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Good afternoon, everyone! Thank you for joining me here at the United States Naval Academy to recognize and reflect upon the incredible contributions of Native Americans in service to our Navy, our Marine Corps, and our nation.
Thank you, Rear Admiral Kacher, for hosting today’s ceremony here on the Yard, and for your continued leadership of the United States Naval Academy as the acting Superintendent while we wait for the Senate to take action on over 360 general and flag officer nominations, to include yours to lead the United States Seventh Fleet in the Indo-Pacific region.
Director Cox, we are pleased that you are able to join us this afternoon, and I would be remiss if I did not commend you and your team at Naval Heritage and History Command for the incredible work you do on a daily basis to capture the history of our Navy and Marine Corps and share it with the American public.
I would also like to welcome Mr. PaaWee Rivera, Senior Advisor and Tribal Affairs Director for the White House. Mr. Rivera, thank you for your presence at today’s ceremony, and for your dedication to strengthening the bonds between our government and the Native American community across our nation.
Secretary of the Interior Haaland, ma’am, we are honored to have you with us this afternoon. Thank you for your many years of public service, and your advocacy for the rights and dignity of all Americans, regardless of race or gender.
Finally, I would like to thank all of you, from our Midshipmen to the representatives of the several organizations present, for joining us this afternoon for this ceremony.
Since our nation’s founding, Native Americans have volunteered to serve in our armed services. From the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, World War I and II, to Korea, Vietnam, and the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, Native Americans have fought with honor and distinction to preserve our union and defend our ideals of freedom and democracy, even during periods when they were not recognized as citizens of our country.
In our Navy, we remember Admiral Joseph “Jocko” Clark, a 1918 graduate of the United States Naval Academy—our school’s first Native American graduate—who commanded carriers and task groups throughout the Pacific during World War II.
Commander John Herrington, a naval aviator and NASA astronaut, became the first enrolled member of a Native American tribe to fly in space.
Boatswain’s Mate First Class James E. Williams, the namesake of USS James E. Williams (DDG 95) and the most decorated enlisted Sailor in our Navy’s history, was awarded the Medal of Honor for his leadership and courage under fire during a fierce engagement with Viet Cong forces during the Vietnam War.
More recently, Vice Admiral Jeffrey Trussler, a member of the Cherokee nation, served as our Director of Naval Intelligence.
The proud legacy of leadership of the Native American community within our Department continues on today, with Rear Admiral Wesley McCall, Rear Admiral Calvin Foster, and Brigadier General Stephen Lightfoot leading Sailors and Marines around the globe.
As we reflect upon the leadership, the actions, and the devotion to service that these men and hundreds of thousands of other Native Americans have embodied since 1776, one story in particular stands out to me—the actions of Medal of Honor recipient Commander Ernest Edwin Evans, a native of Oklahoma and a member of USNA Class of 1931.
Now, Commander Evans’ name may sound familiar to many of you, especially if you’ve read James Hornfischer’s “Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors,” a perennial inclusion on the Chief of Naval Operation’s reading list.
If you haven’t read this book, I encourage you all to do so, for the actions of our Sailors—in many cases their final acts of service and heroism—so eloquently described by Mr. Hornfischer are truly inspiring, and I am grateful that his family is with us for today’s ceremony.
Commander Evans commissioned as a Surface Warfare Officer upon graduation from the Naval Academy, and went on to serve on several ships in several capacities as our nation sailed towards its entrance into World War II.
In 1943, Commander Evans assumed command of the USS Johnston, serving as its only commanding officer.
During the commissioning ceremony, Commander Evans reportedly told his crew and the audience assembled, “This is going to be a fighting ship. I intend to go in harm’s way, and anyone who doesn’t want to go along had better get off right now.”
And on October 25th, 1944, off the coast of the Philippines, Commander Evans and the crew of the USS Johnston indeed found themselves in harm’s way during the Battle of Leyte Gulf.
On that day, the USS Johnston and six other destroyers were left to defend our escort carriers covering the Marines ashore, fighting to retake the Philippines.
As the world wondered where Admiral Halsey and his fleet were, Commander Evans and his fellow destroyer captains launched an offensive attack against overwhelming odds against a much larger Japanese naval force, with the USS Johnston in the lead.
Commander Evans sailed his ship towards the enemy, launching torpedoes and firing every gun his ship had to buy the escort carriers and Marines ashore time to complete their mission.
Despite severe damage to his ship and his own wounds from Japanese fire, he repeatedly put the USS Johnston between the enemy and more vulnerable U.S. ships, saving the lives of thousands of his fellow Sailors.
Ultimately, the USS Johnston was lost during the Battle of Leyte Gulf, with Commander Evans going down with his ship.
For his leadership and selfless service in the face of a superior enemy force, he was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor—the first Native American in our Navy to be presented with this award.
And I am honored to announce that, in recognition of his heroic actions, our Navy will once again welcome a USS Ernest E. Evans into our Fleet, as his name will adorn our future Arleigh Burke Flight III class destroyer DDG-141.
Of note, I would like to thank Director Cox and his team at NHHC for providing the ship’s bell from USS Evans (DE-1023) for today’s ceremony to serve as the connection between our future USS Ernest E. Evans and the first ship to honor their shared namesake.
I am also pleased to announce that the ship’s sponsor of USS Ernest E. Evans (DDG-141) will be Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland.
Secretary Haaland is the daughter of Veterans, with her mother serving in the United States Navy and her father serving for 30 years in the United States Marine Corps.
As a 35th-generation New Mexican, she has dedicated her life to public service, both in service to the Pueblo of Laguna Native American tribe, as well as the people of New Mexico in Congress. As a member of the Biden Administration, she is the first Native American to serve as a cabinet-level secretary.
A ship sponsor’s role is to serve as the connection between a ship, her crew, and her namesake.
And I can think of no better American to be that bond between our Native American community and USS Ernest E. Evans than Secretary Haaland.
Secretary Haaland and Commander Evans are just two of the hundreds of thousands of Native Americans who either have served or are currently serving in support of our Nation.
As we observe our national Native American Heritage Month, it is imperative that we all take this opportunity to reflect upon the service and sacrifices that the men and women of our Native American communities made in defense of our collective freedom, preserving the ideals of liberty and freedom we hold dear.
Again, it is an honor to be with you all this afternoon to celebrate this special moment for our Navy and for our nation.
At this time, I would like to invite Rear Admiral Kacher to the podium to offer his reflection on the life and career of Commander Evans.
May God continue to bless our country with fair winds and following seas. Thank you.
Carlos Del Toro
15 November 2023
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