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75 Years Ago Today, An American Tragedy

July 30, 2020

By

Captain Charles Butler McVay of the USS Indianapolis

 

By Ray O’Hanlon

Hollywood is a lens through which history can be learned for the first time, or be rediscovered.

Of course we are required, or certainly advised, to check the background story that is depicted on screen. A movie might be an accurate portrayal of an historical event, a partially accurate one, or an outright inaccurate one.

Regardless, what we see on film is very often a pointer. It is up to us to follow and assess what is truth and what is Hollywood hyperbole.

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The movie “Jaws” is an example of Hollywood hype. At least to a degree. The Great White Shark depicted in the film was reckoned to be 25 feet long by our three heroes on the boat that needed to be bigger.

That’s a bit of a stretch, but the story itself has more than a basis of real life equivalence in it. Great Whites can attack people and sometimes kill people. There was one such fatal attack this week in the waters of Maine.

The sharks do not cruise our waters because of people. They are there because of a primary food source: seals.

But there are times, tragically, when a shark can mistake a person for a seal.

The movie “Jaws” is forty five years old this summer. And it is a film that is still being viewed on a regular basis. The New York Times reported a recent screening at a drive-in theater in Wellfleet on Cape Cod.

It’s likely that some who watched it in their cars would remember the film from back in the 1970s. Doubtless some can recite lines from a movie that has secured its own corner in American popular culture, and in popular cultures beyond America’s shores.

Not a few of the lines in “Jaws” are delivered by actor Robert Shaw, who played the irascible, Ahab-like, Captain Quint.

Some of those lines were a portal into history. Quint’s recounting of the sinking of the USS Indianapolis is an enduring, indeed classic, piece of filmmaking.

It’s a fair bet that back when “Jaws” was first released the majority of those who viewed it had never heard of the Indianapolis, or only had a vague idea of the ship’s story. Quint, then, would be their teacher.

And his subject, as delivered to his shark-hunting companions, Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) and Chief Brody (Roy Scheider), was serious, deadly serious.

The USS Indianapolis was still lost at the bottom of the Philippine Sea when “Jaws” hit the big screen.

It was finally found in August, 2017, 18,000 feet or roughly 3.5 miles below the surface. The expedition that found the ship was led by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.

The story of the Indianapolis, the Quint-version, is pretty much on the mark. But it is only part of a much larger and even more tragic tale that is marked today by its 75th anniversary.

The sinking of the cruiser on July 30th 1945 resulted in one of the greatest losses of life in the history of the United States Navy.

It also resulted in an unprecedented court martial that, for the rest of his days, was a dark cloud over the battleship’s Irish American captain, Charles Butler McVay III.

On a warm tropical night in the waning days of World War II, what had been a steel-encased home for over 1,200 sailors vanished into the depths of the Pacific a mere twelve minutes after two torpedoes fired by a Japanese submarine struck its starboard side.

The submarine attack led to one of the most frightening and riveting dramas in the history of the navy, one that was played out on a speck of ocean that was, supposedly, hundreds of miles removed from the final days of fighting that had raged across the Pacific since the attack on Pearl Harbor more than four years earlier.

The list of Indianapolis crew members who became ensnared in that drama reflected the diversity of America.

Not surprisingly, it was dotted with Irish names, all the way from the engine room of the doomed ship to its bridge, where ultimate command rested in the hands of Captain McVay.

There was no Quint on the real Indianapolis, but there was a crewman named Shaw. He didn’t survive.

There were also crewmen named Conway, Flynn, Hurley, Murphy and many more with names rooted in an island a world away from the Philippine Sea.

And there was Captain McVay, a man who, according to Richard Newcomb in his classic book “Abandon Ship,” possessed “a good Irish wit.”

But sadly, on a fateful July night, no Irish luck.

The Indianapolis had performed its primary mission when it ran headlong into the war again.

After leaving San Francisco, the cruiser delivered the parts of what would be the Hiroshima atomic bomb to the island of Tinian on July 26. Not even McVay knew the exact nature or purpose of his ship’s cargo.

After a stopover in Guam, the Indianapolis had set sail for Leyte Gulf to rendezvous for training maneuvers with the USS Idaho.

Both ships were to play a role in the expected invasion of Japan.

McVay requested a destroyer escort for the Leyte run. This was standard practice, but he didn’t get one.

Crucially, the Indianapolis also lacked submarine detecting sonar, a shortfall that would make an escort seem even more necessary.

Still, the voyage to Leyte promised to be as routine as you could expect in wartime.

Captain McVay had an option. He could zigzag along his course but was not required to do so. He did for a time, but before turning in he gave orders to cease zigzagging.

According to the subsequent testimony of many survivors, visibility was poor, the chance of an attack thus considered remote.

Besides, zigzagging was no sure and certain proof against being hit by a torpedo.

The peace of a Pacific night was shattered 14 minutes into the new day on July 30.

The Japanese submarine, the I-58, fired six torpedoes at the silhouette of a large battleship. Two of them hit home, one in the bow and the other, most critically, in a mid-ships section beside the magazine and a fuel tank.

The Indianapolis, with 1196 officers and crew on board, was blown in two. The ship’s electrics were snuffed out and the end was only minutes away.

About 900 men made it off the sinking ship.

Some of them scrambled aboard life rafts, but most found themselves in the water and dependent on standard issue life jackets that were to prove less than a match for days of immersion.

The tale, as recounted by the Quint character in “Jaws,” pretty well sums up what hundreds of men now faced.

Sharks came cruising before the shattered Indianapolis had even settled on the ocean floor.

The moment when a sailor realized that he had survived the torpedo attack was just the starting point for a harrowing five-day ordeal, one that would only end by a stroke of returned luck, maybe Irish, maybe not.

Again, a critical factor that would play hard on the survivors as they treaded water, or huddled on a raft, was the fact that navy regulations did not require a search — even if a ship was days overdue in port.

So when the survivors were discovered, it was not as a result of an organized search and rescue mission.

On the fourth day, a Lockheed Ventura bomber on antisubmarine patrol had a problem with a newfangled radar antenna dangling out of the rear of its fuselage.

The pilot went aft in an effort to sort out the problem. Looking through a window in the bomber’s floor, the pilot, Wilbur Gwinn, spotted an oil slick.

His first thought was a Japanese sub, and he alerted his crew for a bombing run.

Instead of an enemy vessel, however, what the Ventura crew then noticed in the water were men splashing and waving.

It was the start of a massive rescue operation, but not the end of the ordeal for the survivors of the Indianapolis.

By the end of the fifth day, 317 men had been pulled alive from the water. The rest of the initial survivors had died of wounds sustained in the attack, thirst, drowning, the effects of fuel inhalation, or by shark attack.

The loss of the Indianapolis had been a catastrophe, though one quickly overshadowed by far bigger headlines – the dropping of the atomic bombs and the end of the war.

The Indianapolis story, however, was far from over.

A court of inquiry was convened in Guam and it decided to court-martial Captain McVay, a decision that caused uproar and led to allegations that McVay was being served up as a scapegoat to cover the navy’s overall culpability.

McVay was charged with “culpable inefficiency in the performance of his duties” and “negligently endangering the lives of others,” a reference to the fact that the Indianapolis was not zigzagging when struck by the torpedoes.

McVay was found guilty on that second charge. His career was in ruins and though the Navy Department had a change of heart and restored him to duty with the rank of rear admiral in 1946, the stain of the court martial would never be fully erased.

On a December day in 1968, his Irish wit run out, Charles Butler McVay took his own life in the garden of his home in Litchfield, Connecticut.

The day before, McVay had received a hate letter from a relative of a crew member lost in the sinking of the Indianapolis.

In October, 2000, a campaign by Indianapolis survivors bore belated fruit when a congressional resolution was signed by President Clinton.

The resolution stated that McVay’s record should reflect that he had been exonerated for the loss of the Indianapolis, and those crew members who had perished.

In July, 2001 the Navy Department formally exonerated McVay just before the publication of another book about the Indianapolis, “In Harm’s Way,” by Doug Stanton.

Despite the exoneration, however, McVay’s court-martial conviction yet stands as does the conviction of hazarding his ship by failing to zigzag.

Never in the history of the U.S. military has the verdict of a court-martial been overturned; indeed, there is no known process for doing so.

Still, what has been achieved did bring some peace to Indianapolis survivors who campaigned for decades to clear their captain’s name.

“His exoneration is tantamount to an admission that he should never have been court-martialed in the first place,” said a statement published some years ago on the website (www.ussindianapolis.org) of the survivor’s group chaired by Paul J. Murphy, who served as a fireman on the Indianapolis.

The 2017 discovery of the resting place of the Indianapolis was the discovery of a war grave.

Of the crew of 1,196 men on board 879 men died, either immediately after the attack, or in the days before rescue.

The exact location of the ship remains classified because it is an official war grave at sea and is the property of the U.S. government.

The fact that the ship was found was due in large part to new technology, but also the enduring human desire to find what has been lost.

The USS Indianapolis is a tiny presence on a vast ocean floor, but one that has, for seventy five years, reached upwards and outwards to lay claim to the memories of those who survived, and those who care to take custody of their memories on behalf of generations yet to be.

And what of Robert Shaw, aka Captain Quint?

Quint suffered a grisly ending in the movie. Shaw’s ending also had a sad twist to it.

He was an English-born actor, a native of Lancashire, who loved Ireland and lived in the heart of it, in  Tourmakeady, County Mayo, a village beside Lough Mask.

Shaw suffered a fatal heart attack on August 28, 1978 and at age 51 while driving from Castlebar back to Tourmakeady. His body was cremated and his ashes scattered near his home.

Shaw’s last line in his Indianapolis speech – and it has been hailed as a speech – was “anyway, we delivered the bomb.”

What might have not been realized at the time of filming, or in the early days of the life of an iconic movie, was that Shaw had delivered to a mass audience a searing history lesson, the rivets of a story that had been largely lost to the depths of the ocean, and the popular imagination.

This year of two anniversaries has raised it all to the surface again.

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