A Veterans Story: Ups and Downs on a Pacific Carrier
|Bob Strong still sees his service days in the Navy as a great time in his life.|
Pulling up to the house it is easy to tell that a World War II veteran lives there. Maybe it's something about the way the house is adorned, or the neatly kept lawn, or more likely it was the shiny new flagpole that stood at the corner of the yard with old glory waving in the warm spring Helper breeze.
"It's beautiful, isn't it," said Bob Strong, referring to the pole as he pulled off his gloves after getting up from pulling weeds along the edge of the spring green grass. "I got that one and two of my neighbors did too."
The bright day outside was eclipsed by Strong's sunny disposition. This is a man who loves life and is happy with his existence, his family, his past profession and his Navy career in the early 1940's after he enlisted at the age of 16.
"I and another friend hitchhiked from Helper to the Salt Lake post office to join," he said as he sat at his kitchen table. "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 end up signing for me to get in.
That was in November of 1943 and by the time he shipped out in January 1944 he had turned 17 anyway.
Strong loved Navy life from the beginning, even 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.
"My father died in 1938, leaving my mother with a bunch of kids and no support," he says. "When I turned 15 I went to work at the Castle Gate tipple as a bony picker."
For the uninitiated a bony picker is the guy who picks rocks out of the coal as it moves down the line. Not fun or easy work.
"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."
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 says with even a brighter smile.
When he left Helper 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."
|Bob Strong in 1944.|
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 theCVE-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 know at 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 a 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. Actually 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. "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."
He can even remember the exact day: April 9, 1945.
As for 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 along side 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 USS Chenango in 1940 after it was commissioned as an aircraft carrier and before the sea camoflage went on.|
The war ended and Strong was discharged on Jan. 5, 1946. He came back to Helper and resumed his life as a bony picker. 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 then retired, but almost couldn't stand it so when a chance came to go and help open the Intermountain Power Plant in Delta he went there to work. He did that for 18 months and then re-retired in 1985.
When asked what he is doing now he has a pat answer.
"Anything I want."
Each year he goes to a reunion of his shipmates. Last year the crew of the Chenango met in San Diego, Calif. This fall it will be in St. Louis, Mo.
"We always go where we can see or be on ships," he said.
He said when they went aboard a US Navy ship in San Diego last year and the crew found out they were World War II veterans, they were treated like royalty.
Strong is active in the American Legion and he and a bunch of local legionnaires are traveling in late May and early June to Washington D.C. to see the new World War II memorial.
That monument has been a long time coming.
As Strong stood for a photo in front of the flag he loves so much, it was hard to tell which lit up the scene more; the bright blue sky, the Stars and Stripes against it, or his beaming smile.
All were definitely outstanding that April morning.