As Taffy 3’s aircraft rose in defense, Johnston turned to lay a smokescreen and launch torpedoes. One of these nearly severed heavy cruiser Kumano’s bow before Johnston was hit by battleship Kongo. Screen flagship Hoel launched five torpedoes at Kongo and five at cruiser Haguro before enemy shells put her out of action. Heermann also attacked battleship Haruna with torpedoes and then tried to hold off heavy cruisers with gunfire as they closed the slow-steaming escort carriers.
Nearly an hour into the battle, Japanese flagship Yamato spotted torpedo tracks and turned away. This further broke up the Japanese formation—too late for escort carrier Gambier Bay, destroyer escort Samuel B. Roberts and Hoel, which were sunk by shellfire. Johnston, too, went down, after which the commander of a Japanese destroyer saluted her crew in passing. Posthumously, her Commander Ernest E. Evans was awarded the Medal of Honor for “ . . . outshooting and outmaneuvering the enemy as he consistently interposed his vessel between the hostile fleet units and our carriers.”
Two hours into their pursuit but with mounting losses and their formation in disarray, the Japanese broke off and turned back for San Bernardino Strait, leaving Taffy 3 stunned but victorious. Sadly, the survivors remained unrescued for three days and two nights, during which wounds, the elements and sharks took their toll. Only 58 officers and men from Hoel and 145 from Johnston survived, but their heroic fight resonated throughout the Navy and stands as one of the outstanding surface actions of all time.