I first became interested in this story in the summer of 1999, when a small local newspaper item caught my eye.
It described a reunion being held for a group of survivors from a ship called the USS Indianapolis. I had heard of the Indy before; immortalized by Captain Quint in Jaws, the ship occupied mythical status in American popular history, a kind of larger-than-life existence.
Something clicked. A few weeks later, I wan on a plane to Indianapolis, on my way to the survivors’ reunion. My plan was to write a short, 5,000-word article. When it was over, I’d be on to the next assignment.
But then I met the survivors, about eighty-five of them. And I was amazed by their generosity, their courage, their dignity. The reunion marked the beginning of a series of correspondences, interviews, and visits that continue today. It also marked the beginning of my absolute commitment to these men and to telling their story.
The heart of the story, as I saw it was the human elemental drama of men who survived the worst disaster at sea in U.S. naval history. For almost five days, they struggIed against unbelievably harsh conditions, fighting off sharks, hypothermia, physical and mental exhaustion, and finally, hallucinatory dementia. And yet over 300 of them managed to survive. The question I wanted to answer was, How?
In creating this book, I decided to cast the tragedy of the USS Indianapolis not as a history of war but as a portrait of men battling the sea. “Don’t make me a hero,’’ Giles McCoy told me as I sat in his living room in Florida. Time was of the essence. While I was visiting Gil, we learned that three more survivors had just died, all in the same month. Gil wanted to tell his story before it was too late. Maybe, he told me, some things he’d said over the years about the sinking weren’t true. He wanted to set the record straight. For the survivors, the disaster of the Indy is their My Lai massacre or Watergate, a touchstone moment of historic disappointment: the navy put them in harm’s way, hundreds of men died violently, and then the government refused to acknowledge its culpability.
What’s amazing, however, is that these men, unlike contemporary generations who’ve been disappointed by bad government, are not bitter. Somehow, a majority brushed aside their feeling of rancor and went on to help the booming post-war American economy of the fifties. Some might say that the America of the World War II era, a country in which people felt a sense of belonging, of being part of a community larger than themselves, is lost to us today. But I don’t think so. It lives on in these men, these survivors. These men are not our past; they are the future.
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