Stories of USS Strong
Selections from the compilation by Al Grimes, 1 June 1989
HOW THIS DOCUMENT GREW
At the reunion in Newport in September 1986, it was decided that Milt Hackett would write up the “official” record of the reunion in the form of “the last watch.” This seems appropriate since Milt had stood the first deck watch on the Strong
after it was commissioned in Boston.
Also at the reunion, it was suggested that we write up the story of the sinking of Strong while enough survivors are left to make it reasonably complete and accurate. At the time, the story was to be limited to those events directly related to the sinking which could be validated. The initial draft of this paper was distributed in the spring of 1987 under the title An Assessment of the Sinking of USS Strong (DD 467).
This initial paper has now grown into two documents.
One document titled USS Strong (DD 467) World War II Operations dated 24 March 1989 provides a summary of Strong operations and a description of those events associated with the sinking that can be validated. Copies of this document have been distributed to all known survivors.
The document you are now reading, titled Stories of USS Strong (DD 467) dated 1 June 1989 is the second document. This document is presented in three sections.
The first section is focused on the actions of individuals associated with the sinking that can be validated.
The second section provides interesting but unvalidated accounts of experiences associated with the sinking as told by the individuals themselves or as found in news media. This second section includes personal narratives, letters and news media clippings.
The third section contains excerpts of possible interest that were taken from various official documents. There is the first page of the deck log, selected pages from the war diary, the official Department of the Navy history of USS Strong (poorly written and inaccurate), and there is the official list of survivors, wounded, dead and missing as submitted in Nouméa, New Caledonia by Doctor Horne and forwarded by Al Curran.
You may recall
that we were operating as part of Task Force 36.1 with a mission of providing cover operations for a night landing of Marines in the vicinity of Rice Anchorage, New Georgia Island. Strong
was in company of three cruisers, Honolulu
, St. Louis
and three other destroyers, Nicholas
. We had been directed to bombard shore installations around Bairoko Harbor.
At about 0019 on 5 July, course was changed to 190 with ships in column for bombardment of targets on Kolombangara Island. The order of ships in column was: Nicholas, Strong, Honolulu, Helena, St. Louis, O’Bannon and Chevalier. At about 0028, Strong commenced firing to suppress firing from shore batteries. At about 0034, course was changed to 090 and firing was commenced on Bairoko Harbor. At about 0034, Strong ceased firing and changed course to 000 to pass Rice Anchorage and exit Kula Gulf with the task force. Strong had fired approximately 300 rounds of 5-inch ammunition during the bombardment. The PBY “Black Cat” air spotter had reported good results.
At about the time of course change to 000, the underwater sound equipment picked up extremely loud underwater noises that sounded something like locomotives traveling at great speed. These sounds were of about equal strength from three main directions—from the starboard bow in the direction of Rice Anchorage, from just forward of the port beam and from the starboard quarter. The sound stack operator, Jack Haley SoM 2/c, reported that this noise didn’t sound like the training records, but he’d bet there were some damned big torpedoes around there someplace—going like hell. LCdr. Purdy, the executive officer, pointed out that the noises were coming from everywhere and were loudest from the direction of Rice Anchorage—which was true. He said that they were probably associated with the landing and then dashed out of the CIC/charthouse onto the bridge. (It can only be conjectured that the noises appeared to “come from everywhere” because of reflections and reverberations from underwater coral formations in the very deep waters of the gulf.)
Lt.(jg) Curran, the gunnery officer, states that just as Strong completed the bombardment of Bairoko and was turning to course 000 degrees, he looked to port and saw the phosphorescent wale of a torpedo headed for Strong. He switched to the JA circuit and yelled “Left . . . .” The words “full rudder” were masked by the explosion.
Immediately after Chevalier
separated a few yards, Strong
began to settle rapidly with the starboard list increasing to 40–60 degrees. Captain Wellings attempted to make his way down the outside inclined ladder leading from the after side of the bridge to the superstructure deck, but he was blocked by water when he was only one-third of the way down. He then went back to the starboard wing of the bridge and stepped into the water from the wind screen outboard of the starboard torpedo director. He was accompanied by L.A. Rodrigos, CQM, who remained with the captain throughout.
SUMMARY OF THE DAMAGE
The ship immediately assumed a starboard list of about 15 degrees, and from the “sag” amidships it was evident that the keel was broken.
Main power was lost throughout the ship immediately, but after a momentary delay, emergency power switched on and remained on as long as the ship was manned. All main battery guns were shifted to emergency power except 5-inch gun number 5. All guns were shifted to local control with orders from the gunnery officer not to fire on any target unless designated by the gunnery officer. The SG radar came back on line as soon as emergency power was available and continued to operate on relative bearings because of loss of gyro input. The radar effectiveness on surface targets was limited to targets that might be ahead and astern because of the large starboard list on the ship.
Internal communications generally were excellent. Sound-powered phone communications were maintained with most stations until the word was passed to abandon ship. As for external communications, the receivers continued to function but the transmitters were out. Attempts were made to report the torpedoing over TBS, “Black Cat” and Task Force frequencies but all transmitters were inoperative. A flashing light message was sent to Chevalier and was relayed to the task group commander.
A large hole was torn in the port side and main deck in the vicinity of frame 90. The deck plates were buckled between frames 75 and 105. The superstructure deck house collapsed on the port side between the after side of number one stack and the forward torpedo mount base ring. The boat winch was gone. Number 2 motor whaleboat was torn apart; one half of the boat dangled from the forward davit.
Number one fireroom was a shambles. This fireroom flooded immediately.
The bulkhead between the forward fireroom and forward engine room was blown away. The engine room was totally disrupted, but further assessment of the damage was impossible because this space also flooded immediately.
Seams were opened on the starboard side of the bulkhead between the forward engine room and after fireroom. The lower level flooded rapidly. Before the crew left the fireroom, they secured the stops on number three boiler. Just before the ship sank, the safety valves lifted on this boiler.
The after engine room was not flooded. One fire was extinguished. Steam pressure was lost immediately. Shortly thereafter, the assistant engineering officer, Lt(jg) R.E. Trost, secured the after engine room for towing. The bulkhead stops were secured and the jacking gear was engaged.
The captain was about 25 yards from the ship and wearing a kapok life jacket when the ship sank. An instant before the sinking, the ship broke up with the after end twisting to starboard. The captain was lying on his back when the first underwater explosion occurred. He felt terrific vibrations, but was unaware of any follow-on explosions.
A few minutes later, he and Rodrigos spotted a float net nearby, thanks to the illumination from Japanese starshells. They attempted to paddle to Rice Anchorage with their hands. During the night, they picked up two enlisted men and one officer, Lt(jg), SC, Keith N. Sherlie, USNR. At about 0510, the group was rescued by USS Gwin. The captain and CQM Rodrigos suffered internal injuries from the underwater explosion and were hospitalized for a time.
Most of us in Strong felt an intense sadness at the loss of the ship. Certainly, all of the “old” hands believed they had a part to play on a ship of uncommon capabilities.
No matter how intense our feelings were about the loss of the ship, they must have paled into insignificance when compared to those of the captain. He had commissioned the ship as commanding officer, had built real capabilities out of green recruits, had instilled unusually high morale, had developed unit self-confidence under fire—and, up until the final hour, had every reason to hope that Strong might become a legend in her own time. Now it was all sinking from under him through cruel circumstance. Yet he stood calmly among the crumbling ruin as a symbol of order, looking after the welfare of others with such fragments of control as may still come to hand. Finally, having given that last full measure within the means and time available, as the ship sank beneath his feet, he stepped off into the dark and waiting ocean. This must stand for all time among the great examples of self-control and leadership in adversity.
After LCdr. Frederick Purdy left the CIC/chartroom for the bridge, his actions are unknown until he appeared on the forecastle to take charge of rigging for tow. (At one time it was thought that O’Bannon
was coming alongside to take us in tow.) LCdr. Purdy remained forward with Lt(jg) Milt Hackett, Ens Jack Howard—and, at the last minute, possibly Lt(jg) Albert E. Oberg. This group devoted its efforts to helping as many of the crew as possible to get aboard Chevalier
. They were still trying to get more men over when Chevalier
backed away just before Strong
sank. The ship sank out from under this group and they were in the water when Strong
Milt Hackett believes that he and LCdr. Purdy were in close proximity until he (Milt) and Lt(jg) Fulham left to get help from the US forces at Rice Anchorage. After they were about 3/4 mile from the float net, a small Japanese landing craft came out from Kolombangara and shot many of the survivors in the water. It has been conjectured that LCdr. Purdy was among the victims. LCdr. Purdy’s body was found by Robert F. Gregory, S1/c, and his small group of survivors on Kolombangara. Gregory later turned Purdy’s wallet over to the Marines on New Georgia.