It is the deepest-known shipwreck in the world. Now a submersible has reached USS Johnston, which sank during the Second World War and lies 6.5km beneath the Philippine Sea.
The 115m-long Fletcher-class destroyer sank in the Pacific Ocean during the Battle off Samar on 25 October 1944. Johnston led an attack by a handful of light ships that had been inadvertently left unprotected in the path of a much larger Japanese fleet, including ships up to 20 times Johnston’s size.
Heavily outnumbered and outgunned, she nonetheless fought valiantly against her larger opponents, allowing time for the escort carriers she was protecting to escape. Of the ship’s 327-man crew, only 141 survived the battle.
Johnston was later awarded a Presidential Unit Citation, the highest award that can be given to a ship. Her commander, Ernest Evans, was awarded a posthumous Medal of Honor, the first Native American in the US Navy to receive such a decoration.
Before her sinking, Johnston had seen action in the Marshall Islands, where she gave support to troops during the invasion in early 1944; and later that summer at the Battle of Guam, where she fired more than 4,000 shells within just a few days.
Although first discovered in 2019, the submersible DSV Limiting Factor this time reached depths previous underwater vehicles could not. A team led by Victor Vescovo, a former US Navy Commander, used the craft in two separate, eight-hour dives to relocate and survey the wreck in water 62% deeper than where Titanic lay in the North Atlantic.
Commenting on its condition after nearly 80 years underwater, Vescovo said: ‘The wreck is so deep there’s very little oxygen down there, and while there is a little bit of contamination from marine life, it’s remarkably well intact except for the damage it took from the furious fight.’
Johnston’s hull identification number – 557 – was visible on both sides of the bow, while two full gun turrets also remained intact.
‘The gun turrets are right where they’re supposed to be, they’re even pointing in the correct direction that we believe that they should have been, as they were continuing to fire until the ship went down,’ Vescovo added.
‘And we saw the twin torpedo racks in the middle of the ship that were completely empty because they shot all the torpedoes at the Japanese.’
No human remains were uncovered during the dive and nothing was removed from the ship. On completion of their exploration, the team laid a wreath on the oceanic battlefield to commemorate the lives lost on board.
This is an article from the June/July 2021 issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about the magazine and how to subscribe, click here.