The USS Johnston - photo courtesy of Caladan Oceanic
This week, in "science is cool," the main section of a ship that sunk 77 years ago during the Battle of Leyte Gulf in World War II has been discovered off of the Philippine coast. Resting over 4 miles beneath the surface, the USS Johnston is the deepest shipwreck ever to be investigated.
The 376-foot long Fletcher-class destroyer was discovered in the Philippine Trench near Samar Island at a depth of 21,180 feet (6,456 meters). Of the crew of 327 people, only 141 managed to survive when the ship sank on October 25, 1944. The main section of the wreck - with its gun turrets and torpedo racks still in fact - is still resting upright and was discovered by Texas-based private marine tech company, Caladan Oceanic.
The expedition was privately funded and executed by two former US Navy Officers. Victor Vescovo, a former US Navy Commander (Ret.) personally piloted his submersible DSV Limiting Factor down to the wreck during two separate, eight-hour dives. According to Caladan Oceanic's press release, these dives constituted the deepest, manned or unmanned, in history. The crew was able to spot the number 557 on the ship's hull, confirming the identity of the vessel.
The hull of the USS Johnston - photo courtesy of Caladan Oceanic
Two years ago, led by the late Paul Allen, Vulcan Inc. found initial evidence of the wreck, including two destroyed turrets, parts of the propeller, a mast, machinery debris, and twisted sections of the hull. Along the seafloor, a track in the mud suggested that the main part of the ship was deeper still, but the remotely-operated vehicle used during the expedition was unable to go any further. The DSV Limiting Factor has no tether to the surface or operating depth limitation, so it was able to dive down to where the Vulcan ROV could not, which resulted in the discovery of the ship's main section.
Here's some more information on the vessel that completed this dive from Caladan Oceanic's press release: "The submersible DSV Limiting Factor has no operating depth limitation, does not require a tether to the surface, and can hold two occupants for real-time visitation and analysis of wrecks. The craft is highly manoeuvrable and carries an array of high-definition and 4K cameras. The submersible is best known as the vehicle that Vescovo piloted to the deepest points in each of the world’s five over oceans during the ‘Five Deeps Expedition’ in 2019. It recently completed its 14th dive to the Challenger Deep, the deepest point on Earth (10,925 meters). An original, five-part series about the Five Deeps expedition airs this Thursday, April 1st 2021 on the Discovery Plus streaming channel."
Naval historian Parks Stephenson said in the Caladan Oceanic press release, "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."
The leaders of the expedition have held ongoing discussions with Navy Heritage and History Command (NHHC) about the investigation of the wreck and the protocols for preserving and respecting it as the final resting place for many of its crew. All of the sonar data, imagery, and field notes will not be made public, but will be provided to the US Navy for dissemination as deemed appropriate.
The USS Johnston off the coast of Seattle on October 27, 1943 - Image courtesy of US Naval History and Heritage Command
The Battle of Leyte Gulf was the largest naval battle of World War II and is considered to be possibly the largest naval battle of all time. Fought over the course of 3 days - October 23 to 26, 1944 - the engagement involved tens of thousands of naval personnel from the U.S. Australia, and Imperial Japan. The battle was a last-ditch effort by the Japanese to destroy the Allied presence in the Philippines and inflict major damage to the naval forces. This pivotal battle was the first to feature coordinated kamikaze attacks and ended in an Allied victory.
The USS Johnston's role in the battle saw it sink off the coast of 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 Honor.
Are you interested in ship wrecks and deep ocean exploration? Tell me about some of your favorite discoveries!