Eight Bells Hank Strauss

Henry I. (Hank) Strauss

1912 - 2013

He was born on New York’s upper west side nearly 99 years ago; he was not a big man but he filled a huge space with his enormous intellect and heart to match. Racing and cruising sailor, adventurer, musician, artist, World War II superhero, Academy Award nominated film maker, husband, father, grandfather and great grandfather - Hank Strauss had it all and did it all in his 98.75 years. When he died of lymphoma October 19 he left a host of friends and disciples who will find a gap in their lives that no one else can fill.

Henry Isaac Strauss was a member of Noroton Yacht Club, New York Yacht Club, the Cruising Club of America (he was Rear Commodore of the CCA New York Station at the age of 90) and the Ischoda Yacht Club. He joined CCA in 1967 in New York and transferred to the San Francisco Station about two years ago where he was an active participant until his death.

Predicting accurately that the U.S. would soon be in the war, Hank joined the Navy before Pearl Harbor and when the U.S. entered the war he was Quartermaster on the supply ship USS Pollux on the run between New York and Argentia, Newfoundland. Fighting a full gale in a pre-dawn blizzard on February 19, 1942, the Pollux and the destroyer escorts USS Truxtun, and Wilkes, ran hard aground at the foot of a steep cliff in Chambers Cove near the villages of St. Lawrence and Lawn. The rudimentary navigation available at the time had let them down and they were 60 miles to the west of their destination.

(The story of this disaster in which 203 sailors died can be read in the book Standing Into Danger, by Newfoundland author Cassie Brown. This shipwreck marked the greatest loss of life in U.S. Navy history outside of enemy action. CCA member John Rousmaniere also wrote about this incident in his book After the Storm published in 2002.)

With the Pollux pounding against the vertical cliff and taking on water Henry Strauss realized that something had to be done quickly or the whole crew would be lost. There was a ledge of rock on the cliff a few feet above the surface. Crew members had been throwing a grappling hook to the ledge in an attempt to have it grab so someone could go climb across with a bigger line and set up a breaches buoy system to get the crew across.  Finally the hook caught and seemed secure enough to do the job. They needed a volunteer fit enough to go hand over hand to the shore. Hank was that volunteer. Small, wiry and brave almost beyond reason he was also a college diving champion.

He went across the 100 foot space “like an acrobat” as one officer put it later. He got to the ledge and as he was trying to get a footing on the icy rocks a huge wave crashed against the cliff and dragged Hank into the icy caldron capped by thick oil and chunks of wreckage. He was under water for what seemed like an eternity and when he finally surfaced - freezing and losing consciousness – he could not believe why he was not being pulled back to the ship. But his shipmates had difficulty getting him aboard because the safety line was covered with oil. Finally a big stoker wrapped the line around his waist and using himself as a windlass he rotated his body, aided by crew mates, and managed to get Hank up the vertical side of the violently heaving vessel. Suffering hypothermia badly bruised and nearly blind from the oil, he was carried to the sick bay.

Half an hour later as the tide rose and the ship got closer to the cliff an officer got the idea that if they could extend a cargo boom out to port someone might be able to get to the ledge from the end of it. They could not find a volunteer on deck, but from the sick bay came Henry Strauss, ready to give it another try. Again his valor was thwarted as the boom could not be extended far enough and the motion at the end of it was appalling. They swung the boom and Hank aboard.

As the Pollux was grinding its way ever closer to the rocks, the crew finally got a line to the ledge with ease and about 50 men, Hank among them, got onto the ice capped outcrop. As they huddled together the oily waves picked them off one or two at a time and dragged them into the sea.

With time running out they heard a voice above then shouting - “Is anybody down there?”  On top of the cliff were Newfoundland fishermen who had been called to action by two teenaged boys who had seen lights and heard the clanging and grinding of the ship on the rocks. Alerted by the youngsters, fishermen trudged through the thigh deep snow for two miles and lowered a long line down the vertical face and pulled what was left of the Pollux crew up one at a time. It took nearly three hours to get them all up and they lit fires and tried to camp on the level ground until dawn. Several of them froze to death that awful night, but before sunrise the villagers had brought sleds and horses and took the sailors to their homes where they were fed and warmed and literally brought back to life.

(In 2011 Hank gave a generous grant to the towns of Lawn and St. Lawrence, specifying that the money be used to buy equipment for their grade schools. Months before he died he got a Skype call from Newfoundland and found himself facing scores of children on their computers thanking him and questioning him about that fateful night 70 years before.)     

 

Returning to New York after the Newfoundland disaster Hank was given a commission and sent to sub chaser school in Florida.  He served in the Caribbean for a short time and then was sent off to the South Pacific theater in the tiny wooden Sub Chaser 668. From time to time during this long voyage they would be visited by one or more destroyers, which traveled much faster but would drop by to check on SC668. They encountered a typhoon north of New Zealand and the sub chaser was heaving and rolling so badly that the crew was constantly afraid she would roll right over. He took the helm himself during the worst of the storm and tried to steer like he would have in a small sailboat on a much smaller stage - surfing down the huge waves, but then turning to port or starboard before reaching the bottom of the trough, so they could slow down enough to be picked up by the next monster.   They struggled into Auckland with the little ship badly damaged and “leaking like a basket” as Hank put it later.  When Henry Strauss walked into a harbor-side bar in Auckland he was spotted by the captain of one of the destroyers, who literally dropped his glass on the floor, having been certain that SC688 could not possibly have survived the typhoon.

At one point in the war, Hank piloted his little sub chaser into a harbor with narrow channel with reefs on both sides.  Just as he was relaxing from that ordeal he was ordered to go out and pilot an aircraft carrier through the same channel.  He said as he went aboard that enormous ship the Admiral asked him how many times he had been through the entrance channel. When Hank replied, “Just once sir, this morning,” the Admiral ordered, “Go to the bridge son and make it twice.” Hank said he was more scared then than when he was shipwrecked in Newfoundland.

 

During his many battles -- perhaps the most famous in Tulagi – with U.S. forces facing more than 100 Japanese zeros – Hank made a discovery that changed his life.  According to Navy regulations, new recruits were trained to load the 3 mm guns by reading the manual, then practicing.  With that training so essential to everybody’s life, Hank decided to start by telling the recruits how many bullets a zero could fire in the time it took to load the gun, then gave them the manual to read, then had them practice.  Loading time was cut in half. The difference was the attitude created, the motivation, along with the training. Towards the end of the war, Henry offered his discovery about attitudes and training to the Navy’s training division at the US Bureau of Ships. After many months, they had the wisdom to bring him back to Washington, to make training films applying his ideas.  

Following the war Hank took his theories on training and communication and became a pioneer in the fledgling corporate communications/human relations business in NYC. Among his first management training films was The Inner Man Steps Out, made for GE and used by Ford Motors as well, for its unique and effective approach to human relations. Over the years clients for his firm Henry Strauss Communications Inc, on West 53rd St included giants like AT&T, IBM, Gulf, DuPont and Pan American Airways. He also worked in educational and motivational films and won an Academy Award nomination for a film for the National Endowment on the Arts, called Art Is. His business was so successful he planned to retire at the age of 50, but he didn’t quite make it and set his movie camera aside at age 51.

From there on he spent an incredibly active life of travel and adventure.  He chartered the 70-foot yawl Stormvogel and cruised around New Guinea. In the years of the IOR Hank owned a 40-foot S&S sloop with three partners. They raced often and well in all the East Coast events, including the Bermuda race, a Trans-Atlantic race in and the Fastnet.  He owned a property on the Caribbean island of Grenada and cruised his 41 foot Morgan and later Whitby 42, both named Doki back and forth fall and spring for many years.

Hank was married in 1940 to Joan Strauss (the same name but no relation) and they took their honeymoon on a 20-foot centerboard sloop, not unlike a Lightning. Jo died three years ago in their waterfront Darien, CT home. A year later Hank moved to Mill Valley, CA near where one of his daughters lived. 

When his grandsons Luke and Joshua Raymond had their final visit with Hank a week ago, Hank summed up his life and gave his challenge to them in the wit and wisdom of his last words, “Keep it interesting.”

Bruce Kirby and John Sanford