The Tin Can Sailors of World War II

James D. Hornfischer, a US Navy historian, died June 2 at the age of 55. The cost of Navy sailors in World War II is rarely accounted for in history courses, but with so much new attention to the Pacific, should more Americans thumbs up? through Hornfischer’s work about the “most beautiful hour” of the Navy on an October morning in 1944 off the coast of Samar.

Historian James D. Hornfischer (1965-2021).


Mark Matson

Hornfischer’s “The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors” (2004) is devoted to around two hours of action in the battle of the Gulf of Leyte, mostly on “tin cans”, the Navy nickname for destroyers. The scene on October 25th was bleak. Admiral Bill Halsey and his porters were lured away by a decoy, and the 13 ships of the “Taffy 3” were exposed to the largest force the Japanese Navy had ever assembled. The tin cans of the Navy, as Hornfischer said in a speech in 2004, “fought in broad daylight at close range against Japanese battleships that were 35 to 60 times as large”.

Hornfischer’s work is not a recitation of ship movements; it is about “the machinists and the snipers in the engine rooms and the gunners and the men in the dispatch rooms”. Best known is Ernest Evans, the Oklahoma-born captain of the USS Johnston. Without waiting for orders, the Johnston stormed under devastating fire across miles of open sea to fire a torpedo volley and paralyze the heavy cruiser Kumano.

The ship would have “had the right to call it a day,” as Hornfischer said in another speech in 2014, but Evans had “a different understanding of his duty” and turned the badly damaged Johnston back to fire at Japanese ships with cannons. His spirit: “Our life does not count”, but the enemy “will not catch the bearers whose protection it is our duty to protect.”

Commander of the destroyer escort USS Samuel B. Roberts was reservist Lt. Cmdr. Bob Copeland, who quit his career as a lawyer. (Vermont Royster, editor of these pages from 1958 to 1971, paused his reporter career to command a tin can in the Pacific.) Copeland stormed his tiny ship into battle at great expense. Hornfischer tells of the 18-year-old second class seaman Jackson McCaskill who, after a shell hit a cauldron, worked calmly to secure the hot steam while his feet were burned to the bone.

The main wreck of the USS Johnston rests on the seabed off the island of Samar in the Philippines on March 31.


Caladan Oceanic / AFP / Getty Images

Both the Johnston and the Roberts would sink. Copeland remembered seeing Evans, blowing his clothes off and holding two short fingers. Evans “turned a little and waved his hand.” Sailors spent days on rafts battling sharks attracted to the bloody mess. “On that raft,” said Copeland, “we were only 49 very miserable people,” and “it made no difference to us whether a man’s parents were rich or poor” or whether someone was “black, brown, or white”.

Evans was posthumously the first Native American in the Navy to win the Medal of Honor. Earlier this year the Johnston was discovered in the Philippine Sea at a depth of 21,000 feet, her hull still bearing the ship number in white: 557.

It’s no secret that interest in military service is declining. But perhaps they would be tempted even more if they came across Hornfischer’s report, as he put it, “how Americans deal with having their backs pressed against the wall”.

Lt. Odell is a Navy pilot.

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Published in the print edition from June 15, 2021.

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