Ahead of this Veterans Day, there have been some interesting discoveries deep under the Pacific Ocean. The research ship RV Petrel has discovered the wrecks of several ships sunk in World War II. Notably, the Japanese aircraft carriers Kaga and Akagi — sunk during the Battle of Midway on June 4 and 5, 1942 — and the American ships USS St. Lo and what is likely to be the USS Johnston — sunk during the Battle of Samar Island on Oct. 25, 1944. I have written columns about both battles, so I won’t go into details, but that’s why I have followed the press releases carefully.
I commend the crew of the RV Petrel and its mission — locating and surveying significant shipwrecks. The RV Petrel project was founded and funded by Paul Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft, who passed away in 2018. Its mission is now carried on by his estate. RV Petrel has an outstanding record of locating shipwrecks that are difficult to find because of challenging conditions, usually the depth of water in which they are located. Over the years, the Petrel has located at least 31 historical shipwrecks.
The shipwrecks discovered this year and announced in the last month or so are of huge interest. Surveys of the wrecks will help historians with details of each battle. The exact locations are being kept secret. There are rogue salvagers out there who scavenge shipwrecks for the metal, and some World War II shipwrecks — particularly those in the Java Sea — have been heavily plundered. Plundering war graves — and ships sunk during wartime are precisely that — is quite heinous.
The two Japanese carriers sunk at Midway may have received more attention in the news cycle because a new movie about the Battle of Midway has been released this weekend. Advance reviews are good, so I may have to venture out to the movie theater to see it. However, this movie would have to be especially good to top the 1976 film “Midway,” starring Charlton Heston and Henry Fonda, one of my all-time favorite movies.
The Battle of Samar Island is far less well known, though. I first read about it in the book “The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors” by James D. Hornfischer. He subtitled this gripping account of the battle “The Extraordinary World War II Story of the U.S. Navy’s Finest Hour” — that’s a pretty fair description of it. I highly recommend this book.
Hornfischer relates the story of the U.S. Navy naval task force codenamed “Taffy 3,” composed of escort aircraft carriers and destroyers, supporting the U.S. invasion of the Philippines. These aircraft carriers were smaller than the U.S. carriers involved in the Battle of Midway, and the destroyers and destroyer escorts protecting them were smaller still. The Japanese managed to surprise this task force with an overwhelmingly superior force of battleships and cruisers. To put it into perspective, the largest Japanese battleship involved, the Yamato, was larger in tonnage than the ENTIRE American task force. One shot from a single one of Yamato’s main guns would have decimated any of our ships.
The destroyer USS Johnston and her sister escorts did the only thing they could do in such a situation — they attacked. In a situation that only be described as “desperate,” they steamed toward the Japanese ships at full speed to attack with their torpedoes, the only weapons they had capable of sinking those behemoth battleships and cruisers. Many of those ships did not survive the day, and USS Johnston was among them.
Cmdr. Ernest E. Evans, captaining the USS Johnston, steered his little ship — destroyers were known as “tin cans” because of their small size and light armor — straight “in harm’s away” (to use Capt. John Paul Jones’s famous phrase). Cmdr. Evans was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions, but he did not survive the battle, along with many of his fellow sailors.
USS Johnston was sunk by the Japanese fleet during her valiant attack, along with most of the destroyer escort, but she and her sister ships succeeded. Their reckless bravery convinced the Japanese admiral that he was facing a larger American force than he thought, so he withdrew from battle. Most of the aircraft carriers of “Taffy 3” survived to fight another day — with the exceptions of USS St. Lo and USS Gambier Bay.
USS Gambier Bay was sunk by shellfire from Japanese cruisers during the surface action, but USS St. Lo succumbed to a kamikaze attack after the Japanese surface force had withdrawn. She went down with about losses of about 143 sailors.
When the RV Petrel announced her finds of USS St. Lo and USS Johnston, I was reminded of this desperate battle. Although the shipwreck of the USS Johnston has not been confirmed by identifying marks that would separate it from other American destroyers sunk in the battle, it’s likely her, given the location.
Veterans Day, after all, is an act — an act of remembrance. We remember all our military personnel who served, in peacetime and in war — those who survived and those who perished. These shipwrecks are mute remembrances to their service.
David Murdock is an English instructor at Gadsden State Community College. He can be contacted at email@example.com. The opinions reflected are his own.