Sunken WW II ship of honored Oklahoma Navy commander identified

Jordan Green
For The Oklahoman
Lt. Cmdr. Ernest E. Evans, USN (1908-1944), is shown at the commissioning ceremony on Oct. 27, 1943, for the USS Johnston (DD-557), in Seattle, Wash. The Johnston's commanding officer, Evans was lost with the ship when it sank during the Battle off Samar Island in the Philippines on Oct. 25, 1944.

U.S. Navy Commander Ernest Evans suffered shrapnel wounds and some of his fingers were blown off when his ship was hit by enemy shellfire.

But he and his crew onboard the USS Johnston kept fighting.

The day was Oct. 25, 1944. Evans and his men among a handful of U.S. ships, outnumbered by Japanese naval forces, were protecting American troops invading the Philippine Islands during the Battle off Samar, one of the most significant naval conflicts in World War II.

Even after the Fletcher-class destroyer was severely damaged, Evans and his crew kept fighting. Even after dozens of his men were killed, they persisted.

And even after Evans died in battle, the legacy of this Native American naval officer from Oklahoma lives on.

In death, he went down with his ship. But in life, he rose up against adversity.

Evans, an Oklahoma-born sailor, is being remembered by people in Native American and military communities days after the remains of the ship he captained were positively identified four miles underwater near the site of the historic fight.

“This key battle in the Pacific war was almost a disaster for the United States,” said Sam Cox, a retired U.S. Navy officer who now leads the Naval History and Heritage Command. “If it hadn’t been for what Ernest Evans did, the battle would have gone much worse.”

Evans died along with 185 other men onboard. He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor and was the first Native American in the Navy to receive it, officials with the Naval History and Heritage Command said. He was one of only two destroyer captains in World War II who received the award.

The Johnston’s wreckage was discovered in October 2019, but officials weren’t able to immediately distinguish it from another similar ship, the USS Hoel. Crews discovered the Johnston at a depth of more than 20,000 feet, the deepest shipwreck researchers have ever found, naval history officials said. About one week ago, crews were finally able to identify the Johnston after locating the ship’s hull, marked by the number 557.

The ship’s initial discovery came 75 years after the ship’s fatal fight.

The final battle

The Johnston was part of a small group of U.S. Navy ships in the Battle off Samar, one part of the larger Battle of Leyte Gulf.

Japanese forces had a stronghold on the Philippine Islands. If Japan lost the Philippines, key supply lines would be cut and turn the tide of the war, historians say.

The USS Johnston (DD-557) is shown off Seattle or Tacoma, Washington, on Oct. 27, 1943.

Japanese forces used a series of surprise decoy maneuvers to lure larger American fighting ships away from the battle site, leaving only smaller ships like the Johnston to protect American troops, Cox said.

Evans and his group weren’t expecting to run into a “major portion” of the Japanese fleet.

“Once they did, they had no choice,” Cox said. “Ernest Evans could have made a run for it. The other destroyers could have made a run for it. But the slow escort carriers would have all been sunk, and then the Japanese force would get into the transports and supply ships, and it turns into a disaster if they had been able to do it.”

Evans and his crew of 327 men launched an attack on the fleet of Japanese ships and disabled a cruiser, naval historians said. Japanese ships fired on the Johnston and wounded crew members, including Evans.

“It blew his shirt clean off,” Cox said. “So he fought the battle with no shirt on.”

As crew members were killed, remaining sailors continued to fight, lobbing multiple rounds at Japanese ships. With much of the ship damaged, Evans went to the ship's stern, above the after-steering compartment, allowing him to continue to maneuver the ship by using emergency steering gear.

“One by one, Johnston took on Japanese cruisers, destroyers and a battleship although Johnston had no torpedoes and limited firepower. After two-and-a-half hours, Johnston — dead in the water — was surrounded by enemy ships,” officials said. “At 9:45 a.m., Evans gave the order to abandon ship. Twenty-five minutes later, the destroyer rolled over and began to sink.” Survivors of the battle totaled 141.

American and Allied forces won the battle, but at great cost, historians say.

“It was a brutal and bloody fight that serves as a sobering reminder for today’s sailors: after all that’s asked of them in day-to-day service, they, like their shipmates aboard Johnston, may one day be asked for far more,” Cox said.

Overcoming prejudice

Evans was born in Pawnee in 1908, and he grew up in Muskogee. Historians and tribal officials say Evans came from Creek and Cherokee bloodlines.

“When he was born, it was only a few years removed from the Sand Creek Massacre and the Washita River Massacre, where Indians were massacred by white militias,” Cox said. “To go from that in such a short time to choosing to serve this country is really an incredible thing. Every American ought to be grateful that Native Americans do that.”

Cmdr. Ernest Edwin Evans

Evans tried to become a U.S. Marine, but wasn’t able to join because of a knee injury, Cox said. He was accepted into the Naval Academy, and he graduated in 1931. While there, he faced prejudices.

“At the academy during the interwar period, it was white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, and if you weren’t one of those, you were different,” Cox said.

At the academy, some sailors called Evans “chief,” Cox said.

“He just kind of rolled with it and accepted it,” Cox said. “He was very open about the fact he was Native American.”

Fighting spirit

The USS Johnston was commissioned on Oct. 27, 1943. According to Cox, Evans said during the ceremony: “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.”

Evans’ determination to win came, in part, from losses the Navy had sustained earlier in the war during the Battle of the Java Sea, Cox said. In that battle, Evans was the executive officer of another destroyer. The battle was considered a disaster for American and Allied forces.

“Ernest Evans essentially felt this humiliation of defeat in that battle,” Cox said. “And that stuck with him.

“There’s also the Native American in him, because he had also said very early on that ‘I will never run from a fight.’ And he was true to his word.”

Evans’ legacy has inspired younger members of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation who have signed up to serve the United States, said Jason Salsman, a tribe spokesman.

“The Muscogee (Creek) Nation, along with every tribal nation, has such an incredibly rich history of service to the United States military,” Salsman said. “Per capita, there is no other race that sends more sons and daughters to fight for this country. And so, when we have such an incredible example of that service that stands out, it makes it that much sweeter.

“For Mr. Evans to now be a name that has a chance to be honored in an incredible way … it’s a really wonderful feeling for all of us at the Muscogee Nation that are so proud of all of our servicemen — especially our heroes.”

‘An incredible captain’

Modern-day sailors aren’t the only ones who call Evans a hero. He was a role model for the men on his ship, families of survivors say.

One of those men was Ellsworth Welch, an officer onboard the Johnston.

“Capt. Evans was a self-made man and officer,” Jackie Welch, Ellsworth’s wife, told The Oklahoman. “He came up through the ranks, and he went down with his ship.”

Cmdr. Ernest E. Evans is honored in this illustration from the U.S. Navy.

Ellsworth Welch survived the Battle off Samar by clinging to a life raft after orders to abandon the sinking ship, said Jackie Welch, now a 90-year-old resident of the Saratoga Retirement Community in Saratoga, California.

Lee Anne Welch said her dad looked up to Evans as a father figure.

“He was an incredible man,” Lee Anne Welch said of her father. “And I think he was trained by an incredible captain.”

'A suicide mission'

Much of what is known about the Johnston during the Battle off Samar was documented by Lt. Robert Hagen, the ship’s gunnery officer. He survived the battle, and his after-action report of the event is a primary source on the ship’s history, Cox said.

Hagen was born in 1919, according to his son, Rob Hagen. After graduating from college, Robert Hagen enlisted in the Navy in 1941. He was in officer’s training school when Japanese forces bombed the naval base at Pearl Harbor, launching the United States into World War II.

Three years after the attack on the harbor, Hagen would find himself in a similar situation. In a 1945 story in the Saturday Evening Post, Hagen recalled telling some fellow sailors to jump off the Johnston as it began to sink.

“The last word hardly was out of my mouth when the five men as one were out of the director and racing for the rail,” Hagen said in the story. “I was so surprised that I stood stock-still a moment, then lit out myself. I made my way to the foc’sle — I couldn’t get aft without walking over piles of bodies — and, like a man in a dream, very carefully and leisurely took off my shoes and dived in. Taking off my shoes, incidentally, was the worst mistake I could make; my feet got so sunburned in the water that I limped for days after.”

Hagen earned the Navy Cross for his actions and was awarded three Purple Hearts, his son said. And Hagen nominated Evans posthumously to receive the Medal of Honor, his son said.

Hagen had a hard time accepting credit for his own work, his son said. He wanted all of the credit to be given to Evans.

“He talked about Commander Evans, and any time he did, he would always refer to him as the best Naval officer he’d ever met,” Rob Hagen said. “He said he just embodied courage and leadership. Men would have done anything for him. He demanded the respect, and he earned respect, of every man on that ship.

“Any one of them would have gladly died for him.”

Preserving the ship’s history was important to Hagen, his son said.

“He knew what they did,” Rob Hagen said of his father. “He knew — you really can’t ‘sugar-coat’ it — that they performed a suicide mission.”

Keeping alive the ship’s memory is also important to Dr. Warren Stirling, a former president of the USS Johnston-Hoel Association in California. Several of the Johnston’s survivors formed the group in the 1980s.

Stirling’s uncle, Elton Stirling, was onboard the Johnston and died while waiting to be rescued after the battle. Warren Stirling said he hopes to educate future generations about the sacrifice of people such as Evans and his uncle.

“It’s hard to imagine young kids, teenagers, mostly — my uncle was 25 when he died — to have taken the responsibility upon themselves that they did,” he said. “They did what they had to do to preserve freedom.”

How the ship was found

Researchers with Vulcan Inc. said in October 2019 that they found what is now confirmed to be the Johnston’s wreckage, naval history officials said. It was found on an undersea cliff.

At the time, researchers knew that some parts on the ship they discovered were used on the Hoel, but they couldn’t determine whether they were ever used on the Johnston.

In late March, researchers with Caladan Oceanic, a technology company, and retired U.S. Navy officer Victor Vescovo went back to the wreck site, where they found the ship’s bow at a depth of about 21,180 feet, officials said.

The wreckage of the USS Johnston is shown where it rests about 4 miles below in the Philippine Sea. Explorers said the ship is remarkably intact except for the damage it took during the battle.

Vescovo documented and photographed the site. He and his crew also laid wreaths to honor the servicemen who died.

“As a U.S. Navy officer, I’m proud to have helped bring clarity and closure to the Johnston, its crew, and the families of those who fell there,” he said.

Role model for sailors

In the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, Evans is a paragon of courage. Just ask U.S. Navy Reserve Capt. Calvin Foster, a surface warfare officer and a citizen of the nation.

“In my community — the surface warfare community — we consider him one of the bravest warriors that ever sailed the seas,” Foster said.

Foster, who also graduated from the Naval Academy, worked with the U.S. Navy to name a ship after the Muscogee (Creek) Nation.

On Jan. 15, former Under Secretary of the Navy Gregory Slavonic, who left his post at the end of the Trump Administration, announced that the Navy would name a Navajo-class towing, salvage and rescue ship after the tribe.

Slavonic, also from Oklahoma, said he hopes the Navy will name a ship after Evans.

“[Evans] is a standard-bearer for a lot of young people, a lot of Native Americans,” Slavonic said. “He took that ship against impossible odds and directed that ship along with others to charge the Japanese task force. … That’s incredible. Where do we find people like that?”

To Foster, the answer to that question is simple: in Oklahoma.

“If we can get a ship named after Ernie Evans,” Foster said, “I think it will tell a bigger story of people who came out of the Heartland and were willing to give their life against amazing odds to defend our country and to keep our way of life.”