[First published on 25 Oct 2016, updated below
"A large Japanese fleet has been contacted. They are fifteen miles away and headed in our direction. They are believed to have four battleships, eight cruisers, and a number of destroyers. This will be a fight against overwhelming odds from which survival cannot be expected. We will do what damage we can." —LCdr Ernest Evans, Captain of destroyer USS Johnston (DD-557), 25 Oct 44.
Today is the anniversary of the quote above, spoken just before the Battle off Samar in the Philippines. From Wikipedia: "The Battle off Samar was the centermost action of the Battle of Leyte Gulf, one of the largest naval battles in history, which took place in the Philippine Sea off Samar Island, in the Philippines on October 25, 1944. As the only major action in the larger battle where the Americans were largely unprepared against the opposing forces, it has been cited by historians as one of the greatest military mismatches in naval history." (link here
The book, The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors
, written by James D. Hornfischer, describes events leading up to that day, the course of the battle, and the aftermath. This account is without qualification one of the best books about war—any war—that I've read, ever. To be sure, it helps that the book describes what are arguably the U.S. Navy's finest hours (which is saying something indeed), but what makes the book special is the adroit and well-paced combination of technical talk, larger context, prelude, and on-the-deck & in-the-air participant accounts. Until you've read it, there is really just no way to appreciate how accurate that quote by LCdr Evans turned out to be, or how frightfully outmatched they were--and knew it going in! And yet, the most utterly astounding thing was just how much damage "what we can" turned out to be!
I first read this book several years ago, and it is no exaggeration to say that I have read no other history of warfare that was harder to put down once the action started, or that has stayed with me for so long afterward. This book easily ranks among my top 50 favorites out of many thousands read over 50-plus years, and if I were to never read another book about the U.S. Navy in action, this one will have served for all.
If you like military history and great writing, you really should read this. You will not regret it.
[Update 3 Apr 2021
Yesterday, I learned the USS Johnston was found!! While scanning BBC News headlines, I saw on an article by Rebecca Morelle titled USS Johnston: Sub dives to deepest-known shipwreck
. I didn't recall the ship name immediately, but the title was intriguing so I started reading.
I cannot say exactly when it dawned on me that I was reading about and looking at photos of the ship Captained by LCdr Evans, but once I made the mental connection between imagined-memory and reality, it took my breath away—and started tears in my eyes.
It's one thing to read about and visualize in your mind a raging, horrific, heroically fought sea battle; it's another thing entirely to realize suddenly that you are looking at the graveyard-ship where so many men you read about spent their last hour.
I've been to dozens of battlefields and I've known men who fought on some of them. I've stood on the deck of the USS Constitution and I've flown in helicopters that had been shot down and in which men died. I've sat atop the first tank that broke through to the encircled Americans at Bastogne (Cobra King
) and tried to imagine the moment, and I've spent hundreds of hours wandering around cemeteries looking at, photographing, and pondering veterans' graves. None of that has ever had quite the same effect as seeing the USS Johnston resting under 4 miles of ocean, in nearly the same state it was the day went down.