The deepest shipwreck ever found has been confirmed as a US warship sunk in a pivotal World War II battle

The deepest shipwreck ever found has been confirmed as a US warship sunk in a pivotal World War II battle
US Navy destroyer USS Johnston off of Seattle, Washington, October 27, 1943.US Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph
  • Researchers have confirmed the discovery of USS Johnston, found 21,180 feet beneath the Philippine Sea.
  • Johnston was sunk during the most pivotal moment in the Battle of Leyte Gulf, one of the most important battles of World War II.

The wreck of US Navy Fletcher-class destroyer USS Johnston has been found under 21,180 feet of water off the coast of the Philippine island of Samar.

The discovery is significant for the US Navy because of the heroism of the ship's crew during the Battle off Samar - the most pivotal engagement of the Battle of Leyte Gulf.

Hopelessly outgunned, the Johnston helped secure a US victory in the largest battle, and one of the most uneven matches, in naval history.
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Taffy 3

The deepest shipwreck ever found has been confirmed as a US warship sunk in a pivotal World War II battle
US Navy destroyers and destroyer escorts laying a smoke screen as Japanese shells land around them during the Battle off Samar, October 25, 1944.US Navy
On October 20, 1944, the first of hundreds of thousands of Allied troops landed on the island of Leyte, beginning the liberation of the Philippines.

The Japanese sent three naval groups to destroy the invasion force. Center Force arrived off the coast of Samar early on October 25. It comprised 23 ships; among them was the Yamato, the largest and most powerful battleship ever built.

The US Navy had sent its own capital ships elsewhere, leaving only a small task force known as "Taffy 3" to stand against Center Force.
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Taffy 3 had only six escort carriers and seven destroyers, which were meant to support ground and anti-submarine operations. These "tin cans" were the only thing between the invasion force and destruction.

Battle off Samar

The deepest shipwreck ever found has been confirmed as a US warship sunk in a pivotal World War II battle
Japanese cruiser Kumano is bombed by planes of Task Force 38 on October 26, 1944, after the Battle off Samar.US Navy
Upon seeing the Japanese force, Taffy 3's destroyers immediately laid a smoke screen around the carriers, which were fleeing the scene. The Japanese ships opened fire as they approached, and Johnston was the first US ship to shoot back. Realizing the desperate situation, Johnston's captain, Cmdr. Ernest E. Evans, decided on his own to charge Center Force to buy time for the carriers, firing the destroyer's 5-inch guns along the way.
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Unable to penetrate the Japanese ships' armor, Johnston's crew aimed for their bridges and deck guns, hoping to start fires and create havoc.

Zig-zaging to avoid being hit, the Johnston headed directly for the splashes caused by the exploding Japanese shells in hopes they wouldn't hit the same place twice.

Within 10 minutes, Johnston had fired 200 5-inch rounds and all 10 of its torpedoes. One torpedo hit the heavy cruiser Kumano, ripping off its bow and forcing it to retreat. But a few minutes later, multiple battleship rounds destroyed Johnston's bridge and an engine room, knocking out electrical power and halving its speed.
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"It just felt like the ship was picked up and shaken," recalled Robert Hagen, a gunnery officer on Johnston. "We kept firing as long as we possibly could."

The deepest shipwreck ever found has been confirmed as a US warship sunk in a pivotal World War II battle
An explosion aboard escort carrier USS St. Lo after it was hit by a kamikaze off Samar, October 25, 1944US Navy

Despite serious wounds, Evans refused to give up command. Johnston's actions inspired the other destroyers to fight back, and an all-out brawl ensued.

Johnston's sailors got two of the 5-inch guns working again. "Anytime we could get keyed in on something we fired," said Bob Hollenbaugh, a sailor on aboard Johnston. "We kept firing as long as we possibly could."
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Johnston attempted to draw fire away from the escort carrier Gambier Bay, but it was soon surrounded by Japanese ships, which closed in on Johnston.

"The ship was just taking so many hits that they couldn't patch the holes fast enough," Hollenbaugh said. "It was just impossible to keep her afloat."

At 9:45 a.m., Evans gave the order to abandon ship, and Johnston sank 25 minutes later. The Japanese, however, were convinced they faced a larger US force and retreated.
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Evans and 185 other crew members were killed - 92 of them, including Evans, were alive in the water after Johnston sank but were never seen again - and 141 survivors were later rescued.

Evans was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor - the first Native American in US Navy history to receive it. "In no engagement of its entire history has the United States Navy shown more gallantry, guts and gumption than in those two morning hours between 0730 and 0930 off Samar," Rear Adm. Samuel Eliot Morison wrote in his history of US Navy operations during the war.
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21,180 feet

The deepest shipwreck ever found has been confirmed as a US warship sunk in a pivotal World War II battle
USS Johnston's starboard bow, with the anchor still in place and the hull number, 557, visible.Victor Vescovo/Caladan Oceanic

The wreck of Johnston was first found in October 2019, on a cliff more than 20,000 feet underwater, making it the deepest shipwreck ever found.

On that expedition, pieces of the vessel were filmed by a remotely operated vehicle, but most of the wreck was deeper than the vehicle could dive.

Based on the location of the wreckage, Naval History and Heritage Command believed it was the Johnston, but Johnston and another US destroyer lost in the battle were nearly identical, preventing confirmation.
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Johnston's intact bow - with its hull number, 577, visible on both sides - was later found farther down the cliff, 21,180 feet deep.

Two full 5-inch gun turrets, twin torpedo racks, and multiple gun mounts were still in place and visible, according to undersea technology company Caladan Oceanic, which sponsored the mission.

The deepest shipwreck ever found has been confirmed as a US warship sunk in a pivotal World War II battle
The two forward 5-inch gun mounts aboard USS Johnston, pointing to the starboard side, as they were when last fired.Victor Vescovo/Caladan Oceanic
"No human remains or clothing were seen at any point during the dives, and nothing was taken from the wreck," Caladan said in a release.
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The confirmation of Johnston's location was announced on April 1 by Caladan and the expedition's leader, Victor Vescovo, an explorer and retired Navy commander.

At the end of the expedition, the team stopped their ship, DSSV Pressure Drop, sounded its whistle, and laid a wreath in honor of sailors killed there.

"In some ways, we have come full circle," Vescovo said in the release. "The Johnston and our own ship were built in the same shipyard, and both served in the US Navy. As a US Navy officer, I'm proud to have helped bring clarity and closure to the Johnston, its crew, and the families of those who fell there."
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