At 12:43 am on July 5, 1943, a Japanese torpedo
struck the USS Strong in the South
Pacific, tearing open a 30’ x 20’ hole on the port side. The destroyer sank
fast. Two hundred forty-one men were taken aboard the Chevalier before the second destroyer needed to get away from enemy
Lieutenant Hugh Miller went
over the side and was dragged down in the suction of Strong’s sinking. He bobbed back to the surface when “a giant’s
fist crushed his abdomen,” his head almost wrenched from his neck. The sea
roiled and bubbled as though a volcano had erupted.
The ship’s depth charges had
been jarred out of “safe” mode by the impact of the torpedo, and the depth
setting dial rotated to the fifty foot mark. With the ship buckling, not all of
the depth charges could be reached to re-safe them. Ninety seconds after
submerging, a depth charge exploded.
Three hundred pounds of TNT
sent out a spherical shock wave at five thousand feet per second. Depth charges
are intended to open seams of submerged submarine’s reinforced steel pressure
hulls. Any person within fifty to seventy-five feet of the explosion would
Out to a distance of three
to five hundred feet, serious injury is inevitable. Gas-filled organs are
particularly susceptible. Damage to intestines, hemorrhaging, broken ribs or
limbs, and severe concussions are typical. Seamen are told to get to the
surface quickly, move away from their sinking ship, turn on their backs, keep
legs firmly together, and clench their buttocks.
Lt. Miller was in an upright
position one hundred feet from the depth charge. The sinking hull sections
between them diverted some of the shock wave. He felt immediate intense pain in
his abdomen, his legs paralyzed. Pulled onto a floater net, he writhed in
agony, moaning out loud, and teetered on the edge of unconsciousness. He was
given a shot of morphine.
Through the next days, he
vomited fuel oil and seawater. His abdomen was painfully distended and still wracked
by savage pain. He passed blood from the rectum, and had difficulty breathing
due to damage to his lungs and diaphragm.
Just after midnight on July
9, the net came to Arundel Island. His companions found coconuts. Miller drank
the juice, but couldn’t keep down the coconut meat. He still suffered crippling
intestinal pain and periods of unconsciousness. With difficulty, he walked in
an awkward hunch.
By the morning of the 15th,
the slightest touch to his grossly distended abdomen caused nausea. He could
still not eat solid food, vomiting blood and oil. He ran a high fever and was
utterly weak. Believing he was dying, he ordered the three sailors with him to
go on, and gave one his shoes.
By the 19th, he
was feeling better. While his abdomen was still tender, he no longer passed
blood. He was actually hungry. After a week of building up his strength and stamina,
fueled by coconut meat and fresh water, he set out to gather intelligence on
enemy strength and routines, and played a deadly game of hide and seek with
Japanese patrols. He wiped out patrols and machine gun crews with their own
Forty-three days after the
sinking, he was rescued on August 15th. He was awarded the Navy
Cross for his actions as a one-man army.
In 1945, intestinal difficulties manifested again. Being very
careful of what and how much he ate prevented severe cramping and diarrhea.
Chronic irritable colon health problems would plague him for the rest of his
life. In 1978, during surgery for an abdominal aortic aneurysm, he was found to
be riddled with widely spread metastatic carcinoma, cancer from either
immersion blast trauma or his lifelong smoking habit, or both. Miller died
scant weeks later.
The Castaway’s War: One
Man's Battle against Imperial Japan by Stephen Harding
releases in May.