Navy Ship Sunk in Historic World War II Battle Is Now the Deepest Explored Wreck

Navy Ship Sunk in Historic World War II Battle Is Now the Deepest Explored Wreck
Evidence of battle damage can be seen on the wreck. (Image: Caladan Oceanic)

The main section of the USS Johnston — sunk 77 years ago during the Battle of Leyte Gulf — has been discovered off the Philippine coast. Resting over 6 km beneath the surface, it’s now the deepest shipwreck to ever be investigated.

With its gun turrets and torpedo racks still intact, the USS Johnston (DD-557) — a 115-metre long Fletcher-class destroyer — was discovered in the Philippine Trench near Samar Island at a depth of 6,456 metres. The ship sank on October 25, 1944, during the Battle of Leyte Gulf. Of the crew of 327, only 141 managed to survive.

The main section of the wreck, still resting upright, was discovered by Texas-based Caladan Oceanic, a private marine tech company. Caladan Oceanic surveyed the USS Johnston using the research vessel DSV Limiting Factor, according to its statement.

The USS Johnston off the coast of Seattle on October 27, 1943.  (Image: U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph)The USS Johnston off the coast of Seattle on October 27, 1943. (Image: U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph)

Fought from October 23 to 26, 1944, the Battle of Leyte Gulf was the largest naval battle of World War II and possibly of all time. The engagement, involving tens of thousands of naval personnel from the U.S., Australia, and Imperial Japan, was a last-ditch attempt by the Japanese to destroy the Allied presence in the central Philippines and inflict major damage to their naval forces. The pivotal battle — the first to feature organised kamikaze attacks — ended in an Allied victory, and the Japanese Imperial Navy was never able to recover and amass such a large fleet again during the war.

The USS Johnston sank during an engagement off Samar Island while coming to the rescue of escort carrier Gambier Bay. The ship was awarded a Presidential Unit Citation (the highest award for a ship), and its commanding officer, Commander Ernest E. Evans, was awarded a posthumous Medal of Honour, making him “the first Native American in the U.S. Navy and only one of two destroyer skippers in World War II to be so honoured,” said Rear Admiral Samuel Cox, Director of Naval History and Curator for the Navy, in the Caladan Oceanic statement.

Two years ago, Vulcan Inc., led by the late Paul Allen, found evidence of the wreck nearby, including two destroyed turrets, parts of the propeller, a mast, machinery debris, and twisted sections of the hull. A track in the mud along the seafloor suggested the main part of the ship lay deeper still, but the remotely operated vehicle (ROV) used during this expedition was unable to go farther.

DSV Limiting Factor, with no tether to the surface and no operating depth limitation, was able to dive down to where the Vulcan ROV could not, resulting in the discovery of the main section. Victor Vescovo, a retired U.S. Navy Commander and a funder of the expedition, piloted two dives to the wreck, each lasting eight hours. The two missions “constituted the deepest wreck dives, manned or unmanned, in history,” according to the Caladan Oceanic statement.

The crew was able to spot number 557 on the hull, confirming the identity of the vessel. The ship’s bow, bridge, gun mounts, and torpedo launchers were also identified.

The hull with number 557, identifying the ship as the USS Johnston.  (Image: Caladan Oceanic)The hull with number 557, identifying the ship as the USS Johnston. (Image: Caladan Oceanic)

“We could see the extent of the wreckage and the severe damage inflicted during the intense battle on the surface. It took fire from the largest warship ever constructed — the Imperial Japanese Navy battleship Yamato, and ferociously fought back,” Parks Stephenson, a naval historian, said in the Caladan Oceanic press release.

The team was also able to create a map of the site and gather high-definition photographs without disturbing the shipwreck. Caladan Oceanic has been in contact with Navy Heritage and History Command about the wreck and is providing sonar data, imagery, and field notes to the U.S. Navy at no cost.

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“The wreck of Johnston is a hallowed site,” said Cox. “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.”

The NHHC, working under the Sunken Military Craft Act, is authorised to protect and preserve American military shipwrecks, regardless of their location in the world. It’s important to remember that these sites, in addition to their historical importance, are solemn war graves.