USS Johnston and the Tragedy of Historical Education
It is hard to explain to people who are not World War II in the Pacific buffs just how exciting it is that a team of marine archaeologists and researchers may have found USS Johnston. For those who do not consider themselves history buffs, finding Johnston would be like finding a lost family heirloom that you treasured, knew existed, but could never find in your crowded and dusty basement, until now.
Researchers have not confirmed they have found the famed destroyer’s wreck site, due to the lack of positive identification markers such as the ship’s hull number, but the location, “ suggests the wreck is Johnston” according to a Wednesday USNI News write-up on the situation.
Tragically, news of Johnston’s likely discovery will go unnoticed except by those who have a passion for history. Most people have never heard of the story of Johnston and her skipper Ernest Evans, who was posthumously given the Medal of Honor for his actions at the Battle of Samar as part of the larger action known as the Battle of Leyte Gulf in late October 1944, and that is a sign of the tragedy of historical education, particularly as it relates to how we teach America’s wars.
There are multiple reasons, or excuses, as to why military history does not factor more in history classes.
One is that to teach military history is to glorify war. This is simply non-sense. It is widely agreed that the generation making its way through school need be taught the virtues of citizenship. Unfortunately this usually takes the form of older people telling younger people to vote and that is about it. By teaching the values of self-government and highlighting what those who have come before to defend that experiment instills a sense of patriotism that republics need to thrive.
It does not glorify war, by which critics mean the glorification of killing and of death, to educate young Americans about how a man of Cherokee ancestry from Oklahoma who, upon taking the helm of a Fletcher-class destroyer echoed the words of nation’s original naval hero John Paul Jones, declaring, “This is going to be a fighting ship. I intend to go in harm’s way.”
It does not glorify war to point out the courage that Evans showed when he broke formation in order to charge at the Japanese Center Force. Rear Admiral Clifton “Ziggy” Sprague had ordered his destroyers to deploy smoke in order to allow his escort carriers to escape, but it was a futile move that simply delayed the inevitable. Knowing that he and his comrades in Taffy 3 (Sprague’s collection of escort carriers, destroyers, and destroyer escorts) were the only thing that stood between Douglas MacArthur's landing forces on the Philippines and annihilation, Evans changed course and embarked on what any sensible observer would describe as a suicide run towards the much more powerful Japanese force.
As the Johnston zigged and zagged towards the enemy she came under heavy fire, but still managed to get into position to fire her torpedoes, one of which blew the bow of the cruiser Kumano. Fellow cruiser Suzuya came to assist, meaning that Johnston took out two enemy cruisers herself. Johnston’s daring charge led to Taffy 3’s other destroyers, as well as the destroyer escort Samuel B. Roberts to enter the fight.
In the biggest David versus Goliath battle since the original, the tin cans won the day, but not without heavy sacrifice. Again it does not glorify war to point out its horrors. Johnston was pummeled by enemy fire and despite this Evans, despite losing some of his fingers and being practically naked and with shrapnel stuck in his face, continued to fight to the bitter end. Johnston’s crew eventually abandoned ship and Evans was never seen again.
A populace needs heroes, not because they should be worshiped as gods, but because they are examples of honor and courage. It gives those of us who have never experienced war and appreciation for what they have gone through for our sake. They give us someone to look up to when the politicians inevitably disgrace themselves.
A second excuse given is that military is boring. This is a misplaced criticism. Tales of heroism are not boring. Proponents of this will say that military history is just a list of battles, names, and dates. In this they sound like students who despise all forms of history class. Furthermore, nobody is asking that we ask 16-year olds to dissect Admiral Halsey’s decision to chase Admiral Ozawa’s aircraft-less aircraft carriers, which was the cause of Taffy’s 3 predicament in the first place. All one has to do is present Halsey’s thought process and its almost disastrous consequences. They don’t even have to bring up the Halsey versus Spruance debate.
People who offer this excuse claim to want to focus on the political question. Yes, the political aspects of war are important, usually why it started and how it still impacts the world today, but those are also the questions that those of us who studied political science answer. What makes history distinct from the international relation subsection of political science is not only in military tactics, but in non-academic, popular stories that help the nation define itself.
Finally, there is the excuse of time. There’s only so much time in a given academic calendar, so some things naturally get cut. This leaves only the truly important things. For World War II in the Pacific, this includes some talk on Pearl Harbor, some talk on island hopping, maybe some talk on Potsdam where Stalin agreed to enter the war, and finally the atomic bombs.
This is sad. In an age where many teachers use movies to make history more entertaining, surely one can find a YouTube video on certain important battles.
Maybe this to hard on history teachers, because students don’t remember much, if anything, from anything. If so, it is a good thing that Hollywood has gotten around to making films such as Midway that will hit theaters next week. Hopefully one day the crew of USS Johnston will get similar treatment.