On 23 October 1944, the first engagements of a gigantic naval battle began in Leyte Gulf, part of the Philippine Sea. It was the biggest in modern human history.

Over the following three days, more than 300 US warships faced off against some 70 Japanese vessels. The Americans had with them no fewer than 34 aircraft carriers – only slightly fewer than all the carriers in service around the world today – and some 1,500 aircraft. Their air fleet outnumbered the Japanese five to one.

The battle had two major effects – it prevented the Japanese interfering with the American invasion of the Philippines (which had been captured by the Japanese nearly four years earlier) and effectively knocked the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) out of action for the rest of World War Two. Nearly 30 Japanese ships were sunk, and many of the remainder – including the biggest battleship ever built, the Yamato – would be so badly damaged they would be largely confined to port for the rest of the war.

While the wider battle largely saw the US outnumber the Japanese fleet, one crucial action was different. A small force – Task Force 77, mainly destroyers and unarmoured aircraft carriers – found itself battling a much larger Japanese formation.

The battle took place off the island of Samar. Massively outnumbered, the small US flotilla fought against overwhelming odds, pressing home their attack against the much larger and better-armed Japanese ships.

How the world's deepest shipwreck was found - BBC Future

The US resistance was so fierce that it prompted the Japanese commander, Vice Admiral Takeo Kurita, to turn his fleet around, believing he was now facing the bulk of the US forces. The small, relatively unarmoured American destroyers came as close as possible to the Japanese warships, preventing them using their powerful long-range guns. The small US force prevented a potential massacre, but their resistance came at a heavy cost. Five of the 13 US ships were sunk.

You might also like:

One of them was a destroyer called USS Johnston. Just after 07:00, Johnston was hit by shells from the Yamato, but fought for another two hours, peppering much larger enemy ships with shells and scaring off a flotilla of IJN destroyers trying to attack the lightly armed American aircraft carriers. It was only after two hours of fighting, with the ship hit by dozens of shells and its survivors clinging to the rear of the battered vessel, the ship finally sank, taking with it 186 of her 327 crew. Survivors reported one of the Japanese destroyer captains saluting as it slid beneath the waves.

But Johnston's story was not over.


Most of the world's shipwrecks are found in shallow coastal waters. Ships follow trade routes to ports, and coastal waters offer the chance of sanctuary if the weather turns nasty. So this is where most ships founder and sink. But the waters Johnston sank in are very different. Rather than a smooth decline, they instead drop steeply to great depths.

Samar Island sits on the edge of a vast marine canyon known as the Philippine Trench, which runs for some 820 miles (1,320km) along the Philippines and Indonesian coastline. It skirts around the eastern side of Samar Island, on the seaward side of Leyte Gulf. It is very, very deep. If you were to drop Mt Everest at the deepest point of the Philippine Trench, the Galathea Depth, its summit would still be more than a mile (1.6km) underwater.