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The World’s Deepest Known Shipwreck Has Just Been Rediscovered

The destroyer, USS Johnston, sank in battle back in 1944.

One former US Navy Officer just couldn’t let a sleeping vessel lie. Victor Vescovo has piloted a submersible to the world’s deepest-known shipwreck some 21,180 feet below the waves of the Philippine Sea. And the marine relic has quite the history.

USS Johnston (DD-557) was a Fletcher-class destroyer that sank in battle during WWII. The vessel, which measured an imposing 376 feet, was taken down by the Japanese fleet on October 25, 1944, during the Battle of Leyte Gulf. With more than 200,000 naval personnel involved, this skirmish is widely considered to be the biggest naval battle in history.

With Native American Captain Commander Ernest Evans at the helm, the destroyer played an instrumental role in buying time for the US escort carriers during the battle and was fittingly awarded a Presidential Unit Citation (the highest award that can be given to a ship). Evans was also awarded a posthumous Medal of Honor for his bravery and was the first Native Amerian to receive such a decoration.

Shane Eigler, Victor Vescovo, Parks Stephenson

Left to right: Shane Eigler, Victor Vescovo, Parks Stephenson.  Nick Verola/Caladan Oceanic

Wreckage that was believed to be the Johnston was discovered in 2019 by R/V Petrel at a depth of 20,400 feet, though the remotely operated vehicle (ROV) on the expedition couldn’t get quite deep enough to capture the vessel in its entirety. But this time around, there was no such issue. Vescovo, a retired US Navy Commander, piloted his Triton 36000/2 submersible, DSV Limiting Factor, down to the wreck on two separate, eight-hour dives, reaching a depth of 21,180. These are now the deepest wreck dives, manned or unmanned, on record. Engineer Shane Eigler joined Vescovo on one dive and naval historian Parks Stephenson on another.

The highly maneuverable sub was able to conduct a meticulous survey of the wreck to verify the vessel’s identity, construct a map of its layout and obtain high-def imagery for naval historians. During the dive, the team was able to clearly see the destroyer’s two 5-inch gun turrets, twin torpedo racks and gun mounts on the superstructure, along with her battle scars.

“We could see the extent of the wreckage and the severe damage inflicted during the intense battle on the surface,”  Stephenson said in a statement. “It took fire from the largest warship ever constructed—the Imperial Japanese Navy battleship Yamato, and ferociously fought back. All of the accounts pay tribute to the crew’s bravery and complete lack of hesitation in taking the fight to the enemy, and the wreckage serves to prove that.”

Johnston had a crew of 327, though only 141 survived. The dives have helped to complete the picture of this seminal moment in naval history that ended in an unexpected American victory. It’s also highlighted the courageous captain and crew, who attacked ships up to 20 times the size of Johnston to defend the nearby support fleet.

“It was ‘the Alamo’ at sea,” Vescovo, a native Texan added, “but in this case, the defenders—unbelievably—won.”

The team laid wreaths before and after the dives.

Check out pictures from the dive below:

USS Johnston

The two 5-inch gun turrets pointing to the starboard side as they were when last fired.  Victor Vescovo/Caladan Oceanic

USS Johnston

The bridge from the starboard side. Atop the bridge is a MK37 gun director.  Victor Vescovo/Caladan Oceanic

USS Johnston

The armor around the guns is punctured by incoming shells. Above the guns are the aft quintuple MK15 torpedo mounts.  Victor Vescovo/Caladan Oceanic

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