Discovered 20,400 feet beneath the surface, the world's deepest shipwreck is a World War II era destroyer

Jack Murphy
November 18, 2019 - 11:12 am
USS Johnston

Off Seattle or Tacoma, Washington, 27 October 1943. Courtesy of Mrs. Roger Dudley. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph.

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On Oct. 25, 1944, the USS Johnston engaged in what could only be described as a suicide mission, battling a fighting force of the Japanese Imperial Navy that consisted of four battleships, eight cruisers and 11 destroyers.

  • The Johnston deployed smoke to screen the ship's movement as it began zigzagging between the enemy fleet. The ship captain, Lt. Cmdr. Ernest Evans ordered the Johnston straight into the fray, attacking the Japanese. Once in torpedo range, the sailors fired all 10 of them, destroying one of the Japanese ships. But the Johnston was also taking heavy enemy fire and found temporary refuge by sailing into a squall to make some repairs before being ordered back into the fight. Although they had fired all their torpedos, the Johnston laid down fire support for other U.S. Navy vessels. Then, multiple direct hits knocked out the Johnston's engine and the ship lay dead in the water, a sitting duck.

The bridge had already been destroyed and Evans ordered his men to return fire from the aft sailing area, refusing to give up the fight. Soon, the captain reluctantly ordered that they abandon ship as the Japanese continued to pummel the Johnston. Soon after, the Johnston capsized and sank.

Out of the crew of 327 men, 141 survived. Evans made it off the ship but was never seen or heard from again. He received a posthumous Medal of Honor for his bravery that day.

Since 1944, the final resting place of the USS Johnston was unknown, however, a secretive search effort was underway financed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. Last month, marine archeologists announced that they had found wreckage at the bottom of the Philippine Sea they believe is the USS Johnston. It is the deepest shipwreck ever discovered at a depth of 20,400 feet.

The remotely operated deep sea vehicle, the Petrel, was used to reconoitter the wreck after sonar readings showed something at the bottom of the ocean where researchers scanned. Rob Kraft and Paul Mayer offer commentary on the video footage taken by the Petrel, released on the 75th anniversary of its sinking. The researchers describe the video footage seen, showing pieces of the hull structure, the ship's five inch guns and other bits and pieces. The condition of the wreck is so bad that they are not entirely sure that it is the Johnston, as a similar ship sank in the same battle, the USS Hoel.

The researchers carefully compared photographs taken of the ship in the 1940s with footage captured by the Petrel, examining it with an obsessive attention to detail that includes counting rungs on a ladder and looking for coloration differences that would indicate what type of paint job the ship had to determine whether they are looking at the Johnston or the Hoel. Researchers seem cautiously optimistic that this wreck is the Johnston based on their examination of the wreckage, but they still plan to come back and look for more debris at a later date.

Just operating the Petrel at such deep depths was difficult and there was a serious risk that the vehicle could be lost entirely, researchers said. In the video, Kraft and Mayer said that it was a challenge to keep the vehicle stable at those depths and that they could not operate it such deep waters for any long duration. 

Despite being hopelessly outnumbered and outgunned, the USS Johnston fought until the bitter end, in a naval action that marked a turning point for the entire Pacific campaign. Now we know a little bit more about the sacrifice of the 186 crewmembers who died during the battle or were lost at sea.

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Reach Jack Murphy: jack@connectingvets.com or @JackMurphyRGR.