IN CONVERSATION WITH DOUG STANTON AND SURVIVORS OF THE USS INDIANAPOLIS
IN CONVERSATION WITH DOUG STANTON AND SURVIVORS OF THE USS INDIANAPOLIS
(Adapted from interviews with Lewis Haynes, a former doctor aboard the USS Indianapolis, and Giles McCoy, a former member of its Marine Corps security detail.)
Doug, what drew you to the incredible story of the USS Indianapolis?
Stanton: For the survivors of the USS Indianapolis, the disaster is a touchstone moment of historic disappointment. When I learned that the Navy knew of the presence of Japanese submarines in proximity of the Indianapolis’ charted course, and that this intelligence, gathered by the top-secret code-breaking program called ULTRA, was withheld from Captain McVay; and that SOS messages sent from the ship were ignored in the Philippines, I was angered. Who wouldn’t be? These boys were our future; they are our fathers, grandfathers, uncles, and brothers.
The Navy had put them in harm’s way, hundreds of them had died, and the Navy had refused to take responsibility. When I was young, I had never paid much attention to my own uncles’ stories of WWII. Telling this story is, for me, a way to do that, to remember the sacrifices these men had made for all of us. I wanted to tell this story from the survivor’s viewpoint, as if strapped into a life vest, at eye-level with the pitching sea. I wanted to know something that no one had ever asked them: how did you survive? That story of survival, as the boys battled dehydration, starvation, sharks, and hallucinatory dementia, is one of the war’s most horrific dramas. What had happened out there on the water, as they drifted for nearly five days? Writing the book was a moving experience. It was difficult to live with the boys dying in the water. When I finally started writing the rescue section, I stood up and cheered.
Dr. Haynes and Mr. McCoy, what do you remember from the moment the Indianapolis was torpedoed?
Haynes: I was lying in bed [in my cabin] and I woke up just as I saw a flash of light in the porthole and then a big boom—and then I was in the air. I stood up as the second torpedo hit. It knocked me down again, and I decided I better get out. I grabbed my life jacket, went through the door and...Lieutenant Commander Ken Stout was coming out of his room, and he said, “C’mon, Lew, let’s get the hell out of here!” I stepped out to follow, and he said, “Look out!” I stepped back in my room and there was this big FWOOM! and the fire went through. Burned my hair off. I never saw Ken again. [My feet] sizzled when I was running across the deck.
McCoy: [McCoy was standing guard duty in the ship’s brig at the torpedoing.]: The explosion threw me all the way into the next group of bunks. They came off their chains and all fell down on top of me, some with men in them...I had to dig myself out…I remember when I walked down the side [of the ship], I could feel explosions, I could feel vibrations in my feet. I just got down on my haunches and got in between the rows of rivets and slid into the water. There was about 2 inches of fuel oil on the surface—it smells like diesel fuel. I vomited probably 50 times until I didn’t have anything in my stomach... All that I remember is that I turned around and the last time I looked at the Indianapolis, guys were still jumping off [the stern] and hitting the propellers.
How did you manage to keep your wits about you?
Haynes: Somebody was always asking me a question: “Doc, can I drink the water if I hold it in my hand for awhile? Will the salt go away?” Or: “If I dive down real deep will it be fresher so I can drink it?” I always had people to take care of. That’s what kept me alive. I had to respond.
McCoy: It’s your mind: I was determined I was going to be the last one alive. I wasn’t going to be the first to quit...It was a helluva lot easier to die than it was to stay alive. It was easier to give up than it was to keep yourself awake and worry about the sharks and go through the torment of that.... I can remember pleading with some of the guys—most of the men in our group had children, they were married. We begged, “Hang on! You guys got something to live for!”
What happens to you when you’re floating in salt water for four days?
Haynes: You get dehydrated because you don’t drink. And you’re exercising and losing fluid. I remember fighting with guys to keep them from drinking salt water. It was one of my jobs: to make the group not drink. Because if you drink it, you get diarrhea—and that dehydrates you more. You get delirious, like somebody with a high fever. In the beginning, someone would drink salt water and thrash around and raise hell. The two guys holding him down would get exhausted, and they’d die too. So you lost three men for one guy who drank salt water. We had hallucinations. Guys would see the ship underneath them. They’d think they could dive down and get water out of the scuttlebutt. They’d see it. And then you’d think you could see it.
What are other memories from your time adrift?
McCoy: Whenever the sharks [circled], somebody would yell, “Shark attack!” and soon as the fins disappeared, you’d look down in the water, and here come the sharks— they’re coming in at your feet. If you managed to kick them in the eyeball, that really hurt them. You could see them thrashing back and forth. So we finally said, “Kick ‘em in the eye!”
Haynes: [The ordeal] became my way of life. It was going on forever. This was the way it was going to be. My friends were dying one at a time...my patients were dying one at a time. I figured I was going to join them sooner or later. It didn’t bother me anymore... I’d be holding somebody, and I’d say I needed help and someone always came over and took him. When I saw their pupils were dilated, I’d put my finger on their eyeball. If they had no reflex action, I’d declare them dead. So then we would painstakingly untie the oil-soaked knots and try to get their life jackets off. Eventually, we’d get it done, and then I would take the jacket and say the Lord’s Prayer. And we’d let them go. I’d see them going down in the water, getting smaller and smaller and smaller, just like a doll. I don’t go to church anymore because every church I go to says the Lord’s Prayer. And every time I say the Lord’s Prayer, I cry.
Stanton: What amazes me is how humble the survivors are—it’s their feeling that, as sailors, they were just doing their duty when the ship sunk. No big deal. But that they survived at all is a miracle. There is no whining, complaining, or self-pity among them. The disaster clarified for these men exactly who they were, what they were capable of. They had stared at their own death, and then a number of them were lucky enough to be able to step back from it. Bearing this newfound self-knowledge, they came home. This is a rich country, but it will be a poorer place when these veterans –and their wives—are gone.
What have you learned from Dr. Haynes and Mr. McCoy and all the survivors?
Stanton: Meeting the survivors changed my life; I don’t say that lightly. The unspoken code among them is: be a man of your word. I think people my age, in their 30's, forget that everyday life can be much simpler if you just try to do the right thing—it sounds flip, but it’s true. Living a good life is an honorable challenge.
The story of the Indianapolis is a tale of sacrifice and selflessness. Doctor Haynes saved countless lives with nothing more than pure grit and a huge, empathic heart. His simple presence among the boys in the water, as he talked to them, urged them to keep living, kept them sane and breathing. Gil McCoy learned what real strength was only after he surrendered to what seemed his fate, that soon he would be dead, probably eaten by a shark. He didn’t give up his struggle to survive; he surrendered to the situation and accepted it, which is different. He said, “I know I’m going to die, but I’m going to live as long as I can.” If we could bottle the clarity of this understanding, we might answer a whole bunch of questions about what’s important to each of us.
Mr. McCoy, how did you decide to organize the first reunion of the USS Indianapolis survivors (in 1960)?
McCoy: I told a psychiatrist what I was doing, and I wasn’t sure it was right. I told him I’d gotten letters from some survivors who really criticized me for bringing this back to mind. This psychiatrist told me, without a doubt, that it was the best thing for them: “The more they talk about it, the more they’ll get it out of their heads.” And I really think that we did. I had wives come up and say that their husbands slept better after that reunion than they ever had before. Back then, we had closed meetings for the survivors alone. No wives, nobody. Then I’d ask them if they had anything on their minds that bothered them to stand up and talk about it. Everybody cried. I was just tore up...
Did some of the men have any guilt about surviving?
McCoy: Some of them did. “Why us and not our buddies?” You know? We assured everybody that everyone and everything was forgiven. We held nothing against anyone. But it just got so hard. My personality would change before the reunions, but every bit of it was worth it. I have never had regrets.
When was the last time you saw Captain McVay?
Haynes: At the court martial. He was there with his attorney looking very sad. They asked me a lot of questions. They wouldn’t let me talk about the time in the water. They wanted to talk about “moonlight” and whether it was light out and stuff like that. They asked if I had anything to add at the end. I said, “Under Captain McVay’s command the Indianapolis was a trim fighting ship. And I would be very pleased and honored to serve under him again.” I started to get up, and I looked over and McVay had a big grin.
McCoy: Before our first reunion in 1960, Captain McVay called me and asked if [we survivors] held the [sinking] against him. I told him that not only did we not hold it against him, but that every time we had a reunion, I was going to make a campaign against the Navy to get him exonerated. He thanked me and said, “But that’s not necessary. I was the commanding officer and I take full responsibility.” And I told him I didn’t agree. His wife was sick with cancer at the time of the 1965 reunion, but he sent a tape for me to play to the survivors at our closed meeting. It was short, but he was telling everybody...how much he appreciated how he was treated in 1960, and how much he missed not being there, that he really thought often of the men. He hoped that we didn’t hold any hate for him for his commanding. It was a real nice tape. That’s the last we had of him. (Capt. McVay committed suicide in 1968.)
Did you have any feelings of anger toward him for the sinking?
McCoy: Oh, no. I was just glad he survived. Oh, hell no! That’s why I couldn’t go through the whole court-martial and feel they were treating him fairly. He survived! Sure, he was the commanding officer, but he had to survive out there, just like the rest of us. I know he said later on that he always felt he would have been better off going down with the ship. He never said that to me, because I would’ve said, “Captain, you’re full of crap! Were glad you’re here!” The survivors continue to work towards a full exoneration for Captain McVay, having made a giant step in October of 2000 when Congress passed legislation proclaiming that his “military record should now reflect that he is exonerated for the loss of the USS Indianapolis and so many of her crew.” Doug, what do you think that the exoneration movement says about the survivors?
Stanton: What amazes me is how cynical the survivors didn’t become in the aftermath of the sinking and court-martial: for the most part, the decision to convict Captain McVay was not seen as evidence that government at large was bankrupt. Instead, the decision appeared to be just simply wrong, and they still believe that the injustice can be somewhat rectified. Today, we’re obviously more cynical when it comes to the workings of government. If charges were brought against McVay today, the case would receive a great deal of scrutiny and it’s possible he wouldn’t be convicted by court-martial. His fate might resemble that of the captain of the Navy destroyer USS Cole.
What these survivors and others of their generation have is a sense of living in a country where they felt a sense of belonging. And with that comes a sense of duty. Whatever we gain by our skepticism of the government, we maybe also lose some of our patriotism, of our wanting to be of service to something larger than ourselves.
What should people take away from the story of the Indianapolis?
Stanton: The survivors told me that their survival had to do with will, with a sharpened consciousness of one’s own self, with a stunning awareness of what one would and would not do to keep living. Every man I talked to said that early on in the disaster he somehow decided he was going to survive. Most actually said to themselves, “I am going to live.” They heard within themselves some voice-a mother’s whisper, a father’s urging to try harder; at other times, it was a basketball coach’s chewing out over not playing a great game. Sometimes, it was the memory of a girlfriend back home, her hair lit by a halo of sun on a summer day. These men clung to these apparitions with all their might, and they lived.