A Familiar Story

Written by Bill Leebens

This story has nothing to do with audio. It does, however, have a lot to do with the “Cynic” part of this column’s title. I’ve encouraged Copper‘s writers to go somewhat far afield when they feel the need, and I hope you’ll indulge me as I stray a bit.

I’m sad to say that I’m not very familiar with how most families operate. A number of moves and a natural inclination towards introversion have kept me from intense involvement with many families. Often, that has included my own.

But I do know enough to know that all families have stories. Some are happy: how a no-longer-young couple first met and overcame their aversion to one another, and fell in love. Some are sad: family members lost to war or natural disaster. Most people seem to have stories that they’ve known for as long as they remember, and those stories seem to shape their characters.

The story I’ve always known is like that. It helped to make me wary and distrustful of authority. It made me skeptical of easy answers and demanding of deeper truths and real meaning. It made me aware of the darkness in the world and the possibility that bad things do indeed happen to good people.

So here is my story:

My parents were married May 6, 1941. My father’s 27th birthday was December 6, 1941. You know what happened the day after that.

My father was a dentist, and had set up practice in my  mother’s hometown a few years earlier. Like many others after war was declared, he enlisted in the armed forces. He chose the Navy, which seems an odd choice for a lifelong, landlocked Minnesotan. I don’t know why he chose the Navy.

Nor do I know all the details or chronology of his Navy service, and my father isn’t around to ask. But following whatever training he received, he was assigned to a large ship as the ship’s dentist. He would also be a medical officer as need arose, in battle. My mother moved to San Francisco to be there when the ship periodically returned to Mare Island Naval Shipyard.

The ship was a heavy cruiser, the USS Indianapolis. It was the length of two football fields, heavily armored, and carried massive armament and catapults for launching planes. The crew sometimes referred to their ship as “Indy Maru”, following the Japanese convention of naming ships, acknowledging that the Pacific waters they would traverse were occupied by the Japanese.

Indy Maru was big and fast, covered tremendous distances, and was involved in a number of battles and campaigns. As a child, I would sometimes wear a souvenir from one campaign, the heavy woolen face mask that had been issued to my father during the Aleutian Islands campaign in the arctic waters near Alaska. The mask was dark blue, and had a flap that snapped over the mouth. It appealed to me as it was scary-looking, like something out of the horror movies I loved.

Indy was involved in the battles at Saipan, the Mariana islands, and was involved in the first attacks on the Japanese mainland. Providing pre-invasion bombardment at Okinawa from its 8″ guns, Indy was hit by a bomb dropped from low altitude by a Japanese fighter plane. Several crewmen were killed and the ship was heavily damaged, but managed to return to Mare Island yet again for repairs and a refit.

Indy was the flagship of Admiral Spruance. I have photographs showing Admiral Nimitz on board ship, as well.

In July of 1945, Indy was chosen for a secret mission, likely because of its speed. The ship left San Francisco and made it to Pearl Harbor in less than 75 hours, averaging 29 knots. The record time it set still stands today.

From Pearl, Indy proceeded to the American-held island of Tinian, where it delivered its cargo. That cargo was half the refined uranium U-235 that existed in the world, along with the components that would be assembled to form “Little Boy”. The Hiroshima bomb.

Indy went to Guam, then headed to Leyte, with the ultimate destination of Okinawa, where it would rejoin the fleet. Indy never made it.

Sailing unaccompanied on open water, Indy was hit by two torpedoes. The exploding warheads caused massive damage, and within 12 minutes the ship rolled over, the stern rose in the air, and she began to sink. About 300 of the crew of 1196 went down with Indy.

Perhaps due to the secrecy surrounding the mission, perhaps due to oversight, perhaps due to incompetence, the unaccompanied Indy was not reported missing for three days. Halfway through the fourth day, a spotter plane saw survivors clinging to wreckage, and dropped life rafts and a radio transmitter. Ships and planes were immediately directed to the site.

Three days in shark-infested ocean waters without fresh water or food culled the number of survivors, many of whom had suffered injuries from the explosions. Some were taken down by sharks. Some became delusional due to dehydration and exposure, and simply drifted away. Some chose to go below the surface of the water and stay there.

Ultimately, 317 of the 1,196 on board had survived. 879 were lost.

My father cannot be properly listed as a survivor, as he was not on board. Some time before this last mission, he’d been rotated to duty at a base on shore. That didn’t mean he was unaffected. Hundreds of men he served with, treated, helped in battle, died. I doubt if my father was aware of the term “survivor guilt”, but he lived it, nonetheless. As I recently said to a friend, “he never talked about it, but it was always there.”

For whatever reason the Indy had been misplaced, the damage didn’t end there. My mother, older than the wives of most of the crew, accompanied a young Naval chaplain as he went to inform young brides that their husbands would not be coming home. My mother spoke of how many of the wives were barely out of their teens, and how many were pregnant.

My father’s longtime wardmate on board, Lt. Charles McKissick, was officer of the watch, and was on the bridge when the torpedoes hit. He survived, and became an ophthalmologist. After my father’s death, I met with Dr. McKissick, who told me things about the ship and its sinking that my father could not or would not. Forty years later, he still choked up when describing the suffering of his fellow shipmates.

Captain Charles Butler McVay survived, and likely wished he had not. McVay, the son and grandson of Admirals, was court-martialed for the sinking of his ship, allegedly for failure to set a zigzag course. In a kangaroo court, the Commander of the Japanese sub that had sunk Indy was brought in to testify, and said that zig-zagging wouldn’t have kept him from sinking Indy Maru. Admiral Nimitz set aside the charges against McVay, and put him back on active duty. McVay ultimately retired as a Rear Admiral in 1949. McVay was the only Captain to be court-martialed in World War II for the loss of his ship. Hundreds of US Naval vessels had been lost in the war.

The specter remained. In 1968, McVay blew his brains out with his Navy-issued revolver.

My father had a framed glossy photograph of the Indy on his desk until the day he died. He rarely spoke of the ship’s loss, but when he did, the anger and disgust he felt towards the Navy for putting Indy in harm’s way and for disgracing McVay were clear to see.

That’s what I grew up with.

That’s my story. And I’m stuck with it.

 The memorial to CA-35, heavy cruiser USS Indianapolis, in Indianapolis. Very little, very late: but it’s something.
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