Loss of Strong
The bombardment of Vila and Bairoko Harbors on the night of July 4th and the morning of the 5th, 1943 was the beginning of the Kula Gulf action that resulted in the loss of the destroyer USS Strong.

The official account involves three light cruisers (USS Honolulu, Helena and St. Louis) along with four destroyers (Nicholas, Strong, O’Bannon and Chevalier) entering Kula Gulf at 2400 hours on the night of July 4, with the Nicholas and Strong leading the way. Honolulu, Helena and St. Louis followed with O’Bannon and Chevalier covering the cruiser column’s rear. At 0026 hours on July 5th, the bombardment of Japanese shore batteries began.

The ships were engulfed in great clouds of smoke from the black powder pellets in our powder cans (semi-fixed ammunition for the 5-inch/38 big guns). The cruisers had the same type. The purpose was to create a smoke screen to shield the flash from the big guns so the enemy could not zero in on our ships. It was a choking mess.

We did not know that Admiral Koya had sent three Japanese destroyers into Kula Gulf that very night. Two blips on the radar were spotted by USS Ralph Talbot, sailing with the transport group that was landing on Rice Anchorage on the northwest corner of New Georgia Island. These blips were probably two of the Jap destroyers steaming northwest, out of the gulf.

At 0040 we broke off the bombardment and headed north in column. Admiral Ainsworth in the flagship Honolulu was about to contact Ralph Talbot on TBS about the Jap DDs when the destroyer Strong was hit amidships by a torpedo. She staggered out of the line in mortal condition.

When the column was out of the gulf, Adm. Ainsworth ordered the Chevalier and O’Bannon to head “back in” to stand by the crippled Strong.

I recall our skipper, Commander McLean, announcing over the Chevalier’s speakers that we were going back to find the Strong. We thought that this was going to be rough. The Japanese were really stirred up by now.

We found the Strong lying dead in the water, not far from shore. We approached her port side a little too fast. The skipper backed our ship down, trying to bring us close alongside the Strong. We slid a little past the crippled ship and nearly collided with the O’Bannon, which was coming around our stern on the port side.

The night was pitch black and things were happening pretty fast. I was in the “After Damage Control Group” where I could see almost everything. We all yelled, “Kick her ahead.” The skipper was probably on the starboard wing of the bridge, next to the Strong, where he could best concentrate on her. He apparently didn’t see the immediate danger of the approaching O’Bannon. When he heard the shouting and looked, he “kicked” our ship “ahead full.” The O’Bannon sneaked by us with inches to spare. During the desperate maneuver, we rammed into the Strong’s bow.

We were now almost side-by-side with the Strong except at the stern. Our bow stuck into her with the two ships forming a narrow “V.” This helped keep her up as our crew made a mad scramble to rescue the men on the other ship by every possible means. Most of the doomed ship’s crew jumped across the bow area onto our ship. Some were helped across while others were fished out of the water by the brave Chevalier sailors hanging onto nets put over the side and grabbing onto the floundering men.

The Japs were getting our range with their own guns now and the sky was so bright with starshells that we could see better than if there had been a full moon. The men in our “Aft Damage Control Party” were helping some of the survivors up and over the starboard screw guard. Tom Elder joined me aft on the main deck by the #5 gun, where I was located at this time. Tom asked me to lower him over the side hanging on to one of his arms to try to let him grab a wet sailor with the other arm while I lifted both men up by the side to the deck. We were all under a lot of stress and extreme excitement.

This procedure didn’t work since I weighted 135 pounds, Tom about 160, and the wet sailor—who knows? We have up on that idea. Tom then left me to go amidships to help the others where the two ships were closer together.

The shells from the remaining Jap shore guns were beginning to land close. Two duds hit the Strong alongside us. About the same time, our #3 gun blew up, I thought we had been hit by a shell from the Jap guns. Instead, the explosion was caused by a hangfire in our own gun during the original bombardment. The gun crew could not get the breech closed so that the misfire allowed the shell and the “powder can” to cook in the gun barrel since the bombardment. It had to explode at this time, blowing the turret wide open. I climbed up to the gun with a fire hose but the explosion had been so violent that nothing was left, not even a fire. Thank God that the gun crew was out, helping with the rescue efforts.

I threw a hawser over the side to try and rescue a sailor in the water. He grabbed the line and I began pulling him forward. Just then, the skipper decided to back our ship out of the Strong to free our bow. We had been there, still stuck in her, for about seven minutes. I lost my man as the ship moved—and prayed to God that he let go of the line so that he would not be sucked under by the screws as we moved out of there. This has been on my mind and in my heart for 50 years. If that sailor from the Strong ever reads this account of this experience, I hope he writes or calls me.

As we pulled away, the Strong slipped under the sea. Some of her depth charges exploded as she went down, killing or maiming any of the crew remaining in the water near the ships. I have no way of knowing whether the man I tried to rescue was among them. That is a separate story of heroism.

We were not aware that the fuel tanks on our ship’s bottom had been split open from the exploding depth charges’ concussion or that sea water was leaking through them.

The O’Bannon joined us on our way out of the gulf. She had been operating between our ship and the shore, firing at the guns which had been harassing us along with the Strong. We moved out as fast as our bent-up bow would allow. It was throwing water all the way up to the bridge. The Jap shells were landing between us and the O’Bannon. We steamed by some remaining survivors but were unable to stop for them—being “under fire,” which was endangering our own ships.

Once we were out of the gulf and joined the rest of the task force, we secured from general quarters and went to regular watch. Guess which section went on watch?—mine, of course. Boy were we tired. I was throttle man—in the number one engine room. Lt. Gowen, our engineering officer, was standing beside me. I almost fell asleep with my hands on the high speed throttle wheel. The Lt., with a smile on his face, exclaimed, “Are you getting sleepy, Gorsline?”

It was then that the trouble began—the salt water from the split fuel tanks got into the forward fire room boilers and the fires went out. The steam disappeared. We closed down the main turbines. I had to stay at the throttle board. Lt. Gowen and the rest of the engineers opened valves, got auxiliary steam from the after fire room, and sent the auxiliary exhaust forward to keep our pumps and generators going.

The forward fire room shifted fuel tanks and got the boilers going again, building up steam, which gave us pressure to start the starboard screw.

Back to normal—Oh Yeah! Then the after fire room got a shot of salt water and the whole process reversed. I think this happened a couple of more times until my watch ended at 0400 hours. The rest of the task force left us sometime in the morning.

After my watch, I went to the torpedo tubes to my favorite sleeping spot—underneath them.

At dawn, “General Quarters” sounded again—”All Hands to Battle Stations.” Later that day, we steamed into Tulagi Bay with one tired crew, a battered ship, and 240 survivors from the Strong—“Happy Fourth of July!” A hell of a lot of fireworks, but no celebration on that 4th.