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NEWS | Dec. 18, 2018

NSWCDD Celebrates National Native American Heritage Month

By NSWCDD Corporate Communications

While his childhood playmates were inspired by sports figures of that time, Rear Adm. Samuel J. Cox was fascinated with a war hero—none other than Cmdr. Ernest Evans, a Native American who played an integral role in the Battle of Samar on October 25, 1944.

 "He was my hero and the reason I decided to go into the Navy," said Cox, U.S. Navy (Retired), Naval History and Heritage Command Director and Curator of the Navy, before an audience of military and civilian personnel at the University of Mary Washington (Dahlgren campus) on Nov. 30.

November was National Native American Heritage Month. Cox was the guest speaker for the Naval Surface Warfare Center, Dahlgren Division, Native American Heritage Observance. During his presentation entitled, "The Ernest E. Evans Lecture Series, Heroism & Sacrifice," Cox traveled back in time to the Pacific theater where the fate of the Philippines and the future course of the war against Japan took center stage. He took the audience on a journey through what he called a "do or die mission," as he emphasized Evans’ role.

Historians have called the Battle off Samar one of the greatest military mismatches in naval history. As the central action of the Battle of Leyte Gulf, the combat was one of the largest naval battles in history, taking place in the Philippine Sea off Samar Island in the Philippines.

Evans, a Native American with Creek and Cherokee bloodlines, was the skipper of the Fletcher-class destroyer Johnston (DD 557). Evans—who told his crew he would never run from a fight—made a critical choice to attack rather than flee when surprised by an overwhelming Japanese force of four battleships, eight cruisers, and many destroyers.

Evans had no time to wait for orders.

During his talk, Cox put the audience in Evans’ shoes during the defining moment in battle "faced with overwhelming odds. Do you turn and fight facing certain death? Make a run and get away knowing other ships are going to get sunk? Mission first or people first?"

If the Japanese were successful getting through to General MacArthur’s troop transports and supply ships, the landing at Leyte would become a disaster. Evans is credited with buying time for the escort carriers to survive long enough to launch aircraft. Combined with the heroic actions of the rest of the destroyer and destroyer-escort screen, the USS Johnston exacted enough physical and psychological damage on the Japanese to change the course of the battle.

With just two hours of fuel, the declaration going forward was "All hands to general quarters. Prepare to attack major portion of the Japanese fleet. All engines ahead flank. Commence making smoke and stand by for a torpedo attack. Left full rudder."

Bombarded by Japanese fire, once the Johnston was within range of its 5-inch guns, she fired more than 200 rounds and 10 torpedoes at Japan’s heavy cruiser, Kumano, which later sank. The USS Johnston was destroyed who sinking caused horrendous damage, casualties, and. Evans was seriously wounded.

Now in the face of severe damage, significantly reduced speed and firepower, and no remaining torpedoes, Evans led a second attack on the Japanese. In this round, the crew provided support to the USS Hoel, USS Heermann, and USS Samuel B. Roberts as they were protecting the escort carriers. In the subsequent action, relying on one boiler engine, Johnston fired nearly 30 rounds in 40 seconds into a 30,000-ton battleship.

Evans then noticed Japanese ships had targeted the escort carrier Gambier Bay (CVE 73). According to the USS Johnston Gunnery Officer Robert Hagen, based on Navy documentation, he received one of the most courageous orders ever: "Commence firing on that cruiser, draw her fire on us and away from Gambier Bay."

The USS Johnston took on the Japanese destroyers, tricking them thinking she had torpedoes. After the first two turned away, the remainder broke off to get out of Johnston’s gun range to launch torpedoes. All of them missed.

This marked the end of the two-and-a-half-hour battle as they were surrounded by enemy ships, dead in the water. Evans made the call to abandon ship at 9:45 a.m. The destroyer rolled over and began to sink 25 minutes later.

Of Johnston’s crew of 327, only 141 survived. Evans was not seen again after the ship went down. He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor, and his ship received six battle stars for her service in World War II and the Presidential Unit Citation.

The 2018 National Native American Heritage Month theme was "Sovereignty, Trust and Resilience," which was a natural tie into Cox’s presentation on Evans’ role in the Battle of Samar.

At the NHHC, Cox is responsible for the Navy’s museums, art and artifact collections, the research library, and 150 million pages of archives. Cox is also responsible for collecting and interpreting U.S. Naval history worldwide. NHHC is custodian of all Navy shipwrecks.

In his remarks at the event, NSWCDD Commanding Officer, Capt. Godfrey "Gus" Weekes, spoke of the "sacrifices of Native Americans, who were incredibly motivated to serve two nations as one…Native American contributions extend far beyond World War II through the Korean War and far into this century.

"In defense of their homeland and in reverence of their ancestors, Native Americans continue to honorable serve our Nation with Sovereignty, Trust, and Resilience."

On August 3, 1990, the 101st Congress passed a joint resolution designating November as National American Indian Heritage Month. President George H. W. Bush subsequently proclaimed the month of November in honor of all Native American tribes.