Dead In the Water

During the Second World War, it was very unusual to be standing on the deck of an American warship and actually see a Japanese vessel. Most sea battles in the Pacific War were fought at night or from great distances--by carrier-based planes flying many miles from their ships. But shortly after dawn on the morning of October 25, 1944, the men of the USS Johnston, a destroyer patrolling near Leyte Gulf in the Philippine Islands, saw something the survivors would never forget.

There, rising over the horizon out of the morning mist, were the distinctive pagoda-shaped superstructures of a dozen battleships and cruisers of Emperor Hirohito's Imperial Japanese Navy. The men on the Johnston could see the great guns of the Japanese warships flashing in the distance, and see and hear the giant shells tumbling towards them. The shells made a sound, some recalled, like a passing freight train. On the bridge of the Johnston , one sailor ducked. "Don't duck, son," said the destroyer's captain, Cmdr. Ernest Evans. "The ones you hear have already missed you."

The Americans had been caught by surprise. In a last-gasp effort to stop the U.S. invasion of the Philippines, the Japanese Navy had devised an elaborate ruse, using a decoy to draw away the mighty American carrier task force that was guarding the invasion fleet. Adm. William F. ("Bull") Halsey fell for the trick and went steaming north with his fast, heavy carriers, leaving Gen. Douglas MacArthur's support ships undefended. The way was open for Japanese battleships and cruisers to fall upon much weaker prey, the lightly armored American destroyers and slow, small auxiliary or "jeep" carriers supporting the invasion. What happened over the next two-and-a-half hours, in the last great sea battle ever fought, is an inspiring, appalling story of courage and blunder.

Commander Evans, the captain of the Johnston, was an unusual officer in the still segregated Navy of his day, a Cherokee Indian who had come out of the enlisted ranks to graduate from the U.S. Naval Academy. Evans knew that his ship was doomed. But he was determined not to go down until he had fired off his torpedoes. He did not charge straight ahead, but zig-zagged, steering toward the splashes of falling shells, knowing that the Japanese gunners would constantly shift their aim. For ten long minutes the Johnston fish-tailed until Evans finally ordered, "Fire torpedoes." The Johnston unloaded all ten of its "fish" and turned and ran for it. One of the torpedoes blew off the bow of an enemy cruiser, the Kumano .

Then the first enemy barrages found the Johnston . Three 14-inch shells, probably from the battleship Kongo, slammed into the aft engine room and fire room. The jolt was like a "puppy smacked by a truck," recalled the gunnery officer, Lt. (j.g.) Robert Hagen. Stumbling out of the engine room came three men, their skin already turning a ghastly white and peeling off in sheets. Steam boiled, they lay down on the deck and died. Within ten seconds, three more shells, six-inchers from a light cruiser, ripped into the superstructure behind the Johnston 's bridge. The pilothouse was so riddled with shrapnel it looked like "a kid's BB target," recalled Hagen.

Lt. (j.g.) Ellsworth Welch came in from the bridge wing to find Lt. (j.g.) Jack Bechdel, the torpedo officer, propped in the corner. Just a few minutes earlier Bechdel had been exulting over his torpedoes running "hot, straight, and normal." Now he was complaining about his right shoulder. He did not seem to notice that one of his legs had been blown off below the knee. The ship's doctor had given Welch some syrettes of morphine and Welch wordlessly plunged one into Bechdel's wrist. Welch began collecting body parts and pitching them over the side, "to maintain morale," he later recalled.

Commander Evans seemed unfazed. His helmet had been blown off, his shirt ripped off his back, and his face and torso had been cut up by shrapnel. He was missing two fingers. Wrapping his bleeding hand with a handkerchief, he kept giving orders.

A very few sailors cracked. A senior petty officer, normally a crew stalwart, crawled inside the signal flag bag, whimpering and gibbering. Others rallied. With the electrical cables running aft severed, it was no longer possible to aim and fire the ship's five 5-inch guns from the ship's gun director above the bridge. In one gun turret, Gun 54, a sailor named Robert Hollenbaugh took control and began aiming and firing the gun himself. "Gun 54 declared its own war on the Japs," recalled Hollenbaugh, a 22-year-old off a farm in Indiana.

In the gun director, Lieutenant Hagen was in a "dreamy" state, "wrung out" and "detached." His guns had been peppering battleships and cruisers with five-inch shells, but he didn't think they were doing much damage. "It was like bouncing paper wads off a steel helmet," he recalled.

The Johnston had survived the bombardment for two hours. Evans's skill at "chasing the splashes" had saved her, but so, perversely, had the weakness of the ship's armor. The skin of the destroyer was so thin (3/8 of an inch) that the armor-piercing shells of the Japanese battleships had gone right through her without exploding. The Johnston was like a terrier, nipping at the heels of the bigger Japanese ships, distracting and delaying them as they bore in on the vulnerable American carriers. At 8:30 a.m., Evans could see that one of the carriers, the Gambier Bay, was taking heavy fire from a cruiser. "Commence firing on that cruiser, Hagen," Evans yelled up at his gunnery officer. "Draw her fire on us and away from the Gambier Bay ." Hagen responded, "Aye, aye, sir," and said under his breath, surely you jest.

From the bridge of the Johnston, it seemed that the Japanese were moving in for the kill. Evans spotted a cruiser and four destroyers closing in on the carriers, apparently commencing their torpedo run. The officers of the Johnston knew they were all alone. The destroyer Hoel had vanished under a deluge of Japanese shells. The destroyer escort Samuel B. Roberts was burning furiously a few miles away. Evans began giving orders to head off the five at-tacking ships. In so doing, wrote the great naval historian Samuel Eliot Morison, "The Johnston signed her own death warrant."

The Johnston had no torpedoes left, only five-inch guns bravely banging away. In Gun 55, recalled gunner's mate 3/c Clint Carter, "we were firing so fast and so long that the paint on the gun barrel was blistered and on fire." The gunners couldn't get ammunition up fast enough from the handling room. "I was screaming for ammo," recalled Carter, a Texan, "when one of the sailors in the handling room screamed back, 'I'm glad there ain't no Japs from Texas'."

Atop the bridge, Hagen thought he could see hits on the superstructure of the lead cruiser, the Yahagi . Then, he recalled, "a most amazing thing happened. She turned 90 degrees and broke off action." Hagen opened up on the advancing line of destroyers. He realized, with pride and horror, that his captain was executing the most famous and daring of all battle maneuvers, crossing in front of an enemy column of ships to bring all his guns to bear and create confusion and disorder. In war college exercises, this is a maneuver to be attempted only with a line of battleships. Evans was doing it with an outgunned and half-wrecked destroyer.

Incredibly, the Japanese destroyers all turned 90 degrees and began to retreat. "Commander Evans, feeling like the skipper of a battleship, was so elated he could hardly talk," recalled Hagen. "He strutted across the bridge and chortled, 'Now I've seen everything'."

The reality was only slightly less dramatic. The Japanese destroyers were turning to launch their torpedoes. But because of the Johnston 's improbable attack, the Japanese were forced to launch their fish while they were still six miles away from the nearest carrier, the Kalinen Bay . The torpedoes were moving so slowly by the time they reached the carriers that evasion was not difficult. One carrier, the St. Lo, deflected a torpedo from a collision course with a shot from its five-inch gun.

Remarkably, the main Japanese attack, for all intents and purposes, was over. The commander of the Japanese Battle Fleet, Adm. Takeo Kurita, gave the order to withdraw. Kurita, who had not slept for three days, thought that he had encountered a much larger and more powerful fleet. His lookouts and officers mistook the American destroyers like the Johnston for heavier cruisers and thought the little "jeep" carriers were actually the fast fleet carriers of Admiral Halsey's task force.

But it was too late for the Johnston . By 9 a.m., the ship was a blackened hulk. Evans was forced to leave the bridge as it filled with smoke. Half-naked, smeared with blood, he steered by standing over an open hatchway at the stern or tail-end of the ship, yelling orders down to sailors who were tugging on the rudder cables. Hit by more shells, the ship went dead in the water. Evans finally gave the order to abandon ship; the Johnston slowly rolled over and plunged down, bow-first. In the water, men wept to see her go. Tom Dixon, a fuse setter on Gun 54, tried to stop crying. He thought to himself that his body might need the liquid.

A Japanese destroyer slowly moved in amongst the ship's survivors. About sixty of the crew had been killed in battle and gone down with the ship. Some 270 survivors, many badly wounded, drifted in the oil slicks amidst the flotsam. At first, the men of the Johnston were convinced that they would be machine-gunned or depth-charged as they floated helplessly. Both sides in the bloody Pacific War were known to shoot survivors in the water.

The Japanese warship, flying an enormous Rising Sun battle flag, drew within a hundred yards of the swimmers. Japanese sailors lined the rail. They were not holding guns. Some clapped and laughed, or made a "number one" sign, as if they were mocking the Americans. One tossed a can of tomatoes. Then several of the Johnston 's sailors noticed the destroyer captain, in his white uniform, standing on the wing of the bridge. The officer, honoring the Americans' courage, gravely saluted.

The Japanese steamed away. Hagen recalled a sudden silence. Guns were no longer crashing, machinery was no longer roaring, wounded were no longer screaming. They were alone on a vast ocean. Commander Evans was nowhere to be seen. No one had seen him leave the ship. He had simply vanished beneath the waves.

The men organized themselves; the wounded were placed on two life rafts and inside floater nets, webs of nylon attached to buoys. "A symphony of moans" had started up, recalled Hagen. A pharmacist's mate asked Hagen, "Who gets the morphine?" Hagen replied, "The ones who cry the loudest." Missing a leg, Lieutenant Bechdel was so doped up on painkillers that he began to sing. Blessed with a mellifluous voice, he sang as if he and his buddies were gathered around a campfire.

Shortly after noon, an American dive bomber flew low overhead and dipped its wings. It won't be long now, thought Clint Carter, the Texan gunner's mate who had screamed so loudly for more ammunition. Help was surely on the way. The officers and petty officers began handing out rations--malted milk balls and Camel cigarettes. The drinking water in the casks attached to the life rafts was putrid. Someone had forgotten to change it. As the sun began to sink in the west, the first doubts began to rise. A large stingray, not really dangerous, but eerie, began swimming between the rafts. The pilot who had seen the men in the water gave the wrong map coordinates. Two destroyer escorts were dispatched, but they found no one, and broke off the search. About 20 miles to the south, the survivors vainly scanned the horizon as darkness fell.

The sharks came that night. The screams began. There would be a flash of phosphorescence, furious splashing, a cry of shock and pain. Then silence. The wounded were dying. Lieutenant Bechdel, his morphine worn off, was no longer singing but screaming for a painkiller. Mercifully, he died before dawn. A man whose stomach had been torn out by a shark lay in the raft begging to be put out of his misery. Someone produced a gun; it misfired. Another sailor took a knife and cut the man's throat.

A kapok life jacket remains buoyant for about twenty hours. On the morning of the second day, 18-year-old seaman Bill Mercer took off the life jacket that he had strapped on when he had first heard Commander Evans command the Johnston to turn toward the enemy fleet. He watched the sodden preserver slowly sink. Broiling in the sun, the men of the Johnston were beginning to break down and drink salt water. They would hallucinate, have convulsions, and die. Their visions were vivid and varied: Native girls bringing tropical fruit. A case of beer. A bar just down the street. A few men saw Commander Evans. One officer announced that he wanted to join him on the mountaintop, and just swam away.

By the second night, it was every man for himself. The conversation and the prayers died away. Men who had helped the wounded onto rafts now waited for the wounded to die so they could replace them. By dawn on the third day, almost half the 270 men who had gone into the water after the Johnston sank had died or disappeared. As the sun rose, one of the survivors, Bobby Chastain, looked around and saw men who barely looked like men any more. Their faces and shoulders were raw with sunburn, their lips were grotesquely swollen and blistered, and their eyes were bloodshot, dead, or haunted.

Then, as Chastain recalled, "a miracle occurred." He saw, far off on the horizon, several small ships approaching. Through his badly sunburned eyes, he saw a familiar and glorious sight streaming from the masts of the ships: the stars and stripes of the American flag.

The ships were LCIs, landing ships. The Navy, after initial confusion and delay, had not given up on them after all. For a moment, the survivors of the Johnston thought they were going to be killed by their own men; gunners on the bows of the ships were blazing away with machine guns. But then the men in the water realized that the gunners were shooting at circling sharks.

A voice called out from the lead ship: "Who won the World Series last year?" The answer came back: "To hell with baseball. Get us out of this water!"

Slowly, painfully, 141 survivors were pulled from the water. Most of them lay down on the deck and went to sleep. A couple of Japanese planes strafed the LCIs as they steamed back to Leyte Gulf. The men of the Johnston slept through the raid.

Today, 62 years later, about twenty-five of those men are still alive. They hold a reunion every year, and remember their shipmates.

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