Day by Day

Sunday, November 02, 2003


I was looking at RNS when I saw this post by Puggs. It perked my interest for several reasons. One, my grandfather was in the Navy during World War Two. I never heard much about it except that my grandfather's ears, back, and knees were never the same. The guns on the ships in those days had a plate underneath the actual gun. After the gun had fired, the plate was swung out, allowing the spent powderbags (and anything not fired) to drop from the breech. The plate was then pushed back in, and the gun reloaded. This was the Forties, and ships were being built as fast as possible, which meant that a sailor had to stand there and push that plate in and out. My grandfather was only 5'1", almost too short for the Navy, but he wanted to join. And so he did, and was given the job of pushing this plate in and out every time the gun fired. It was one of the few jobs that he could do. And he did it, for years. My father was born in 1940, and on Dec. 7th, 1941, America was forced into the war.

People who grew up during the Reagan years don't quite have a grasp of what our Navy did during WWII. We were outgunned, outmanned, and on the run from 1941-1943. We didn't have a truly major victory until the Battle of Midway in June of 1942, and even then it was by a whisker. In any case, the USA didn't have the edge the way we do today. In fact, until late 1943, the war in the Pacific could have gone either way. One of the reasons it turned OUR way was due to ships and men like the USS Johnston.

The day JOHNSTON was commissioned, CDR Evans made a speech to the crew, "This is going to be a fighting ship. I intend to go in harm's way, and anyone who doesn't want to go along had better get off right now."

I can't imagine many modern commanders saying that today. I could be wrong, since I was a groundpounder, but I really wonder.

On the morning of October 25, 1944, without warning, JOHNSTON and Taffy III were set upon by the Imperial Japanese Navy Centre Force. During the previous night, this powerful enemy force of 4 battleships, six heavy cruisers, two light cruisers, and two squadrons of destroyers had slipped through San Bernardino Strait undetected.

Six escort carriers, three destroyers and four destroyer escorts, against the might and fury of a full Japanese battle group. I can't imagine it, I really can't. It would be like me in a Jeep Wrangler with my .22 rifle against a Sherman tank. I don't want to know what was going through the minds of those sailors.

JOHNSTON outfought the entire Japanese destroyer squadron, concentrating on the lead ship until the enemy quit cold, then concentrated on the second destroyer until the remaining enemy units broke off to get out of effective gun range before launching torpedoes, all of which went wild. JOHNSTON took a hit which knocked out one forward gun, damaged another, and her bridge was rendered untenable by fires and explosions resulting from a hit in her 40mm ready ammunition locker. Commander Evans shifted his command to JOHNSTON's fantail, yelling orders through an open hatch to men turning her rudder by hand. Still the destroyer battled desperately to keep the Japanese destroyers and cruisers from reaching the five surviving American carriers. "We were now in a position where all the gallantry and guts in the world couldn't save us, but we figured that help for the carriers must be on the way, and every minute's delay might count...."

"By 0930 we were going dead in the water; even the Japanese couldn't miss us. They made a sort of running semi-circle around our ship, shooting at us like a bunch of Indians attacking a prairie schooner. Our lone engine and fire room was knocked out; we lost all power, and even the indomitable skipper knew we were finished. At 0945 he gave the saddest order a captain can give: 'Abandon Ship.'..."

Ever want to box with a grizzly bear? How about fighting it with one hand tied behind your back and your left leg in a splint, how about that? And if you lose, the bear eats you.

At 1010 JOHNSTON rolled over and began to sink. A Japanese destroyer came up to 1,000 yards and pumped a final shot into her to make sure she went down. A survivor saw the Japanese captain salute her as she went down. That was the end of JOHNSTON. From her compliment of 327, only 141 were saved. Of 186 lost, about 50 were killed by enemy action, 45 died on rafts from battle injuries; and 92, including Commander Evans, were alive in the water after JOHNSTON sank, but were never heard from again.

So that ship lost more men in one day that all the US forces lost during major combat operations in Iraq. But it went down swinging, and it stopped the Japanese force cold. The sheer determination of that crew leaves me breathless. The courage they showed in the face of certain doom makes me want to cry. And I wonder if people actually know how close it was. I wonder of people today understand just what it took to win that war, the sacrifice, blood, and sweat that was needed to win. I hear all the cries of "quagmire" and "another Viet Nam" today, and I have to wonder if these people know anything at all....

If for any reason at all, we should never forget the sacrifice and bravery of those sailors on the USS Johnston, and the sailors on ships all over the world during World War Two. Reading accounts like this makes me wish that my grandfather was still alive, so that I could thank him, and ask him to tell me his stories. These stories need to be remembered and retold, so that we, as Americans, can understand the sacrifice made by our parents, and grandparents, and great-grandparents. We need to remember what happened so that we can understand what's happening today. And we need to honor those soldiers and sailors and Marines, for ensuring that we can live happy, prosperous, and free.

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