The legacy of Ernest Evans inspires those in uniform today

Honoring the fallen while taking inspiration from them — that’s what Memorial Day is all about. Today let’s rediscover a legendary sea warrior, Cmdr. Ernest E. Evans. Refreshing Evans’s memory seems doubly fitting this year. Just this spring, undersea archaeologists identified the wreckage from his ship, the World War II destroyer USS Johnston. Johnston was sunk in Philippine waters during the Battle of Leyte Gulf, which marked the crescendo of the struggle between the U.S. Navy and Imperial Japanese Navy.

Who was Evans? He was a Clark Gable look-alike. He was “a fighting Cherokee Indian … short, barrel-chested, loud of voice, a born leader,” according to Samuel Eliot Morison, the chronicler of U.S. naval operations in World War II. And Evans’s crew stood in awe of him. Disappointing the Old Man — as navy crews have nicknamed their skippers since time immemorial — was the worst failure imaginable.

Evans had a chip on his shoulder after being forced to flee from the Battle of the Java Sea aboard the destroyer USS Alden in 1942, as Japanese warships rampaged through the South China Sea. At the ceremony in 1943 when Evans assumed command of Johnston, he informed well-wishers: “This is going to be a fighting ship. I intend to go in harm’s way. … Now that I have a fighting ship, I will never retreat from an enemy force.”

Nor did he.

In October 1944, Johnston was part of Task Force 3, or “Taffy 3,” steaming northeast of Leyte Gulf and due east of the island of Samar. Taffy 3 was Adm. Clifton Sprague’s flotilla of six light aircraft carriers, three destroyers, and four destroyer escorts. Its mission: to guard Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s landing force on Samar against attack from the sea.

Taffy 3 was not a battle fleet. It was a support force. And yet on the morning of Oct. 25 it had to fight for its life against one of the most formidable armadas ever to prowl Pacific Ocean waters — a force built around the battleship Yamato, the biggest, baddest battleship ever built.

What a mismatch. Johnston was a 2,700-ton destroyer, or “tin can,” sporting five 5-inch guns and some torpedoes. That’s a lightweight ship with lightweight armament. Arrayed against Johnston and her consorts was an enemy force boasting 23 vessels, every one of which equaled or exceeded the American tin cans in firepower and displacement. And it was headed by a 70,000-ton dreadnought. Never mind the size of the hull: each of Yamato’s three 18-inch gun turrets weighed as much as an American destroyer. The behemoth’s main guns, each 69 feet long, could fling projectiles weighing as much as a Volkswagen over 25 miles.

David had it easy when he squared off against Goliath.

Adm. Takeo Kurita’s “Center Force” was part of a larger Japanese fleet converging on Leyte Gulf. Kurita’s mission was to sink or drive off the American fleet, stranding U.S. Marine and Army forces ashore without air cover, naval gunfire support and shipborne supplies, and helpless under the big guns of Japanese battleships and cruisers. If successful, the Japanese assault would have set back, complicated, or perhaps even halted the American reconquest of the Philippines — and stymied MacArthur’s drive across the South Pacific.

So what do you do when confronted by an enemy force that outnumbers and outclasses you by every measure? If you’re Ernest Evans, you attack!

Cmdr. Evans instantly ordered Johnston’s helm hard over when lookouts sighted Kurita’s fleet coming over the horizon that October morning. The destroyer turned, rang up flank speed, and charged the enemy before even receiving orders to do so. Thus commenced the first of two mad dashes the destroyer would make that day.

Johnston zigzagged into firing range for her torpedoes, dodging enemy gunfire on her way. The ship dueled the Japanese heavy cruiser Kumano with guns before disgorging her 10 “fish.” Johnston’s torpedoes scored a hit on Kumano before the destroyer turned to rejoin Taffy 3. At that point, American luck ran out. Johnston took three hits from massive battleship guns, losing one of two engineering plants and half her speed. Fire control and steering were out. Evans lost his shirt and two fingers in one of the blasts, yet oversaw repairs that restored partial control of the guns, along with rudder control from the main deck.

The ship looked like a wreck.

Then the destroyer escorts started their torpedo run. When Johnston passed them, Evans ordered the rudder hard about — again — to provide them with gunfire support. And so began the second charge of the tin-can sailors. Johnston engaged the battleship Kongo and took on a five-ship destroyer squadron all by herself — badgering the Japanese ships into botching a torpedo attack on Sprague’s carriers. Ultimately, though, an avalanche of shells crashed into the ship — depriving her of propulsion and compelling the crew to abandon ship.

Cmdr. Evans made it into the water alive but was never recovered. How he met his maker remains unknown. What we do know is this: Johnston and her sisters cast the Japanese fleet into disarray, preventing it from striking effectively at the carriers. Kurita lost all taste for battle, calling off the Center Force’s advance short of its goal. The ground campaign in the Philippines went on thanks to reckless courage at sea.

Taffy 3 wrote a remarkable chapter in the annals of naval warfare. Evans and his shipmates took the fight to a crushingly superior force and won.

So what should we take away from the story of Ernest Evans? That he was decisive and had swagger. He inspired his sailors to be their best selves, and empowered them to do their duty. And, most importantly, he was prepared to give the last full measure of devotion for the cause of liberty. His legacy gives anyone who wears a military uniform an example to strive toward. We need such examples as new dangers gather in the Pacific.

Rest your oar, shipmate.

James Holmes is J.C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and a nonresident fellow at the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs. The views voiced here are his alone.

Tags Battle of Leyte Gulf Ernest E. Evans Japanese battleship Yamato Memorial Day Naval warfare Takeo Kurita USS Johnston

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