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WWII vet, 92, gets Distinguished Flying Cross

Dec. 28, 2012 - 12:06PM   |   Last Updated: Dec. 28, 2012 - 12:06PM  |  
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In October, Bob Strong received a long-awaited letter from the Navy.

His son-in-law read it aloud at the Strongs' North Fort Myers home. Strong's wife and daughter gathered at the dining room table.

The 92-year-old would be recognized for 11 awards from World War II, including a Distinguished Flying Cross and an air medal.

Strong served in the Pacific Ocean from November 1943 and July 1944 as part of a Navy crew in enemy territory. The crew flew in a PB4Y-1, the Navy's version of the B-24 bomber. They snapped photos for intelligence and sank a Japanese ship.

His jaw dropped. His eyes glossed.

"What about the other guys?" he asked. "I didn't do anything."

His stories from World War II reveal otherwise.

•••

The 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor fresh in memory, thousands of young sailors flocked to Chicago's Navy Pier to train for battle.

Bob Strong was among them. He had quit college to enlist. His father wanted him to fly, just as he had done for the Navy, but his son had been declared: "physically unqualified for aircraft and submarine duty."

They told him he was too short at 5 feet 4 inches tall. His overbite was a problem.

But, at the end of the Navy Pier training, Strong recalled another doctor checking him over.

"You're 22 years old. How do you chew your food?" "Just like an old cow," Strong said, demonstrating the bite he'd later fix.

"You'd be just the right size for a belly turret," the doctor told him.

Strong never did fly in the belly turret, the sphere reserved for a gunner below the plane. He was a machinist mate first class and plane captain. In charge of checking the plane and its gasoline levels, he also had the task of fortifying the crew for 14 to 16 hour flights.

"I made the sandwiches," he laughed. "The whole crew had nothing to do with Spam."

Rations most used were day-old bread, American cheese and peanut butter.

In November 1943, Strong arrived in Nukufetau, a small island in the South Pacific, as part of the 108 Bombing Squadron.

Later that month, his pilot told him to prepare the plane by 2 a.m. for a 20-minute flight to nearby Funafuti with a skeleton crew. They planned to deliver the latest intelligence photos to the Navy fleet.

Strong discovered they only had 200 gallons of gas per engine.

"I'm not taking off in a war zone with just that much gas," he told an officer.

He requested more, but it did not arrive. An hour or so passed. An officer showed up who knew Strong from high school in Illinois.

He helped Strong secure 300 more gallons for each tank.

As the plane took flight, the runway lights shut off. Japanese bombers had been spotted. The pilot flew into the clouds as the planes targeted the Navy ships below. The crew didn't take a chance and enter the battle without full manpower.

Strong recalls praying, probably something like, "Make sure we have enough gas, Lord."

Floyd Harrison was a radioman on Strong's crew. He's 89 and lives in Texas. He remembered another flight when the plane lost two engines. Strong and another crewman disengaged the belly turret to lighten the load and preserve enough gas to make it home.

"He was a fine, fine plane captain," said Harrison.

Their pilot, George Webster, also recalled when the engines went out. Strong used hoses to transfer the gasoline to the working engines. They landed with 18 gallons of gas. Webster, who is 97 and lives in Virginia, recalled Strong as efficient and conscientious.

Once the Japanese surrendered in 1945, Strong returned home and finished his engineering degree and, in 1956, he and Elsie moved to Fort Myers. They have three children and seven grandchildren.

•••

Strong has shared his wartime stories with his family, including his son-in-law, Terry Murphy, who is married to his daughter, Carol. They also live in North Fort Myers. Murphy reviewed Strong's discharge papers and discovered that an air medal was "pending."

He wrote to the Navy to inquire in February. He wanted his father-in-law to receive the recognition he deserved.

The process stalled. This summer, it became a topic of conversation at the Strong family reunion in Missouri.

Adam Tharp was floating on a raft when a family member asked, "You're in the Marines. Maybe you can help?" Tharp's grandmother and Strong are first cousins. He also is a lieutenant colonel in Navy headquarters in Norfolk, Va.

He did some research. Strong's air medal submission was likely for when his crew sank a Japanese ship. His paperwork couldn't be found, though the medals for his crew mates, save for the pilot, had been denied.

"That whole group of sailors during that era, a lot of them never received their medals," Tharp said. "Nowadays, if an air crew is going to get a medal, the entire crew is going to get it."

The Navy ballooned in size during World War II, he said, and handing out medals likely shifted to the lower end of its priorities.

"It's unfortunate, but they're trying to right it," he said. "They try to do stuff very quickly for this generation. Time is running against them."

Within weeks of turning over copies of Strong's flight logbook, Tharp received word that Strong would receive 11 awards.

He plans to drive from Virginia to be at Friday's ceremony to present Strong the medals at the Iwo Jima memorial in Cape Coral.

This is the citation for Strong's DFC, written on behalf of the president: "By his undaunted courage, superb airmanship, and unyielding devotion to duty in the face of hazardous flying conditions, Petty Officer Strong reflected great credit upon himself and upheld the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service," wrote Adm. Jonathan Greenert, chief of naval operations.

Tharp's next project is securing those medals for the other crew members. After nearly 70 years, they are still at the forefront of Strong's mind.

"There were so many people better than me," he said. "I'm glad to accept them, but there are a lot of better people. I did my job."

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