At the same time our guys were bombing their targets, 4 Japanese destroyers were moving into the gulf - the Nagatsuki, Satsuki, Yunagi and Niizuki (the ship credited for sinking Strong). Two of the ships broke formation
and steered toward the coast of Kolombangara Island. Having detected allied ships in the area, three of the four ships fired off an array of 14 Long Lance torpedos from over 11 nautical miles away, turned tail and headed back
north and out of the Kula Gulf. In the meantime just after midnight on July 5th, Strong had just completed its bombing run on Bairoko Harbor and had turned back north, parallel to the coast of New Georgia and the landing site at Rice Anchorage. Men on the bridge watched in horror as the wake of a torpedo became evident, and with seconds to act there was no time to take evasive action – and fate took over. The families of 46 men were to begin a grieving process while the families of the other survivors were to begin the process of helping their fathers, brothers, and husbands heal from what was probably the most terrifying event of their lives. Many would never fully recover and deal with trauma and the effects of what was then called “shell shock” or “battle fatigue”, what we now diagnose as PTSD. And because I have befriended a few of these families over the years, I wanted to include their reflections in this blog. After putting out a request, three family members responded with the stories they were told as children, of two of the men who served as officers on Strong, O. Milton Hackett, Ensign USNR, Torpedo Officer and the captain of this well loved and respected ship, Joseph Harold Wellings, LCDR, USN, Commanding Officer.
“Our dad, O M Hackett, was a US Naval officer aboard the Strong from the start of the war through its sinking. The night it went down he rescued many others from the oily waters to floats/boats/nets. After being in the water about 12 hours, he decided they should swim to shore to get help. Many of the men were unable to do this due to injury. After about three days those that made it to shore ran into some natives who brought them to the US Marines. While on the island they lived on coconut milk and eggs from the chickens that ran loose on the island. By the time Dad arrived safely back in the US his family had been informed he was missing and believed he was dead. After a brief furlough in Washington state, he was reassigned to another destroyer being commissioned in Boston. It was on this ship that he met our mother who was the lead singer with the USO troop. He traveled again to the Pacific and was present at Iwo Jima among many other famous battles. His was the fourth ship to travel into Tokyo harbor at the Japanese surrender, and he watched the ceremony from the deck.
Our parents are still living in the Washington DC area. Dad attends as many of the Strong reunions when possible.”
In seeing Wendy’s account, I am awed by the fact that something wonderful came from Milt’s experiences following the sinking. He met the woman he eventually married and raised a family with while readying to once again go to sea. And, he had the privilege of being present at the end, and seeing that the sacrifices made by his former shipmates were not in vain.
“As to the sinking of the Strong: I remember my father saying that he
was covered with oil on a floater net with his or one of his firemen. It was pitch dark and they were waiting and waiting when there was a ship directly in front of them. The fireman signaled with his light and someone screamed down "turn the----thing off or we'll have the Japanese navy on top of us!" He, daddy, had to be carried up the rope ladder on the shoulders of the fireman. (Wellings was rescued by the USS Gwin hours after the sinking) No strength. I gathered too that some Admiral (friend of my father's) said to whomever "we have to send a ship in to try and find Gus-- one more time before it gets light." When Daddy woke up he was on an island in a tented hospital and the wife of one of his best friend's who became a Red Cross nurse was at this side !!! (Her name was Meda Edwards, this information from a letter written home on July 16th to his wife Dolly)
I also remember the days of rehabilitation he went thru at the Boston Navy hospital. And then he went back out again and mother and I saw the ships leaving from Old Point Comfort in Virginia. A lovely long line of them going out heading south for the canal. My mother said I should remember that and you see, I have !”
Gus Wellings ended up back in the Pacific, and the commander of DESRON 2 on the USS Morris in New Guinea. So we see that many of these men elected to return to duty to “finish what we started”. Their attention to duty, dedication to the cause, to home and family is what reaches out to us after their days of service are long gone. The ones who survived came home to rebuild this country into something worth continuing to fight for. We are so blessed to have a military strong enough to continue this mission, and the supportive families and friends here at home to keep things on track.
There is much more to these stories, more accounts than I can mention, but I have it all on paper. Anyone interested in a copy of the Strong documents including action reports, survivor accounts, copies of newspaper clippings and
such, send me a message or an email. The action report for the incident is on the Memories of Strong page in JPEG form, feel free to download the document.
On July 5th, don’t forget to take a few moments to reflect, cry if you need to, or smile because there was something to celebrate about the day – just remember. That’s all they ask. That we remember.