We have come to the end
The Spirit of Strong
of this outline of one man’s view of the facts and legend of USS Strong
(DD 467). But a chronology alone does not convey the spirit of the ship. Most of us aboard Strong
have deep inner convictions that there were elements of real greatness present.
The sinking seemed to be a cruel trick of fate that prematurely cut off our expectations, and left the spirit without a home. Do you remember that the day after the sinking a petition was circulated which requested the navy to commission another Strong with the same crew and officers? Many of you will also remember the problems that arose later on when groups of Strong personnel were assigned to other destroyers. The statement, “It wasn’t done that way on the Strong,” became well known aboard a lot of new destroyers. Even today, some of us might like to turn back the clock and, once again, take up where we were before the torpedo explosion.
A chronology also misses the memories of the magnificent people aboard Strong and in the task group who teamed up to write by actions their unique chapter in history. Each old sailor cherishes his own private inner shrine that is filled with the memories of those great old guys he knew so long ago. They did what was needed when it was needed, regardless of the hours and risk—and it was no big deal. Each of us knew many like this. They were everywhere. That’s the way it was on Strong.
But we cannot close the book for now without a special salute to a few of those valiant men. Heroic deeds were commonplace that night in Kula Gulf but, sadly, many occurred alone or have never been told. The actions of these men were caught in the spotlight of fate—and reported by some of you who were there.
- There was Chief Quartermaster Laurice A. Rodrigos who refused to get aboard Chevalier and stayed with the captain. He and the captain were on the bridge when the ship sank from under them. Both were injured by the underwater explosion, but Rodrigos continued to stay with the captain and to provide assistance until they were rescued by Gwin. He later was assigned to another destroyer where he complained of severe headaches. Regrettably, the medical assistance available was not sensitive to the quality of the individual nor sympathetic with his complaints. Chief Rodrigos died quietly in his bunk from an undiagnosed bold clot in the brain. With deep sadness and anger, we can only echo: “It wasn’t done that way on the Strong.”
- Then there was Lieutenant (jg) Benjamin Frazier Jetton, the communications officer, who, immediately after the torpedo hit, quietly asked for whatever help was available to assist in placing registered communications publications in weighted bags for jettisoning as security instructions required. After the last bags were thrown overboard in 200 fathoms of water, he made sure that everyone was clear of all communication spaces, then went back below decks for one final check to ensure that all personnel were out. The ship was settling. It was too late. He is still there. Was this above and beyond the call of duty?
- Then there was a remarkable little group of officers on the port bow, abreast of the number one 5-inch gun mount. This group included Lieutenant Commander Frederick W. Purdy, Lieutenant (jg) Orvill M. Hackett, Ensign Jack B. Howard, perhaps Albert E. Oberg, and later Lieutenant Donald A. Regan. These officers had gone forward to help rig ship for towing. After Chevalier came alongside and it became apparent that Strong was breaking up and sinking, these officers sent the men in the area across to Chevalier on the mooring lines that had been put across between the two ships. These officers held the end of the lines to maintain an even tension so the men could cross. (More accurately, these men “tended” one end of the mooring lines after taking a “round turn” on a deck cleat or whatever was available. This was necessary since the distance between the ships was varying and tension on the lines had to be adjusted more or less continuously so the men could climb over on them.) Any one, or all, of these officers might have gone over to Chevalier on these lines themselves. Instead, they were still sending others over when Chevalier backed away. Lieutenant Regan was dragged over the side. The remaining officers then climbed up on the superstructure deck, but Lieutenant Commander Purdy returned to the main deck to help an injured man. As Strong rolled to starboard and settled, Ensign Howard said, “Here she goes.” He was pulled under when the ship sank and was not seen again. The sinking ship dragged Lieutenant Hackett under for a short time but he popped to the surface just as Strong exploded. Milt was unhurt since he was wearing waterproof coveralls (from the North Atlantic), which provided a small protective air cushion next to the body. Milt got into a float net and gathered a group of survivors including Lieutenant High Barr Miller and Lieutenant (jg) John N. Fulham. Some were wounded. At least two had broken legs and several had internal injured. Milt gave Lieutenant Miller several shots of morphine. Since the group was now floating helplessly in Kula Gulf, Milt Hackett, Jackie Fulham and several others decided to try to make it to Rice Anchorage for help. They finally reached the New Georgia coast and, after much difficulty, reached the Marines. Lieutenant Commander Purdy was seen after the sinking in a float net with other survivors. After US forces departed the immediate area of the sinking, the Japanese sent a boat out from the Kolombangara area. The Japanese in this boat shot a number of survivors in the water. These shootings were very near Lieutenants (jg) Orvill M. Hackett and John M. Fulham and other survivors in the water. They expected to be shot next. It is believed that Lieutenant Commander Purdy was among those who were shot. His body wash ashore on Kolombangara and was discovered with wallet and other identification by Robert M. Gregory, S1c, one of the enlisted survivors who made it to the island and was later rescued.
- And then there was Lieutenant Donald A. Regan who was officer of the deck at the time the torpedo hit. After he saw that all normal functions from the bridge were ineffective because of the extensive damage, he was granted permission to go below for an inspection of the condition of the ship. The starboard side of the main deck was blocked by wreckage and torn metal. He went aft along the damaged superstructure deck. As he was climbing down from the superstructure deck, he encountered Carl A. Ochs, MM1c who shouted, “Mr. Regan, the ladders are gone from the forward engine room and we can’t get down there. Someone down there is calling for help.” As Don Regan inspected the area, the cries for help increased. The hatch to the forward engine room had been blown open. Water was within four feet of the overhead (main deck). The space was dark, full of steam and the surface of the water was covered with oil. Holding a flashlight, Don lowered himself into the engine room. On seeing the light, the cries for help increased. Regan crawled along a 4-inch insulated pipe in search of personnel. Due to steam, he was unable to see anyone until one man who was pinned between the pipe and the main electric board directed the light to himself. He turned out to be W.G. Langley, EM2c. Don told Langley that he would have to go for help. F. Wolters, CTM, volunteered to help where he could, but stated that he had a broken arm. Ochs had located a rope and volunteered to help. Don then went back down into the engine room holding one end of the rope. He instructed Langley to duck under the pipe. As he did so, Regan grabbed him and pulled him to the hatch where others helped pull him up on deck. Both of Langley’s legs were broken and he had sustained multiple injuries. Lieutenant (jg) Ralph E. Trost then placed Langley in a raft that would float free when Strong sank. Miraculously, Langley’s raft drifted ashore near Rice Anchorage. He was picked up and returned home safely.
Lieutenant Regan was not through. After returning to the bridge to report to the captain, he received permission to go forward and rig the anchor for towing. Upon reaching the superstructure deck, Don relayed word from the bridge: “All hands come topside; prepare to abandon ship; do not leave the ship yet.”
Don noted that the list was increasing and that the ship was buckling at the center. He yelled to the bridge, “Captain, the ship is breaking up.” At that moment, Chevalier, attempting to come alongside and to avoid being rammed in the stern by O’Bannon, rammed the projecting underbody of Strong. Strong rapidly heeled over to about 35 degrees, making it difficult to stay upright on deck without hanging onto something. Don yelled to Chevalier to lower cargo nets. He passed word for all hands to go forward to the forecastle and get aboard Chevalier.
Don was holding one end of a mooring line while someone (probably J.W. Garrett, QM3c) was crossing to Chevalier. The distance between ships began to increase and Don was dragged off the deck and over the side, banging his right hip in the process. Both Don and the other man were now dangling on the line from the deck edge of the Chevalier. C.F. Edmonds, CBM, was trying to haul them aboard Chevalier when Don spotted the empty gig of the Strong close by. Don then ordered Edmonds to lower them into the water. With some hesitation, Edmonds complied. While still in the water trying to reach the Strong gig, Don heard Strong sink. Remembering that someone had said that the depth charges might not have been checked on safe, he and the other man rolled on their backs and contracted their rectums to avoid internal injury from a possible underwater blast. Don felt the explosions but neither he nor the other man suffered ill effects.
After he and the other man got in the gig, Don observed an explosion on Chevalier (probably the number three 5-inch gun). Chevalier was firing and there were star shells overhead. Don began picking up survivors in the water. By the time all survivors in the immediate area were in the gig, the nearest destroyer was about two miles away.
Don set off on a course for Rice Anchorage. About five minutes later, a destroyer began firing in their direction. Shells were whistling overhead but soon stopped. After a bit, he stopped until a suspicious ship passed. He set off again, figuring that he had about 50 miles of fuel at 8 knots. He gave several men morphine injections because of blast injuries. Other first aid was impossible because of the fuel oil, darkness, and the crowded conditions in the boat. He also was hampered by the injury to his own hip.
At dawn, other ships arrived. He broke out semaphore flags and sent: “Survivors of Strong—please take us aboard.” Ralph Talbot got the signal and rescued them.
- There also was Lieutenant (jg) Keith Norman Sherlie, the supply officer who, as well as anyone, demonstrated the spirit of mutual concern in Strong for the welfare of all. By the simple act of putting a copy of the ship’s pay list in his shirt before he went over the side into the water, he mad it possible to pay all of the survivors as soon as we reached Nouméa and avoided the long drawn out hardship of waiting for reconstructed pay records. Did you ever wonder why it had been so easy?
- There was Captain Joseph H. Wellings who made every effort to save the ship. When it was clear that was not possible, he kept the crew aboard and together until help arrived. He remained with the ship until it sank. Even in hindsight, Captain Wellings took every action to save the ship and crew that anyone could have taken under the circumstances.
- There also was Captain E. R. McLean, Jr., the commanding officer of the Chevalier, who saved seven officers and 232 enlisted personnel of Strong. Without hesitation, he brought Chevalier alongside Strong and remained there for about seven minutes. During his approach to Strong, he was rammed by O’Bannon with light damage astern. Counteraction for this threat caused Chevalier to ram Strong with some damage to both. He was constantly illuminated by enemy star shells and aircraft flares in what was thought to be an immediate submarine threat area. Four or five bombs were dropped on his port quarter resulting in damage. He was straddled by shore batteries from both Kolombangara and Bairoko Harbor. He was damaged by the underwater explosion of the Strong. His number three 5-inch gun blew up, causing a handling room fire. Throughout all of this, Chevalier made every effort to rescue Strong personnel. He then stood on the most exposed wing of the bridge and reviewed the situation carefully with Lieutenant Curran, gunnery officer of Strong. Only after obtaining the concurrence of Lieutenant Curran did Commander McLean give the necessary orders to exit Kula Gulf and rejoin the task force. Commander McLean provided a superb example of coolness and effective leadership under fire.
- Then finally, before we close this sea story about events so long ago, let’s pause long enough to imagine the kind of pressures the Task Force Commander, Rear Admiral Ainsworth, must have been under as he waited in the cruisers just outside the entrance to Kula Gulf. He kept the whole task force standing by to pick up survivors of Strong. These were waters that might have produced another spread of torpedoes at any minute. Ask yourself what you might have done if you had been in that situation. But that night in Kula Gulf, it meant a lot to us on Strong that Rear Admiral Ainsworth was the big boss.
Now we have run out of reliable data, and this short chapter must come to a close. There is only one thing left to say: “That’s the way it was in Strong.”