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SUNDAY, JULY 15, 1945
San Francisco, California
The ship was still tied up in the harbor at Mare Island, but already the captain felt it was drifting out of his control.
Marching up the gangway of the vessel under his command, the USS Indianapolis, Captain Charles McVay was a man perplexed. Reaching the top, he turned toward the stern, saluted the flag, and strode on through the bronze light of the chill California morning, stepping past the electricians, painters, and engineers working on deck. No one watching the forty-six-year-old McVay, dressed smartly in his khaki and crisp campaign hat its black vinyl bill decorated with gold braid that the enlisted men called "scrambled eggs" would have guessed the depth of his concern. He hid it well.
He had just come from an early morning meeting at U.S. naval headquarters in downtown San Francisco. The meeting, with Admiral William R. Purnell and Captain William S. Parsons, had been disappointingly quick and to the point: this morning he was to take his ship from the Mare Island navy yard, thirty miles north of San Francisco, to Hunters Point navy yard, located just outside the city in San Francisco Bay. Once at Hunters Point, McVay was told, the Indy would take on board what was described only as a "secret project" before departing for the Pacific.
The meeting was over in less than an hour, and it failed to provide much information on his ship's new assignment.
McVay had a lot on his mind, much of it worrisome. Since May, the Indy had been docked at Mare Island, where it had been undergoing extensive repairs that were expected to take at least four months. Then suddenly everything had been accelerated. Three days ago, on July 12, McVay had received mysterious orders from naval command to immediately ready his crew for a secret mission.
Hundreds of telegrams left the ship, calling the crew of 1,196 boys to sea; they had at the most just ninety-six hours to execute the command. Some of the veteran crewmen were dispersed across the country, on leave or at temporary training schools. The majority of the crew had stayed at the marine and naval barracks at Mare Island, killing time by drinking beer, chasing girls, and playing cards. Still others were being called to the ship and to war for the first time.
They came streaming to Mare Island and to the ship, stepping over tangled nests of air and water hoses, tools, and debris spread on her deck. McVay had watched as the newest crew members came on board, the older veterans cheering them on: "Hey, boys! Look at him," they cried out. "Ain't he pretty? Why, he doesn't even look like he's shaving yet!"
McVay understood how large the war loomed in the minds of these boys, "green hands" and veterans alike, who during these last few days had made love one last time, gotten drunk one last time, wrote last letters to mothers and fathers, and prepared to settle on board the Indy, into the rhythm of getting ready for sea. Rumors had started flying that the ship was headed back to the Philippines, then on to the massive invasion of Japan and its home islands, code names Operation Coronet and Olympic. But this morning, not even Captain McVay had any idea of their final destination.
He'd been told that the earliest the ship would leave San Francisco would be July 16, which was tomorrow. McVay had been given four days to do what seemed impossible. During the past twenty-four hours, he'd been crashing through night fog and heavy seas around the Farallon Islands, thirty miles west of the San Francisco coast, running the Indy through abbreviated but punishing sea trials. The crew had practiced radar alerts, radar jamming, and emergency turns. The Indy performed well, all things considered.
But how well was good enough? The ship was still fresh from the disaster that had necessitated all the repair work: on March 31, the Indy had suffered a nearly fatal kamikaze attack off the island of Okinawa. The incident had left nine men dead, twenty-nine wounded. One of McVay's boys, bugler second-class E. P. Procai, had been laid to rest at sea, accompanied by a twenty-one-gun salute. The remaining eight sailors were interred on one of the tiny islands west of Okinawa, a repair facility for damaged destroyers and a burial ground for the dead.
After the attack at Okinawa, the Indy had limped the 6,000 miles back across the Pacific. Two of her propeller shafts, a fuel tank, and her water distillation plant had been badly damaged. Back on land, some of the crew had begun asking for transfers off the ship. "When we get hit again," they were saying, "you'll be able to drive a bus through the hole." The Indy, they grumbled, had "turned poor."
They now wondered if she was an unlucky ship.
Not long after the captain's return, at about 10 A.M., Dr. Lewis Haynes heard the hiss of the Indy's PA system, a sound like air rushing through a hose, which was followed by the shrill piping of the boatswain's pipe. "Now hear this, now hear this!" came the announcement. The doctor listened as McVay's soft voice echoed through the morning air: "Men," he told his crew, "we are headed tomorrow morning to the forward area." This meant they were going back into the war zone.
The boys halted in midstride and in midchore brooms and water hoses cradled in their arms as they cocked ears to the speakers tacked to the bulkheads, or outer walls, of the ship. They were to depart immediately, the captain announced, for Hunters Point, a supply depot and loading point of final stores for Pacific-bound ships. And then the captain delivered the news that a sailor dreads hearing: all shore liberties for the evening were canceled. McVay signed off, "That is all." The PA line went dead.
A groan went up among some of the boys. They had plans and these included getting into San Francisco tonight. The city, still a Wild West town, was the last stop for Pacific-bound sailors, who congregated at all-girlie shows at the "Street of Paris" on Mason. In the three and a half years since Pearl Harbor, several million soldiers had passed through; in the last four months alone, the army and navy had shipped more than 320,000 troops from the port city.
McVay next gave the order to sail, and minutes later, the Indy backed from the pier at Mare Island and cruised past Alcatraz Island into the wide, placid water of San Francisco Bay. Soon the sun having risen high and the morning's fog burned off, she was snug to the wharf at Hunters Point, standing motionless against her mammoth eight-inch hawsers sprung from bow and stern.
Dr. Haynes had thought the abrupt change in the ship's plans was odd. The inquisitive, red-haired physician had been under the impression that preparations were being made to get the ship ready to join Task Force 95.6 for the invasion of Japan. At the moment, the task force was in the Philippines, and the invasion was scheduled for the end of the year, which was still about four and a half months away.
The war in Europe was over, and the Pacific theater was paused before this final assault on the Japanese homeland. Two months earlier, Germany had surrendered; the D-Day invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944, had left the U.S. First Army with 6,603 casualties, 1,465 of them fatal. But this paled in comparison to the estimated toll for the invasion of Japan: at least 500,000 American casualties. The boys of the Indy talked openly and often with one another about whether they'd survive the battle. On the island of Tinian, which the Indy had bombarded and helped secure in 1944, there were reports that Japanese troops were still hiding in the jungle hills, resorting to cannibalism to survive, and that they could hold out another five years against an invading force. The end of the war seemed near to some, Haynes knew, yet to many it still felt like a dream.
This morning, he wondered how a ship like the USS Indianapolis was going to shorten the war. And he thought of home.
During the Indy's furlough, Haynes had been lucky enough to return to Connecticut for several weeks, where he played in the surf with his wife and two young sons and felt the pure joy of not being at war wash over him. At thirty-three, he was one of the oldest, most well-seasoned sailors aboard the ship. In 1941, on the destroyer Reuben James, he'd ridden out a North Atlantic hurricane that no one aboard thought they'd survive. He also held an informal record for continuous duty at sea. Before being assigned to the Indy, he'd logged thirty-nine months without a leave while aboard destroyers and the battleship USS New Mexico. He never complained to his superior officers about his unusually long stint except once, which was the same day he was awarded leave. His thinking was: he had an important job to do. And that was saving boys' lives.
He almost hadn't made it home to Connecticut last month. Scraping by on his meager lieutenant commander's pay, Haynes had decided he couldn't afford the train fare. He hadn't seen his wife or sons in six months, but he was broke. Then one afternoon as he was sitting at the tiny desk in his berth reading a Zane Grey novel borrowed from the ship's library, Father Conway, a former Dominican monk from Buffalo, New York, scratched at the black curtain that served as Haynes's door.
Haynes and the ship's dignified priest were friends, and sometimes they went on liberty together. Conway asked Haynes when he was going home. "Well, Tom," Haynes replied, "I have this problem. I can't afford it." Conway left, and Haynes returned to his novel. The next day, the priest tossed a handful of bills on the doctor's desk. "There now," he said, smiling, "you are going home!" Haynes could have wept over the kindness.
He had been back on the ship two weeks now, working temporary duty in the naval yard's medical dispensary. Besides the usual cases of tonsillectomies and circumcisions many of the boys, apparently, hadn't been able to afford, or had never considered, getting a circumcision before joining the navy, and Haynes performed so many for the Indy's crew that they'd renamed her the "clipper ship" there were more disturbing, war-induced maladies. One crew member was admitted to the hospital with a case of tuberculosis. Another walked in with a harder-to-treat diagnosis of "nightmares." Haynes, like Conway, understood how hard it was for some of these boys to come back to the ship. He had heard them refer to the Indy's hurried departure from San Francisco as a major piece of "grab ass." How were they supposed to say good-bye so quickly to a place that had become their home away from home?
After the Indianapolis had sailed into San Francisco for repairs in May, many of the crew had telegrammed girlfriends, wives, and family members, who flocked to the city and rented apartments, found jobs, and set up housekeeping. New lives had quickly taken root on land. Some boys got married. Women got pregnant. Brothers were reunited.
The boys of the Indy fell in love with San Francisco, where in diners and soda shops Benny Goodman was on the radio; beer cost fifteen cents a bottle; Luckies were a dime a pack. In July, the Fillmore was showing Bob Hope's flick Give Me a Sailor, and the Paramount was playing The Call of the Wild, starring Clark Gable. If the boys were feeling flush, they'd drink at the Top of the Mark hotel overlooking San Francisco Bay; if they were broke, they would stumble into Slapsy Maxie's and drink on a tab the patriotic bartender was in no hurry to collect on. Their average age was nineteen, and for many this was their first time on their own.
During the summer, there had been no end to the ways the boys could get into trouble. (The Bluejackets' Manual, a sailor's handbook of proper conduct, had warned of all sorts of dangers: "Bad women can ruin your bodily health" admonished one chapter. "Bad women especially are the cause of much grief. Sexual intercourse is positively not necessary for healthy and proper manly development." And this bit of advice to the down-hearted: "You will be homesick for a while. We all were. You are starting a new life. Grin and bear it as we all did. No man ever succeeded by hanging on to his mother's apron strings all his life.") One sailor was arrested for "attempting to urinate in public view," and another was cited for "possession of a knife while on liberty." The knife-wielding sailor lost the privilege of five future liberties, and the urinator was fined and sentenced to twenty days' confinement in the ship's brig, an airless cell deep in the ,Indy's stern. He was fed bread and water.
Captain McVay was billeted, along with his newlywed wife of one year, Louise, in a comfortable but spare officers' community of apartments named Coral Sea Village located within the confines of the Marc Island navy yard. With time on his hands while the Indy was undergoing repairs, McVay, like his young crew, also found ways to enjoy himself. Shortly before receiving his surprise orders, he'd taken a brief, impromptu fishing trip to a steelhead trout river north of San Francisco.
The more serious business of preparing the ship for departure was a round-the-clock-affair, however. Thousands of rounds of ammo were loaded and dropped by elevator into the ship's magazine near the bow. Over 60,000 gallons of fuel oil were pumped into her tanks, and she took on 3,500 gallons of aviation fuel for the ship's reconnaissance plane. Food for the crew came aboard and was measured by the ton. One of the urns in the ship's galley could brew 40 gallons of the precious, eye-opening coffee in a single batch. A typical list of stores consumed each week included 300 pounds of bread, 295 pounds of squash, 26 pounds of avocados, 672 pounds of apples, 1,155 pounds of oranges, 670 pounds of grapefruit, 305 pounds of celery, 476 pounds of tomatoes 845 pounds of cabbage, 300 pounds of turnips, 70 pounds of fresh fish, 493 pounds of carrots, 341 pounds of cauliflower, and 665 pounds of corn.
And ice cream. The boys could eat about twenty-five gallons of ice cream in a week, which the galley's cooks kept stored in walk-in freezers. Their favorite flavors were peppermint and tropical passion. Ice cream was so loved by sailors that mess-hall cooks ran an ice cream parlor aboard the Indy, called a "gedunk" stand. In the military, everything had a nickname. A beer parlor was called a "slop chute." Candy bars were named "pogey bait." A Dear John letter was also known as a "green banana," and the advance of a sailor's pay was called a "dead horse." But the men of the USS Indianapolis had no easy slang to describe the way most of them felt about leaving San Francisco.
Under the feet of marine private Giles McCoy, the ship's gray, steel quarterdeck, located in the middle of the ship, hummed. The low-wave frequency came up through his bones, shook him, told him: something's in the wind today, boy.
At Mare Island, after Captain McVay's announcement that they would sail this morning to Hunters Point, marine captain Edward Parke had gathered his detachment of thirty-nine marines and explained that at Hunters Point they were about to assume special guard dudes of the utmost importance.
An imposing man in his early thirties, with sandy hair, a barrel chest, and blue eyes that some of his men said pierced like daggers (more than one thought he bore a striking resemblance to Burt Lancaster), Parke had said nothing more; that was all they would need to know.
A marine detachment aboard a navy ship sleeps in its own separate compartment away from the ship's crew and operates the onboard brig, or jail; fires the guns during battle; and provides all-around security for the ship. As part of this group, Private McCoy was eager for the opportunity to be part of something big. He looked up to Captain Parke, a hero who had fought at Guadalcanal and earned the Purple Heart. Parke sometimes let him tag along on liberty; before setting out for a night on the town, he would unpin his insignia identifying him as an officer but then warn McCoy: "Don't think this means I'll cut you any slack back on the ship. Because I won't." McCoy felt he always knew where he stood with Parke.
Before being assigned to the Indy, in November 1944, McCoy had spent two months as part of a marine assault force on the island of Peleliu, a hellish, confusing place where he contracted malaria. The fighting had been vicious, and often it was hand to hand. The dead bodies piled up around McCoy and would hiss and explode in the hot sun as he hunkered in the mud and coral, praying the mortars would miss him. Even the battle itself had a strange but seemingly apt name: Operation Stalemate. At unexpected moments, the Japanese soldiers would mount banzai charges, bayonets fixed, running in crazed sprints straight for McCoy and his First Marine Division buddies. The marines would shoot and shoot, but still some of the Japanese would make it all the way to the marines' defense line. It was an experience McCoy didn't like to talk about.
Now, after docking at Hunters Point, McCoy stood below-decks in his tiny compartment before a stainless steel mirror on warships, broken glass is a hazard staring at the face that had become his own during his thirteen-month tour of duty. At eighteen, he had the sharp eyes of a boy but the quick grimace of an old man. He fastidiously dry-shaved, ran a comb through his black wavy hair, did a quick re-buff of his duty shoes, and bounded up the ladder, or stairs, topside for duty.
Usually, Hunters Point harbored some fifteen warships, all in various stages of repair and resupply. But this morning the shipyard was empty; only a few seagulls screeched into the pale blue sky. Accompanying them were the musical lap and ping of black water against the Indy's gray, steel hull. Along the rail of the ship, the crew milled and stared at the wharf, as if trying to read signals from the silent tableau of warehouses, camouflaged trucks, and empty piers.
Approaching Captain Parke, McCoy requested an inspection of his appearance before assuming duty. Parke checked the razor creases in McCoy's pants, the angle of his cover, or hat, atop his head.
"You may proceed, McCoy."
A dock crew had wheeled a gangway up to the Indy's quarter-deck which served as its main entry and exit. McCoy stepped down and assumed his position of duty: chest out, hands at his sides, a loaded Browning .45 hanging from his canvas duty belt, one round in the chamber.
Until given further orders, he was to let no man onto the ship who was not authorized. He was scheduled to get off duty at noon; because of the mid-morning relocation to Hunters Point, his watch was slightly abbreviated. He hoped the cargo came on before he was relieved, however.
The Indy was operating in a battle-ready state known as Condition Able, which meant that the boys were on watch for four hours and then off for four, an exhausting, relentless schedule that left little time for sleep and induced in the boys a dreamlike state of jittery wakefulness. And yet, McCoy felt lucky to be aboard the Indy. On a ship, marines liked to say, no one was ever shooting at you, at least at close range. The competitiveness between the two military branches was good-hearted but persistent. Sailors called marines "gyrenes" and marines called sailors "swabbies" New officers were mocked as "shave-tails." (There was no end to the nicknames: Engineers were called "snipes"; the bridge crew was known as "skivvy wavers," because they waved flags while executing semaphore, a silent means of communication between ships at sea; and members of gunnery crews were called "gunneys.")
But as sailors liked to tell those who thought navy life was comfortable, "When the battle shit hits the fan on a ship, you can't dig a hole and hide. You have to stand and take it."
Private McCoy had been pulling temporary guard duty at the amputee hospital on Mare Island when he received the call to return. It was a job he liked; he enjoyed the way the amputees, many of them his age and veterans of the invasion of Iwo Jima that had taken place almost five months earlier, hooted and hollered as they raced their wheelchairs down the steep hill leading from the hospital to the guard shack.
He was easy on them when they tried smuggling booze into the marine barracks. They hid the bottles in the hollow of their fake legs, and McCoy could hear them clunking around inside step, shuffle, clunk-step as they approached.
"For crissakes," he told them, "why don't you wrap those things in towels? Your sergeant catches you, you'll be court-martialed!" They smiled, and he let them pass.
McCoy marveled at how these boys had accepted the awful things that had happened to them in war; he wondered how he would react in a similar situation. He hoped he wouldn't have to find out.
But McCoy had faith in his ship. The Indy was a vessel on which he was proud to serve the honored flagship of the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet, which was under the command of Admiral Raymond Spruance. (When Spruance was aboard, Captain McVay's authority was automatically subordinate to the admiral's.) The Indy was a heavy cruiser, a fast thoroughbred of the sea, whose job it was to ran and gun enemy emplacements on land and blow enemy planes from the sky. She was a floating city, with her own water plant, laundry, tailor, butcher, bakery, dentist's office, photo lab, and enough weaponry to lay siege to downtown San Francisco.
The first time Private McCoy rounded the corner at the Mare Island navy yard and saw the Indy, he was awestruck. God, he thought, now that's a ship!
She towered 133 feet from her waterline to the tip of her radar antennae, called "bedsprings" because of their appearance, and she cast an alluring silhouette. McCoy couldn't help thinking that if she were a woman and sailors have traditionally thought of their ships as women she'd be wearing a gray dress cut low in the back and looking coyly over a cocked shoulder. But there was a saying about ships like the Indy: "She wears paint, but she carries powder" meaning gunpowder. Translation: she was not a lady to be trifled with.
Commissioned in 1932, she had been chosen by Roosevelt as his ship of state. He liked to stand at the stem on her wide fantail, above the massive, churning propellers, while smoking a cigar and watching the New York skyline drift by during a ceremonial review of America's naval fleet. From her deck, he also toured South America, docking in Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro, on a prewar "good neighbor" tour (During the trip, Roosevelt dined on fresh venison and watched Laurel and Hardy's Our Relations on a movie screen painted on one of the ships bulkheads especially for the occasion.) The Indy trained at war exercises off the coast of Chile and became the flagship of the navy's scouting fleet. With her hull painted bone-white, her afterdecks spanned by sparkling awnings, an aura of luck and privilege had enveloped the ship.
McCoy loved to boast that at 610 feet long, she was the size of nearly two football fields, but she was smaller and nimbler than battleships, like the USS South Dakota, whose job it was to bomb enemy inshore installations with their gargantuan 14-inch guns. The Indy was bigger and better armed than destroyers, which hunted submarines with underwater sonar gear and provided at-sea security for ships like the Indianapolis. In battle formation, a cruiser flanked the more ponderous aircraft carriers and battleships and directed anti-aircraft fire at enemy planes, while the flotilla itself was prowled by vigilant destroyer escorts. Ever since the seventeenth century, navies had relied on ships that could strike quickly, raid enemy lines, draw fire, and then muster the speed to sail away before being sunk, leaving the heavy work of shore destruction to battleships. At her top speed of 32.75 knots, few ships, enemy or friendly, could keep up with the USS Indianapolis.
Yet, as McCoy understood, what a cruiser gives up for its astonishing speed is armor: the Indy was protected midships with only three to four inches of steel (battleships carried an average of thirteen inches), while her decks were laid with two inches. In her day, she had been the queen of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's naval fleet. But on this morning in July, she was considered old, past her prime. Newer cruisers were not a beautiful, but they were bigger, faster, and better armored
Copyright © 2001 by Reed City Productions, LLC.