On a narrow canal in a Midwestern city lies a memorial to men who fought for our freedom, and then their own survival, on a wide ocean. Last September while attending a writers conference in that city I opted to skip breakfast and take a run, so that I could process some advice I’d received from a publisher the previous day.
Because I’d worked on a project in this same city years before I knew about this memorial and sought it out. When I found it I had the same sense of being on holy ground that I had on my previous visit.
On July 30, 1945, the 1196 men of the USS Indianapolis were steaming toward the Philippines after delivering the first operational atomic bomb to the island of Tinian. At 14 minutes past midnight the heavy cruiser was torpedoed by a Japanese sub and went down in 12 minutes. About 900 men made it into the water where they were kept afloat by life jackets, and only a few rafts. Because of a series of operational errors and poor judgment by the US Navy, the sinking wasn’t known about for days. The first rescue crew discovered the survivors by accident nearly four days later and the rescue wasn’t complete until five days after the sinking. During that time nearly two thirds of the survivors perished from exposure, injuries, or horrific shark attacks.
My personal experience in the military was as an Air Force officer in the waning days of the Cold War. Although it often involved long duty days and time away from my wife, nobody ever shot at me. My most serious injury while on active duty was a sprained ankle while playing rugby for the combined city-base team in Great Falls, Montana.
Men like those who served on the USS Indianapolis made incredible sacrifices. Nearly 900 gave their lives on that mission. The 316 that survived lived with the horror of watching many shipmates slip away into the waters or be eaten alive by sharks.
As I left the memorial I had a new perspective. No troubles that I ever suffered in my military, civilian, or writing careers compared to those who served on the USS Indianapolis. As I approached the conference hotel in downtown Indianapolis a Carillion was playing “Amazing Grace.” One of those touches to a story that has to happen in real life, because frankly, it would be considered too sappy to write into fiction.
On this Veterans Day please remember those who served to keep us free in wars long past. And take time to thank those who continue to risk their lives today so that we can live in a land of liberty and even extend that liberty to others.
Related post: Keeping the People In (a story about the last days of the Cold War)
My favorite book on the USS Indianapolis: In Harm’s Way by Doug Stanton
Visit the USS Indianapolis website for more information
In the movie Jaws the character Quint told a story of being a USS Indianapolis survivor.