Anne's version of the sinking of STRONG was the same story we were told as children. We were also told that Dad had put an old Navy flashlight in his back pocket hours before they went down and that just prior to daylight another man on the net, Rodriguez, said “if I only had a flashlight I could signal that destroyer out there on the horizon”. Dad reached back and, low and behold, there was the flashlight and it worked! Rodriguez is also the one who identified the GWIN as being one of ours from her silhouette. We also knew that Rodriquez later died of his wounds. We knew that the paymaster (Keith Sherlie) and a sailor named Rock were there as well.
Around ten years ago, my oldest brother took our parents to Baton Rouge for a STRONG reunion where they happened to meet Lt. Keith Sherlie who was the paymaster aboard Strong in 1943. They had attended several reunions but this was the first time the former shipmates had seen each other since the night they were sunk. I spoke with Mr. Sherlie about two weeks later by telephone and he was gracious enough to allow me to record our nearly two hour conversation which I treasure. I was finally able to hear another first- hand account of the events of that night in 1943 from a shipmate who was with my father during the ordeal. He told of the ship breaking in half while he was on the stern where he had gone to check the depth charges. Just prior to this he had run to the ship’s safe and rolled the pay records into a tube and placed them in a condom which he tied and put in his shirt pocket. This was according to standard practice at the time. The crew was very happy to receive their pay (and back pay) some weeks later. All thanks to Lt. Sherlie! As STRONG broke up he stepped off the starboard side into the ocean as the deck was awash with water up to his knees.
It should be remembered that this mission was not a "walk in the park". The Japanese had begun to use the area as a re-supply depot for Munda airfield which was only a few dozen miles from the landing area. The entire land mass surrounding Kula Gulf was held by the Japs and enemy shipping came and went nearly at will. Jap reinforcements were reported arriving regularly. Two weeks prior to July 4, the ships of this squadron had made a similar run bombarding targets in the same area so the element of surprise was no longer an advantage. The Japs were likely ready and eager to avenge their losses.
Like other Fletcher class destroyers, STRONGs 5"/38's, her main weapons, required a blast of high pressure air to clear the barrels of sparks and debris after each shot. Pressurized air was also used in the loading mechanism of each gun to set the breach and firing pin. Among Melvin's other battle station duties was the maintenance of the air compressors that performed this operation.
Just before the torpedo hit the port side of STRONG, Mel had been topside to check the high pressure air compressor on the port side. He had gone down the port escape hatch into the after fireroom and was crossing the grate to the escape hatch on the starboard side, where he was heading to check the starboard compressor, when the ship was hit. He immediately scrambled up the starboard escape hatch and fell into the ocean. He always thought the ship broke in half immediately because he said when he got topside he immediately fell into the sea. He had little recollection of the blast except that it knocked him to his knees and that the forward bulkhead in the after fireroom ruptured. He was likely one of the first ones in the water. Meanwhile, Mr. Sherlie said that the ship continued to steam ahead for about a hundred yards after being hit and she was still moving when she broke in half. Mel swam after the ship and said he was always grateful that he was wearing a canvas life belt around his waist. The sky was suddenly filled with Japanese flare illumination and Jap shore batteries zeroed in on the crippled STRONG hitting her twice by some reports. Once the ship broke in half she quickly sank. Both men were now in the water astern and off to starboard but they were still some distance from the ship’s last location when the depth charges detonated injuring both men but not as badly as others who were closer. Both later received the Purple Heart. Neither man knew that the USS CHEVALIER DD-451 had taken men off the port bow and had retired. Sherlie related that he swam around for ten or fifteen minutes and then ran into Melvin who by then had a young sailor named Rock (Edward A. Rock) tagging along. Mel said that if he got more than a few feet from Rock he’d start screaming so they stayed bunched up and quite close to one another.
During the night this became a factor as they could hear what they assumed to be Japanese small craft machine gunning survivors in the water. Mr. Sherlie said that early on there were quite a lot of men clustered in the water and that the general cry was to swim ashore as the Marines were due to land in a few hours. He said Mel argued strongly against that saying that they should tread water and try to stay near the oil slick or as close to their location as possible so that the Navy could find them in the morning as he felt certain they would do a search of the area. Mr. Sherlie said he liked the sound of that and decided to stay with Melvin. Sherlie explained that he was fresh out of Harvard and had only been in the Navy for six months or so and that he deferred to Mel because he was an “old salt” and that he seemed reasonable and calm. So the large group, which, by now was broken up into smaller units, floated off into the night and Mel, Lt. Sherlie and Rock tried to remain in place. According to Mr. Sherlie, there was a very strong current pushing them south towards Arundel Island and towards Blackett Strait and that they were swimming for all they were worth against it when they stopped for a rest. Suddenly something bumped into them from up current and they happily discovered it was a floating cargo net and someone was on it. Turns out it was 1st Class Signalman Maurice Rodriguez and Commander J.H. Wellings who was unconscious at the time. Both were badly injured as they were together on the bridge when Strong went down and both bore the brunt of the depth charge explosions. All of them were by now covered in thick fuel oil. Rodriguez woke Commander Wellings and Lt. Sherlie asked permission to come aboard! Mel and Rock stayed in the water while they conferred and Wellings agreed they should not go ashore but try to remain in the area. Wellings was in a lot of pain and drifted in and out of consciousness all night. Lt. Sherlie went back into the water and he, Rock, and Mel pulled the net against the current the remainder of the night taking short breaks to rest while hanging onto the net. Prior to dawn, Cdr. Wellings, Rodriquez, and Rock were exhausted and/or unconscious and on the net.
By the first hint of daylight, Mr. Sherlie said he was exhausted and he, too, was lying on the net while Mel continued to swim and pull though little progress was being made. Rodriguez woke up and was groaning in pain when he said he thought he saw something against the sky on the horizon which was beginning to lighten. They woke Commander Wellings and asked his advice but Mr. Sherlie said they couldn’t really rouse him to conversation though they felt he was still in command. Rodriguez determined by its silhouette that it was a U.S. Navy destroyer and wistfully said that he wished he had something with which to signal when Melvin reached in his back pocket and pulled out a steel USN flashlight. It worked and Rodriquez signaled “strong survivors” whereupon the GWIN raced to them while firing and shouting to “put out that damned light”! Mel’s memory of the actual rescue was that he carried Rodriguez up a cargo net and handed him off and then went down to get the skipper. He didn’t remember how Rock got aboard. Lt. Sherlie said that he and Mel struggled to get the skipper up “because he was a little on the portly side…not fat but a mature man” when Mel told him to go on up as it wasn't working for both of them to carry him. Sherlie went up and Mel came right behind him with the Skipper over his left shoulder. Mel said Wellings, who was awake now, was saying the whole time, “DuBard you are a damned horse”. His recollection of the event was of dumping Cdr. Wellings over the side and following him over onto the deck, landing on him in a pile and he said that’s the last thing he remembered. He woke up the next day in a field hospital he thought to be on Guadalcanal at Henderson Field. Sherlie said they were taken to the hospital and the last time he saw Mel was when they landed and they separated the three enlisted men from the officers. When Sherlie awoke the next day Wellings was sitting up in his hospital bed next to his and he boomed, “Sherlie it’s a fine day to be in this man’s Navy!” Deck logs from the USS GWIN show that the five survivors were picked up at 5:06 a.m. and deposited on Guadalcanal (later that morning). GWIN had expended over 600 rounds of 5” ammo with the final shots fired at 6 am. Lt. Sherlie said that once on board the GWIN they were cleaned up and given sandwiches and coffee and assigned a bunk where the corpsman treated them as best he could. Mel didn't remember any of that.
He did remember going home on survivors leave once he finally arrived stateside. He was on a Pullman from San Diego and said he had been paid on in silver dollars. Three months back pay had his trousers sagging all the way across the Pacific and right on to the train. He was found in the men's room unconscious and hemorrhaging from both ends. He survived that scare from his internal injuries and forever carried a large scar on his arm where he was burned on a steam pipe in the restroom where he was found. Once home he finally met my mother with whom he had been corresponding by letter for nearly two years. She had picked him in Sunday school as the serviceman she was going to write to after seeing his photograph while visiting her friend, Mel's sister. He also discovered that the local newspapers had reported him missing in action for weeks. His homecoming was a grand event in such a small community.
I have in my possession a letter from (then) Captain Wellings while he was at the Bureau of Naval Personnel in Washington to my father dated March 1946 in which he wrote, "...I suppose you are not bothering much about waterproof flashlights but no matter where each of us may be, I shall never forget your resourcefulness and strength that resulted in the five survivors of our good old ship being rescued by the GWIN and in my being able to reach the main deck over the cargo nets. My everlasting thanks and best regards always." Another letter from Wellings dated July 1953 invites Mel to visit him if he is ever near Newport, RI and congratulates him on his marriage and promotion to CPO. Mel did visit (then) Admiral Wellings while he commanded the base at Newport and said that when he told the duty clerk who he was (having shown up invited but unannounced) that Wellings must have heard him because he shouted to “clear the decks” and brought him right in and visited for more than an hour. It is gratifying to know that his former skipper thought enough of him to correspond and to maintain contact and I'm equally thankful that my mother kept the letters.
When Melvin was a child, he learned to plow the cotton fields of Mississippi using a mule named Bill. The children learned to plow behind that particular mule because he was very slow and gentle. He always said Bill could plow all day long by slowly putting one foot in front of the other. With no variation, slow and steady, Bill would go all day. That is until the bell for supper could be heard and then he was quick as lightning, cutting diagonally across the fresh plowed field dragging the plow and Melvin, crying and screaming, all the way to the barn. So Mel always said that the memory of Bill saved his life because he thought of Bill all night and stayed steady and slow taking it one stroke at a time. That was a major part of the story we heard as children. Thank God for Bill.
I must say that I quite admire our Admiral Wellings and I know he meant a lot to my father as he always spoke very highly of him and his service while aboard the STRONG. He described him as very strong but fair. Maurice Rodriquez also earns the highest praise as he stayed with his commander until they were the very last to abandon ship. That decision cost him his life but it ultimately helped save the lives of all the others who were rescued by the GWIN What courage! It is also certain that without the actions of Lt. Sherlie and, yes, even the frightened Rock that they might have never been found. GWIN was, after all, on her last sweep of the area. Melvin retired as a Chief Petty Officer a few months prior to my birth in 1960 and passed away at age 89 in 2006. We miss him every day. He was our hero.
March 24, 2016