Obviously, they are old men now. All of them, these crewman of the USS Indianapolis, admit that they treat each day like a precious gift. Some of them are stooped and walk with a cane. Or a hand placed gently on the arm of a doting family member. Some resort to wheelchairs when the day grows long and the legs tired. They say that Father Time is the only enemy that is undefeated. If that is true, these men have already given him a poke in the eye and are now putting him through the fight of his life. Father Time never met men like these.
You see it when you shake their hands and look in their eyes. There you find steel. As you walk among the memorials of their fallen shipmates and see the photos and letters placed their by their families. It is easy to imagine them frozen in time as the young men they once were. They had dreams and aspirations. And they willingly put them aside to defend a nation.
I had the great fortune to meet these men, a group of survivors of the crew of the USS Indianapolis. I’d written a book called Into the Killing Seas. A middle grade novel based on the true events of the sinking of the USS Indianapolis, the worst disaster at sea in US Naval history. The novel features two young boys who stow away aboard the ship and find themselves thrust into the middle of this horrific disaster. The granddaughter of one of the survivors discovered the book, read it, and facilitated an invitation to the reunion. I could not have refused.
Each year those survivors still able to travel, gather at a hotel in Indianapolis and remember. They reminisce and tell stories. They bring their children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. These are more than survivors of the worst disaster at sea in US Naval history. They would never admit it, but I will say it for them. They are giants among men. They remain modest, even deferential. And to a man they don’t consider themselves heroes. The heroes, they say, ‘are the 879 men who didn’t make it back.’
It was a cloudy, overcast night on 30 July 1945. Hot, with unrelenting humidity. The Indy, as she was called, was headed toward Leyte Gulf. They were near the equator, and to escape the heat, dozens of crewmen moved their bedrolls to the deck to sleep with some hope of finding a breeze or cooler air. Little did they know this simple act might have saved their lives. At fourteen minutes past midnight, two Japanese torpedoes rent the Indianapolis nearly in half. The damage was so severe the ship sank in twelve minutes.
Three hundred of the crew perished in the explosion and went down with the ship. The remaining nine hundred men abandoned ship. For nearly five days they floated in the running seas of the South Pacific. Covered in diesel fuel, they had little to no water or food. Some didn’t even have life jackets. They suffered horribly form dehydration, salt water ulcers, sunburn and exposure. And worst of all, endured what scientists have called the ‘worst human shark encounter in recorded history.’
By luck and happenstance, on the fifth day they were spotted in the water by a plane on routine anti-submarine patrol. Rescue planes and ships were summoned. By the time the remaining crew was pulled from the water, only 317 still survived. One of the men at the reunion recalled ‘they took us aboard the ship and gave us chicken broth and cigarettes. I sure did like those cigarettes.’ If you believe in luck or fate or destiny or just weird coincidences, then you will find it interesting that 317 men survived the sinking of the USS Indianapolis. 3-1-7 is also the area code for the city of Indianapolis.
It is one of the most amazing survival stories of modern times. In researching Into the Killing Seas, I learned a great deal about the ship, it’s Captain and crew and the aftermath of the shipwreck. But I quickly realized that my book, nor any book, could measure up to the real story of the courage, determination, and perseverance of these men. Words can’t convey what they possess. And the amazing thing is, despite all they’ve been through, they retain a sense of humility and grace that is at once both charming and confounding. How could ordinary men who survived something so mentally, emotionally, physically and psychologically taxing be so at peace and self-assured? If I were to hazard a guess, I would think that if you defied death to such a degree, everyday life must be a breeze.
The mission of the reunion has changed now. It is no longer just a gathering. It is about preserving and maintaining a legacy. About never forgetting. Never letting their story slip beneath the waves of the passage of time. It is no exaggeration when I say that attending this event and meeting these men changed my life.
My father was a World War II veteran. I grew up in a very small town, so it probably exaggerated the effect, but every able-bodied man in town my father’s age was a veteran. My dad seldom talked about the war. But being at the reunion, talking to these men, who before 30 July 1945, considered themselves just ‘regular Joe’s’ changed something in me. My dad never considered himself anything special, and neither do the the men of the USS Indianapolis. Millions of men just like them served. Hundreds of thousands paid the ultimate sacrifice. But meeting them somehow helped me understand that sacrifice on a much deeper level.
Some of the stories I heard were astonishing. I met a young man, currently serving on a Navy submarine. His grandfather was an Indy survivor. When he passed away he was cremated. The Navy had his ashes shipped to his grandson aboard the sub. Then they traveled to the exact coordinates where the Indianapolis sank. The grandson returned his grandfather’s ashes to the sea. So that he could finally rest with his shipmates.
Another son of a survivor tearfully told me how his father came to every reunion until he could no longer travel. So his son dutifully went in his place. He passed away a couple of years ago while the reunion was in progress. They sent the flag used at the event and his father was buried with it. His son still comes each year.
I heard about one of the survivors whose esophagus was so damaged by the fuel he swallowed, that after the rescue he was sent to the Great Lakes Naval hospital to recover. There he met a nurse who cared for him. They fell in love and were married nearly fifty years.
In the lobby of the Hyatt was a ten-foot replica of the USS Indianapolis. One of the crewmen pointed to a spot amidships and told me ‘here is where I got off the ship.’ Only he said it the same way you and I might say ‘I’m running out to the store for a gallon of milk.’ Who possesses that kind of courage?
Time passes. A few weeks ago, the keel was layed for a new USS Indianapolis, being built at a shipyard in Northern Michigan. One of the survivors of the original ship attended the ceremony. It was the passing of the torch. In a few years there will be a shiny new ship, with a new crew of honorable young men and women full of hopes and dreams.
And willing to put them aside for a while to defend a nation. That is the legacy of the survivors.
And it will live on.
I would like to ask your help in preserving the story of the USS Indianapolis and it’s crew. Many of the survivors and their families were delighted that Into the Killing Seas tells their story for a younger generation. Rightfully their legacy should live on. I was more than happy to attend the reunion and sign books and donate all the proceeds from book sales to the Survivors organization. Now I’d like your help to keep the story of these men and their sacrifice alive. First, please share a link to this blog post with your friends. Next I’d like your help in getting this book in the hands of young readers. If you buy a copy of Into the Killing Seas and donate it to a school or library, send me a photo of your receipt. I will match your donation to another school or library and any royalties I make off purchases for this campaign will be donated to the Survivors organization. Please help me spread this story. Or visit USSIndyReunion.com to make a donation. Please don’t let their legacy slip beneath the waves. Thank you in advance for your generosity.