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World’s Deepest Shipwreck Is WWII Destroyer Lost in the Philippine Sea

A private mission found the mangled debris of what is likely the U.S.S. Johnston 20,400 feet under the surface

Researchers suspect the wreck is all that remains of the U.S.S. Johnston, a naval destroyer sunk during the Battle off Samar in October 1944. (Vulcan Inc. )
smithsonian.com

A remote operated vehicle deployed in the Philippine Sea this spring unearthed the wreckage of a World War II destroyer sunk almost exactly 75 years ago, marine archaeologists announced last week.

The team suspects the debris—spotted at a depth of 20,400 feet, making it the deepest shipwreck discovered to date—is all that remains of the U.S.S. Johnston DD-557, which was destroyed by Japanese warships in the Battle off (not of) Samar on October 25, 1944. Per the Naval History and Heritage Command (NHHC), Samar was one of four military engagements in the Battle of Leyte Gulf, a major aerial and naval conflict won by Allied forces.

The Petrel, the ROV research vessel responsible for capturing footage of the sunken destroyer, is the subject of a new expedition video posted on Facebook by Vulcan Inc., which owns and operates the vehicle. Researchers released the film to coincide with the 75th anniversary of the Johnston’s sinking and seek the public’s help in confirming the ship’s identity.

Although the archaeologists were able to determine that the wreck belonged to a Fletcher-class destroyer, they remain uncertain whether the debris in question represents the Johnston or the U.S.S. Hoel DD-533, another destroyer sunk at Samar.

As seen in the video, the wreck is in extremely poor shape: Footage shows multiple mangled chunks of debris, some of which even the WWII shipwreck experts who conducted the mission can’t identify.

“This wreck is completely decimated,” says Robert Kraft, Vulcan Inc.’s director of subsea operations, in the Facebook video. “It is just debris. There is no hull structure.”

Robert Neyland, head of the NHHC’s Underwater Archaeology Branch, tells USNI News’ Ben Werner the damage is so extensive that no easy identifiers—think the number 557 on the hull or the ship’s name etched onto equipment—remain visible. Still, Kraft explains in the clip, the researchers strongly suspect the vessel is the Johnston based on the location in which it was found and color differences between the two destroyers.

As Neil Vigdor writes for the New York Times, the team’s survey was limited by the possibility of losing the ROV in the depths of the Philippine Sea. The Petrel photographed parts of the wreckage at the edge of an underwater precipice called Emden Deep, but the researchers say additional debris may be found at even greater depths.

“During this dive, our deepest yet, we encountered challenges that impacted our ability to operate and obtain the typical, high quality survey that we strive for,” says submersible pilot Paul Mayer.

This isn’t the first time Vulcan Inc., launched by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, has made headlines in recent years: Toward the end of October, the company announced the discovery of two Japanese aircraft carriers lost during the Battle of Midway, and in August 2017, Allen and a group of civilian researchers located the wreck of the U.S.S. Indianapolis, which sank toward the end of the war and left nearly 900 crew members stranded on the open ocean.

Unlike the other three skirmishes in the Battle of Leyte Gulf, the Battle off Samar found U.S. forces largely unprepared. But despite being outnumbered by the Japanese, a task force unit dubbed Taffy 3 (including, among others, the Johnston and the Hoel) went on the offensive, inflicting significant damage on the enemy’s warships. Although five of Taffy 3’s vessels ultimately sank, the losses incurred by the Japanese forces prevented the Axis Powers from cutting off U.S. landing forces in the Leyte Gulf.

Of the Johnston’s 327-person crew, 186 died at Samar or in the sinking. Ernest E. Evans, the ship’s commander and the first Native American member of the Navy to earn the Medal of Honor, was among the casualties.

The Battle of Samar and the Battle of Leyte Gulf as a whole were turning points in the Pacific Theater. As NHHC Director Sam Cox tells the Times, U.S. forces displayed tremendous courage despite being outnumbered.

Cox adds, “They were hopelessly outclassed, but they fought anyway.”

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