His prayer entering battle was offered to a higher plane, but the words that came out of his mouth were meant for a mortal, his captain, who was standing in the pilothouse below him. “Please, sir, let’s not go down before we fire our damn torpedoes.”
Lieutenant Robert C. Hagen, the 25-year-old who spoke those words to Commander Ernest E. Evans, the captain of the USS Johnston (DD-557), had a front-row seat to a naval cataclysm. Hagen was the ship’s gunnery officer. On the morning of 25 October 1944 he had a clear, telescopic view through his Mark 37 gun director of a ship six times the Johnston’s size.
Tied into a gyro-stabilized, servo-mechanical fire-control system, Hagen kept the ship’s five single-mounted 5-inch/38s on target. When the range to the Japanese heavy cruiser, the Kumano, narrowed to 18,000 yards, he closed the firing key and began laying his barrage, walking a 200-yard ladder of fire across the path of the ship as she and five other Japanese cruisers bore down on Rear Admiral Clifton A. F. Sprague’s escort carrier unit, Taffy 3. When Hagen began to see his projectiles bursting in the Kumano’s superstructure, he tightened the ladder to 100 yards, concentrating the barrage. With five guns beating out 15 to 18 shells per minute, he quickly burned through the ship’s 200 rounds of common 5-inch. Thereafter, he fired proximity-fused rounds.
With the Johnston’s solo run against an enemy battleship and cruiser task force, the Battle off Samar was on. Admiral Sprague’s mismatched bout with Vice Admiral Takeo Kurita’s Center Force in the Battle of Leyte Gulf would go down as the U.S. Navy’s greatest upset victory. As with so many battles that find a place in legend, the seeming inevitability of destiny was apparent in retrospect. For Hagen, the path to center stage in the Philippine Sea was arbitrary and accidental—and straight as the osprey flies.
90-Day Wonder’s Early Assignments
Bob Hagen, the son of a 1911 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, expected to begin his naval career at Annapolis. A native of San Francisco, educated at his father’s latest duty station, Brownsville, Texas, he received an appointment to become a midshipman in 1938. He washed out the same day he arrived owing to his astigmatism. Returning to Brownsville, he piled up enough college credits in summer preparatory school to graduate junior college in one year. Hagen finished his naval reserve officer training at Northwestern University, took a commission in September 1941, and wound up beating his would-have-been classmates to ensign by about three months. The “90-day wonder” reserve officer would lord his rank seniority over his Academy-prepped colleagues. “After a few drinks I wouldn’t hesitate to let them all know it,” he said.
For his first assignment, Ensign Hagen was tapped in late 1941 to serve where destinies were given to thousands of new recruits every few weeks: Great Lakes Naval Training Station, 30 miles north of Chicago. As an assistant service school selection officer there, he stood in the stream of humanity entering the naval service, testing new boots for intelligence and aptitude, routing the best of them by the hundreds to specialty schools and the rest by the thousands to serve in the Fleet. Demand was high, smarts were important, but experience was king. Journeyman carpenters with ten years’ experience became chiefs in the Seabees.
The imperfect and arbitrary ways of personnel evaluation and assignment were evident to Hagen when five young men, stout as trees, presented themselves. Hailing from Waterloo, Iowa, they were brothers by the name of Sullivan. Hagen recalled that neither George nor Frank nor Joe nor Matt nor Al was promising by any official measure of intellect or aptitude. But somehow they had secured a special deal for themselves. “We were promised to go to the same ship,” they told Hagen.
It struck the young officer as a capitally bad idea. “Hey fellows, there’s a war on,” Hagen replied. “You don’t want to go to the same ship.” What if that ship got sunk? Hagen’s commanding officer dismissed his protest: “Hagen, do what you are told to do in the Navy. You are 22 years old, and you don’t have to think.” The Sullivans were all sent to serve in a new antiaircraft cruiser, the Juneau (CL-52).
Experienced in the idiocy of personnel administration, Hagen hungered to serve at sea. He called on his father, Ole O. Hagen, then serving in the Bureau of Ordnance, and asked to be assigned to a destroyer bound for the Pacific. In March 1942, Ensign Hagen was sent to the Aaron Ward (DD-483). As the junior ensign in Commander Orville F. Gregor’s wardroom, Hagen found the same arbitrariness he practiced at Great Lakes suddenly applied to him: He was made the assistant communications officer for no other reason than he could type 23 words a minute. In the small world of a destroyer, he drew triple duty as the assistant supply officer and radar officer too.
Traumatic Ordeal in the Aaron Ward
In the 13 November 1942 naval action off Guadalcanal, the Aaron Ward led the rear section of destroyers in Rear Admiral Daniel J. Callaghan’s column. The close-range battle fought that night would go down as one of the most violent and bloody ever. It saw the death of two flag officers: Callaghan, as well as Rear Admiral Norman Scott, one of Ole Hagen’s 1911 Naval Academy classmates, killed by a friendly salvo in the antiaircraft cruiser Atlanta (CL-51).
Standing on the Aaron Ward’s starboard bridge wing, Hagen watched the ships following astern. Through his binoculars he had a clear view of the sudden destruction of the destroyer Barton (DD-599). He saw the Monssen (DD-436) get heavily hit and an officer leap from her pilothouse to escape the fires. Then the Aaron Ward took one. A Japanese shell blasted up from the wardroom below, producing a storm of shrapnel that opened the deck and filled him with steel. Weakened by arterial bleeding from his torn left bicep, Hagen instructed the chief signalman to take his place as officer of the deck.
At Great Lakes he had always had a hard time finding candidates to attend the specialty school that trained pharmacist’s mates, but it was his good fortune now to be saved by a quick-thinking pharmacist’s mate who put a tourniquet on his arm and stuck him with a morphine syrette. When another medic came upon the badly wounded officer minutes later and administered more of the painkiller, unaware of his predecessor’s work, Hagen was left to drift off to a drugged sleep. His final act of conscious thought that night was to understand he didn’t want to survive if it meant losing an arm. As his mind shut down and time ceased to move for him, he used his remaining strength to remove the tourniquet. He would take his chances with blood loss.
After dawn, Hagen came to. He found himself bathed in blood and with a front-row seat to another drama: the “battle of the cripples.” As his dulled senses returned to work, he saw an enemy battleship far away, beyond the range of his dead-in-the-water vessel’s 5-inch guns. The Japanese behemoth, the Hiei, had been badly damaged the previous night. But her men, like the Americans, possessed a fierce will to live and to fight, and they took the Aaron Ward under fire. Hagen’s most vivid memory of that morning was a comic one: his holy terror of a skipper, Captain Gregor, diving behind the pilothouse wheel housing to escape the plunging 14-inch shells. The woozy lieutenant (j.g.) found a mischievous delight in his panic.
Gregor was never the wiser. He put Hagen in for a Silver Star for accurately identifying unknown ships at the height of the battle’s chaos. He received a Purple Heart too. But bad as his ship got, the vessel that steamed ahead of the Aaron Ward that night, the Juneau, received far worse. Damaged in the night battle, the cruiser was lost to a submarine torpedo the morning after, en route to Espiritu Santo. The Juneau didn’t sink; she vanished in a cloud of yellow-brown smoke, the victim of a terrible secondary explosion in a magazine. All five Sullivan brothers were among her fatalities; all but ten of her crew of about 700 died.
With his arteries patched up at a hospital on Tulagi, Hagen was taken home to San Francisco on a hospital ship, spent three months in rehabilitation at Mare Island, and then enrolled in a gunnery and fire-control school in Washington, D.C. Having performed well there, he received orders to Seattle-Tacoma, where he went aboard a new Fletcher-class tin can, the Johnston, as her gunnery officer.
The Fleet didn’t really know how to use such magnificent machinery in surface combat until it had passed the bloody curriculum in the Solomons. The battles of Savo Island, Cape Esperance, the 13 November cruiser night action, the 14 November battleship night action, and Tassafaronga offered lessons aplenty. Some were the lessons of any war—truisms relearned for the hundredth time by the latest generation to face its trials: Victory always tended to fly with the first effective salvo. Others were novel—the product of untested technologies and tactics, unique to the circumstances of America’s first offensive in the Pacific.
The Battle off Samar was not Hagen’s first rodeo, nor was it for a great many line officers of 1944. Captain Evans was a combat veteran of the Dutch East Indies campaign. Hagen too had seen the worst of things and was emotionally girded by his experience in the Aaron Ward to direct the Johnston’s gunnery through the whirling storm of 25 October 1944. Most of her crew were green. The men with him in Seattle—the chiefs and the gun captains and the machinists and the water tenders—had seen enough of war to know what got you a victory. With Hagen pushing a repetitive regimen designed to minimize the time spent going to general quarters, he had acquired a reputation. “The captain and exec were easygoing guys,” he said. “I took up for whatever was loose.”
‘We Asked for the Jap Fleet. . .’
After a six-week shakedown cruise with plenty of drilling, guided by an experienced core of chiefs and seasoned officers, the Johnston became a fighting ship with confidence to boot: In correspondence with a friend, Hagen wrote, “Bring on the Japanese.” When he later sat down with a journalist to tell the Johnston’s tale, the writer seized on that theme. The title of the piece published in the 26 May 1945 Saturday Evening Post was, “We Asked for the Jap Fleet—and Got It.”
Still, no one anticipated
. . . the Johnston finishing out her solo run against battleships and cruisers in broad daylight, closing to 8,000 yards and firing torpedoes, and turning to return before finally being repeatedly hit.
. . . Those shells, plunging through the deck and exploding in the machinery spaces below, rocking the ship “like a puppy being smacked by a truck,” as Hagen later wrote, knocking the destroyer’s speed in half.
. . . Another salvo, hitting the bridge, cutting down Captain Evans, who bounced back to his feet less several fingers and then declined the help of pharmacist’s mates who came to tend to him.
. . . Admiral Kurita’s fast cruisers, with his battleships close behind, closing with the American jeep carriers, nearly encircling them and cutting off their escape while beset by Sprague’s pilots and persistent fire from the Johnston and the other ships of the screen—the Samuel B. Roberts (DE-413), Heermann (DD-532), Hoel (DD-533), John C. Butler (DE-339), Raymond (DE-341), and Dennis (DE-405).
. . . The experience of reliving the night of 13 November 1942, but far, far worse, as the Johnston, the first destroyer into the breech and the last that morning to sink, was pounded down by gunfire from ships of all classes and gun calibers.
. . . The outcome no one anticipated—the Japanese, weary of the constant attacks, three heavy cruisers down, deciding to withdraw with victory within reach.
. . . And finally, the Johnston sinking slowly, rolling, crew now abandoning her to the waves, which greedily took her long past her time. Captain Evans? No one saw him go, and he was never seen again.
As he was abandoning ship, Bob Hagen discovered his personal limits. He found he could not climb over the bodies of his shipmates piled around a 40-mm mount or help a man with two bloody stumps who was sitting on the forecastle pleading, “Mr. Hagen, please help me.” He had seen his closest friend in the wardroom, Lieutenant Robert Browne, the ship’s doctor, cut down before his eyes. He broke down and sobbed for a time before rallying behind a powerful surge of elation: The Johnston had paid her way! he thought. Then came an overriding doubt: What in the hell do I do now?
For three days after the Johnston sank, Hagen would be adrift with his shipmates, fending off delirium in shark-infested waters. They were rescued, finally, by auxiliary ships idling in Leyte Gulf.
A Lingering Sense of Pride
These were the specters Bob Hagen would confront, and the tales he would eventually tell, after he settled into postwar life. The commander of the Seventh Fleet, Vice Admiral Thomas C. Kinkaid, awarded him the Navy Cross for his actions off Samar, adding to his Silver Star and Purple Heart from his time in the Aaron Ward. Recalled to service in a destroyer squadron for the Korean War, he made captain in the reserves before retiring in 1960 to New Orleans and then San Antonio.
In 2007 he was on hand as a banquet keynoter when the reunion organizers of the USS Gambier Bay (CVE-73) and St. Lo (CVE-63) brought their party to town. The survivors of the two jeep carriers sunk in the Battle off Samar appreciated the presence of the man who had fought valiantly to save them. Hagen credited all the ships of Taffy 3 and the unit’s pilots as well for the improbable victory. “It was an all-hands effort,” he said. “Admiral Sprague fought a brilliant defensive battle.”
As Hagen told the story, a sense of pride filled the room in the hometown of the Alamo. Poignant testimony followed from survivors of the lost carriers. Alfonso Perez, a survivor of the St. Lo who was rescued by the Dennis, stood and thanked the destroyermen for their work and then presented his four daughters and their families to illustrate the fruits of their gallantry.
Less than two years later, on 25 May 2009, Captain Robert C. Hagen, USNR, the last surviving officer of the legendary Johnston, passed away in San Antonio.