Lieutenant Commander Ernest E. Evans, commanding officer of the destroyer Johnston, the closest to the attackers, took the initiative. He ordered his ship to “flank speed, full left rudder,” attacking on his own in what appeared to be a suicide mission.

The Johnston approached the cruiser squadron flagship, the heavy cruiser Kumano, for a torpedo attack. At a range of 10 miles (16 km), Johnston opened fire, aiming for the Kumano's superstructure, bridge and deck, since her 5-inch shells would have bounced off the enemy's belt armor. One advantage the Americans had in gunnery was the use of largely the same radar-assisted Mark 37 Gun Fire Control System used on battleships. The brains of the system was the Ford Mark I Fire Control Computer which provide coordinated automatic firing solutions of her 5-inch guns merely by pointing the gun director at the target. The Japanese were using colored marker shells to bracket the range of a target, but US destroyers and even the carriers were often able to dodge Japanese misses by weaving to avoid shells, and steering towards splashes, while inflicting accurate hits on larger Japanese ships. When Johnston closed to within torpedo range, she fired a salvo, which blew the bow off Kumano, which also took the Mogami-class heavy cruiser Suzuya out of the fight, as she stopped to assist.

At a range of seven miles, the battleship Kongo sent a 14-inch shell through the Johnston’s deck and engine room, cutting the destroyer's speed in half to 14 knots and interrupting electric power to the aft gun turrets. Then three 6-inch shells, possibly from Yamato, struck Johnston’s bridge, causing numerous casualties and severing fingers from Captain Evans' left hand. The bridge was abandoned and Evans proceeded to steer the ship back towards the fleet, shouting orders from aft down to men manually operating the rudder from aft, when he noticed other destroyers starting their torpedo run.

Emboldened by Johnston’s attack, Sprague gave the order "small boys attack", sending the rest of Taffy 3's destroyers and destroyer escorts on the offensive. They attacked the Japanese line, drawing fire and scattering the Japanese formations as ships turned to avoid torpedoes. Despite heavy damage, Evans turned the Johnston around and reentered the fight while damage control teams restored power to two of the three aft turrets.

Two hours into the attack, Captain Evans aboard the Johnston spotted a line of four Japanese destroyers led by the light cruiser Yahagi making a torpedo attack on the carriers and moved to intercept. Johnston fired and scored hits on them, pressuring them to fire their torpedoes prematurely at 10,500 yards distance at 09:15. The torpedoes were reaching end-of-run as they approached their target, and broached.

At 09:10, a direct hit on one of the Johnston's forward turrets knocked it out and set off many of the 5-inch shells stored in the turret. Her damaged engines stopped, leaving her dead in the water. As her attackers gathered around the vulnerable ship, they concentrated fire on her rather than the fleeing carriers. Johnston was hit so many times that one survivor recalled "they couldn't patch holes fast enough to keep her afloat." Under heavy attack from the air and fire from American destroyers and destroyer escorts, the Japanese cruisers broke off and turned northward at 09:20. At 09:45, Evans finally gave the order to abandon ship. The Johnston sank 25 minutes later with 186 of her crew. Evans abandoned ship with his crew, but was never seen again. He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. As a Japanese ship cruised slowly by, the survivors saw the enemy standing at attention to salute.

USS Samuel B. Roberts

USS Samuel B. Roberts at sea
At 07:35, the destroyer escort Samuel B. Roberts, captained by Lieutenant Commander Robert W. Copeland, turned and headed toward the battle, passing the damaged Johnston, which was retiring. Roberts had only two 5-inch guns, one forward and one aft, and just three Mark-15 torpedoes, but attacked the heavy cruiser Chokai. With smoke as cover, the Roberts steamed to within two and a half miles of Chokai, coming under fire from the latter’s two forward 8-inch turrets.

Roberts was so close that the enemy shells passed overhead. Once she was within torpedo range, she launched her three torpedoes, apparently registering at least one hit. Roberts then fought with the Japanese ships for a further hour, firing over 600 5-inch shells, and while maneuvering at very close range, mauling Chokai’s superstructure with her 40 mm Bofors and 20 mm Oerlikon anti-aircraft guns. At 08:51, the Japanese finally landed two hits, the second of which destroyed the aft gun turret. With her remaining 5-inch gun, Roberts set the bridge of the cruiser Chikuma afire and destroyed the number 3 gun turret, before being pierced again by three 14-inch shells from Kongo. With a 40-foot hole in her side, the Roberts took on water, and at 09:35, the order was given to abandon ship.

Gunner's Mate Paul H. Carr was in charge of the aft 5-inch gun mount, which fired nearly all of its 325 stored rounds in 35 minutes before a breech explosion. Carr was found dying at his station, begging for help loading the last round he was holding into the breech. He was awarded a Silver Star. A guided missile frigate was later named for him.

The ship sank in a half hour with 89 of her crew. She would go down in history as “the destroyer escort that fought like a battleship.”

Companion destroyer escorts Raymond, Dennis, and John C. Butler also launched torpedoes. While they missed, it helped slow the Japanese chase. Dennis was struck by a pair of cruiser shells. John C. Butler ceased fire after expending her ammo a hour into the engagement.

Last Updated ( Wednesday, 15 April 2009 19:51 )  

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