Stephen Woody

Stephen Woody, columnist

Bob Strong’s name has been mentioned among the social chatter of late. Given how the Montrose Mouse statue has gone mobile, arriving here and there, right fist thrust upward, to illustrate disdain for the stay-at-home directives due to the ‘Rona pandemic. It usually rests at the Looney Bean coffee house at Oxbow Crossing.

Briefly, the MM is a nod to Strong, who was the Montrose mayor in 1977, working alongside then-city manager Jim Austin. They and a few others stared down the Carter Administration and saved the Dallas Creek Project, aka the Ridgway Reservoir. The rest of us, two generations later, enjoy plenty of water for agriculture, recreation and development.

If it weren’t for a global virus, this would be the week when the annual Montrose Lions Carnival comes to town, a delight for the masses and a big fundraiser for the club. The carnival means bright lights, midway booths and the sounds of whirling rides filling the air. Strong, a member of the local Lions for 50-plus years, would be in the middle of it.

“It’s a Catch-22,” said Strong Monday morning. “I’m smart enough to know that we have to keep our distance during this pandemic and do what’s necessary to stop its spread. The ordinance, however, goes against what I believe. I don’t like any edict that says I have to do something.”

Strong will turn 95 later this year and is like many of us: stuck at home, missing morning coffee problem-solving sessions with friends; having to connect with kids and grandkids via Zoom. He’s watching a lot of TV reruns – observing that actor Dennis Weaver (1924-2006) of Ridgway got stuck with a lot of lousy dialogue on ‘Gunsmoke.’ (No wonder he started chasing the bad guys on ‘McCloud.’)

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There’s no way to have a conversation with Strong without a passing reference of Feb. 19, 1945. It was 0930 and Strong was a 19-year-old seaman first class stationed aboard the USS Highlands, an auxiliary support ship with 1,500 Marines destined to land at Red Beach 2 on Iwo Jima, one of the home islands of the Empire of Japan. Strong was part of a four-man crew who operated an LVCP, better known as a Higgins Boat. “It was quiet, the surf at that time was down,” Strong told me a few years ago. “A lot of the Marines thought the landing was going to be a piece of cake.” He also recalled how the horizon “was black with ships.”

The Japanese commander had instructed his men not to fire on U.S. forces until they were bogged down on the soft volcanic ash on the beaches, ash from Mount Suribachi, an extinct volcano that loomed overhead. When the assault began, the Japanese laid down a grinding, withering fire from pillboxes and caves above. Almost 7,000 U.S. servicemen died on Iwo Jima, as did 22,000 Japanese. There were 27 Medals of Honor awarded for actions at Iwo Jima, the most from a single WWII battle.

“Suribachi looked like a Christmas tree, all lit up, with the Japanese firing at us and us firing back,” he said. Strong, a native of Lamar, recalled Monday how they ferried men and supplies onto the beaches, then returned with the wounded. “Our ship became a hospital ship.” His boat sat just off Suribachi when the U.S. flag went up. “He (AP photojournalist Joe Rosenthal) was in the right spot at the right time,” Strong said of the iconic photo of Marines raising Old Glory. “We saw the flag and cheered.” The battle lasted five weeks. (The pandemic was declared a national emergency eight weeks ago.)

After Iwo Jima, Strong saw action at Okinawa where Japanese kamikaze planes crashed into U.S. ships. Later, Strong and his shipmates sailed into Tokyo Bay, mooring near the USS Missouri, where the official surrender took place, Aug. 15, 1945. “We showed Japan our power that day. The sky was black with aircraft. Like locust.”

After the war, he started working in Rocky Ford, Colorado as a Conoco agent. One day he heard a female voice on the radio – that which belonged to Phyllis St. John. They met, dated for about a year, then married. They had three children. “I’m a battered husband,” Strong says with a laugh, when asked what’s the secret of being married almost 70 years. “She beats me up every morning; then I get up.” They moved to Montrose in 1963, first operating a Gambles hardware operation, then owning the local Sears store on Main Street until retiring in 1983.

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Strong was a Montrose city councilman for eight years (1971-1979) and was mayor when the city moved heaven-and-earth to attract the Russell Stover manufacturing plant, competing with Grand Junction. For many of its 45-plus years here, Stover ran multiple shifts and had 400-plus employees. “I saw it (the factory) hatch. I’ll see it close. It’s sad. I thought when they built the new (retail outlet) store, it would be here forever,” said Strong about the company closing its operations in 2021.

There are these warm-and-fuzzy bromides on television these days: “your grandparents went off to war, you can stay at home.” True enough. We tend to bellyache about take-out food and our hair roots showing, lacking the experiences of having a hostile foreign nation shoot at us while driving an unsteady boat to a blood-soaked beach. Strong’s moxie and leadership – whether at the helm of a landing craft 75 years ago, taking on a sitting president, or laying the groundwork for a two-generation employer – should speak to us all, providing our gripes with frank perspective.

Good (true) story, this.

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