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The Survivor: John Woolston of the USS Indianapolis

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In 1975, Jaws made a Great-White-sized splash in theaters across the country. Perhaps one of the most infamous scenes took place during the boat outing where Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss), Brody (Roy Scheider) and Quint (Robert Shaw) set out to locate and finish off the homicidal shark once and for all. A record-breaking 69 million Americans saw Jaws when it was first released, and not a single person bothered to question the scene where Quint relays the gripping, dark story of the USS Indianapolis. Although Hollywood got a few facts wrong, the macabre spirit of the event was dead-on. His re-telling of the U.S. Navy’s worst shark attacks brings chills to every viewer to this day, and yet hardly anyone realizes Quint is describing a real moment in American history:

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“Very first light, chief. The sharks come cruisin’. So we formed ourselves into tight groups…the idea was, the shark comes to the nearest man, and that man, he’d start poundin’ and hollerin’ and screamin’ and sometimes the shark would go away. Sometimes he wouldn’t go away. Sometimes that shark, he looks right into you. Right into your eyes. You know, the thing about a shark, he’s got lifeless eyes, black eyes, like a doll’s eyes. When he comes at ya, doesn’t seem to be livin’. Until he bites ya, and those black eyes roll over white. And then, ah then, you hear that terrible high-pitch screamin’ and the ocean turns red and spite of all the poundin’ and hollerin’, they all come in and rip you to pieces.” Jaws, 1975, Universal

On July 30, 1945, shortly after midnight, a Japanese I-58 submarine commanded by Mochitsura Hashimoto, a young officer yearning for glory after years of unsuccessful missions, surfaced for a periscope check in the Pacific Ocean. It was a foggy, humid night, so heavy with clouds the men on deck of the nearby USS Indianapolis could not even see their own hands in front of their faces and were forced to call out their names to identify one another. But as fate would have it, at the exact moment when Hashimoto scanned the area, the clouds parted, and there, glistening in the moonlight, was the USS Indianapolis, a Portland class heavy cruiser returning from a stop to offload sensitive cargo at the island of Tinian on July 26, 1945. With visions of returning home a war hero, Hashimoto claims to have immediately ordered down periscope and taking position to fire torpedoes. When he was later interviewed about the incident, he claimed to have fired six torpedoes at the American ship in a fan pattern, two of which struck home. But upon the Japanese submarine’s return to port, two of their four Kaitens were missing, and according to Navy officials close to the incident, those Kaitens have never been accounted for, even all these decades later.

A Kaiten – literally translated as “return to the sky” - was a manned torpedo used by the Imperial Japanese Navy. They were basically Type 93 torpedoes, which weighed 2.8 tons and were heavy warheads with long range and high speed capabilities, but altered to be guided by a human pilot. These suicide, or kamikaze, pilots, were typically men between the ages of 18 and 26, and although there was honor in the Japanese culture to be a Kaiten pilot, there was more to it than that. Families of young men acting as Kaiten pilots were given 10,000 yen upon the “successful” deaths of their sons. Although a Kaiten was capable of holding as many as four passengers, they were typically only manned by one man in action. After being launched from the submarine, the Kaiten pilot would steer to a suitable depth and head for their target. If they failed to make impact, their only choice was to simply drift away until either the pressure of the ocean crushed them or they suffocated from lack of oxygen.

Many say that on the night the USS Indianapolis was hit, Kaitens were used. The fact is, there were two simply gone from Hashimoto’s submarine, but although one could make the obvious assumption, it is impossible to ever know for sure. The USS Indianapolis (CA-35) was a Portland class heavy cruiser; her keel was laid in 1930, and on her final, historically-significant mission, she’d been in the water for fourteen years. She was 610 feet long, 9,800 long tons, and had an aircraft catapult amidships and two OS2U Kingfisher floatplanes. Although she was outfitted with a full complement of guns, including nine Mark 9 eight-inch 55-caliber guns, two QF 3-pounder Hotchkiss guns, and an upgrade of twelve Oerlikon 20mm cannons, she had no torpedo tubes, and she never had a chance to defend herself.

“Buddy, you could hear it – it was just a rumble, you just hear everything blasting.
That concussion just ripped that ship from one end to the other. There were armor-piercing shells that were going off in there. Well, how in the world could that ship survive?”

Richard Stevens, seaman, second-class

When the second torpedo hit, ensign John Woolston was in the galley preparing what he describes as a masterpiece of a sandwich. He had just sat down to take his first bite when he felt the distinct, jarring rumble of attack and saw flames shoot through the ship’s hull far too close for comfort. Without hesitation, he abandoned his sandwich – an action he would come to regret – climbed atop a table, and shimmied through a porthole. To this day, he wonders how big the porthole was. Portholes vary in size from eight inches to just over two feet in diameter, and even at their largest would have been an incredibly tight squeeze for a grown man. Woolston’s one regret, he says today with longing in his voice, was that he never got that first bite of his sandwich. He thought about it almost endlessly in the coming days, and even now, decades past, you can hear the hungry wistfulness in his tone.

It was rapidly clear the ship could not be saved, and after just eight minutes, the Indianapolis’ captain, Charles McVay, ordered abandon ship. During those few minutes, sailors in the radio room were able to repeatedly transmit their SOS signal. The distress call was received by at least three stations: two of which flat-out ignored the calls, while the third briefly considered sending out a rescue boat. But when the on-duty officer ordered the tugboats to investigate, his quick and accurate thinking was countermanded by his immediate superior, who was convinced the SOS was a trick from the Japanese, luring American rescue crews to sea to be killed. And so, as the cruiser went down, rescue was never to come.

“I looked back and the ship stood right on end, and there must’ve been 300 sailors standing on her fantail, and it just went under.” Robert Gause, quartermaster first class

Due to the stifling humidity and sweltering heat of the night, the ship had been sailing yoke-modified to allow fresh air below deck. Zed was the most secure position, and would have meant all the doors and hatches were dogged, or closed. As a result of being yoke-modified, water rushed to fill the ship’s interior at an astounding and quite literally unstoppable rate. After the first torpedo hit, it took only a matter of seconds for water to breach the normally watertight compartments. Woolston, along with almost 900 of the 1,196 men aboard, made it off the ship, while 300 of their crewmates were forever entombed within the sinking ship. If there was one positive aspect of sinking in the Pacific Ocean, it was the water’s eighty degree temperatures, but it was no longer crystalline ocean water. When she was hit, the Indianapolis immediately dumped her massive stores of oil and fuel into the ocean around her. Men diving off the ship were suddenly submerged and coated in a thick, viscous layer of oil, causing them to become instantaneously, violently, ill. Many of the men were already seriously burned and bleeding, some had lost limbs, and large quantities of blood began to seep into the oil slick. The black and red water blotted out the moon’s reflection, and twelve minutes from the moment the first torpedo struck, the USS Indianapolis vanished beneath the surface of the Pacific, forever lost to her watery grave.

Only a small number of lifeboats were on the ship, and even if the men had time to deploy them all, there were nowhere near enough for the number of sailors in need. There were also life rings, which were net-bottomed and had solid floating exterior rings for men to cling to while others could sit inside. Ensign John Woolston found himself clinging to the edge of a life ring, and the sailors worked together moving wounded and burned men into the center of the rings. Men were floating alone on whatever they could cling to, including crates of potatoes and chunks of the ship. Immediately following the ship’s sinking, many of the men were confident of rescue, especially as word of the successful SOS signals spread. What they did not know was being coated in oil and left bloodied and battered in the ocean was to become the least of their worries.

It wasn’t long before the combination of the scent of blood and the reverberating underwater shivers of the ship being crushed against the ocean floor began to draw the first sharks. That part of the Pacific Ocean is infested with Oceanic White Tip sharks, predators with a dog-like habit of following passing ships for great distances. Most likely there were some immediately present after the attack, and the sounds and scents drew the rest. White Tips have been noted up to 13 feet in length and weighing up to 370 pounds, making them medium-size in the shark world. They are opportunistic predators with a propensity for furious feeding frenzies, partly because food tends to be rare in their deep parts of the ocean and partly due to their tendency towards aggressive outbursts. Noted explorer Jacques Cousteau once called them “the most dangerous of all sharks.” As a result, they are willing to swim long distances for a meal and frantically devour whatever they can before departing. However, they are somewhat cautious, so it is sometimes possible to fend them off, but they’re also high strung and stubborn and will wait at a distance for a chance to rush back in and take their prey. The sailors of the Indianapolis were floating dead center in the White Tip’s preferred hunting grounds.

“Finally, they attacked – they pulled guys right out of the water. We thrashed, tryin’ to keep ‘em away from us, but they came right into the group. Took the net and everything right up into the air. Tore guys’ limbs off.
The water was bloody.”

Gus Kay, seaman first-class

Nearly seventy years later, John Woolston’s gaze becomes distant and unfocused, his mind’s eye taking him back to the horrors of the sea in a painful heartbeat. His voice momentarily trembles, then roughens, as he continues the tale of the most haunting days of his life. There is no sound, he tells me, like the sound of a man being torn apart by a shark, and the memory of the terrified screams of his fellow sailors as they experienced the unspeakable agony of being devoured by White Tip sharks echoes in his nightmares, and his waking hours, even now. He jumped into the Pacific wearing his gray uniform, which he feels served as a sort of camouflage against the sharks. But most of the sailors were in their skivvies, and their exposed skin and white shorts made them visible beacons in the water. Survivors recall what appeared to be thousands of sharks constantly circling in the clear water directly below their dangling feet. And as the first day dawned, the sharks seemed mercifully satisfied tearing into the bodies of the dead. But it wasn’t long before they turned their deadly intentions to the living. 880 men made it off the Indianapolis when it sank only to be picked off by sharks at a rate of approximately six each hour.

The attacks began with sailors floating alone, letting the men know their best chances of survival were to stick together in groups. Men wearing life jackets attempted to huddle or tie themselves together, offering support to those without, while others gathered around life rings and rafts. Before long, the sharks grew bold enough to attack the groups, and in one case grabbed an ensign by the arm, dragging him underwater to drown him. As the sailor was twisted in circles and shaken viciously, he managed to reach up over the shark’s face and jab his fingers right into its flat, lifeless eye. The shark released him, and he floundered back to the life ring, immediately throwing himself up over the edge and onto the netting. But with his ruined arm pumping fresh, tantalizing blood into the ocean below, one of his fellow sailors pulled a knife and began stabbing at him, screaming for him to get off the raft. Having no choice, he rolled off the netting, and it was only the quick thinking of a buddy who used his own shirt to tourniquet his arm that he survived the ordeal.

By day three, madness began to set in. Some sailors had been sipping saltwater, either not caring about the risks or fooling themselves into believing it was safe. Their initial physical response to consuming ocean water was rapidly rising blood pressure and increased heart rate, causing excessive strain on their already strained-to-the-limit bodies. Headaches, nausea and vomiting caused what precious moisture they had left in their bodies to be drained away until nothing was left. Prior to death, brain damage would set in. The men who partook of the salty water around them eventually hallucinated. Some believed they could see the Indianapolis – which had dropped down into the Mariana Trench, the deepest part of the ocean at 36,201 feet, nearly 7 miles – and dove down to drink fresh water from its galleys. Sometimes they returned, claiming to be refreshed, encouraging more men to dive. But eventually, all the men gulping down water sank into madness. Some saw beautiful islands within swimming distance and swam, instead, into the maw of waiting sharks, while others began seeing “Japs” all around them and attacked one another. Fighting broke out as the delusional, dehydrated men surpassed their breaking points. And all the men, even those avoiding drinking the deadly water, were affected by the steady heat of the daytime sunlight and the sharp, glaring reflections cast off the water, which combined to create blinding photosensitivity as the sailor’s retinas burned. Dehydration came to every man along with its crippling side effects, but only the saltwater-drinkers sank into true insanity. Perhaps the second worst event, first being the shark attacks, was the way the saltwater-drinking sailors died. Grand mal seizures and foaming at the mouth occurred, often at great length, before the men finally succumbed to the results of their unquenchable thirsts.

Throughout it all, the ship’s doctor was trying to do his job. Although the crew was so covered in oil as to be nearly unrecognizable, Dr. Lewis Haynes made his presence known immediately following the incident and began administering aid to his men. On the ship, Dr. Haynes was well known for his compassion and desire to help, but in the water and without any supplies of any kind, he quickly became nothing more than a coroner. He recounts swimming from group to group as the living called his name, tapping men’s eyes with his fingers. If their eyes stayed open and did not dilate or twitch, he pronounced them dead. He and nearby sailors would laboriously remove the kapok life jackets from the dead and pass them to the living, and he would recite the Lord’s Prayer, every time, before pushing the bodies away, where they were devoured by waiting sharks. Hoping to bring some fragment of peace to the fallen men’s families, Dr. Haynes looped the dog tags of the dead over his left arm. And he swam, and he swam, constantly moving, adding to his burden as he went along. It was on the second day the sheer volume of dog tags created such an incredible downward pull on his arm he could no long move through the water to reach the men calling his name. His voice breaks as he recalls this, his lowest point of the ordeal, when he was forced to release the dog tags of the lost into the ocean to sink down to the Indianapolis. And to this day, he can neither recite nor hear the Lord’s Prayer without breaking down and crying.

Another problem the crew faced was their kapok life jackets. At first, the jackets were life savers, allowing men to remain afloat despite horrible burns and injuries. But they were only rated for forty-eight to seventy-two hours in the water. They were made of a vegetable matter called kapok, and the artificially inflated cells were not inherently buoyant like today’s foam life vests. On the second day, some of the life jackets began to swell with saltwater, causing a strangling sensation and making knots in the ties often impossible to remove. By the third day, all the jackets were heavy with water, dragging the sailors down with them, and many simply could not get them off. When the men were rescued, many were to the point of barely keeping their chins tipped above the waves. The incident let the Navy know kapok had many problems, but it wasn’t until well after the war that kapok was entirely done away with. One positive aspect of the jackets was the pocket found at the center of the back. It allowed sailors to either pull men up into or onto objects, help keep the injured afloat and also allowed men without jackets to hold onto men with jackets. According to Dr. Haynes, the men were “very good” about helping one another immediately following the loss of the ship. They worked together to save one another and it was only the madness brought on by drinking saltwater that split them apart. And even then, the men who retained their sanity did their best to help the sick. In the made-for-television movie “Mission of the Shark”, the men are depicted infighting right from the start, but according to the accounts of multiple survivors, that was not the case.

When three days bled into four, those still in control of their mental faculties no doubt wondered where their rescuers were. The ship failed to arrive at her scheduled destination at 11am the very first day, and now it was day four and no one appeared to even be looking for them. In fact, on Leyte, the island they were scheduled to make port at, a Lieutenant Stuart Gibson, who was the operations director, knew by sundown that first day the Indianapolis had not arrived. But because there was, unbelievably, no process for a non-combatant ship‘s non-arrival, he did not report the ship’s lack of arrival to his superiors. Nine hours after the ship’s non-arrival, the next day’s Expected Arrivals and Departures list was prepared, and because the Indianapolis had failed to appear as scheduled, she was simply added to the new list of expected arrivals. As a result, it wasn’t until the crew’s fourth day in the water that fate finally deigned to intervene.

Late in the morning of the fourth day, an American pilot named Lieutenant Wilbur Gwinn was flying his PV-1 Ventura Bomber when he had trouble with one of the aerial antennas. Handing control over to his copilot, Gwinn moved to the back of the plane to attempt to fix the equipment. According to Dr. Haynes, Gwinn said his neck got sore from hunching over the antenna, so he stretched out in the blister, looked down, and happened to focus his eyes on the water below at just the right moment. Seeing what he later described as a big black smudge in the water, he assumed a Japanese submarine was disabled in the ocean below. Excited to finish it off, he took the controls back and circled around to drop his bombs on the imagined sub. But as they drew nearer, he realized there were a large number of men bobbing lifelessly in the water. Waggling his plane’s wings to let the men below know he saw them, Gwinn radioed ahead to alert his base on the island of Peleliu. In a stroke of asinine bureaucratic idiocy, the Navy wasted three hours denying there could possibly be a ship’s crew floating in the ocean. Three hours before they ordered rescue be sent. Gwinn dropped what life jackets and canisters of water he had to the survivors, but according to Dr. Haynes the canisters ruptured on impact.

Rather than immediately sending a rescue crew, the Navy ordered a single airplane to do recon. A PBY5A (Patrol Bomber, Y is a manufacturer code) Catalina Seaplane piloted by Lieutenant Adrian Marks took off from the island of Peleliu in search of the disaster site. Marks was under strict orders to look and report only, but when he arrived at the scene, what he saw made him decide to ignore those orders. As he flew overhead, he witnessed a shark attack. According to his daughter, Joan, to whom he shared his story with at great length and down to the minute details, Marks was gripped with horror as he watched a White Tip shark savagely attack and devour a man alive. And so he went against standing orders not to land or become actively involved, and turned to land his PBY on the water. It was a tricky landing due to the chop of the water, but he managed it by landing in a power-on stall with the tail down and the nose up. Marks remembers rivets popping out of the hull from the sheer force of the landing, but he did it. At first he headed for the groups of men, but then he realized there were individuals floating alone all over. Understanding sailors on their own were at far greater risk of being mauled and eaten, Marks taxied the seaplane along while his flight crew pulled sailors aboard. Marks’ heroic actions are all the more astounding when you realize that until one of the oil-covered survivors uttered the word “Indianapolis”, he didn’t know who he was putting himself at risk to help. It could have been, quite literally, anyone, and we were a nation at war.

John Woolston speaks of how the flight crew member lifting men out of the water was a “short fire-plug of a man” and Italian by descent. In fact, as fate would have it, the man who lifted the sailors out of the water had been a wrestler in high school and continued his body-building to that day. He was the best possible choice for a man to pull dozens of other men out of the water, and he just happened to be aboard Adrian Marks’ PBY. At one point, as the plane taxied by a man floating alone, the rescuers realized they did not have enough time to make another pass. If they missed him on their first attempt and were forced to circle around, it was clear he would either succumb to the inky depths or be ripped apart by the circling sharks. The Italian man reached down into the water as the plane moved by with surprising speed, grabbed the sailor under his arms, and flung him up into the air, over his own head, and into the belly of the plane. Adrian Marks later described it as if you were standing on a chair and had to reach down to the floor to pick someone up who was absolutely dead weight – while the chair moved away and the man fought his own rescue. Many of the sailors in the water were at the point of delirium where they thought their rescuers were Japanese or did not comprehend what was happening at all, and as a result they fought wildly. Kicking, screaming, and clawing, trying to swim away and doing everything to avoid rescue, many men had to be forcefully wrestled into the plane. John Woolston was one of the men rescued by Adrian Marks, and he remembers the moment the plane taxied by and he was jerked up out of the water with what he recounts as superhuman strength.

To the crew of the Indianapolis, Wilbur “Chuck” Gwinn was their angel of the sky and Adrian Marks was their angel in the water. Knowing he could be spotted by the enemy, Marks turned his lights on to enable distant approaching ships to locate them more quickly and stacked the men, he described, “like cordwood”. When he ran out of room inside the plane, he couldn’t bring himself to stop. He began wrapping men in the silk parachutes on board and tying them to the fabric-covered wings of the plane to stop them from sliding off. He used every available surface, and when he finally had no choice but to stop, he had rescued 56 men. One of the most amazing moments of the rescue, according to Marks, was the dehydrated sailors reaction while being given sips of water. There was not enough water on the PBY to give the men more than a small portion each, and Marks and his crew crawled from man to man, doling out tiny sips of their precious clean water stores. Not only did none of the men ever ask for extra water, but they spoke up if a crew member lost track and tried to give them a serving meant for another sailor. Marks had never before seen such loyalty and honor.

The closest ship was the USS Cecil Doyle (DD-368), a John C. Butler-class destroyer escort, far smaller than the lost Indianapolis at just 306 feet in length and 1,305 tons. She was a fairly new ship, her keel laid in May of 1944, and her commanding officer, Captain W. Graham Claytor, Junior, ordering her run at full speed to the coordinates relayed to him by pilot Adrian Marks: 11°30’N., 133°30’E. Captain Claytor made this decision of his own accord, saving countless lives considering the US Navy’s three-hour delay in ordering rescue. The Doyle arrived hours after Marks’ PBY; had Marks failed to land and take men onboard, ensign John Woolston may not have survived to tell his story.

Upon her arrival, the Doyle headed for Marks’ PBY in the darkness, halting some distance away to avoid injuring or killing sailors in the water. World War Two was underway, although nearing its end – thanks to the Indianapolis – and enemy ships and planes could appear from any direction. Despite that reality, and at significant danger to himself, Captain Claytor turned on the Doyle’s massive spotlight, in part to guide coming rescuers, but also, he said, to offer hope to men floating in the water. For many, the appearance of the ship’s spotlight was their first hope for rescue. The Doyle pulled 93 survivors out of the water and gave final rites to 21 dead sailors. She was the first ship to arrive on August 2, 1945, and the last to leave the scene on August 8, 1945, after days spent searching the Pacific for sailors.

“Suppose we go down and we can’t get a message off? What will happen then?” Captain McVay

It was due to the speed abilities of the USS Indianapolis and the stellar record of her captain, Charles Butler McVay, that she was chosen for the top-secret mission that preceded her demise. She had ten battle stars on her bridge, and Captain McVay already had a Silver Star, Bronze Star, and Purple Heart. He was a man who actually cared about his crew, and when she went down, he was devastated. The importance of the Indianapolis’ mission cannot be discounted: when she left Mare Island, California, on July 16, 1945, she was loaded with a secret cargo. Not even McVay was told what the cargo was, and specially-assigned guards were stationed around it during the journey to Tinian. But there were sailors on board with enough experience and knowledge to suspect what cargo they carried, suspicions verified later. It wasn’t much to look at, just a steel box welded securely to the deck of an officer’s quarters. A second, heavy, lead container was suspended in a sling from the ceiling above. McVay was ordered to protect the cargo at all costs, even told to load both pieces into lifeboats before even considering saving his men, and it was a tense voyage to their destination of Tinian.

“Captain McVay was like a father to our group. He kept us calm. He kept saying, ‘We are going to be rescued.’” John Spinelli, ship’s cook, second class

We now know the secret cargo was a flask containing 137 pounds of Uranium 235. The steel box contained the hardware components for Little Boy and Fat Man. Fat Man’s uranium was delivered to Tinian separately by plane. The Indianapolis successfully delivered her precious cargo to Tinian before turning back to rejoin her fleet, which is when she was sunk. On August 6, 1945, four days after rescue began, the 9,700 pound atomic bomb Little Boy was dropped on Hiroshima. Little Boy was dropped by the Boeing B-29 Superfortress Enola Gay, piloted by Colonel Paul W. Tibbets, Junior. And on August 9, 1945, one day after rescue efforts ended, 10,300 pound Fat Man was detonated over Nagasaki, Japan. Fat Man was dropped from a Boeing B-29 Superfortress named Bocksar, after its usual pilot, although for that particular mission the plane was piloted by Major Charles W. Sweeney. On the morning of July 16, 1945, as the Indianapolis had left port, she had been ordered to pause on her way out to sea and await final confirmation to go ahead with her delivery to Tinian. As she waited, in the New Mexico desert, 120 miles south of Santa Fe, the Manhattan Project detonated its test atomic bomb, watching from 10,000 yards away as the first mushroom cloud blossomed 40,000 feet into the air. The test run successful, the signal was sent to the Indianapolis to continue on her way.

“Captain McVay’s court-martial was simply to divert attention from the terrible loss of life caused by procedural mistakes which never alerted anyone we were missing.” Paul Murphy, president of the USS Indianapolis Survivor’s Organization

317 men were pulled out of the Pacific alive by rescuers, two of which died after rescue. 1,196 men were on board the doomed ship when she went down, and, in the end, 879 men died in the Pacific. It is, to date, the Navy’s largest loss of life at sea. Looking for someone to blame, the Navy courts-martialed Captain McVay for failure to zig-zag. Despite significant evidence maintaining a zig-zag course would not have saved the Indianapolis – including their bringing in Hashimoto himself, who admitted it was a miraculous parting of the clouds and amazing luck on his part – the Navy laid the blame at McVay’s feet. Although those close to the case and an overwhelming number of Navy service members believed McVay to be absolutely innocent of blame, certain members of the uneducated public, including family members of the dead, sent McVay hate mail for years. His wife Louise intercepted the mail for decades, but when she passed away after a long battle with cancer, the hatred poured in unchecked. On November 6, 1968, plagued by loneliness and survivor’s guilt, Rear Admiral Charles Butler McVay walked onto his back porch and shot himself fatally using his service revolver. In his hand he clutched a small toy soldier given to him by his father. The Indianapolis had claimed her last victim.

“Day is done/Gone the sun/From the hills/From the lake/From the skies
All is well/Safely rest/God is nigh”
Taps

Seventy years later, John Woolston is retired and living out his days in the sun and beauty of Hawaii. His memories of the events of the Indianapolis are crystal-clear, and there is no doubt his recollections are both accurate and jarring to this day. With a twinkle in his eye, he grieves the loss of his sandwich, saying, “I never did get that first bite.” Once he was in the hospital receiving treatment on Guam, he was given another sandwich once doctors decided his weakened stomach could handle the food. He says that second sandwich just wasn’t the same. Remembering his lost shipmates, he pauses, and tears fill his eyes. They were good men, he says, and they are deeply missed. He gives my daughter his autograph with a small smile when she approaches and asks, quickly, before moving away from our discussion to wait. And as we sit in the back of a quiet room in Washington state, where he was visiting for Veteran’s Day weekend 2013, he turns to me and asks if I have anyone in the Navy. My grandfathers served in the Air Force, I answer, ancestors and relatives in the Army, but, yes, I do know someone who served in the Navy. He asks me for details, and I give them. He smiles, and a moment goes by while he is clearly lost in thought. “Well,” he began, gripping my hand in his, “you tell him thank you, from an old Navy man, you tell him.” And I did. A special thank you, not only to the one, but to all of you who have served or are serving in the US Navy; what better thank you than one from a World War Two hero?

US Navy failure of Captain McVay and the USS Indianapolis:

• A code-breaker discovered the presence of Japanese subs, including the fateful I-58, in the USS Indianapolis’ path. But because the information was considering secret, the Navy decided not to warn Captain McVay.
• They also did not tell Captain McVay that, right before his departure from Guam, a Japanese sub sank a destroyer escort, the USS Underhill.
• Captain McVay’s requests for a destroyer escort, as was by the Navy’s own book, was denied because the powers-that-be felt an escort would only draw attention to the Indianapolis and possibly even slow her down.
• The distress signal from the Indianapolis was ignored repeatedly, considered a Japanese trick or a mistake of some sort. No one bothered to check.
• Faulty Navy directives and procedures led to the Indianapolis’ failure to arrive to go unrecorded and unnoticed until far too late. Despite a junior man alerting his superior officers, her lack of arrival was ignored. (The faulty directive was that only the ARRIVAL of non-combatant ships was to be reported. Non-arrivals, like the Indianapolis, were not reported.)
• McVay was ordered to zig-zag at his discretion. Due to the heavy fog and lack of enemies in the area – since he had been left out of the loop on the reality of Japanese subs – he ordered the halting of zig-zagging. Numerous witnesses and reports have shown the zig-zag to be worthless, anyway, and Hashimoto testified it would not have made any difference.
• The Navy even delayed the final rescue for three hours while debating whether the report of men in the Pacific was true, and, if true, whether the men were their own.
• The Navy put McVay under courts-martial because they were looking for a scapegoat, a belief upheld by countless members of the Navy, including every single survivor of the Indianapolis.
• This list could easily go on. The bottom line is the US Navy failed Captain McVay in numerous ways.

Author’s note: Half a century after the Indianapolis’ sinking, a 12-year-old boy named Hunter Scott watched the movie Jaws with his dad. Hunter was transfixed by Quint’s account of the USS Indianapolis, and asked his dad if it was a true story. As a result, Hunter interviewed more than 150 survivors and collected and reviewed more than 800 documents, first for a school project, but then out of a desire to exonerate the late Captain McVay. Hearing time and again of the survivor’s anguish and anger over McVay’s unfair treatment by the US Navy, Hunter went before Congress to ask for McVay’s exoneration. In October of 2000, due in large part to Hunter’s impressive efforts, Congress passed a resolution that Captain McVay’s record be altered to show “he is exonerated for the loss of the USS Indianapolis.” The resolution was signed by then-President Bill Clinton. Sadly, McVay’s son Kimo, who had lobbied tirelessly throughout his life for his father’s innocence, died just twelve days prior to the passage of the resolution by Congress. Perpetually late, in July 2001, the Secretary of the Navy, Gordon R. England, finally ordered McVay’s record be cleared of any wrongdoing. Fifty-six years after the sinking and thirty-three years after McVay’s suicide as a direct result of his being made a scapegoat by the Navy, McVay’s record, and his name, were officially cleared. But to the men of the USS Indianapolis, their captain had been innocent from day one.

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Remember our fallen:

Due to site limitations, the author regrets having no choice but to include a link to a complete list of the names of the fallen and survivors rather than a complete list herein: http://www.ussindianapolis.org/crew.htm My sincerest regrets to the families and friends of the fallen and survivors.

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