USS JOHNSTON (DD 557)
By Bill Mercer October 25, 1944
Battle of Samar
By Bill Mercer
October 25, 1944
On this fateful day I secured from my duties in the ship's laundry about 0400 and hit the sack. My bunk was located in the mess hall and was the top berth on the port side all the way forward. I was awakened around 0600 as the General Quarters alarm sounded and reported to my battle station as Trainer on a twin 40 mm on the port side just below the bridge. As I recall, we did not remain at GQ but a few minutes and then secured. I returned to my bunk and had just gone to sleep when the GQ alarm sounded again. I was rather slow getting out of my bunk when the word was passed that the Jap fleet was approximately fifteen miles astern. Needless to say my pace quickened as I started to my battle station again. Lee Burton, a cook, was just beginning to place the breakfast chow on the line and as I passed by him I said, "how about some bacon; it may be the last I'll ever get". Lee said, "help yourself". I took the bacon but don't remember if I ate it because as I reached my battle station rounds from the big ships were already splashing around Gambier Bay (off our port bow). By now you could see the masts of the big Jap ships barely sticking above the horizon.
As my gun was just below the bridge, one could easily hear the Captain giving orders. The first order that I heard him give was, "all ahead flank". I remember feeling good about hearing that order because since we were steaming away from the Japs I felt we could probably out run them. I didn't give any thought about the CVE's not being able to outrun them. That good feeling was short-lived because the next order that I remember was, "left full rudder". My heart seemed to come up in my throat and was beating so hard that I thought the Japs might be able to hear it. As we began to come left, I immediately found a kapok life Jacket and put it on. As I was getting into the life jacket a seaman, whose last name was Gorman, asked me if I was scared. I told him that I was and his reply was "this is fun". I told him that we would see how funny it is very shortly and that my suggestion was for him to put on a life jacket to. I don't know if he did or not but he did survive. I got the word that we were making a torpedo run. I don't remember if I heard the Captain give the order or if It came over the phones. Dave Lewis was my gun captain and had the phones on. I then went to the starboard side and stood by the ladder to the bridge and watched as we fired all ten torpedoes; then I headed to the port side where I thought I had better cover. Since we were not firing the 40 mm guns, I was moving around and checking the Jap ships and had moved near Gun #42 and was talking with J. B. Strickland (a member of #42 gun crew) when we took our first hits. It seemed to almost lift us out of the water. I said, "damn, was that a torpedo"'? Strick said, "I don't think so" and he was right. I now know it was a 14-inch salvo. Very shortly thereafter we took another salvo and, as I recall, this one hit the bridge and killed or severely wounded several people. Someone on the bridge who was trying to clear it of dead, wounded and other debris yelled from the bridge, "stand-by below". I was standing under the wing of the bridge just forward of the Captain's gig as a body was being lowered to the main deck. As the body was even with me it seemed to stop and I could see that the head was completely gone. I thought it was an officer because of the khaki uniform but I had no idea who it was. I now believe it was the Recognition Officer who came aboard at Manus just before heading for the Philippines.
After receiving the first hits it seemed we were being hit regularly. Gun #52 had so much brass piled up around it that the gun couldn't swing without hitting the brass so Strickland and I began to throw the brass over the side. A gunners mate whose name I don't remember told us to save the brass but "Strick" nor I slowed up from slinging the brass over the side. As I recall we did have a couple of words of response to him for telling us to save the brass. We did get the shell casings cleared.
It wasn't long after this when gun #52 took a direct hit. I was under the wing of the bridge on the part side just aft of gun #52 when this happened. One or two of the gun crew was literally blown out the hatch on the starboard side of the mount. One of the men was Glenn Heriford. I picked him up and laid him on the deck along the bulkhead under the wing and as I did so he looked up and said, "Merc straighten my leg out". I then noticed that one of his legs was practically blown off. I picked bin up again and started to the wardroom with him but as I got to the main deck, he was taken from me by two men who said they would take him to the wardroom. I never saw "Herf" again. Shortly afterwards, we had to abandon our battle station due to the fire. I then went to the main deck amidships an the port side and was standing with seven or eight other men under the 40 mm gun tub when for no apparent reason. I started walking forward. When I got to about where the boat wench was located, a round came in behind me and killed all the men standing there. I started forward again and a large round hit in front of me and it contained red dye. I was so close that it was hot to my face and I remember touching my face to see if I had received a flash burn. I hadn't so I just slid down the bulkhead and sat down on deck by the galley. About that time George Rinder came out of the galley and was eating on a full loaf of bread that hadn't been sliced. George asked me if I wanted some bread but I told him I wasn't hungry. It was only a few minutes until we were dead in the water and an officer was coming up the port side from the fantail telling everyone to abandon ship. I asked him if it was the Captain's orders and he replied "yes". I didn't abandon ship at that time although several men had already gone over the side. Another officer whom I believe was Don Bowman was coming up the port side from the fantail and he too was telling everyone to abandon ship but I still didn't go. I was afraid the ship might get underway again and I didn't want to be left behind but I then saw the Captain telling men to abandon ship. I needed no further prompting. I went over amidships from the port side and swam
off the port quarter as fast as I could. I joined up with Marquard and we both swam approximately a hundred yards off the port quarter. Most everyone else was astern and scattered over about a hundred yards. I recall Marquard took his comb from his pocket, neatly combed his hair and then threw his comb away saying, "I don't guess I'll ever need that again". Narquard did survive and could have used that comb.
At about this time we saw a Jap destroyer laying off the port quarter still firing at the Johnston. Since the Jap destroyer was firing over our heads we decided to relocate and swam more to the stern of the Johnston joining several others one of which was Strickland. I told "Strick" that I was sticking close to him because he owed me a hundred dollars. "Strick" said, "if we make it you'll sure get your hundred". I was only joking because neither of us thought we would make it. I then asked "Strick" how this compared to the battle of Savo Island. "Strick said, "kid, I have never seen anything like this". It was about this time (1010) that the Johnston went down. We all watched as our home for the past year slowly slid below the surface. We all felt an underwater explosion which we thought was depth charges from one of the Jap destroyers but obviously wasn't. We had a scare as a Jap destroyer that came through the middle of a large number of our survivors. We thought the Japs would strafe us but they didn't. I was probably twenty or twenty-five yards from the Jap destroyer as it slowly passed by and there were several men much closer. The port rail
was lined with Japs and they were wearing khaki colored uniforms. They were yelling and flashing #1 signs at us but that didn't seem to hurt. I just wanted them to get the hell by and leave us alone and they did. I remember the enormous Jap flag, probably their battle ensign.
Shortly after the Jap destroyer left the area we began to get some organization and began to collect around rafts. As I swan toward a raft, I swam up to Howard Craven, an EM 1/c. Craven's throat was cut all the way across and appeared that he wouldn't be around much longer but he did survive. Someone swam out to assist Cooper, a Fire Controlman but Cooper told the person to help Jack Walker (BM 2/c) and added, "he's hurt bad". Both Cooper and Walker were burned severely. We placed then both inside the raft and put Craven in there with them. Craven took care of them both.
As we drifted we could see a Jap cruiser that was burning and appeared to be dead in the water and it looked as if destroyers were taking survivors from the cruiser. At about 1500 we saw our first shark and he was a big one. He may not have been as large as he looked but was large enough to eat a person. He began working his way in until he was close enough to make a pass and came close enough that five or six of us touched him as we kicked and splashed as he swam by. No one in our group got hit that afternoon but after dark, several men were hit including Clint Carter (back), Chief GM Henson (both thighs), Joe Taromino (left arm & shoulder) and Vince Scafoglio (left kidney area). Shortly after dark, Cooper and Walker died. A few words were said by someone. We then removed their life jackets and allowed Cooper and Walker to slide below the surface. This was a terrible feeling for an eighteen year old boy going on forty as the two slid by us. The night was long and dark especially after the moon disappeared. At times our raft was four or five feet under water as people scrambled to get inside as the sharks attacked. Neither Taromino nor Scafoglio survived.
The following morning about 0600, John Schindele and Jim Carrell began to swim toward Samar in hope of making it and getting help for those of us still out there. It was agreed that at noon, six more of us would leave and try to swim to Samar. So at noon, Julian Owen, Charles (Chuck) Campbell, Frank Nelson, Jim Herring, J. B Strickland and myself took a 4 X 4 timber and headed for Samar. Late in the afternoon we sighted what we thought was two men in a small boat. As we got closer we decided that they must be friendly because they spoke English. When we got almost to them we learned that it was Schindele and Correll and they were not in a boat but they had come across a life raft that contained the DD 557 number. It must have been blown off the ship during the battle because it still contained the 40 mm shell can filled with rations. A few minutes after getting to the raft Chuck Campbell dropped the lid and no one wanted to dive for it. I thought Frank Nelson was going to give Campbell a General Court Martial and probably have him put to death for dropping the lid. I finally convinced Frank that it wasn't Campbell's responsibility to hold the lid any more than it was mine or his. Frank accepted this but what hurt him worse, I think, was taking a wave into the ration can which got all of our matches wet and some of the rations. Fortunately we had chain smoked about three cigarettes before the wave incident.
We all thought we would probably make landfall sometime during the night so we split up our money and our knives and had a plan that we intended to follow when we hit the beach. But the current changed and carried us back out to sea. The night seemed much longer than the first one because it seemed that one of us was irrational all night long. It wasn't the same ones all the time and that was good that someone knew what was going on at all times. Sometime after dark I removed my life jacket and discovered that I had been I keeping It afloat. I placed it in the water and it sank.
I negotiated a deal with Strickland concerning sleeping arrangements. I told "Strick" that I would hold him up for awhile and let bin sleep and then he could hold me up while I slept. That sounded o.k. to "Strick" and in about two seconds be was sound asleep. I felt I had held him up for a couple of hours (it was probably more like five minutes) so I awoke him and told him it was my time to sleep. "Strick" agreed with that so I leaned my head over on his shoulder and as I did so "Strick" had already gone to sleep again and fell off the raft backwards. I never did have a real good feeling about trying that again.
As it began to get daylight, we could tell we were very close to the Island but had drifted toward one end. It seemed like the southern end but I'm not sure. Seven of us decided to leave the raft and swim to the island but Strickland said he couldn't make it but encouraged the others of us to go ahead and try. We decided that if we couldn't all go, none of us would. It's probably a good thing. We more than likely would not have made it.
Sometime around noon on 27 October as we drifted back to sea, we sighted a group of small ships. At first, all of us except Strickland thought it was Jap ships but as they came closer. One of the PC's drifted broadside to us and we could see the beautiful American flag. We knew then that we had made it. A crewman from LCI 71 threw a line to us. I retrieved it and tied it to the raft. We were then pulled alongside and helped aboard. We were given food, water and cigarettes and then Jim Herring, Strickland and I consumed one "Joe" pot of coffee. The time then was about 1230. We slept some as we proceeded to Leyte harbor. At about 0400, the majority of us were transferred to LST 213. On the following day (after dark) we beaded for Hollandia, New Guinea. After about six days we arrived in New Guinea and were transferred to the S.S. Lurline and then beaded for San Francisco by way of Brisbane, Australia. After about 14 days after leaving Brisbane, we sighted the Golden Gate and crossed under the bridge at 0913 on 1 December, 1944.
After about three days, we were given a 30-day leave and I headed for Texas. After returning to Treasure Island, I performed various jobs until being transferred to Bremerton, WA. There were several of us from the Johnston and Hoel that were given shore duty either at Bangor Ammunition Depot or Naval Ammunition Depot in Bremerton.,
I was discharged on March 22, 1946 and along with Larry Morris of the Hoel and started toward Texas by way of Sacramento where we spent about three days with Frank Nelson who was in baseball spring training at the time. From there we went to Covina, CA and visited Sam Lucas for a few days and finally on to Texas.
I went back to school and finished high school. I married Shirley Bird on July 2, 1948. I went to work in January, 1950 with the Texas Highway Patrol. After about three years as a State Policeman I left the THP and went to work with General Motors Corporation and retired after 32 years service, the last seventeen years as Chief of Security at Arlington, Texas. Shirley and I have three lovely daughters and five grandchildren, two grandsons and three grand- daughters.
By the way, Strickland did pay me my hundred dollars. I knew he would and I also knew that he had about a thousand dollars in money orders made out to himself that be kept in his money belt around his waist. But as we abandoned ship that one hundred dollars was the last thing on my mind.
Many, many times since that day in October 1944. I have said and many people have said to me "you sure were lucky", but I don't think anyone can be that lucky. I know that God led me away from under that gun tub because I had no other reason to leave. It should have been a much safer place to be than on the open deck. I feel for some reason God kept the shells and shrapnel from hitting me which would have probably killed me. I have never come up with a reason for His taking care of me the way he did. I am grateful but probably never as grateful as I should be