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This Day in History: Ernest Evans, the Battle off Samar, & his “fighting ship”

On this day in 1944, a United States Navy officer makes the ultimate sacrifice in an action that would earn him the Medal of Honor. Commander Ernest Evans had fought gallantly for hours before finally going down with his destroyer, USS Johnston.

“This is going to be a fighting ship,” Evans had said just one year earlier, when his ship was commissioned. “I intend to go in harm’s way, and anyone who doesn’t want to go along had better get off right now.”

Evans had long been known as the “Chief.” It was “a nod,” as one historian says, “to both his Cherokee heritage and his warpath emotions.” Evans was loved and respected by his men. The Johnston’s gunnery officer described him as a “true, instinctive fighter. . . . We were on a high-class ship because the captain was high-class.”

Evans had served during the Battle of the Java Sea and had been among those forced to retreat before Japanese forces. He was determined never to do that again. He got his chance to prove his mettle at the Battle off Samar, during the multi-day Battle of Leyte Gulf. By then, he was commander of the Johnston.

It was early in the morning on October 25, 1944, when United States Navy Task Group Taffy-3 found itself on a collision course with a large Japanese fleet. Taffy-3 was composed of half a dozen jeep carriers, accompanied by a handful of destroyers and destroyer escorts. The Americans were massively outgunned—and they knew it. Unfortunately, as things then stood, the American ships were the only thing standing between the Japanese armada and General MacArthur’s troops at Leyte Island.

Evans never hesitated. He knew that his only chance of doing damage was to get close and fire a spread of torpedoes. He began charging toward the Japanese fleet, zig-zagging and creating a smoke screen. “I can see him now,” one officer would later remember, “short, barrel-chested, standing on the bridge with his hands on his hips, giving out a running fire of orders in a bull voice.”

When he was within 10,000 yards, he unleashed his torpedoes. His efforts were not in vain. The torpedoes took off the bow of one Japanese cruiser. Meanwhile, Johnston disappeared back into its own smoke screen. The illusion of safety didn’t last long. Japanese fire soon hit Johnston—and hit it hard. One of its two engines was lost.

Evans was among the injured (he lost two fingers!), but he seemed unfazed. He went back into the fight. And he rallied others to go with him.

Thankfully, Johnston soon sailed into a squall. The crew had 15 minutes to recover and regroup. This they did, but then Evans pulled Johnston out of the squall—and attacked the Japanese again. The battle would continue for nearly three hours before Evans was finally forced to give an order to abandon ship. Survivors would later be pulled from the water, but Evans was not among them.

Evans had fought so hard and so well that even the Japanese were impressed. As USS Johnston slipped under water, several American sailors reported an interesting sight: A Japanese destroyer was passing by. At least one officer stood on deck, saluting the fallen American captain.

“Evans led a small group of U.S. ships against the most powerful fleet the Japanese had ever assembled,” historian R.L. Wilson concludes, “and fought so ferociously that the imperial navy retreated and never conducted a major operation again.”

Evans would be posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his gallantry that day.

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