War is hell, as the saying goes. It can literally destroy some of the men who take part in it. Others survive little changed. Then, there is the breed of men who rise to the occasion and risk all for the sake of others. They call these last men heroes. Lieutenant Commander Ernest E. Evans was such a man.
Lieutenant Commander Evans graduated from the US Naval Academy in 1931. During the early years of World War II, he commanded an old World War I destroyer, the USS Alden. He was forced to flee from the Java Sea because of the age of the Alden. In October of 1943, Evans was given command of a newer Fletcher-class destroyer, the USS Johnston. Being a full-blooded Cherokee Indian, he had a warrior spirit, which stung when he was forced to flee the enemy. As he took command of the Johnston, Evens told the crowd “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 added, “I will never again retreat from an enemy force.”
The Battle of Leyte Gulf
In October of 1944, Evans and his ship were part of a fleet of small ships assisting the US Marines assaulting Leyte. A much larger fleet under Admiral Halsey was supposed to be keeping the Japanese fleet busy elsewhere, but plans don’t always work out the way they are supposed to.
Word came that a large Japanese fleet has been spotted steaming in their direction, intent on keeping Leyte out of American hands. The task force, known as Taffy 3, turned to flee in the face of the enemy. But Evens would not. When the enemy was sighted, Evens told his crew over the intercom, “A large Japanese fleet has been contacted. They are fifteen miles away and headed in our direction. They are believed to have four battleships, eight cruisers, and a number of destroyers. This will be a fight against overwhelming odds from which survival cannot be expected. We will do what damage we can.” They had to slow down the enemy so the aircraft carriers could get away.
With that, the Johnston turned and charged the enemy. The rest of the ships of Taffy 3 followed suit. The Japan ships had larger guns with longer ranges. As Evans closed the distance so he could open fire with his small 5 inch guns, shells from Japanese 18, 16, 14, 8, and 6-inch guns churned the water around the Johnston. As the American ships raced forward they were torn to pieces like so much cardboard in a shredder.
When his guns were finally in range, Evans ordered his gunners to target the upper decks and superstructures of the enemy ships because they could not penetrate the hulls. They set several ships alight, forcing them out of the fight. A lucky torpedo shot from the Johnston took a Japanese heavy cruiser out of the fight, as well.
Finally, the Japanese shots hit home. A 14-inch shell and three 6 inch shells tore through the ship without exploding. They took out the aft gun turrets and reduced the vessel to half engine power. Evans was wounded, losing two fingers from his left hand. Another enemy shell took the remaining engine out and detonated a magazine.
Even when his ship was crippled, he would not stop fighting. Evans ordered the gunners to fire everything they had, including the flare and practice rounds. Once all the ordinance was spent, the Johnston started to settle into the water.
The Japan were so impressed by the actions of this little ship, that they threw food and water to the survivors and shouted “samurai”. As another Japanese ship passed, a Japanese officer stood on the deck and saluted. The Japan losses were low, but the actions of the Americans caused the Japanese force to stop and turn back.
Evans’ body was never found. He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. The citation for the Medal of Honor read in part “His valiant fighting spirit throughout this historic battle will venture as an inspiration to all who served with him.” I would say that the actions of Lieutenant Commander Ernest E. Evans serve as an inspiration to us all. As it says in the Bible, “Greater love than this no man hath, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” (St. John 15:13, DRB)