Chapter XIII: The Bomb
Aboard ship there were many aspects a seamen enjoyed that his shoreside fellow worker did not. Aboard ship you were close to your work. You were close to the dining room and your meals were waiting for you at the proper hour. The spare time was yours to enjoy the best way you could, doing your laundry, sewing up clothing, writing, sunbathing or playing games with your shipmates. You were always seconds away from your bunk. Of course, one of the greatest advantages of the life of a shoreside worker was the loving companionship of loved ones who were always close by. The seaman traded home comforts for freedom in the form of a world tour, gratis. There were new ports, new sights, new languages and an education you couldn't get in a classroom.
The great excitement of shipboard life was the men you worked and sailed with. They made the trip a success or a nightmare. The more you sailed with the same crew, the more you learned about each other, your strengths and weaknesses. You learned who among them would hang tough in a crisis and who would fold.
My couple of weeks ashore between ships were coming to an end. I would have to ship in the next few days. I walked into the Marine Firemen's Union hall simply because I was near it and I wanted to check up on a few of my friends. I ran into an old buddy and dear friend, Sid Churgel. I had not seen Sid for nearly a year. While I was sailing as an engineer, Sid was sailing as electrician.
On the blackboard in the dispatching hall were the names of 25 ships that required crews. We scanned the list of ships and the personnel required. Sid turned to me with a smile, "Why don't you come along with me this time?" he asked. "You can go as chief electrician and I'll go as your assistant, or I'll go as chief and you as assistant. Whatever you like is okay with me."
The thought that within a few days I would be boarding a ship as an engineer and perhaps not know anyone on board made Sid's proposal a happy thought. Besides, Sid was a real first-class character. He was friendly, warm, generous, trustworthy, and a nice guy to be around.
"Why not?" I said. "You pick the ship."
We boarded the SS Laredo Victory, Sid as chief electrician and I as his assistant. Many sailors preferred the Victory ship over the Liberty ship. The main reason was that the Victory ship was faster that the 13-knot reciprocating engine-driven Liberty. The Liberty, under the best of conditions, had 2,500 horses pulling it along, while the new Victory ship was powered by a steam-driven, noisy turbine engine with 5,000 horses, which lent power to drive the Victory to 15 to 17 knots. In wartime that extra spurt of speed could be the difference between outrunning an enemy submarine or being its victim. The Victory had better sleeping quarters, a bigger galley, and bigger iceboxes that stored more food. Its cargo-working machinery was electric-run, and compared to the steam-driven winches of the Liberty ship, it was a safer and cleaner working environment. The electrician's sleeping quarters were on the main deck port side forward. It had two bunks, two portholes, lockers and a small settee and wash basin. It was much better than what we would have enjoyed on a Liberty.
We bid farewell to San Francisco and headed toward the Golden Gate and out to sea. We were loaded down with some special items in our cargo. Later we would learn that these items were a special new magnetic bomb and mine, extremely dangerous to ship. It was so dangerous, in fact, that it had to be stored on the upper deck in number three hatch. It had to have special shoring to make sure it did not shift so much as an inch or move around the cargo hold, otherwise it would blow the ship to kingdom come. This, of course, almost made a wreck out of the captain, who managed with every little storm to send the mates down into the hold to check and recheck those items.
There was much work that had to be done on this ship to bring it up to par. The last gang of electricians had left much of the machinery in need of some repair. Sid carefully mapped out the daily routine. One day we might find ourselves working in the engine room, the following day on the boat deck. Sid was the kind of mechanic who demonstrated a great interest in his work. He took few shortcuts, and every job finished could be expected to hold up under stress and pressure. We all realized that we were operating in the enemy's backyard. No cause for a breakdown could be permitted in the event our ship was called upon to outrun or outrace an enemy submarine. The breakdown of one lone water pump or a faulty generator could cost us our lives. Sid assured the ship's engineers, crew, and captain that it wouldn't happen on any ship Sid sailed on, and I was there to back him up.
I was learning something new every day from working with this guy. When he was unsure of something he got out the ship's plans to go over them. The captain and officers developed a healthy respect for Sid and that in turn made it a good ship.
I had had the good fortune of meeting Sid at a cooperative run by a number of young progressive people. It was a place frequented by young people hell-bent on doing everything possible to win the war. One of its women members worked as a machinist in a shipyard. Another worked in a warehouse. The doors were always open, and in the evenings debates and discussions on the war and its aftermath were the topics most discussed. It was a nice place to meet people with the same views and aims, and the atmosphere was always friendly and helpful.
For the next ten days the Laredo Victory zigzagged alone across the Pacific Ocean. When our workday was over, we found time to play cribbage or a new game Sid taught me called acey-deucy, a seagoing version of backgammon. There were lots of happy moments on that voyage. In addition to making repairs and enjoying our crib games, we devoted time to a lot of young people on the ship who required special attention. It fell on our shoulders as two political, responsible people to see that they became educated about the trade union movement and the political life of our country.
Many would be casting their ballots in the next election for the first time. They had to understand their responsibility. Discussions and debates filled many hours, but time was on our side as we plowed our way across the Pacific Ocean to drop anchor at a safe refuge, Eniwetok Island in the Marshall Islands. We had seen no other vessel since San Francisco. Now, safely at anchor, we were sharing the same refuge with seven other ships, all loaded down and waiting for orders. Two destroyers nearby gave us the assurance of some protection. It was the 16th day of July, 1945, and while we lay at anchor and watched the blue sea gently roll over the white sands of this atoll, we let our thoughts wander into the fantasy of a world at peace. But other things were happening elsewhere that would forever leave their mark on the changing world.
On that day the American naval cruiser Indianapolis had docked in San Francisco and loaded on all the parts for an atomic bomb. Having done so, her captain, C. B. McVay, learned that his mission was to "proceed at once at maximum speed without escort to Tinian Island in the Marianas."
On that same day in the port of Kure, Japan, the Japanese Submarine 128, skippered by Lt. Iko Hashimoto, was given orders to "proceed to the islands of the Marianas for patrol duty and action."
On July 26th, after ten days of basking in the sun, our captain received his orders for the Laredo Victory to proceed to the Ryuku Islands, Naha, Okinawa. At that moment the Indianapolis was discharging the parts of the atomic bomb at Tinian. She then received orders to proceed to Guam. After stopping at Guam on July 27th, the Indianapolis was asked to proceed to Leyte Gulf in the Philippines. There she would be used for special training before rejoining Admiral Olendorf's Pacific armada. She was to make this leg of her journey unescorted and without the use of her unrepaired sonar equipment. The Indianapolis was now cruising in an area assigned to the Japanese Submarine 128. Prior to the Indianapolis' departure from Guam, American intelligence had become aware that two Japanese submarines were operating in the same area as the ship, but Captain McVay was not alerted.
On July 30th, the Indianapolis steamed ahead at full speed. The crew had been told now that what they delivered at Tinian might very well be the one instrument that could end the war. The crew was jubilant. Lookouts were posted, but there was nothing special to report; no one saw anything but a calm sea. In a few hours the sky would break with the dawn of a new day. They were nearing the Palau Islands.
At 12:05 a.m., as most of the crew slept, a torpedo fired from the 128 ripped into the side of the Indianapolis. The blast was so powerful that it threw men out of their bunks and hammocks, knocked out the lighting and set fires in the ammo lockers--which set off additional explosions that rocked the ship from stem to stern. The scramble to reach the main deck became desperate as men fell over one another in the darkness. Those on watch were wearing life jackets; those off duty searched frantically for theirs. The ship had listed quickly. In 15 minutes what had been home and a refuge for 1,200 crewmen began to slowly sink to the ocean floor. Trapped in her labyrinth steel structure were 400 men, many killed instantly by the explosions, others consumed by the flames.
Captain McVay had ordered radio silence broken just in time to get off the message that his ship was under attack and to plead for help. He never knew if anyone heard his message as he scrambled into the sea to join some 800 of his fellow officers and crewmen now floundering in the sea.
Lieutenant Hashimoto moved away jubilantly, telling his crew that there was one less American warship to threaten Japan.
Eight hundred men were left struggling in the open sea, some with open flesh wounds, others with skin burned away. The pain and horror of it all was now settling in. Many were in a state of shock. Some had never learned to swim and kept screaming for help. In the blackness, countless episodes of heroism took place among men thrashing in the water as all struggled to stay alive. One survivor said, "I saw a head within inches of me. Before I could blink an eye, he sank below the waves." In the midst of the disaster, some men remained calm and were able to direct others. Men with life jackets positioned themselves between those who had none. Within an hour a large circle had formed. It would eventually stretch to the size of a football field. Grasping each other, the men comforted one another with words of compassion and comradeship. "Hold on, buddy. Have faith. We're gonna make it." Blood was everywhere, and it would soon attract the most feared predator of the sea, the shark.
At the naval base in Leyte Gulf, no one had heard from the Indianapolis, but the Navy brass interpreted this as nothing serious. They reasoned that the Indianapolis was maintaining radio silence and slowing down, but she would arrive in due time. Back in the circle of men, however, the sharks had moved in. Protruding fins thrashed the bloodied water and disappeared. Every hour that went by screams were heard as a victim slipped from the grasp of his fellow seamen and was dragged below the surface. More terror, more blood, more sharks. Who would be next? Delirium and exhaustion took its toll, and no rescue was in sight.
It was purely by chance that a twin-engine Ventura bomber piloted by Lt. Wilbur C. Gwinn, flying a reconnaissance mission, sighted an oil slick that ran for miles across the horizon. He then spotted a handful of survivors who had drifted away from the body of men. His excitement and curiosity grew as he sped toward the source of the slick. He could not believe his eyes when he came across the main body of men. He quickly radioed his findings and pleaded for immediate rescue operations. But even with this sighting, the Navy brass refused to believe the Indianapolis was lost.
On August 3rd a destroyer, the Cecil J. Doyle, picked up the plane's call for help and raced at full throttle to get to the scene. The Doyle was the first rescue vessel to arrive. It was followed shortly by four others. The survivors had been in the water for five days without food, drink or sleep. Of the 800 men who had been dumped into the sea, only 316 would live. Many of the bodies pulled aboard the rescue vessels were so mangled by sharks that they could not be identified, but the men had been determined to hold onto their dead shipmates no matter what the price. Before the Cecil J. Doyle left the area, she reported that the survivors were members of the sunken Indianapolis.
On August 6th we continued to zigzag our way toward Okinawa. We did our ship's maintenance work, stood our watches, played cards and discussed the war. Up to now our ship's radio operator had maintained radio silence as per instructions from the Navy. While we were going through the ritual of changing the morning watch, the Enola Gay was flying over the city of Hiroshima. It dropped the first atomic bomb. One hundred thirty thousand were killed out of a population of 350,000. The blast of the bomb left few buildings untouched, and the pain and suffering caused by radiation would affect the population for years to come. Our radio operator picked up some garbled message. He couldn't restrain himself. He came rushing down to us with the news that a guy named Adam had invented some bomb which was just dropped on Hiroshima, wiping out the city and all its people. There was jubilation among the crew as we heard this news. After all, Japan was the enemy. Why should we feel any sympathy toward them? Yet, the thing that bugged me at that moment was, who the hell was this guy Adam who had invented such a bomb?
By evening the news was revised. It was not a bomb named Adam, but an atomic bomb. More news came in, describing its enormous destructive power and the fireball it had created. The toll of the dead and mangled bodies in Hiroshima hung like a dark cloud over our ship. We found ourselves talking in whispers. The gaiety had left us as we visualized the havoc and suffering that the population of Hiroshima had gone through. Just before sundown we pulled into Naha and dropped anchor. We counted 15 to 18 ships riding anchor ahead of us. We weren't pleased because it meant a long wait to be discharged. We would have to get into line.
During discussions that night we all concluded that within our heart of hearts we felt that no nation could withstand this kind of death and destruction without pleading for peace. A few days later, America quickly followed the first bombing with another dropping of an atomic bomb, this time on Nagasaki. The cry for surrender came loud and clear.
Our captain was a decent fellow as captains go. He believed in a neat and tight ship and a disciplined crew. He was also aware that 85 percent of the crew were young men, some making their first trips to sea. He felt that such young men abruptly taken away from their families and neighborhoods and thrust into this new way of life fraught with danger could feel catastrophic effects. What they needed, he surmised, was a pleasant diversion. He called me to his office one day and told me his fears for the young people and asked my advice.
Of course, it would have been nice if we had a moving picture aboard with lots of movies to show, but we didn't. So what else? Why not some classes? Maybe the boatswain, with the help of the deck officers, could hold a weekly class in seamanship. The engine room gang could hold classes in engineering, electrical and refrigeration. Maybe we could have a lecture on what the damn war was all about, or how we came about getting the eight-hour day. "Hey," he said, "that's a good one. Education we never get enough of."
Before I left his office I found myself committed to getting the program started. I asked the boatswain about the classes in seamanship. He turned me down. No, he was not a teacher, he told me. Let them learn the hard way, by their everyday work. None of the engineers felt like they wanted to put extra time into teaching. So it ended up that I would give a lecture. After talking it over with Sid, I lectured on the history of the eight-hour day in America. This was a subject that was wide open and enabled me to bring into the picture class differences and the struggle of the working class to advance. It was an ideal subject for a Communist. I wrote a notice up on the crew's messroom blackboard and pinned one on the bulletin board in the officer's salon.
While the world was bleeding from its wounds, I was lecturing on the eight-hour day. Most of the ship's officers followed the captain's lead and showed up at the lecture. The captain loved it. He spent most of the lecture watching the faces of the young crew members as I outlined the countless struggles of workers to advance their cause, of the Haymarket struggle, and of the hangings and the imprisonment of countless martyrs who sacrificed their lives.
There were lots of questions from the crew, and while the large messroom was hot and uncomfortable, most stayed till the end. We announced that, barring any emergencies, we would hold a lecture every week.
On August 12th there was a roar of airplane engines over our heads. It was a beautiful, sunny day. We rushed out on deck to see what all the noise was about. Overhead we witnessed a big plane painted white flying over our ship on its way to Japan. We were told it was carrying a delegation to arrange the surrender terms. We all shared the happiness that the war was over. That same day, the Navy announced that the cruiser Indianapolis had been lost in the Philippine Sea.
Sid and I talked a lot. We talked about what life ahead could be like. We wondered what was going to happen to all these youngsters when they returned home. We talked about the way one's life could be enriched. There was an organization called American Youth for Democracy, the AYD. Why not set up a branch of the AYD aboard this ship? We could call it the Laredo Victory Branch. We talked this up among the young crew members. They liked the idea. We had our first meeting. Officers were elected and the branch was established. A letter with all members' names was sent off to the main office in San Francisco for charter and membership books.
Another lecture was organized. This one was called "How the Maritime Unions Came About and What They Accomplished." Of course, the lecture gave me the opportunity to talk about the early days on the waterfront and aboard ship, and the role of the Marine Worker's Industrial Union, the Communist Party, the 1934 San Francisco General Strike. The lecture was well-received. Several more ships arrived in Naha. We all sat and waited.
By August 20th we were still at anchor. No one seemed to give a hoot about us or our cargo. We were allowed to leave our lights on at night. As far as we could ascertain the war was over. But if the war was over, why weren't our troops being sent home? We called a ship's meeting and made a proposal. Let the crew discharge the cargo and prepare the holds to house the troops to take home. An amendment was made to contact all the ships in Naha and involve them in our proposal. After all, wasn't this the true union spirit, the patriotic thing to do?
Our signal corpsman sent a message to all ships, asking them to hold a ship's meeting to discuss our proposal, and to send us their answer the following day. The next day, with a notepad in hand, we received the answers to our proposal. Of the seventeen ships contacted, fifteen said yes, one said no, and the other one refused to even discuss the matter. We relayed the proposal to the military brass at Naha. We had expected the brass to jump on the offer and thank us for being so thoughtful and self-sacrificing. Were we wrong! The message came back loud and clear: "Mind your own goddamned business. You take care of your ships and leave military matters to those who understand them best.
A special part was needed for our generator. There was a naval supply tender at anchor. It was a vessel that followed the fleet around. It had many machine shops on board and could make most ship's parts. I got permission to go aboard and get the part. As I prepared to leave the vessel with the part, I ran into a big hunk of Navy brass at the gangway. "Hey, sailor," he shouted to me with a big smile, "how's it feel to be the winner? Great, eh?"
"Yes, great," I replied, trying to look happy.
"The way I look at it, sailor," he continued, "we knocked the hell out of those krauts and spaghetti-benders and we cut those squinty-eyed gooks down to size, so let's finish the job and go after those Russian bastards! Then we can all sit back and enjoy our victory. Right, sailor?"
I got off that ship as fast as I could. I was sick just being near this character. He was advocating doublecrossing an allied partner, one which had lost 20 million people in the war. When would all this mental illness of wanting to kill come to an end?
On August 30th we heard that a typhoon was coming toward us. Orders were to weigh anchor and ride out the storm at sea. We could feel the strong gust of wind and the angry, choppy seas that are the forerunners of a typhoon. At sea we spaced ourselves and ran with our lights on. There was no way we could outrun this typhoon; we didn't have the speed to do it. Scanning the horizon, we could see the rest of the ships that left Naha with us. Directly ahead of us was a Navy freighter. We stayed astern of her and followed in her wake. Our captain was on the bridge most of the time. He was nervous and jumpy. He knew our ship was loaded with a special type of bomb. We got a Naval message to be alert for break-away mines that had been spotted since the start of the typhoon. The sky darkened. The wind became stronger as the sea lashed against our ship's side as if in revenge. We rolled and dipped, yet we felt safe and secure, knowing that our captain had posted lookouts fore and aft. At ten that night the silence of the vessel was broken by the ringing of the general alarm. Sid and I were locked in combat, playing our never-ending game of acey-deucy, when we heard the alarm. We did what everyone else did and headed for the deck. Our gun crew raced to their gun positions. We heard the captain explain that the Navy ship ahead had hit a mine and one man was killed and one injured. Outside of that, the mine explosion did only a small amount of damage. They were not calling for assistance at this time but would appreciate other vessels knowing their situation and being within reach should they warrant physical assistance. Across the horizon, ships using their blinker systems responded, as did our captain. The captain canceled the emergency and Sid and I went back to our game.
We were awakened the next morning by the shuddering of the ship. The winds had become fiercer during the night. Waves broke over the bow. The horizon was still dotted with ships. A mile dead ahead and slightly on our port bow we came upon a Liberty ship fighting her way through the choppy seas. She had no smokestack. Her two starboard lifeboats hung on their davits, all smashed up. Her wheelhouse was smashed beyond recognition. She had been loaded down to the height of the wheel house with lumber. All our crew came on deck to view this ship. We were saddened by what we saw. What the hell could have happened? There was lumber sticking out in all shapes and forms, and broken lashing chains dangling off the side of the ship. Our captain made communication with the vessel and learned that during the night when the winds grew fiercer, a forward lashing chain broke under stress. When one set of lashing chains broke this increased the pressure on several other sets of chains and they too broke. The winds then picked up and carried the lumber through the air like matchsticks, smashing it into the wheelhouse. This forced the captain, as well as the mate and sailor on watch, to get out of the wheelhouse. As they got out on deck another pile of lumber smashed into them and knocked the captain and mate into the sea. The sailor was not seriously hurt. More lumber smashed away the smokestack and lifeboats. At this moment the vessel was being steered and navigated with emergency gear back aft. She did not request any assistance, but asked us to keep an eye open for the two men lost over the side. There but for the grace of God could have been the Laredo Victory.
The typhoon showed no mercy. All night we were battered by pounding as waves broke over the bow. The rigging was alive with weird sounds, strange and frightening music, as the winds played havoc with us. We were happy when the darkness of the night disappeared and the grayness of a new day approached.
The sun stayed hidden. The decks were wet. We lost sight of ships from their previous positions on the horizon. Perhaps they had slowed down. We didn't know. We only cared now about the Laredo Victory. It was not good weather to be working in. One had all one could do just to maintain his balance on board. During meal times, not all hands showed up. Some were sick and the thought of food made them sicker. We plowed on and asked ourselves when the hell Mother Nature might give us a break.
Night fell and we looked for the light of other vessels. They were few and far between, yet still a welcome sight. We felt more secure knowing that help was not too far away should something happen. The bulkhead door that opened onto the main open deck on the lee side of the ship was open for some fresh air. Our room was adjacent to this bulkhead. From my top bunk I could look out my door and see the open sea. We had a bright light overhead that threw its beam about 40 feet into the sea. It was like a mirror, reflecting what it saw at that spot.
At ten that night I was in my bunk reading. I put the book down for a moment to watch the movement of the vessel. I thought I saw an overturned lifeboat and two faces clinging onto it as it passed by. I yelled to Sid, then jumped out of my bunk and raced out the door to the deck to see if there was really something there, or just my imagination. As soon as I hit the deck, the general alarm went off. Good. Someone else saw it from their lookout and reported it.
Our captain was on deck. He had the signalman use the blinker light to spot the men adrift. We started our maneuvering. A wide circle had to be made to bring us back to the men in the sea. It was not easy. The captain gave many different orders. He told us all to keep our eyes on the men in the sea and not to lose them. He had the signalman blink across the horizon to tell all the other ships that we were executing a rescue mission and to watch their positions. Our engine room was inundated with telegraph signals to slow down or speed up.
We maneuvered close to the two men clinging to the overturned boat. The wind made it impossible for us or them to be in a standstill position. Even with our engine on a "stop" position, our ship still moved through the sea quickly. We were 30 feet from the men. A heaving line was tossed. It fell across the upturned lifeboat. One of the men grabbed it. We watched him wind it around his arm a few times and then release his grip on the lifeboat as we pulled him toward our ship. The captain ordered a Jacob's ladder over the side. The other man did not make a move, but clung to the lifeboat which was now fading from us. We pulled the man aboard. His face was like a piece of raw hamburger, battered and whipped by the wind and sea. We wrapped him in blankets and hauled him to our two-bunk hospital to undress him. He kept repeating how thankful he was that we rescued him. We had to tell him to shut up and preserve his energy. His body, like his face, was full of sores from the saltwater. We covered him with Vaseline, and the mate ordered him some hot broth. He told us that his small naval craft had taken a few big seas over her bow and the water knocked out her engines, and eventually she sank. Five men were aboard her and they all got into one lifeboat. Eventually, the heavy seas were too much for the lifeboat. It overturned; three men were lost. That was three days ago. He never expected to be rescued. He said that another ship had passed them, oblivious to their plight. Had we, too, passed them, they were both ready to give up and end it all. They were too exhausted to carry on another day.
We continued our efforts to rescue the other man but were finding it tough. There was a lot more maneuvering, with bigger circles and more listing, which worried our captain, who was fearful that his cargo would shift. The lights from several other ships got closer. It troubled our captain. "I'm asking all those damn ships to stay the hell away from us." He shouted to the signal man to relay the message.
Again we came up close to the other survivor. We tossed him a line. It fell short of his reach. Our captain was fearful that the survivor and his overturned lifeboat could fall victim to our ship's propeller. Thus he tried to stay as far away from the survivor as possible. The captain seemed frustrated. He ordered a boat over the side and called for volunteers to man it. Sid and I were the first to get into the boat. Others followed quickly. "I don't want all the key men taking off, " the captain said, addressing the men in the boat. "Chief electrician, get off," he said. Sid left the boat grudgingly. The captain ordered the boat lowered ten feet, then stopped. We were slightly above the tip of the lapping waves.
I sat in the stern of the boat. I had two duties to perform. As the boat hit the water, I was to trip the mechanism that would release the davit falls that held our boat to its mother. The sailor at the forward end would have to do the same thing. This would place the lifeboat in the control of the men in the boat, who would push the boat away from the side of the ship. My second assignment would be to assist the engineer in the operation of the lifeboat's motor.
In a glassy, calm sea launching a lifeboat was simple. In a rough sea, however, one simple error would result in lives wasted. With each succeeding second, the waves seemed to grow deeper, then climb higher. Now they were slapping the keel of our boat. The captain was giving commands to crew members to keep an eye on the survivor while he tried to maneuver his ship closer to him. I became convinced that we could not safely launch the boat without a serious mishap. If the captain should sit the boat down on top of a wave, we would have to release our holding-on gear within a fraction and both ends would have to be clear. Of course, we would then ride down with the wave and hope we could push the boat away from the ship's side immediately. If we did not get away fast enough, we would then start up on the next wave, and many crew men might be injured by the heavy blocks dangling from the davits.
If the captain sat the boat down in the trough of the wave, again he would have to be quick in releasing the mechanism. If one end failed to unhook, the next heave of the ship upward would come close to standing the lifeboat on end and dump everyone into the sea.
The captain must have been pondering this thought. We waited a five more minutes. I looked up into the captain's face. I could understand his predicament, his responsibility to his crew and to the age-old tradition of rescuing a fellow worker from the grasp of the sea. "All right," he shouted, "bring her back."
The same motor that had launched us was now easing the lifeboat back up on deck and onto its resting blocks. "We'll go around again," shouted the captain, assuring us that he was not abandoning the man in the water, who was now watching the ship move away from him. A thought came to me. If we couldn't come alongside the man in the water, or if he was too far away to grab our line, why not tie a line around my waist, let me don a life jacket, and when we get fairly close to our target I'd dive overboard and swim to the overturned boat. Then both of us could be pulled in together. I searched out a heaving line and proceeded to put my plan into operation when I heard the captain say to the man at the wheel, "Bring her in close. Get ready with those heaving lines, and let's do it this time." Seconds later the survivor had a choice of latching onto any one of the five heaving lines that landed on his boat. There was a chorus of soft encouraging words, and then shouts of glee as he was pulled to the Jacob's ladder and pulled aboard.
We carried him to the hospital. With tears in his eyes he reached over and clasped the hand of his old friend. They were together again, safe and being taken care of. Like his buddy, he was exhausted from clinging onto that overturned boat, and his face, lashed by salt water, appeared like a piece of raw meat. We had all we could do to get his clothes off, Vaseline his body and feed him some hot broth before watching him go off into a deep slumber. We had cheated ole King Neptune out of two weary souls, and that was a great victory.
The typhoon raged on. We got news from the radio operator that the airwaves were full of SOSs. It had been five days and nights of riding out the typhoon. We sailed back to Naha. The port looked like it had been hit by an atomic bomb. Four Navy seaplanes were lying upside down. Tons of sheet metal that were once Quonset huts were scattered everywhere. Papers we learned later were thousands of pieces of mail were strewn among twisted metal, blankets and clothing. We learned that 600 to 700 men waiting to be the first sent home had been lost to the typhoon's destructive power as it swept over the island. We were lucky no one on board our ship suffered so much as a headache. Our two Navy survivors thanked the captain and crew for all the tender loving care they had received from us. They shook hands with the crew and told us they would always remember the crew of the Laredo Victory. We wished that the Army and Navy would also remember the Laredo Victory, because we were back sitting at anchor, waiting, waiting, and waiting.
On November 5th we awoke in the midst of great excitement. We had been ordered to get the hell out of Naha and proceed to San Francisco. It felt good to hear our roaring engines come alive. We sailed with open portholes and lights aglow. We were alive with discussions about what the new world would be like now that fascism had been destroyed. As we talked of the future, I could not dismiss from my mind that gold-braid bastard I met who wanted to take on the Russians.
On December 3rd, questions were being asked about the sinking of the Indianapolis. The Navy brass began to squirm. On this day at the Washington Naval Shipyard, court proceedings began against Captain McVay. Among other things, he was charged with negligence and inefficiency in the performance of his duties. At the hearing, the Navy brass adds insult to injury: they bring in Iko Hashimoto, the Submarine 128 commander. He was considered a prisoner, yet he appeared as a Navy witness against McVay.
On January 3rd, 1946, the Judge Advocate General of the Navy approved the court-martial finding that Captain McVay was guilty of negligence resulting in the sinking of the Indianapolis. He was demoted but allowed to remain in the Navy.
The Navy published its report, which was widely-regarded as incomplete and a barefaced effort to cover the Navy's own incompetence and negligence. Coupled with this coverup was the failure of the Navy brass to conduct a search-and-rescue operation for the Indianapolis after its failure to show up in the Leyte Gulf. The public would soon forget about the Indianapolis episode and other tragic events of the war. But not all of us would forget.
(Some twelve years later, on the front lawn of his home, Captain McVay would shoot himself. Clutched tightly in one hand would be a toy soldier.)
Copyright © 1993 by Bill Bailey. All Rights Reserved.
The Kid from Hoboken: Book Three