Cmdr Ernest Edwin Evans, MoH Recipient, And The Battle Off Samar - Native American Heritage Month
Category: History & SociologyBy: kavika • 3 years ago • 18 comments
This article was written by a friend of mine, Honmana (Bear Girl in the Hopi language).
This is considered the Navy finest hour.
The quote says it all...
Lieutenant Commander Robert W. Copeland maneuvered his small ship to evade the charging Heermann and, as he watched the destroyer receding towards the enemy, sized up the situation,  which he passed to his crew over the 1MC public-address circuit: "This will be a fight against overwhelming odds from which survival cannot be expected. We will do what damage we can." He realized that at his current heading and location his small ship would be in a textbook position to launch a torpedo attack at the leading heavy cruiser. Without orders and indeed against orders, he proceeded at full speed and set course to follow Heermann in to attack the cruisers.
One of our member's father was onboard the Samual B. Roberts during this battle.
My mother brought me up to honor and respect military people. My father served in the military and Native Americans have always been highly patriotic and proud of their service in the military. They have the highest rates of service, per capita, than any other ethnic group in the country. As a child, I watched every episode of Victory at Sea on television. Mom was a big enthusiast on the subject, and I learned about some of our heroes from her. She met the author Stephen Ambrose and exchanged a couple of letters with him later, and he was very polite. She had hoped to convince him to write a book about Native American MoH winners, but it was not to be. One of those stories has always stayed in my mind, invoking awe, sadness and a great sense of pride. It was about Commander Ernest E. Evans of the USS Johnston.
Evans was born August 13, 1908 in Pawnee, Oklahoma, a 1/2 Cherokee and 1/4 Creek Indian. His white grandfather had married a Creek woman to get control of her land allotment, and shortly after, divorced her and disowned their son, Evans' father. Evans graduated from an all white school, Central High School in Muskogee, Oklahoma. In May of 1926 he enlisted in the US Navy, and a year later was appointed to the Annapolis Academy, without help from any political pull. He graduated with a Bachelors of Science degree. He served on the USS Colorado, USS Roper, USS Rathburne, USS Pensacola, USS Chaumont, USS Cahokia and USS Black Hawk. In August of 1941, he joined the destroyer USS Alden. He served as commander of the Alden from March of 1942 until July of 1943. Evans then was in charge of the fitting out of the Fletcher class Destroyer USS Johnston and assumed command of her at her commissioning in October of 1943.
While serving as the executive officer of the Alden at the Battle of the Java Sea, in which Admiral Thomas Hart's U.S. Asiatic Fleet had been annihilated, the Alden had to turn tail and slink off in the night to Australia in order to survive. Evans hated the memory of this ignominious retreat, "it seared his soul", and at the commissioning ceremony of the Johnston he stated,
"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." He later added in a firm voice "Now that I have a fighting ship, I will never again retreat from an enemy force."
The Johnston had many adventures, and in May of 1944, it sank a Japanese submarine in the Solomon's with depth charges. Evans was awarded a Bronze Star with Combat "V" for meritorious achievement as commanding officer for this action.
The successful hunt had a lot to do with his ability to trust his crew to get the job done. "He expected every man to do his job without any psychological ploys," recalled Lieutenant (jg) Ellsworth Welch, Evans' anti-submarine warfare officer aboard Johnston. "He had great faith in all of us", said Johnston's gunnery officer Lieutenant Robert C. Hagen, "I don't recall him saying a mean word to me the whole time.... The captain was a true, instinctive fighter.... We were on a high-class ship because the captain was high-class."
THE BATTLE OFF SAMAR
During the Battle of Leyte Gulf, on the morning of October 25, 1944, Admiral "Bull" Halsey's main Third fleet was lured away by a Japanese decoy and he diverted his large Pacific fleet away from where the Marines were conducting their assault on Samar Island.
On the defensive since Midway in 1942, the Japanese knew that if they failed to stop the American invasion of the Philippines, they likely would never recover. Therefore, they committed their naval forces to an all-out, last-ditch effort to defeat MacArthur's invasion. The plan called for a three-pronged effort: a Northern Force of aircraft carriers to lure Adm. Halsey's Third Fleet away from the Philippines where he was supposed to be guarding MacArthur's northern flank; a Southern Force to attack through the Surigao Strait and approach Leyte -- the site of MacArthur's beachhead -- from the South; and a Central Force to attack through the San Bernardino Strait and attack Leyte from the North.
The Southern thrust was routed in the early hours of October 25 by the American Seventh fleet (known as MacArthur's Navy). But Halsey ignored warnings from his subordinate commanders and took the Japanese bait. Abandoning his blocking position north of Leyte, Halsey raced away to chase the Northern Force and left the northern approach to Leyte exposed except for a small task force of escort carriers -- bargain-basement aircraft carriers with little of the speed or firepower of their larger cousins. The task force was divided into three groups -- Taffy 1, Taffy 2, and Taffy 3 -- with Taffy 3 the northernmost and directly in the path of the Japanese fleet. Taffy 3 was made up of thirteen ships: six escort carriers and seven tin cans (three destroyers and four destroyer escorts). They faced a Japanese force of twenty-three ships -- most of which dwarfed their opposition. Led by four battleships, the force included six heavy cruisers, two light cruisers, and eleven destroyers.
Although Taffy 3 initially tried to retreat further into the gulf to try to avoid certain destruction in the face of these overwhelming odds, Evans on his own initiative and without waiting for orders, decided to attack. In the words of one of the survivors, Lieutenant Robert C. Hagen:
It was 6:50 a.m. when all hell broke loose, he said. I had just asked the mess boy to bring me up a cup of coffee and an egg sandwich. I never did get that fried egg.
He said he saw Evans come out of his sea cabin grinning, and barking orders: All hands to general quarters. Prepare to attack major portion of Japanese fleet. All engines ahead flank. Commence making smoke. Left full rudder.
The Johnston laid a smoke screen to protect the carrier vessels, then Evans and crew charged alone at the Japanese fleet. When the commander of Taffy 3, Adm. Clifton Sprague saw this, after a few seconds, he laughed and said Well, what the hell. You gotta die of something. Small boys attack!. A message went out over the radio to Taffy 3, "This will be a fight against overwhelming odds from which survival cannot be expected. We will do what damage we can."
An artists rendition of the Johnston charging the Japanese fleet
Evans had ordered his crew to zigzag through fire from enemy guns as large as 18 inches, "chasing splashes" until he could get close enough, within 10,000 yards, to fire with his 5 inch guns. He knew he could not get through the reinforced hulls of the ships, so he shot at the superstructures of ships and damaged them and set some decks on fire.
Next, the Johnston fired torpedoes. The missiles struck the heavy cruiser, Kumano, shattering the bow and rendering the ship unable to continue the fight. Evans continued his charge and scored numerous direct hits, greatly dulling the tip of the Japanese sword. Finally, the bewildered enemy was able to concentrate its attack, striking the Johnston four times with a single 14 round and three 6 rounds. All of these shells went completely through the vessel, taking their toll. The first hit disabled the aft gun turrets. The second knocked Cmdr. Evans to the deck, shearing off two fingers on his left hand and setting him ablaze.
With his fingers and shirt and helmet blown off, Evans ordered away the ship's doctor who wanted to attend to his injuries, to help others. The Johnston tried to retreat, passing other ships on their way to attack, including the brave USS Samuel B. Roberts, another hero of that day, "The little destroyer escort who fought like a battleship". Commander Evans saluted the Roberts' commander and crew as they passed him by and made their own run towards their own likely destruction.
It was like a puppy being smacked by a truck, said Hagen. The hits resulted in the loss of all power to the steering engine, all power to the three 5inch guns in the after part of the ship, and rendered our gyro compass useless. Through sheer providence a rain squall came up, and the JOHNSTON ducked into it for a few minutes of rapid repairs and salvage work.
The Johnston was down to one engine and couldn't keep up with the others.
At 7:50 a.m., Admiral Sprague ordered destroyers to make a torpedo attack. But Johnston had already expended torpedoes. With one engine, she couldn't keep up with the others: "But that wasn't Comdr. Evans' way of fighting: 'We'll go in with the destroyers and provide fire support,' he boomed." Johnston went in, dodging salvos and blasting back. As she charged out of blinding smoke, pointed straight at the bridge of gallant Heerman (DD-532), "All engines back full!" bellowed Comdr. Evans. That meant one engine for Johnston who could hardly do more than slow down. But Heerman's two engines backed her barely out of the collision course Johnston missed her by less than 10 feet.
During the battle, Evans and his crew made enough repairs to engage in more fights with larger Japanese ships, and aid other US ships.
At 0840, a much more pressing target appeared astern. A formation of seven Japanese destroyers in two columns was closing in to attack the carriers. Reversing course to intercept, Evans maneuvered the Johnston in an attempt to pass in front of the formation, "crossing the T", a classical naval maneuver which put the force being "crossed" at great disadvantage. Evans ordered the Johnston's guns to fire on this new threat. The Japanese destroyers returned fire, striking Johnston several times. Perhaps seeing his disadvantage, the Commander of the lead destroyer turned away to the west. From as close as 7,000 yards Hagen fired and scored a dozen hits on the destroyer leader before it turned away. He shifted fire to the next destroyer in line, scoring five hits before it too turned away. Amazingly, the entire squadron turned away west to avoid the Johnston's fire.
When Evans observed the Gambier Bay under attack, Hagen said "Comdr. Evans then gave me the most courageous order I've ever heard: 'Commence firing on that cruiser, draw her fire on us and away from Gambier Bay'." They were unable to save the Gambier, but the Johnston battled desperately to keep the Japanese cruisers and destroyers from reaching the five remaining American carriers. By this time, Evans, with all the damage to his ship, and the bridge destroyed, had shifted his command to Johnston's fantail, yelling orders through an open hatch to men turning her rudder by hand. By 9:30 a.m. the Johnston was dead in the water. The Japanese surrounded them and kept firing. At 9:45 Evans gave the order to abandon ship, after firing every last round of any kind they had. One Japanese destroyer came to within 1,000 yards and pumped one last round into the Johnston, to ensure her sinking. The surviving men floating in the water were afraid that the Japanese would shoot them, which both sides often did. They were amazed when the captain of the Japanese destroyer saluted the Johnston as it sank, and Japanese sailors on the ships yelled "Samurai, samurai!" and tossed them food and water packets as they passed by. They would spend two days in the water awaiting rescue, because of botched communications, some dying of exposure and from shark attacks. Of 327 officers and men of the Johnston, 186 were lost.
During the battle, Halsey away to the north, received a message from Admiral Nimitz, "Where is, repeat, where is task force thirty four? The world wonders." Halsey took this as sarcasm and a personal slap in the face and went into a rage. For an hour he sulked, doing absolutely nothing, while Task Force Taffy 3 fought for its very existence. Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz later said The history of the United States Navy records no more glorious two hours of resolution, sacrifice, and success.
The actions of Taffy 3, that day, succeeded in driving away a large Japanese force who thought they were actually fighting a larger force. They substantially helped to subsequently end the Japanese navy's power, which included the largest battleship ever built, the Yamato, through their actions that day.
The actual fate of Evans was unknown, some thought they saw him jump in the water, or climb into a small boat, but he was never found. He was declared MIA, then KIA in that battle. Whether he was taken by the Japanese, or by sharks, or drowning, or whatever, is still a matter of great conjecture by his remaining crew. Mom met one of the Johnston men at a convention, or book signing. He told her he believed he'd seen Evans get into a boat, but that he was very badly injured. His posthumous Medal of Honor citation, reads:
"For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty as Commanding Officer of the USS Johnston , in action against major units of the enemy Japanese Fleet during the Battle off Samar on October 25, 1944. The first to lay a smoke screen and to open fire as an enemy task force vastly superior in number, firepower and armor rapidly approached, Commander Evans gallantly diverted the powerful blasts of hostile guns from the lightly armed and armored carriers under his protection, launching the first torpedo attack when the Johnston came under straddling Japanese shellfire. Undaunted by damage sustained under the terrific volume of fire, he unhesitatingly joined others of his group to provide fire support during subsequent torpedo attacks against the Japanese and, outshooting and outmaneuvering the enemy as he consistently interposed his vessel between the hostile Fleet units and our carriers despite the crippling loss of engine power and communications with steering, shifted to the fantail, shouted steering orders through an open hatch to men turning the rudder by hand and battled furiously until the Johnston burning and shuddering from a mortal blow, lay dead in the water after three hours of fierce combat. Seriously wounded early in the engagement, Commander Evans, by his indomitable courage and brilliant professional skills, aided materially in turning back the enemy during a critical phase of the action. His valiant fighting spirit throughout this historic battle will endure as an inspiration to all who served with him."
So, this is my telling of my personal hero, during Native American Heritage Month, of the insanely bad-ass warrior, tactician, and strategist whose quiet, calm leadership and audacious bravery inspired his men and others in this important battle. "Evans appreciated the hidden nature of things, the power of the unseen over the tangible", said author James D. Hornfischer who wrote the book " The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors -- The Extraordinary World War II Story of the U.S. Navy's Finest Hour". The Johnstons senior surviving officer said, The skipper was a fighting man from the soles of his broad feet to the ends of his straight black hair. He was an Oklahoman and proud of the Indian blood he had in him. We called him though not to his face the Chief. The Johnston was a fighting ship but he was the heart and soul of her and communications officer Lt. Ed Digardi said, He was the best Captain you could possibly have; the kind of man you would follow into hell and we did.
Thank you, Commander Evans and all the brave men of Taffy 3 for your sacrifices. You will never be forgotten.
This is the History Channels " Death of the Japanese Navy - Ep 7 - Season 1 - Dogfights " which tells the story of this David vs. Goliath battle better than I ever could. An amazing re-enactment!
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