A team of explorers recently dove to the deepest known shipwreck in the world — and in the process, gave some closure to the U.S. Navy by “putting a spotlight on the heroism and history” of the ship’s crew.
On October 25, 1944, the Navy destroyer USS Johnson sank in the Philippine Sea after a prolonged battle with the Japanese navy. The ship, which is about 376 feet long and 39 feet wide, lies about 21,180 feet — or more than four miles — deep, according to a statement from the privately funded and executed expedition.
“Just completed the deepest wreck dive in history, to find the main wreckage of the destroyer USS Johnston,” tweeted Victor Vescovo, Commander, U.S. Navy (retired), and founder of Caladan Oceanic, “a private company dedicated to the advancement of undersea technology and supporting expeditions to increase the understanding of the deep oceans.”
A Historic Naval Battle
During the Battle of Leyte Gulf, considered the largest naval battle of World War II, the USS Johnson “charged into a massive line of Japanese warships in order to protect the American landing force,” according to the Naval History and Heritage Command.
After two-and-a-half hours of fighting, the Johnston was without power and surrounded by Japanese ships. The ship’s captain, Ernest E. Evans — a Native American — ordered the crew to abandon ship, and it rolled over and sank, according to the record.
Of the crew of 327, only 141 survived. Of the 186 lost, about 50 were killed by enemy action, 45 died on rafts from battle injuries, and 92 — including Evans — were alive in the water after the Johnston sank, but were never heard from again.
“Commander Ernest Evans and his entire crew went above and beyond the call of duty engaging an overwhelming and vastly superior Japanese force to buy time for the escort carriers he was charged with protecting, to escape,” Rear Admiral Samuel Cox, Director of Naval History and Curator for the Navy, said in the Caladan Oceanic statement. “The Johnston was awarded a Presidential Unit Citation — the highest award that can be given to a ship. Evans was awarded a posthumous Medal of Honor, the first Native American in the U.S. Navy and only one of two destroyer skippers in World War II to be so honored.”
Finding The Wreckage
The wreck was first found in 2019. While that expedition’s remotely operated vehicle (ROV) was able to film pieces of the ship, the majority of the wreckage was deeper than the ROV’s rated depth limit of approximately 20,000 feet, according to the statement.
The Caladan Oceanic-backed expedition was able to dive deeper. Vescovo piloted his submersible — the DSV Limiting Factor — down to the wreck during two 8-hour dives. Also in the submersible were naval historian U.S. Navy Lt. Commander (Retired) Parks Stephenson, and Shane Eigler, the senior submarine technician. Those dives are the deepest any human or submersible has gone to explore a shipwreck, the statement explains.
The expedition was able to locate and then capture high-definition footage of the Johnson’s bow, bridge, and midsection. The hull number, 557, was still visible on both sides of the bow, proving the wreckage is that of the Johnson. The expedition could also see that the gun turrets, twin torpedo racks, and multiple gun mounts remain in place.
“We could see the extent of the wreckage and the severe damage inflicted during the intense battle on the surface,” Stephenson said in the statement. “It took fire from the largest warship ever constructed — the Imperial Japanese Navy battleship Yamato — and ferociously fought back.”
At the end of the expedition, the dive team laid a wreath “on the oceanic battlefield,” according to the statement.
Meanwhile, the sonar data and other information such as field notes have been given to the U.S. Navy and will not be made public, according to the statement. “The crew took care not to disturb the wreck, but the hope is that the footage and information that they brought back from their expedition will become useful for historians and naval archivists,” the statement notes.
“The Naval History and Heritage Command greatly appreciates the efforts of Commander Vescovo and his expedition team in positively identifying the wreck of the destroyer USS Johnston (DD-557,) lost on 25th October 1944 in one of the most heroic actions in the entire history of the U.S. Navy,” Rear Admiral Cox said in the statement.
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