The wreckage of a World War II destroyer that was under command of a heroic Oklahoman when it was lost in battle has been discovered and identified, Navy authorities said.
The USS Johnston, which was commanded by Navy Cmdr. Ernest Evans, a native of Pawnee, was discovered near the Philippine island of Samar, where it sank on Oct. 25, 1944, during the Battle of Leyte Gulf.
The announcement of the identification was made this week, following discovery of the wreck at a depth of more than 21,000 feet, making it the world’s deepest known shipwreck, authorities said.
Evans, whose remains went unrecovered after the ship’s sinking, was awarded a posthumous Medal of Honor for his actions in the battle. He was the first Native American in the U.S. Navy to receive the nation’s highest military honor, officials said. Only one other destroyer captain received the honor during the war.
He was named to the Oklahoma Military Hall of Fame in 2009.
“The discovery of the USS Johnston is a great historical find and refocuses us to the heroic actions of American fighting men 76 years ago in the Southwest Pacific,” said John Farris, an ambassador for the state military hall.
He said the news provides hope, as well, that another HOF member’s final resting place might soon be discovered.
Paul Henry Carr of Checotah died in the same battle but on the destroyer escort USS Samuel B. Roberts, Farris said. A gunner’s mate third class, Carr was posthumously awarded a Silver Star.
The expedition that discovered the Johnston wreckage was privately funded and executed by two former Navy officers.
The wreck was first located in October 2019 on the edge of an undersea cliff.
Before the official confirmation of its identity, it was deemed to be the Johnston based on the location.
The vessel was sunk during an engagement with a Japanese flotilla of much larger battleships, cruisers and destroyers.
Under Evans’ direction, the Johnston charged into a massive line of enemy ships in order to protect the American landing force attempting to liberate the Philippines.
The Johnston was hit by enemy shells, causing extensive damage and casualties. Evans himself was seriously wounded, losing two fingers to shell splinters, but continued to command the ship.
Despite the damage and having no torpedoes remaining, the Johnston kept on the attack, taking on a Japanese battleship and destroyers.
After two-and-a-half hours, the Johnston — now dead in the water from the damage — was surrounded by enemy vessels. Evans gave the order to abandon ship. Twenty-five minutes later, the destroyer rolled over and began to sink.
Of the 327 on board, 141 survived.
Evans was not among the rescued and is believed to have died at sea. He was awarded the Medal of Honor for “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity” while commanding the USS Johnston.
The expedition that discovered the wreck was led by explorer and retired naval officer Victor Vescovo, who visited the site in a deep submersible.
Vescovo has communicated with Navy officials, he said, about his investigation of the wreck and the protocols not only for preserving it but respecting it as the final resting place for many of its crew. He has committed to providing the Navy with all the sonar data, imagery and field notes collected by the expedition.
“We have a strict ‘look, don’t touch’ policy, but we collect a lot of material that is very useful to historians and naval archivists,” Vescovo said in a press statement. “I believe it is important work, which is why I fund it privately and we deliver the material to the Navy pro-bono.”
The story of the Johnston and her crew “is a perfect example for modern sailors of the honor, courage, commitment, and valor of their predecessors from the Greatest Generation,” said Sam Cox, director of Naval History and Heritage Command.
It’s also a reminder to them that “after all that’s asked of them in day-to-day service, they, like their shipmates aboard the Johnston, may one day be asked for far more,” Cox added.
Evans, who was part Cherokee, part Creek, was 36 at the time of his death.
The Battle of Leyte Gulf would be a decisive Allied victory, resulting in heavy losses for the Japanese navy.
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