By Dave Werner, U.S. Pacific Fleet Public Affairs
On February 21st, 2019, NAVADMIN 039/19 directed the Navy to return to the union jack beginning Tuesday June 4, 2019. That is, of course, the anniversary of the Battle of Midway. Some 77 years later, the Navy and the nation are again in a Great Power Competition, specifically with China and Russia.
The return to the union jack is a nod to the very real challenge posed by these two countries. Its return reflects a recommitment to the core attributes that made the U.S. Navy successful at Midway: Integrity, accountability, initiative, and toughness.
Symbols and examples are important for our naval heritage. By connecting to our past, we have the foundation, or framework, of who we are today. In times of war, they offer U.S. Navy Sailors a prequel of what might await them in a major at-sea battle. They are also a measure by which our courage and commitment would – or will – be judged
USS Strong (DD 467) and her crew are one such example. A destroyer, her crew complement is not unlike that which might be found today on smaller afloat units. As some are fond of saying: It’s not the size of the dog in the fight that matters; it’s the size of the fight in the dog. Strong received three WWII battle stars for action in the consolidation of the Solomon Islands, the New Georgia Rendova-Vangunu Occupation, and destroying RO-43.
Ultimately, her end came on July 5, 1943. According to the Navy’s historical account, American forces were landing at Rice Anchorage supported by Strong, USS Honolulu, USS Helena, USS St. Louis, and USS O’Bannon. They were headed for Kula Gulf to shell Japanese shore installations. Strong and Nicholas entered the harbor and opened fire not long after midnight. The burst lasted about ten minutes. Minutes after the salvo, Strong was struck by an enemy Long Lance torpedo. The successful torpedo strike is thought to be from one of the greatest distances ever in warfare.
Within a few minutes, Strong was listing and going down. Surrounded by darkness, and in the heat of enemy and friendly fire from ships and shore bombardment, things appeared desperate. In a bold move, USS Chevalier rammed Strong. The crew cast nets and lines over the two co-mingled ships to effect a deck-to-deck rescue. The abandon ship order was given.
In approximately seven minutes, under chaotic, hazardous conditions, with enemy submarines lurking, in the firing range of hostile enemy bases, and explosions all around, 234 enlisted men and seven officers—about three-quarters of the ship’s company—made it across onto Chevalier. As enemy fire rained in, the Chevalier pulled away. Strong, possibly splitting in two, was slipping below the surface. As Strong became awash, her depth charges exploded, killing and injuring some of the Sailors in the water. The blasts were so powerful they rendered Chevalier’s radars and sound gear useless. Ultimately, 46 Strong Sailors went down with her.
Lessons of the determination, initiative, heroics – and toughness – from these men deserve consideration.
- Cmdr. E. R. McLean, Jr., Chevalier’s commanding officer, was awarded the Navy Cross for his efforts, and initiating the daring rescue even though it damaged his own ship.
- Lt. Benjamin F. Jetton and Ens. William C. Hedrick ignored the abandon ship order, and remained below decks to dispose of secret and confidential publications. Both were awarded the Silver Star — posthumously.
- Lt. Cmdr. Frederick W. Purdy, Strong’s executive officer, intentionally remained on the rapidly sinking Strong after Chevalier withdrew to investigate a report of a wounded enlisted man. His body was later found on the beach at Arundel Island. Purdy was posthumously awarded the Silver Star.
- Lt. Donald A. Regan, lowered himself through the hatch in Engine Room #1 and helped rescue one wounded crew member who was hauled up and then lowered down to a raft. Lt. Regan was pulled into the water as the Strong went down. The he found and climbed aboard the ship’s gig, which had been lowered before Strong’s sinking. After rescuing 17 crewmembers, he was able to evade enemy ships until he and his men were rescued by USS Ralph Talbot (DD 390) the next day.
- CQM Maurice A. Rodrigos, himself seriously injured, helped rescue the Strong’s commanding officer, Cmdr. Joseph H. Wellings. Rodrigos was awarded the Navy & Marine Corps Medal
- Lt. Hugh B. Miller, with severe internal injuries he suffered from the depth charge explosions in the water, awoke on a float net with a small group of Sailors. He drifting in and out of consciousness for four days, until they landed on Arundel Island. Once marooned there, he ordered the three surviving Sailors to move on without him and seek refuge and rescue – and even provided his boots to one of them. He managed to not only survive, but recover enough the take the attack to the patrolling Japanese, using bayonets and grenades he attacked three Japanese machine gun nests and killed as many as 15 enemies. After 39 days, he was finally re-united with U.S. forces and provided important intelligence regarding Japanese positions on the island. Lt. Miller was awarded the Navy Cross, personally bestowed on him by Eleanor Roosevelt who was on a Pacific swing with the American Red Cross. Read more about Miller’s heroic toughness here.
The line between a peacetime Navy and a wartime fleet can be very thin. December 7, 1941 makes that disastrously clear. Understanding what it means to be an American Sailor – at war – means appreciating the attitude and gumption to drive forward despite the circumstances. The Sailors on Strong and Chevalier were relentless. Their actions helped stem enemy intentions, saved their shipmates lives and ultimately supported the U.S. Marines’ capturing of Rice Anchorage and Munda airfield one month later.
It’s hard to guess how anyone will react in such chaotic, frantic battle. It’s even harder to imagine the tenacity, determination and toughness with which these men fought. We know two things with certainty: Their actions brought great honor and credit to themselves and their Navy, and Sailors should be very much inspired by their gumption.