Finally awarded: Medals for saving the day
Bob Strong has a flag pole in his Helper yard where Old Glory hangs most days during the year.
"It's beautiful, isn't it," said Strong, referring to the pole as he pulled off his gloves after getting up from pulling weeds along the edge of the green grass in his yard. "I got that one and two of my neighbors did too."
Not that his neighbors don't love the flag, but just maybe to Strong that piece of cloth flying at the end of that metal pole means more than it does to many others. You see he has earned the right to love it more than most.
And last week, that right was even more reinforced by the awarding of medals to Strong and a fellow sailor, who along with others, basically saved the USS Chenango during action in the Pacific Ocean in World War II.
"These two Utah Navy heroes are among only 23 survivors in the country who served on the USS Chenango, a Navy aircraft carrier that was involved in the Battle of the Pacific, among fights," said Jim Matheson, congressman from Utah's second district on July 3. "It is an honor for me to thank them, belatedly, for their extraordinary service."
Strong along with George Plant of Murray, were the recipients of a multitude of medals which were granted at Memory Grove in Salt Lake City.
Despite the 60 years plus since the heroics took place, the events of World War II are still fresh in the memories of many, particularly those that fought around the world.
For Strong it all began when he was a mere 16 years old.
"I and another friend hitchhiked from Helper to the Salt Lake post office to join," he said in an interview in 2004. "When we talked with the recruiter he asked me how old I was. I told him I was 16 and he said he couldn't take me. I asked him if he wanted me to come back in a couple of days and talk with someone else and then lie about my age to get in. My mother ended up signing for me so I could join the service."
That was in November of 1943 and by the time he shipped out in January 1944 he had turned 17, an age at which he would have been accepted anyway.
Strong loved Navy life from the beginning, even during his days in boot camp in Faragut, Idaho. Few ex-military men say a lot of good about that first experience but for Strong it was a release from a life of much harder labor.
"When they shipped me to Idaho it was beautiful," he says of the northern Idaho panhandle. "We had to row around Coeur d' Alene Lake and I loved it. On top of that I got $50 a month and I sent half of that to my mom every month to help with things."
Strong's father had died in 1938 so his mother needed the help and the support.
After boot camp he returned to Helper for 15 days leave before shipping out. Looking at Strong's bright smile, and the look on his service photo it's easy to imagine the happy 17 year old strutting around town in his new garb.
"I was so proud to put on that uniform," he said with even a brighter smile than shows on that 64 year old photo.
When leave was over he was sent to Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay. But as soon as he arrived he knew he wanted to go to sea. The Navy called for service volunteers to serve on merchant marine ships as gunners and he immediately said he wanted to go, instead of waiting for a warship assignment. He ended up on the supply ship Jose Morales.
"They said they needed gunners, but I ended up working in the bakery," he explained with another grin. "I learned to bake all kinds of stuff and I ate really well the whole time."
Eventually when the ship stopped he found himself in the New Hebrides, northeast of the Coral Sea and about 1000 miles northwest of New Zealand. But his stay there didn't last long because he got what he thought was a dream job, serving on the CVE-28 or better known as the light fleet aircraft carrier USS Chenango.
The USS Chenango was named after a river in southern New York State that is about 100 miles long and eventually flows into the more well known Susquehanna River. It was a converted oil tanker that was formally known as the New Orleans and was owned by the Esso Oil Company. The ship was the first of three similar conversions, with all three becoming known as Chenango class aircraft carriers. It was recommissioned on Jan. 4, 1939.
"We were an unusual ship because having been an oil tanker we could carry a lot of fuel and often acted as a fueling ship for many other vessels," said Strong.
Once assigned to the ship he was trained and acted as an aircraft handler, or in his case he operated the elevator that took the fighters and bombers that took off from the Chenango's flight deck below decks. It was obviously an up and down job, but one he loved.
"I never met a pilot I didn't like; they were all great guys," he said. Of course not all of them returned, and often he was the last guy to stand and talk with some of them that didn't come back.
For the rest of the war, the Chenango was right in the middle of the fighting from Leyte Gulf to Okinawa. He saw plenty of action, but the ship seldom experienced direct attacks. The biggest damage incident that took place and the one that came closest to ending Strong's life had to do with an American pilot who missed hooking onto the barriers on the flight deck.
"He was coming in too high and the hook missed the cables," said Strong, his face missing a smile for the first time during the interview. "He flew into a F6F (Grumman Hellcat fighter) and it exploded killing two men. One of my friends was working on that plane and he was gone. There was fire all over the place from blazing fuel. Worse though was the live ammunition and bombs that were scattered around. We were taking 100 lb. bombs and throwing them overboard. One kid picked up a 500 lb. bomb and did it by himself.. We all should have been dead when that happened, but somehow we survived."
It was that incident that brought he and Plant the medals for bravery given out last week. That incident took place on April 9, 1945.
As for actual enemy attacks they were sporadic but what he remembers most is one incident when a Kamikaze tried to hit the Chenango.
"I could hear a plane and then I looked up and I could see it coming out of the sun," he said as his eyes revealed the scene in them going back many years. "Our ship was running right alongside another aircraft carrier and the Kamikaze crashed in the water right between the two ships. When they fished the pilot out of the water the only word he could say was Chenango. He had been given orders to drop his plane on our ship and he had failed in his mission."
The war eventually ended and Strong was discharged on Jan. 5, 1946. He came back to Helper and resumed his life as a bony picker in the coal mines (the person that removes the rock from the coal on the conveyer belts). He did that for a few years and then began to work inside the mine which he did for another 10 years. Then he went onto work for Utah Power and Light. He started as a coal handler at the Carbon plant and when he retired 28 and a half years later he was the safety and security coordinator. He retired at that time, but wasn't sure he liked the idle time so for 18 months in the mid-1980's he worked on the Intermountain Power Plant.
Each year Strong goes to a reunion of his shipmates, but as Matheson pointed out in his remarks there are fewer and fewer of them each year, as all of them are in the 80's and 90's. Each day hundreds of World War II vets pass away because of causes incident to age.
Strong, himself a strong 81 years old, still looks great and is still very active in the American Legion.
"I'm not sure why it took them so long to get us our medals," said Strong on Tuesday in a phone conversation. " I tried to get them a couple of times before and started the paperwork. But they just never materialized."
For his efforts that day in April so long ago on the shipped dubbed by its crew the "Lucky Lady", and other campaigns he was involved in Strong received a Purple Heart ( he was burned while tossing ammunition overboard), the Marine Corp Medal, the Combat Action Ribbon, the Navy Service medal with Asian Clasp, a Navy Good Conduct Medal, the Navy Commendation Ribbon with two bronze starts and a Saipan Occupation Medal.
The ship went on to fight it's way through the Pacific and was just offshore when the atomic bomb dubbed "Fat Man" was dropped on Nagasaki on Aug.9, 1945. Soon after that American personnel were sent on shore to look for prisoners of war that remained in the area. Both Strong and Plant volunteered for the duty.
"Those of us who went paid a price," said Strong. "Most of us have contracted cancer over the years, many that went have died from it."
The group who went were able to retrieve over 200 POW's for their efforts. Strong is proud that he was part of that endeavor.
So that flag pole that stands in Strong's front yard is a symbol; a symbol of freedom and sacrifice.
One he is proud of.