Ernest Evans, JFK and Memorial Day in Milton Massachusetts

While I drove back from spending the weekend with  my Mom and my sister's family in Baltimore -- Jim was giving Memorial Day remarks in Milton, MA.  This has become a tradition for him -- he's spoken at various Memorial Day observations over that past years including Mattapoisett, MA Newport, RI, Barrington, RI, and West Warwick, RI. I've gone with him to some of these and it is indeed a fitting way to remember those who have sacrificed for our freedom. The text of his remarks is below.

Thank you for letting me take part in the traditions of your town on this Memorial Day. Our republic is commemorating the 75th anniversary of the Second World War. Over the past six months I’ve had the great good fortune to travel to Pearl Harbor to help remember the December 7, 1941 “day of infamy,” and again this month to observe the anniversary of the June 1942 Battle of Midway. Visiting the memorials to the fallen on board the battleships Arizona and Oklahoma is a moving experience for anyone who has done business in great waters. 

But I would be remiss not to mention the centennial of the birth of a local U.S. Navy hero, John F. Kennedy. In 1946 Kennedy gave a speech to Gold Star mothers in Charlestown in which he noted: “I think I know how you feel, because my mother is a Gold Star Mother.” John was speaking of the death of his brother, naval aviator Joseph Kennedy, in action. Such was the eloquence and grace John Kennedy brought to public life.

But today I want to pick up the story of the Pacific War in late 1944, in waters surrounding the Philippine Islands. Two thousand years ago the Greek historian Plutarch believed that men of action could learn how to conduct themselves virtuously by studying the lives of famous Greeks and Romans. We can do the same by studying the lives of our own forebears. 

Plutarch compared and contrasted among great figures from antiquityincluding Pericles, the first citizen of classical Athens; the Macedonian conqueror Alexander the Great; Julius Caesar, a figure so consequential that his very name came to mean emperor. In so doing Plutarch helped us learn what is worth thinking and doing. Just as important, he helped us learn what’s worth shunning because it is low, or base, or unbecoming. 

Now, I am no Plutarch. No one will read my works two thousand years from now. But I want to step onto that eminent Greek’s turf this Memorial Day, and tell you a story about one of my personal heroes: a U.S. Navy Medal of Honor recipient by the name of Ernest E. Evans. I believe Plutarch would find Evans a fit subject for one of his biographies.

And he’s not just my hero. So revered a figure is Commander Evans that a building at the Naval War College is named for him. Evans Hall stands directly across from the Surface Warfare Officers School, where each generation of American naval officersincluding myself in the late 1980sis groomed for seamanship and combat. 

They who go down to the sea in shipsgray-hulled U.S. Navy shipslive in Evans’s shadow while they’re with us in Newport. 

Who was Evans? No one has written a biography of him. He lived a short life, like many of those we remember on this day. Maybe we just don’t know enough about him to fill a book. But I’ll relate what we do know. It’s a parable of valor and derring-do that no one would believe if it came out of Hollywood. 

Commander Evans looked like a stockier Clark Gable, for those of you of an age to remember the actor of Run Silent, Run Deep and Gone with the Wind fame. And he was “a fighting Cherokee Indian...short, barrel-chested, loud of voice, a born leader,” according to Harvard historian Samuel Eliot Morison, the chronicler of U.S. naval operations in World War II. That meant his nickname at the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis was, inevitably, “the Chief.”

Nor was this nickname misplaced. As Morison notes, the Chief was the sort of leader all marinersindeed, all warriorsaspire to be. Evans was the sort of person who strides into a room and takes it over through force of character. You know the type. My first and best boss in the navy, a Filipino by the name of Ernesto Zambrano, stood just over five feet tall. Yet a roomful of people of all ranks would go quiet when Mister Zee walked in. He had presence. 

And so did Evans. Evans wasn’t a tyrant, but his officers and men feared him. Or, more precisely, he commanded such respect that they feared letting down the Old Man, as navy crews have called their skippers since time immemorial. Disappointing him was the worst failure they could imagine. 

Evans had a chip on his shoulder. He was ashamed of being forced to flee from the Battle of the Java Sea aboard the destroyer Alden in early 1942, when the Imperial Japanese Navy was rampaging through the South China Sea.

When Evans assumed command of the destroyer USS Johnston in 1943, he channeled John Paul Jones, who once made the Narragansett Bay his operating grounds. He told well-wishers at the ship’s commissioning ceremony: This is going to be a fighting ship. I intend to go in harm’s way....Now that I have a fighting ship, I will never retreat from an enemy force.” 

Nor did he. 

Evans made good on his vow never again to flee. He quickly earned a reputation for venturing into close quarters with the enemy to support ground troops ashore. Off Guam, for instance, Johnston’s gunners fired until the barrels glowed redand then Evans demanded, and got, more ammunition beyond the ship’s allotment. 

In October 1944 Johnston was part of Task Force 3, or “Taffy 3,” cruising the Philippine Sea, northeast of Leyte Gulf and due east of the island of Samar, in the Philippine Islands. Taffy 3 was Admiral Clifton Sprague’s flotilla of six light, “jeep” aircraft carriers, three destroyers, and four destroyer escorts. Its mission: to cover General Douglas MacArthur’s landing force on Samar.

Taffy 3 was not a battle fleet. It was a support force. And yet on the morning of October 25 it had to fight for its life against one of the most formidable armadas ever to sail Pacific Ocean watersa force built around the battleship Yamato, the biggest, most heavily gunned battleship ever built. 

What a mismatch! 

Johnston was a 2,700-ton destroyer, or “tin can,” festooned with five 5-inch guns and some torpedoes. That’s lightweight armament. Arrayed against Johnston and her consorts was an enemy force that was both superior in numbersboasting 23 vessels, every one of which equaled or exceeded the American tin cans in firepower and displacementand was headed by a 70,000-ton dreadnought. 

Each of Yamato’s three 18-inch gun turrets weighed as much as a destroyer like Johnston. Her nine main guns, each 69 feet long, could fling projectiles weighing as much as a Volkswagen over 25 miles. David had it lucky by contrast when he squared off against Goliath.

Admiral Takeo Kurita’s “Center Force” was part of a larger Japanese fleet converging on Leyte Gulf. Kurita’s mission was to sink or drive off the American fleet. That would strand U.S. Marine and Army forces ashorebereft of air cover, naval gunfire support, and shipborne supplies, and under the big guns of Japanese battleships and cruisers. 

If successful the Japanese assault would have set back, complicated, or perhaps even halted the American reconquest of the Philippinesand stymied MacArthur’s drive across the South Pacific. 

So what do you do when confronted by an enemy force that outnumbers and outclasses you by every measure? If you’re Ernest Evans, you attack

When Kurita’s fleet was sighted coming over the horizon that October morning, Commander Evans instantly ordered Johnston’s helm hard over. The destroyer turned, rang up flank speed, and charged the enemy before even receiving a signal from Sprague to do so. This was the first of two mad dashes she would make that day before meeting her fate.

Johnston zigzagged her way into firing range for her torpedoes, or “fish,” dodging enemy gunfire on her way. Gunnery officer Lieutenant Bob Hagen swore he could see Captain Evans’s heart “grinningas Johnston joined battle. She dueled the heavy cruiser Kumano with guns before disgorging her ten fish. Her torpedoes ran hot, straight, and normal,” scoring a hit on Kumano before she turned to rejoin Taffy 3. 

At that point the tin can’s luck ran out. She took three hits from 14-inch battleship guns, losing one of her two engineering plants and half her speed. She lost fire control and steering. Evans lost his shirt and two fingers in one of the blasts, yet oversaw repairs that restored partial control of the guns, and rudder control from the fantail. 

The ship looked like a wreck. 

Then the destroyer escorts started their torpedo run. When Johnston passed them, Evans ordered the rudder hard about so she could provide them with gunfire support. Thus began the second charge of the tin-can sailors.

Johnston engaged the battleship Kongo, and took on a five-ship destroyer squadron all by herselfbadgering the Japanese ships into muffing a torpedo attack on Ziggy Sprague’s flattops. Ultimately, though, an avalanche of shells crashed into the shipdepriving her of propulsion and compelling the crew to abandon ship. 

Commander Evans made it into the water alive but was never recovered. How he met his maker remains unknown. What we do know is this: Johnston and her sisters threw the Japanese fleet into disarray, preventing it from striking effectively at the carriers. Their audacity left Kurita dazed and confused. He lost all taste for battlecalling off the Center Force’s advance short of its goal. The ground campaign in the Philippines went on. 

Taffy 3 wrote a remarkable chapter in the annals of naval warfare. Evans and his shipmates charged a crushingly superior force and won.

So what would a Plutarch take away from the story of Ernest Evans, the Chief? That Evans was decisive. He had swagger. He inspired his men to be their best selves, and empowered them to do their duty. And, most importantly for our purposes today, he was prepared to give the last full measure of devotion for the cause of liberty. That gives anyone who wears the uniform of the United States an example to strive toward. 

This is an example we need in an increasingly competitive world. 

Can we live up to the standard set by Ernest Evans? I believe so. People of valor live today. Some of them wear military uniforms. I have the pleasure to work with them every day. 

But gallantry is not exclusively a martial thing. Just read the daily news. How often do we hear about Americansregular people like usrunning into burning buildings, or performing other feats demanding what looks like superhuman courage?

We need not look far away, or into the age of Plutarch or Evans, to find such examples. I used to fight fires in the navy, so let me use that as an example: thirty- one firefighters have given their lives in the line of duty this year. Just last month New Yorkers honored firefighter William Tolley, who fell to his death while battling a blaze in Queens. In 2014 a nine-alarm fire engulfed a four-story building on Beacon Street, not far from here in Back Bay. Fire Lieutenant Edward J. Walsh Jr. and Firefighter Michael R. Kennedy went into dangerrescuing the people trapped in the building before succumbing to flames, heat, and smoke. 

They did their dutyand then some. Like Evans, Walsh and Kennedy gave the last full measure of devotion for the common good. I believe the fallen from Leyte Gulf would welcome them into a fellowship of honor, alongside military heroes of old. And I believe John Kennedy would also be there to greet them. 

Let me close by departing from my nautical theme and quoting an army general, George S. Patton. Shortly after World War II, at a gathering not unlike this one, Patton pronounced it “foolish and wrong to mourn the men who died. Rather we should thank God that such men lived.” Indeed. I would add only that such people walk among us todaystill.

Thank you.


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