WWII naval disaster contains meaningful lessons
Just 33 days before the end of the Second World War, America lost a 1,195-crew ship in the Philippine Sea. The sinking of USS Indianapolis remains the greatest naval disaster in US history.
Nearly 50 years after it was sunk by a Japanese submarine, filmmaker and author Sara Vladic began to wonder what else the story of USS Indianapolis held.
“I heard about it when I was 13,” Vladic said. “It was on a documentary, but they said, ‘it’s the ship that ended the war and sunk,’ and that’s it.”
In 2001, Vladic decided to learn about the sinking of USS Indianapolis from the men who actually survived it. She attended survivor reunions, eventually interviewing 107 veterans.
Meanwhile, Lynn Vincent, author of best-selling works such as Heaven Is For Real and Same Kind of Different as Me, was praying for a new story to write. She says Vladic’s request to collaborate on a book about USS Indianapolis was the answer to her prayers.
“Through friends and family she [Vladic] connected with me,” Vincent said. “She did not know that I’m a navy veteran, and she also did not know that I am a Christian and I had been praying for an iconic World War II story to write for two years.”
In the following podcast, Bryce Foshee, ’21, interviews Sara Vladic and Lynn Vincent about the USS Indianapolis.
As Vincent and Vladic scoured libraries and archives, a larger story began to unfold. The USS Indianapolis was a ship set apart from its first conception. Limited by the Washington Naval Treaty, the ship’s builders decided to prioritize speed and firepower over armor. From 1933-1936, former President Franklin Delano Roosevelt sailed aboard her numerous times, including one trip as far south as Uruguay.
The USS Indianapolis sailed out of Pearl Harbor just one day before the Japanese sprung their infamous attack. She saw heavy action in the Pacific War, assisting in invasion campaigns including Tarawa, Kwajalein and Iwo Jima. At the commencement of Okinawa, the final land battle of the war, Indianapolis was struck by a kamikaze, requiring her to return to the states for repairs.
The USS Indianapolis probably would not have seen major action again if it had not been used for a secret mission to transport the fission core of Little Boy, the first atomic weapon used in war. After setting speed records to bring her secret cargo to Tinian, the USS Indianapolis returned to supposedly tranquil waters for refresher training.
The Navy decided not to inform Captain Charles McVay of intelligence about a last-ditch Japanese submarine foray into the Philippine Sea. With no escort, USS Indianapolis was unable to detect Japanese submarine I-58 before her captain slammed two torpedoes into Indianapolis’ hull.
Numerous debacles caused no one to realize that some 900 sailors were left in the waters of the Philippine Sea. In the four days and five nights before survivors were discovered, wounds, dehydration, insanity, exposure and sharks reduced the number of men still alive.
In the weeks following this disaster, the Navy protected themselves by court-martialing Captain McVay. Despite the protest of this action by his men, McVay was found guilty of endangering his ship by failing to zig-zag.
The 316 men who were left living in the ocean also refused to quit fighting for the recognition of their captain’s innocence. Vladic says this survivor spirit has not faded with age.
“They’re feisty! There’s 12 still living, and the youngest is 92 and they have the spirit for life that’s incredible,” Vladic said. “One of the themes that we learned about through talking to the guys is never give up. No matter what life throws at you, you are strong enough to get through it. They taught us about getting the work done, when it’s really hard, get the work done. And how to laugh a lot, in the face of adversity.”
In anticipation of the 100th Annual Veterans Day Parade, Vladic and Vincent traveled to Fresno and shared the story of the men of USS Indianapolis with high schoolers. After listening to their talk at Sunnyside high school, an FCS student in AP U.S. History, Dane Moate, ’21, says the survivors’ life can be an example for his.
“I think a big part that I took away is that you shouldn’t give up,” Moate said. “And always look to God for even the small struggles, because knowing what the Indianapolis survivors went through, I can be reassured that everything will work out.”
The video below highlights the event and students who attended:
For FCS’s annual Veterans Day chapel, Nov. 14, Paul Loeffler will interview a WWII veteran, giving students an opportunity to learn about WWII from the men who lived it. Vincent says the members of the Greatest Generation share a unique mindset.
“I think that the WWII mentality was different than it is today,” Vincent said. “If you can imagine these men enduring this incredible ordeal, and then coming back and just resuming their lives. They weren’t saying, ‘I want to on the cover of People, I want a get a book deal,’ they just came home and they got to work, and I think there’s a lot to be learned from that.”
Hannah Van Noy, ‘21, an AP US history student, attended the event with her class as a field trip and shares her thoughts on the speakers and her reaction to their message.
“I thought it was a good statement and reminder when they talked about how because of the actions of the war heroes and veterans we are able to have the freedoms we do today,” Van Noy said. “They are the reason we can make changes and have a real influence in society unlike the countries that we fought against who were under dictators and communist.”
While on the surface, the story of USS Indianapolis represents a military disaster and horrific episode of an already terrible war, storytellers Vladic and Vincent found a larger story, still meaningful today. Students can learn from the characters of the survivors, and from the Greatest Generation at large.@thefeather, Instagram @thefeatheronline and Facebook @thefeatheronline.
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