Deepest-Ever Shipwreck Dive Locates Navy Destroyer That Sank During Epic WWII Battle

USS Johnston
The USS Johnston off Seattle or Tacoma, Washington, Oct. 27, 1943 (Roger Dudley/U.S. Navy)

Two former Navy officers have located wreckage of a U.S. ship that sank in the Philippine Sea 76 years ago in what's being hailed the deepest shipwreck dive in history.

A large section of the USS Johnston, a Fletcher-class destroyer, was found 21,180 feet beneath the surface, Caladan Oceanic and the Naval History and Heritage Command announced Thursday. The ship sank off the coast of Samar Island on Oct. 25, 1944, during World War II's Battle of Leyte Gulf, an intense struggle with Japanese forces that heavily outmatched the Johnston's crew.

It's believed that portions of the wreck were discovered in 2019, when a remotely operated vehicle found pieces of a Fletcher-class destroyer on the edge of an undersea cliff. Most of the ship was beyond the vehicle's 20,000-feet depth limit though, and researchers weren't sure if the parts belonged to the Johnston or another destroyer, the Hoel, which was lost in the same battle.

Now the bulk of the Johnston has been discovered, including its bow, bridge and midsection, with the hull's "557" clearly visible, researchers said in a news release.

"The image is impressive and we look forward to seeing the rest of the data collected during the expedition because the story of the Fletcher-class destroyer USS Johnston (DD 557) and her crew is a perfect example for modern Sailors of the honor, courage, commitment, and valor of their predecessors from the Greatest Generation," retired Rear Adm. Sam Cox, Naval History and Heritage Command's director, said in a statement.

The mission was funded by retired Navy Cmdr. Victor Vescovo, Caladan Oceanic's founder. Vescovo piloted the submersible in two eight-hour dives -- the deepest wreck dives, manned or unmanned. The submersible is highly maneuverable, doesn't need to be tethered to anything on the water's surface and has no depth limitations. It can carry two occupants to analyze wrecks and is equipped with high-definition and 4K cameras.

"I believe it is important work, which is why I fund it privately and we deliver the material to the Navy pro-bono," Vescovo said in a statement.

The retired commander worked closely with Naval History and Heritage Command to ensure steps the site was preserved as respected since it's the final resting place for 186 fallen members of the Johnston's 327 crew members.

No human remains or clothing were seen during the dives and nothing was taken from the wreck, according to Caladan Oceanic.

The dive plans were developed based on research from retired Lt. Cmdr. Parks Stephenson, a naval historian, who studied the position of the wreck. He used data from U.S. and Japanese accounts of the battle.

"This was mortal combat against incredible odds," Stephenson said of the Johnston's actions during the Battle off Samar.

USS Johnston underwater
USS Johnston underwater (Caladan Oceanic)

The crew was led by Cmdr. Ernest Evans, a Native American from Oklahoma, who was lost with the ship and was later posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. Evans unhesitatingly joined his crew to provide fire support as the ship faced torpedo attacks and shelling from the Japanese.

When the ship lost engine power and communications, he shouted orders through an open hatch to men turning the rudder by hand and "battled furiously until the Johnston, burning and shuddering from a mortal blow, lay dead in the water after three hours of fierce combat," Evans' Medal of Honor citation states.

Surrounded by enemy ships, Evans eventually gave the order to abandon ship. The destroyer eventually rolled and began to sink.

Cox said the fight the crew displayed serves as a brutal reminder to today's sailors about what might one day be asked of them.

"The wreck of Johnston is a hallowed site," Cox said. "I deeply appreciate that Commander Vescovo and his team exhibited such great care and respect during the survey of the ship, the last resting place of her valiant crew. Three other heroic ships lost in that desperate battle have yet to be found."

-- Gina Harkins can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @ginaaharkins.

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