At 07:00 Commander Ernest E. Evans of the destroyer Johnston, in response to incoming shell fire bracketing carriers of the group he was escorting immediately began laying down a protective smokescreen and zigzagging. At about 07:10 Gunnery Officer Robert Hagen began firing at the closest attackers, then at a range of 18,000 yards and registered several hits on the leading heavy cruisers. The Japanese targeted the Johnston and soon shell splashes were bracketing the ship. In response and without consulting with his commanders, he ordered the Johnston to "flank speed, full left rudder", beginning an action that earned him the Medal of Honor.
Johnston, still making smoke and zig-zagging, accelerated to flank speed towards the Japanese. Its crew looked on in disbelief - equally shocked at the appearance of the Japanese fleet and at the fact that they were attacking it.
At 07:15 Hagen concentrated fire on what was the leading cruiser squadron flagship, the heavy cruiser Kumano. At the 5 inch gun's maximum range of 10 nmi (12 mi; 19 km), Johnston fired, scoring at least 45 hits on the Kumano's superstructure which erupted into flame and smoke.[dead link] One advantage the Americans had in gunnery was the radar-controlled Mark 37 Gun Fire Control System. The brains of the system was the Ford Mark I Fire Control Computer, which provided coordinated automatic firing solutions of her 5-inch guns merely by pointing the gun director at the target. Crude by comparison, the Japanese used optical range finders aided by splash color dye markers in each shell, color-coded to the ship firing. At this point the Japanese were unable to find the range of their attacker.
At 07:16 Sprague ordered Commander William Dow Thomas aboard the Hoel, in charge of the small destroyer screen, to attack. Struggling to form an attack formation, their astonished crews reacting to the rapidly unfolding events, the three small ships (Hoel, Heermann, Samuel B. Roberts) began their long sprint to get into firing position for their torpedoes. The Johnston pressed its attack, firing more than two hundred shells as it followed an evasive course through moderate swells, making it a difficult target. The Johnston closed to within maximum torpedo range, and at 9,000 yards (8,200 m) she fired a full salvo, ten torpedoes. At 0724 two or three struck which blew the bow off Kumano. Minutes later, 07:33, Kongo was forced to turn away north to avoid four torpedoes. The heavy cruiser Suzuya, suffering damage from air attacks, was also taken out of the fight, as she stopped to assist. The effect of the Johnston's attack was to cause confusion in the minds of the Japanese commanders who thought they were being engaged by American cruisers. Evans then reversed course and under cover of his smoke screen opened the range between his ship and his attackers.
0730 At 7 nmi (8.1 mi; 13 km), the battleship Kongo fired three 14 in (360 mm) shells through the deck of the Johnston and into her portside engine room, cutting the destroyer's speed in half to 17 kn (20 mph; 31 km/h) and disrupting electric power to her after gun turrets. Moments later three 6 in (150 mm) shells —- possibly from the Yamato —- struck her bridge, causing numerous casualties and severing the fingers of Commander Evans's left hand. The ship was mangled badly, with dying and dead sailors strewn across her bloody decks—but the Johnston did not sink. Fortune smiled upon her as her stores of fuel before the battle were seriously depleted, saving her from a catastrophic explosion. The ship found sanctuary in rain squalls where the crew had time to repair damage, restoring power to two of the three aft turrets. the Johnston's search radar was destroyed, toppled to the deck in a tangled mess. The fire control radar was damaged but quickly returned to service. Only a few minutes were required to bring the Johnston's main battery and radar online and from its hidden position in the rain fired several dozen rounds at a destroyer leader at 10,000 yards (beginning approximately at 0735). Fire was then shifted to the cruisers approaching from the east. Several dozen more rounds were fired at the closest target at 11,000 yards.
0737 hours Commodore Thomas orders a torpedo attack via voice radio. The Johnston and the Heermann acknowledge.[dead link] As the Johnston continued its course away from the Japanese it came upon the charging screening force, led by the damaged Hoel. Evans then had the Johnston rejoin the attack to provide support to Commander Thomas' small squadron. Attacking the Tone, the leading heavy cruiser to the east of the formation, the Johnston closed to 6,000 yards, now firing with reduced efficiency due to her lost SC radar, yet still registered many hits on its target.
At 0750, the sea and sky above were aflame with burning ships, explosions, and whirling aircraft. All available fighters and bombers from the Taffys were overhead converging on the Japanese fleet. The attacking fleets were now a confused mob taking desperate evasive action to avoid what must have seemed to be a sea full of deadly torpedoes, exploding shells and charging ships. At 0810 Moving erratically through the smoke and rain, the Johnston narrowly avoided the Heermann by the narrowest of margins. Heermann was "within potato range" at one point (between 8:08-8:25) to a Japanese destroyer for several minutes before being separated by the smoke.
During the battle Evans engaged in several duels with much larger Japanese opponents. At 0820 emerging through smoke and rain squalls, the Johnston was confronted by the Kongo, a 36,600 ton battleship. Firing at least 40 rounds, more than 15 hits on the battleship's superstructure were observed. The Johnston reversed course and disappeared in the smoke, avoiding the Kongo's 14-inch return fire. At 0826 and again at 0834 Commander Thomas requested an attack on the heavy cruisers to the east of the carriers. 08:30 Responding, the Johnston bore down on a huge cruiser firing at the helpless Gambier Bay, closed to 6,000 yards and fired for ten minute at a heavier and better armed opponent, possibly the Haguro, and scored numerous hits.
08:40 A much more pressing target appeared astern. A formation of seven Japanese destroyers in two columns was closing in to attack the carriers. Reversing course to intercept, Evans maneuvered the Johnston in an attempt to pass in front of the formation, crossing the "T", a classical naval maneuver which put the force in the "T" at great disadvantage. Evans ordered the Johnston's guns to fire on this new threat. The Japanese destroyers returned fire, striking Johnston several times. Perhaps seeing his disadvantage, the Commander of the lead destroyer turned away to the west. From as close as 7,000 yards Hagen fired and scored a dozen hits on the destroyer leader before it turned away. He shifted fire to the next destroyer in line, scoring five hits before it too turned away. Amazingly the entire squadron turned away west to avoid the Johnston's fire. At 09:20 these destroyers finally managed to fire their torpedoes from at extreme range, 10,500 yd (9,600 m). Several of these were detonated by strafing aircraft or defensive fire from the carriers, the rest failed to strike a target.
Now the Japanese and American ships were intertwined in a confused jumble. Gambier Bay and Hoel were sinking. Finding targets was not difficult. After 09:00 with Hoel and Roberts out of the fight the crippled Johnston was an easy target. Fighting with all she had, Johnston exchanged fire with a swarm of enemy ships, four cruisers and numerous destroyers.
The Johnston continued to take hits from the Japanese which knocked out the number one gun turret, killing many men. By 09:20, forced from the bridge by exploding ammunition, Evans was commanding the ship from the stern by shouting orders down to men manually operating the rudder. At 09:40 shell fire knocked out the remaining engine, leaving her dead in the water. As her attackers gathered around the vulnerable ship, they concentrated fire on her rather than the fleeing carriers. Johnston was hit so many times that one survivor recalled "they couldn't patch holes fast enough to keep her afloat."
At 09:45 Evans finally gave the order to abandon ship. Johnston sank 25 minutes later with 186 of her crew. Evans abandoned ship with his crew, but was never seen again. He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. However, it was the Japanese themselves that first recognized the Johnston's incredible actions that day: As a destroyer from the opposing fleet cruised slowly by, Robert Billie and several other crewmen watched as the Japanese captain saluted the sinking Johnston.