During the Battle of Leyte Gulf in October 1944, while in command of the USS Johnston (DD-557), Ernest Edwin Evans posthumously earned the Medal of Honor in one of the most heroic moments in U.S. Navy history.
The story of his taking his destroyer in harm’s way during the Battle of Leyte Gulf against formidable odds is well known, as it should be. But what is not so well known is what happened earlier in the war—a series of events that led him to tell his crew during the Johnston’s commissioning ceremony that he once had been forced to run from the enemy, ominously adding that he would never do that again—a promise he kept at Leyte Gulf.
War Comes to the Western Pacific
In mid-1941, although no Americans knew that the Japanese would attack the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor in December of that year, there was little doubt that war with Japan was coming. Diplomatic attempts at preventing conflict were stalled, and there were strong indications that the Japanese were preparing for a war with the United States and its allies.
In August of that ominous year, Lieutenant Commander Ernest Evans had been serving in the destroyer tender USS Black Hawk (AD-9) in the U.S. Asiatic Fleet when orders arrived to report as executive officer in the destroyer USS Alden (DD-211). Evans’ lineage included both Creek and Cherokee Indian blood, and he had a reputation for having a warlike temperament, a hint of which appeared beneath the photo in his high school yearbook—the words “the courage of his convictions.” So, he must have been gratified to leave the Black Hawk—a support ship tasked primarily with repairing destroyers—and report to a warship as her second-in-command. But he likely felt some disappointment at that warship being the Alden. She was old, having been built during the “Great War,” as it was still called in those days, commissioning a full year after the armistice had been signed. Her geriatric status had much to do with her being assigned to the hapless Asiatic Fleet.
Although not specifically stated, U.S. strategic planning recognized that the Asiatic Fleet would likely become a sacrificial lamb once hostilities commenced. For the sailors of the Asiatic Fleet, this was a less-than-inspiring prospect. The Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) had been growing in strength at an alarming rate, and the idea of holding the IJN at bay while waiting for the U.S. Fleet to get underway and make the 5,000-mile transit from Pearl Harbor to Asiatic waters seemed improbable at best. And virtually no one considered the possibility that the fleet at Pearl Harbor might be removed from the equation on the very first day of the war.
The Alden’s captain was Lieutenant Commander Lewis E. Coley. Like Evans, he was a graduate of the Naval Academy, earning his commission in 1924, making him Evans’ senior by seven years. Like Evans, Coley had grown up in Oklahoma—just 90 miles from Muskogee in Oklahoma City—after his family had left his birthplace in Alabama when he was 10 years old.
By the time that Evans reported as Coley’s XO on 9 August 1941, the Japanese had been fighting in China for four years and had moved into French Indochina less than a year before, when the French had become preoccupied fighting (and losing to) the Germans in Europe. With tensions rising in the Western Pacific, the Asiatic Fleet commander, Admiral Thomas C. Hart, had withdrawn his destroyers from Chinese waters. For many months, the Alden and the other ships had been operating primarily out of the Philippines, much of the time alternating between maintenance periods at Cavite naval base in Manila Bay and training exercises designed to prepare for the war that many thought inevitable.
During the midwatch on 8 December, the officer of the deck woke Coley from his slumber to tell him an alert message had arrived stating, “Japan has commenced hostilities; govern yourselves accordingly.” That news was not particularly surprising, but that the war had started more than 6,000 miles to the east at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, was a substantial shock. Already feeling that they were a long way from home, serving on the fringes at or near the front lines of the coming war, the Americans serving in the Asiatic Fleet now felt as though they were more likely serving behind those lines.
With Pearl Harbor in flames, the Alden—now assigned to Destroyer Division 57—was ordered to proceed to Singapore—the so-called “Gibraltar of the East.”—at the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula. Surrounded by artillery, protected by minefields, and with a jungle-covered peninsula to its north that was deemed impenetrable, this British bastion of the Far East offered an anchorage big enough to hold an entire navy—four square miles of shore facilities that included huge cranes and well-equipped repair facilities, capacious warehouses loaded with food and ammunition, and the oil wells and refineries at nearby Sumatra. In the midst of an exploding Southeast Asia, Singapore seemed ready to stand against whatever the Japanese chose to bring to bear. Even more reassuring to the sailors of Division 57 was the presence of the Royal Navy at Singapore, including the battleship HMS Prince of Wales and battlecruiser HMS Repulse, both of which had seen action in European waters against German naval forces.
As the destroyers headed northwestward toward Singapore, the war that had seemed possible for so long was now reality, and every mast that climbed over the horizon was at first mistakenly perceived to be that of a Japanese warship. Stopping several merchant ships to make sure they were not Japanese, the Americans warned the ships’ masters that war had broken out.
The Alden and the others arrived at Singapore on the morning of 10 December. They were informed that “Force Z”—consisting of the Prince of Wales and Repulse, accompanied by the British destroyers Electra, Express, and Tenedos and the Australian destroyer HMAS Vampire—had departed Singapore and was under attack. Division 57 was ordered to get underway as soon as they were refueled and proceed up the coast of Malaya to rendezvous with Force Z.
Rendezvous with a ‘Floating Cemetery’
At 1500, the Division 57 destroyers got underway with the USS John D. Edwards (DD-216) leading the column out of Singapore Harbor. Once clear of the harbor, they secured the sea and anchor detail and set the underway watch. Now at Condition III for wartime steaming, men on deck for other reasons became additional, unofficial lookouts as they furtively scanned the sea around them and the sky above, anxiously searching for a Japanese periscope or an incoming flight of enemy aircraft. Both sea and sky remained empty as the sun slowly made its diurnal descension to the horizon. At dusk, several masts caught the waning rays of sunlight as they pierced that horizon ahead. A mixture of relief and disappointment pervaded as they soon recognized the approaching ships as Royal Navy destroyers apparently headed for Singapore, rather than ships of the IJN. Henry Eccles, commanding officer of the Edwards, later recorded that the two groups “merely exchanged calls and proceeded” on their reciprocal headings. Later events would prove that the Americans might have benefited from more information from their British counterparts.
Arriving at the last known position of Force Z after dark, Evans and the other men who crewed the ships of Division 57 experienced their first encounter with the reality of war. The sea was flat calm as they made their way at bare steerageway through what one sailor described as a “floating cemetery.” It was indeed an eerie scene, made more so by a light mist that served as a gossamer shroud, diffusing the pale light of the moon as it illuminated a large field of detritus. Strewn across the glassy surface were lifejackets, burned-out hulks of what had been boats, and small and large pieces of unidentifiable objects, most with jagged edges telling of violent forces at work. A few floating sailor caps and numerous empty life rafts were particularly haunting, and as the destroyers’ search lights probed here and there, colorful rainbows appeared on the mirrored surface explained by the pungent smell of fuel oil that made eyes water.
This was not the rendezvous that the Americans expected when they had departed Singapore to join forces with the Prince of Wales and Repulse. Just hours before, those two Royal Navy leviathans—one of them more than once described as unsinkable—had succumbed to a Japanese air attack. Overcome by swarms of land-based aircraft delivering bombs and torpedoes, the two ships had been sunk in just a little over two hours of intensive attacks, taking with them 840 men, including Admiral Sir Tom Phillips, embarked in the Prince of Wales. It was another devastating blow delivered by the Japanese, with more to come as they began a rampage across the Indo-Pacific that would expand their empire to dimensions once thought impossible.
Along with the attack on Pearl Harbor just three days before, this tragedy served as a lesson—learned the hardest of ways—that surface ships alone no longer dominated war at sea. Almost overnight, theory had been replaced by axiom that without air cover, even the most powerful ships were vulnerable to air attack. Even though this attack had been delivered by land-based aircraft, the long-running debate over battleships vs. aircraft carriers had been settled for all but the most obstinate members of the so-called “gun club.” (Those naval officers who believed that battleships and cruisers were the main strength of the Navy were often referred to as members of the gun club. Most maintained that aircraft should be relegated to reconnaissance tasking or used to assist the surface ships in targeting the enemy’s ships, and that the big guns of the surface ships would deliver the decisive blows in any forthcoming naval engagement.) From this time forward, many of the major battles to come—and there would be many to come—would be decided by aircraft.
But for Ernest Evans and the other destroyermen, this did not mean they had become irrelevant. Far from it. While the seasoned battleships would largely be relegated to protecting the upstart “flattops” and providing gunfire support for amphibious operations, the “tin cans” (as destroyers were affectionately and irreverently called) would spend the next several years of the war ubiquitously participating in a wide variety of operations, including those same roles of force protection and gunfire support performed by their larger sisters, but with many additional ones, including reconnaissance, search-and-rescue, antisubmarine warfare, and surface combat. For Evans, his first encounter with the latter would come in less than three months as British, Dutch, Australian, and American forces struggled against superior Japanese forces in Indonesian waters. It would be a harrowing and edifying initiation into the unique world of naval combat and a personally formative experience for this Native American naval officer, now so far from Oklahoma.
Showdown off Surabaya
In the weeks following the loss of Force Z, the Alden and other destroyers escorted troop and supply convoys from Australia back to East Indies waters to support operations defending the Malay barrier. Other elements of the Asiatic Fleet—now part of the newly formed American-British-Dutch-Australian Command (ABDACOM)—were engaging the enemy, most with disappointing results, but for the Alden and her sisters, these transits were largely uneventful.
On 19 February 1942, Japanese forces occupied Bali, immediately east of Java, where they captured an important airfield. It was evident that they were likely to move on Java itself very soon. Losing Java would give the Japanese control of the Malay barrier and the whole of the Dutch East Indies.
In the grand scheme of Japan’s strategic thinking, economic resources were the main goal. Chief among them were the tin and rubber in Indochina and the oil in the Dutch East Indies. Although it was center stage in American thinking, to the Japanese, Pearl Harbor was a virtual “side show.” None of their ambitious imperialist goals could be realized without the oil needed to drive their ships and aircraft. Because the Philippines lay between Japan and the East Indies, the Japanese felt compelled to neutralize the American presence there. And, because they were aware that U.S. strategy included sending the main battle fleet from Pearl Harbor in the event the Philippines came under attack, the Japanese decided to counter that response by sinking the U.S. fleet at its moorings in Pearl Harbor.
ABDACOM’s only hope of thwarting Japanese ambitions in the Dutch Indies was to maintain control of the Java Sea north of Java and prevent the capture of the island. Short of a miracle, that hope was largely futile considering the relative strengths of the forces committed to the struggle, thereby degrading the mission to merely slowing the Japanese advance. Despite that gloomy appraisal, there was no shortage of determination nor of courage. For their part, the Dutch had been in control of the East Indies for centuries, and defending those territories was little different from defending their home nation, which by then had fallen to the Nazis. The British had similar interests, and their fate, along with the Australians and the Americans in the region, had been decided in Washington during the so-called Arcadia conference.
On the morning of 22 February, the Alden left Tjilatjap on the south coast of Java and, in company with the cruiser USS Houston (CA-30) and destroyer Paul Jones (DD-230), headed for Surabaya on the north coast, where the remainder of Allied ships were gathering for what was shaping up to be a showdown.
Arriving at the entrance of Surabaya on the 24th, the American ships were guided in by a tower of black smoke—the aftermath of one of the bombing raids the Japanese were inflicting on the hapless port several times a day. As the Alden headed for the fueling facilities in Holland Basin, Coley and his crew saw warehouses ashore on fire, and the USS Stewart (DD-224) was lying at a sickening angle in a drydock, having been knocked off her blocks in an earlier raid. A merchant ship lay on her side, gutted and aflame as the pungent smell of her burning cargo of rubber drifted across the water.
Soon after mooring, Captain Coley was summoned to a meeting with his new boss, Commander Thomas Binford, commander of Destroyer Division 58. Coley left Evans to supervise the refueling and to review the few charts available for their new operating area and made his way to the USS John D. Edwards to meet with Binford and the commanding officers of the other destroyers in the division. Binford informed the group that they were now part of the so-called “ABDA Strike Force,” a title that exuded more hope than confidence among most of the ships’ commanders. The multinational group included the remnants of the U.S. Asiatic Fleet and the Royal Netherlands Navy and was commanded by Dutch Rear Admiral Karel Doorman, who was tasked with locating and engaging the Japanese forces that were expected to show up soon.
Facing the obvious communication problem among allies who spoke different languages and worked from different tactical manuals and maneuvering instructions, Doorman ordered contingents of British and American signalmen to embark in the admiral’s flagship, the light cruiser HNLMS DeRuyter. These English-speakers would relay his commands to their own ships.
Admiral Doorman took his ships to sea on the night of 25 February but failed to find any enemy ships. Late the next day, Doorman again ordered all available ships to sea. In other circumstances, it might have been an impressive procession as the multinational force steamed out of Surabaya, but considering what was expected to be coming their way, few enjoyed much hope. These 14 ships from four different nations and speaking two different languages were mostly old and badly needing some maintenance time. Their crews were exhausted, and their officers were making decisions based on little intelligence reporting—much of it faulty. Perhaps worst of all, they had no air cover, a fact that was both psychologically and pragmatically alarming in light of the recent disastrous loss of the Repulse and Prince of Wales.
Many men, women, and children—probably relatives of the Dutch sailors—waved from the shore as the ships began unmooring. Whether it was a display of optimistic encouragement or a gesture of final farewell was indiscernible, but it was certainly dampened when Doorman’s flagship DeRuyter—the first to get underway—almost immediately collided with a tug and water barge, sinking both of the smaller vessels.
Despite this rather inauspicious—some called it ominous—beginning, the DeRuyter headed up the channel, leading the way out. The Houston was next underway. Her main battery normally bristled with nine 8-inch guns in three turrets, but her after turret had been disabled during the Battle of Makassar Strait on 4 February, which reduced her firepower by a third and meant that Doorman would not be able to use her in the rear of his formation. In the interwar years, she had been a handsome vessel, fit for presidential visits with her brightworks glittering in the sunlight and snow-white turk’s head and chain sinnet macrame-like knots serving no purpose other than cosmetic enhancements of her natural beauty. Now the old girl was showing her age and the effects of the travails she had endured in these first weeks of the war. Jagged wounds marred her once-smooth lines, streaks of running rust bled from her scuppers, and a sickly-green verdigris tarnished the once-gleaming brass fittings. Despite these wounds and blemishes, she still exuded an aura of power as she weighed her anchors and twisted smartly about to follow the Dutch flagship, her forward 8-inch guns pointing ahead as though daring the unseen enemy to come within range.
Falling in astern of the Houston was the heavy cruiser HMS Exeter. Her six 8-inch guns were fully functional, and both she and HMAS Perth were armed with torpedoes, unlike the other cruisers in Doorman’s eclectic force. Like the Perth, the Exeter had seen combat with the Graf Spee in the South Atlantic but had been heavily damaged and had spent more than a year in a shipyard licking her wounds. Now the two cruisers were reunited as the Perth fell in astern of Exeter.
The last of the cruisers was the Dutch light cruiser HNLMS Java. Her main battery of 5.9-inch guns were mounted on the open deck rather than in enclosed turrets, supplemented by an array of 40-mm and .50-cal guns. Many considered her obsolete the day she was commissioned in 1925, and she seemed particularly diminutive as she followed the Perth, who was nearly 60 feet longer and whose Australian ensign was much larger than that of the Dutch ship.
At last, it was the destroyers’ turn. Three were British—the Encounter, Electra, and Jupiter—and two were Dutch (the Kortenaer and Witte de With). The John D. Edwards led the other American destroyers, followed by the Alden, with the John D. Ford and Paul Jones astern. As the Alden followed the long column wending its way through the channel toward the open sea, Coley noted that his sailors were carrying out their duties well, but many of them showed outward signs of fatigue, a notable sluggishness in their movements, slack jaws, and prolonged blinking of the eyes. He knew that the sailors on the other ships had to be exhausted as well. The previous night’s sortie and Japanese air attacks during the day had caused many of the men to remain at their battle stations for far too many hours with only occasional respites that were too few and far too short.
Despite the exhaustion and the uncertainty of what lay ahead, there were valiant efforts to keep up morale. As the ships emerged from the Surabaya channel and into the open waters of the Java Sea, the Exeter suddenly hoisted a large white battle ensign—twelve feet across—and surged forward, exhaling a dark gray cloud of smoke from her twin stacks as she charged ahead.
Overtaking the Houston to port, the Exeter moved up in the column, falling in directly astern of the DeRuyter, supplanting the American cruiser in the number two position. As she made this rather ostentatious move, apparently on her own volition since no signal had come from the flagship, the Exeter’s flamboyance was compounded by her playing the song “A-Hunting We Will Go” over her external loudspeakers. This bravado was welcomed by those whose blood was up and who were anxious to engage the enemy, even if only to end the uncertainty and the draining routine brought on by Doorman’s persistent quest to carry out his orders. Others saw the gesture as inappropriate and feared it might prompt the gods of war to retaliate for their hubris. All knew that a reckoning was coming and that it was only a matter of time.