San Diego man helps locate sunken WWII ship in deepest wreck dive in history

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SAN MARCOS, Calif. – Nearly 77 years after it sank, the USS Johnston has been found, thanks in part to a local historian.

Parks Stephenson, a local shipwreck historian, recently helped researchers located the USS Johnston. The ship sank in October 1944 off the coast of the Philippines during the Battle off Samar.

Wreck Historian Parks Stephenson first started researching the Johnston a couple years ago, but his knowledge of US Navy history stretches much further back.

“It was such an example of self-sacrifice,” Stephenson said. “It’s a story that needed to be told.”

The ship sank in October 1944 off the coast of the Philippines during the Battle off Samar which was part of the Battle of Leyte Gulf, Naval History and Heritage Command records show. It happened when a small group of U.S. ships were unexpectedly engaged by 23 Japanese vessels.

Outnumbered, Cmdr. Ernest Evans turned the Johnston toward the Japanese and engaged, hoping to buy the other American ships time to get away.

Nearly 190 crew members on board including Evans died when the ship sank that day.

“She just kept taking hits,” Stephenson sad. “She took hits from cruisers, and destroyers. It was basically a suicide mission. It was such an example of self-sacrifice.”

The ship hadn’t been spotted since then. Sitting more than 21,000 feet below the surface, Stephenson, who conducts research as a hobby, helped steer a group of researchers in its direction.

“The first dive, didn’t find anything,” he said. “Second dive, didn’t find anything. Then the bow came out of the darkness. This was our heritage. This one you could see the battle scars, see the shots it took.”

Caladan Oceanic, an undersea technology company led by explorer and retired naval officer Victor Vescovo, announced in a March 31 release that parts of the wreckage were “re-located, surveyed and filmed.” Vescovo, Stephenson and Shane Eigler, a senior submarine technician at Triton Submarines, are credited with execution of the missions.

In the release, Vescovo said sonar data, field notes and other materials will be made available to the Navy to disseminate at its discretion.

“We have a strict ‘look, don’t touch’ policy but we collect a lot of material that is very useful to historians and naval archivists,” Vescovo was quoted as saying. “I believe it is important work, which is why I fund it privately and we deliver the material to the Navy pro-bono.”

Evans became the first Native American in the Navy to be awarded a posthumous Medal of Honor.

“You could say it’s free monetarily, but I got compensation what money cannot pay for,” Stephenson said.

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