63 Years After Naval Tragedy, A Burial at Sea
Wednesday, November 5, 2008
YOKOSUKA, Japan -- When the submarine USS Ohio surfaced at sea and Machinist Mate 1st Class Jason Witty emerged from the hatch to look around, he saw calm, blue water under a peaceful sky -- perfect for the solemn task he was about to perform.
On the map, the Ohio was afloat in just another indistinguishable expanse of the Pacific Ocean. As Witty stood on deck holding a silver pitcher, the vessel was alone.
Just like the ill-fated USS Indianapolis, 63 years earlier.
The pitcher contained the ashes of Witty's grandfather, Boatswain Mate 2nd Class Eugene Morgan, who had survived the sinking of the Indianapolis -- one of the worst tragedies for the U.S. Navy in World War II.
Morgan had died of a heart attack in June at age 87, just before Witty went to sea, and among his last wishes was to be rejoined with his shipmates at roughly the same spot in the Pacific where the Indianapolis went down.
Witty, sitting in a wardroom of the Ohio at this Japanese port, recounted the Oct. 2 burial at sea, saying he had never participated in one before.
He had sheepishly asked one of the officers whether his grandfather's wish could be granted. The request went up the chain of command to Capt. Dennis Carpenter, who quickly approved.
"I thought it would be an honor," Carpenter said. "And I wanted to make sure that we did it right. Sometimes on a submarine at sea, you just can't go topside. But everything seemed to be on our side."
In July 1945, the Indianapolis had just completed a secret mission to the tiny island of Tinian, carrying components for a new weapon -- the atomic bomb. It would later be dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, in the world's first nuclear attack.
Because of its cargo, the Indianapolis had sailed to Tinian unescorted. With that mission done, the cruiser was making its way back to Leyte, in the Philippines, with a crew of 1,196, including Morgan. Early on July 30, when the ship was still near the Mariana Islands, a Japanese I-58 submarine found the Indianapolis and launched six torpedoes, two ripping through its starboard side.
It took 12 minutes for the Indianapolis to sink in the deadliest disaster at sea in U.S. naval history.
Morgan was asleep when the ship exploded into chaos.