In the mind of Dr. Giles McCoy, 35 years have not dimmed the picture of his last moments aboard a doomed warship heaving west through the midnight swells of the Pacific.
"The explosion knocked the bunks on top of me," he remembers. "There were men with broken arms and legs and up above they were yelling, 'Get out, we're dogging the hatches!' Once they're sealed, they're like tombs. We kept hollering. 'Give us more time, there's more men down here!' I was one of the last ones up and there were still 20 men below.
"The ship had listed so far over on its side I slid off the keel and into the water. I had a life jacket over my right arm. There were flames and fuel oil all over the water. I heard explosions and hissing. I could see the screws out of the water still turning, and men jumping off the fantail. I swam to get away from the ship. I heard a terrible hissing and when I turned around all I saw was a great mountian of foam. It just kept rolling out. She was gone."
In the memories of John Bullard and Robert McGuiggan, time has not obscured the horror and helplessness they felt as shark fins came snicking through the blue-green swells on the dawn of that next morning.
"I was in a larger group," John Bullard recalls."Somebody yelled 'Shark!" and we saw this fin coming toward us and circling around. We tried to get as close together as possible . . . A fellow had drifted off from the group.You know how the bobber on a catfish line floats on the surface above the bait and runs when a fish hits? The last time I saw this fellow, his head was running like a bobber. A shark had hit him. His head was like a bobber."
"The sharks were around in the early evening and early morning," remembers Robert McGuiggan, who dangled in the Ocean five nights with no protection than his life jacket. "They'd nudge you and you'd pull up your knees. People would say, "Look down, look down!' but I didn't want to look down. You could see their dark silhouettes all around us. On the second day one kid saw a case of potatoes. He said, 'I'm going to get those potatoes.' He swam out. Suddenly he went under the water and came up screaming. We couldn't help him. We couldn't do anything. We were helpless."
Of the 1,196 men -- including McGuiggan, Bullard and McCoy -- who shipped out on the heavy cruiser USS Indianapolis in the summer of 1945, only 316 came home as survivors of one of the worst tragedies in U.S. naval history.
The flagship of the Fifth Fleet had been steaming back from Guam, where it had delivered the main parts of two atomic bombs that -- less than two weeks later -- helped bring a swift conclusion to World War II. Shortly after midnight on July 30, 1945, two torpedoes fired by a Japanese submarine blasted open the armored gray hull of the Indianapolis.
In 12 minutes the heavy cruiser vanished in foam and oil fires. No SOS was ever received, no lifeboats launched. Four hundred men went under with the ship, but nearly 800 jumped clear and were adrift in the equatorial Pacific, 200 miles from the Philippine Islands. They had no food, no water, no shelter from the sun, no relief from the salt sea that ate at wounds. wNinety percent of them floated in Mae West life Jackets, grabbed in the last minutes before the ship went under. In the course of the next four days and five nights nearly 500 perished from thirst, exhaustion and sharks attacks. aIt was a time, said one man who lived, when "it would have been easier to die."
Last weekend in the Indiana capital for which their ship had been named, 86 men whose lives were irrevocably altered by those shipmates who died met again for the fifth USS Indianapolis Survivors Memorial Reunion. It has been held every five years since the first cathartic gathering in 1960.
Although many survivors adjusted, for others the hellish ordeal did not end Aug. 4, 1945. Raw "salt-water ulcers" lingered on their bodies.They woke screaming in the middle of nightmares, slipped into alcoholism, psychiatric illness or long, traumatized silences. Even at this fifth reunion, their hands still shook.They twiddled ashtrays and spoke in nervous gusts. Thirty-five years and three kids late, Mike Kuryla said, "The sinking and the surviving in the water was the most intense thing in my life."
Their three-day reunion at the Sheraton West Hotel was a tableau of tension between the desire to remember and the desire to forget. In this ambivalence their lifelong enigma emerged: Others had died; for what purpose had they lived?
"My life ended on that ship," said a survivor who asked not to be identified because his confession might hurt his family. "I had such a difficult time understanding why the Good Lord let me live and not others. That ship was more than a ship and the crewmen were more than crewmen. After that my life was -- like nothing. Even fathering five children . . . My only drive is that somehow, somewhere, someone carrying my blood is going to do something for mankind."
How many men actually were eaten by sharks in uncertain, although Giles McCoys say the number is between 60 and 80 -- far fewer than the 600 that the character Quint in the movie "Jaws" told of in his gripping soliloquy. Although there are survivors who will not see the movie or its sequel, many have, because they know the source of its terror firsthand, and its story is theirs. McCoy saw "Jaws," and when the film had ended, the manager of the movie theater, alerted by one of the survivor's friends, asked him to stand up. The audience cheered and McCoy signed autographs for half an hour.
The first arrivals, with their wives and children, and some even with friends, trickled in Friday night, and the rest came on Saturday. The were mostly middle-aged blue-collar folk -- pipefitters, ironworkers, bricklayers, dressed in casual polyester -- and there was no conceit or melodrama in the matter-of-fact way they called themselves "survivors." It was, after all, their fortune and their curse: a word of triumph and trial that defined them more than their trade or professions.
There were survivors who had never known each other on the Indianapolis, and had never seen each other in the water. Their friendships were based on past reunions and yet lacked none of the intensity of friendships between men who had actually kicked away the sharks angling for their buddies. Now they help each other out financially, they send cards, welcome each other into their homes. They touch constantly. Their solicitousness affects wives, relatives, friends, who could not have known what it was like to have survived the sinking of the Indianapolis.
"We are one big family," says Dr. Giles McCoy, now 55, a father of three with a chiropractic practice in Boonville, Mo. "Now we're surviving the world."
It was McCoy who organized the reunions. They began with 157 men in 1960 in what he called an "emotional cleansing," inspired by the publication of the story of the sinking of the Indianapolis and the survivors' ordeal in a book by Richard Newcomb called "Abandon Ship."
"I got the idea after the book came out," McCoy remembered. "Up until that time I had not discussed episodes with anyone. I tried to forget.
"Felton J. Outland came to my house in Boonville. We had been on a raft together. I had swum to the raft through the oil. I was so exhausted I couldn't get in. Outland grabbed me by the hair and pulled me in. When he came to my house, we stood there and we started crying.I was so grateful."
McCoy thought other survivors might feel the same sense of release he did when he saw Outland again. "I discussed it with a psychiatrist friend. He convinced me it was right, that the best people to discuss it with is the ones you suffered with. The first meeting I got a lot of letters saying what I was doing was a terrible thing, that I was trying to bring this back and drive these people out of their minds. At the first meeting the skipper was accussed of murder by relatives. We had personal things to clean out. We didn't know how bad we really were."
The skipper, Capt. Charles B. McVay, came reluctantly to that first meeting, because he thought that the crew still blamed him. He had been court martialed and found guilty of negligence, at a hearing at which the commander of the Japanese submarine that sank the Indianapolis testified. He was later cleared. At the first reunion, despite the hostility of some relatives, he was embraced by the men. They all wept. But the ordeal -- the sinking and the trial -- haunted him. In 1977, he committed suicide. Hope and Fins
Mike Kuryla plunged into the water midnight July 30, 1945. He still has the wristwatch that stopped at 12:45. The suction of the sinking ship pulled him under the water, he blacked out, and then, by some providence that amazes him still, found himself at the surface with a cork and rope "floater net" in his face, and four balsa rafts lashed together. He saw friends, who had casts on their legs, go down like stones, but here he was, alive.
"We figured help was on the way, we were sure the message had gotten out," he remembers. "Then that day went by, and then the next day. Men were dying and praying and trying to help. Every day the sharks came around, there were fins all around. We had one we called Oscar. We had 34 cans of Spam, but it was too salty to eat so we fed it to Oscar. The exposure and dehydration were worse than the sharks. We were blistered like prunes. During the day you'd roast and pray for night. A night you'd freeze and pray for day. There were rain squalls and we tried to squeeze the water out of bandages. The dryness edged down your throat. It was hard to breathe.
"If you gave up you died. One guy said, 'I'll see you good buddies,' and he swam out and was gone. That was real emotional. I felt I could have helped him. I lived because I just said I'm not going to die. Guys were throwing money away and I was picking it up. I said, 'I'm going to spend this and have a drink on you guys,' and when I got back I went to church and then I went to the tavern."
For 15 years, Kuryla didn't talk about the ordeal. He was hospitalized with mental disorders, and he used to tdream his bed was listing over like the ship. But, reflecting on the miracle of his rescue, he found an equilibrium. "I felt as if I had been given another life," he said. He likes to celebrate, and he believes talking about his ordeal helps. Friday night he had too many margaritas. He likes them, but not when the bartender salts the rim.
Gabe George, now 68, is one of the oldest survivors. He had been a machinist's mate and couldn't swim. When the ship shuddered and fire raged, he grabbed his wallet and a rosary and slid down the bulkhead into the water. "Somebody grabbed me," he remembers. He was in a raft for a while, then up to his neck in water with a life jacket. George had been one of the ship's vaudevillians. He looked like Groucho Marx.
"These guys tell me I sang in the water," he recalled. "But I don't remember that. I don't think I could have been that happy. I had to take off my shoes to bury a guy who had died in my lap. It took anything you could find to weight them down. I had no fear of sharks, they were there the first day, but I must have been strong. I prayed to see my mother again. tI actually felt I could be the last man out there. A lot of younger kids said, 'Well Gabe, I don't think I'll see you tomorrow.' It was the most intense experience of my life. It was a horror I took day by day, hour by hour. If they told me I'd have to do this I would shoot myself. If I knew what was coming I could not have survived."
George, who ran a realty business in Ohio and came out of open heart surgery a few months ago, looked at the yellowy newspapers clippings he had collected over the decades. They recounted the seminal week of his life. "I talk about the ordeal," he said. "I've kept a complete file. I accept things. I feel as if I have been living on borrowed time ever since 1945 . . . It almost makes me break down and cry to be alive."
There were survivors at the reunion whose trials had fed a resourceful humor. Robert Brundige of Talbott, Tenn., lost his job at a Magnavox TV plant at age 54. He recently had his leg smashed up by a car. Everything bad that had happened to him he said he owed to the Japanese. "My ship got sunk by a Jap submarine," he said. "I got hit by a Honda -- a Jap automobile -- and now I lost my job because of Jap imports." He sighed and then grinned a what-the-hell grin.
"There's sights I've seen that I put out of my mind," said Brundige. "Things that happened to certain people. We visited one survivor who couldn't take the reunions. He'd seen a shark come up from under a guy, pull him down and then just a life jacket shot back up out of the water. I said I would never complain if I lived."
If sharks strike fear in the heart of Gus Kay it is not readily apparent. The 54-year-old survivor tried to sell insurance for a while only to end up opening a nightclub in Chicago called The Deep End. He has a streak of humor as black as his beard.
"I was in Chicago," he said, "when what's his name, the daredevil, Evel Knievel, that's it. He was gonna jump his motorcycle over a tank of sharks for $200,000. I called 'im up and said, 'Hell, I'll go in the tank for $50,000.' I been there before."
Kay likes reminiscing, and in this group, part of reminiscing was never getting the details exactly right. By leaving it loose, there was room for new friendships to start.
"You musta been with me," Kay insisted to survivor Henry McKlain.
"Didn't we go to Samarra?" McKlain asked.
"You hadda been with me," Kay said. Then he said, "Remember that time when we were coming back from Hawaii and everybody was sleeping in the hangar deck? Somebody yelled, 'Abandon ship,' and nobody moved?"
At their "survivors' meeting" Saturday afternoon, Giles McCoy introduced Wilbur C. Gwinn, the pilot of the patrol plane that spotted the survivors, and Adrian Marks, who landed his amphibious aircraft among them, giving shelter to 56 men before the rescue ships arrived. There were people crying, standing ovations, lights from a TV camera. Flashbacks
When the lights flashed on while Gwinn spoke, John Bullard, a sheet metal engineer from Phoenix, was flung back 35 years. "Something Gwinn said and the light from the TV took me back," he said later, with a look of resignation."We had a small one-cell light on our life jackets. There was this one guy who was waving his around. We practically drowned him. We thought it was a Japanese sub.
"It was happening all over again. I could see the waves and this guy flashing the light. Thank God I didn't take my cane and try to bust that TV light."
Richard Newcomb, the author of "Abandon Ship," and himself an "honorary suvivor" like Gwinn and Marks, told the group that Hollywood screenwriters were still revising their story for a movie that might be made. His book was like a bible. Each survivor asked others to sign his copy.
That night there was a dinner and a dance. Early Sunday, before the memorial ceremony in downtown Indianapolis, Charles McKissick, a 62-year-old optometrist from Texas who can remember when a shark brushed his leg during the ordeal, led a prayer service.
Over the piped-in hotel music, McKissick told a handful of people, "I know there is a God, there's just got to be. I've spent these last 35 years trying to find out what God wants me to do."
At a table near the back, Gladys Meredith sat with tears in her eyes holding a gold-framed picture of her husband, Charles E. Meredith, who had survived the sinking of the Indianapolis bus succumbed almost two years ago to cancer. "Tommorow would be our 24th anniversary," she said. In her purse were more pictures of Charles Meredith, newspaper clips detailing his heroics, obituaries and pictures of him in an open casket.
Saturday, when she saw the Brundiges, she said, "Have I met you? I'm Mrs. Charles E. Meredith." She held out the gold-framed photograph. "This is my husband. I brought as much of him as I could. Before he passed away he said, 'Be sure to go to the survivors reunion.' He loved to get together with the guys.
"He had seven heart attacks, he was disabled, I've often wondered why he survived," she said. "He left me some money which I've been donating to good causes. Maybe that's what it's all about, making it possible for me to help others." There were others like her -- whose emotional bonds had not broken when their physical link to the group no longer existed. Such as Robert W. Mitchell, who was only 2 years old when his father died on the Indianapolis. His mother was pregnant with another child, but miscarried. Now Robert Mitchell has his own family in Bellevue, Neb., and a hunger to know more than the washed-out photographs of Winston Cooper Mitchell could tell him.
"I'm looking for somebody who knew him," he said. "Somebody who knew what type of man he was. There was more curiosity years ago. The only thing I'm looking for now is to share a friendship with another man. These men are the tragedy, not the dead. These men have to live with fear and guilt. If I find him, I can help him as much as he can help me." Missing the Boat
Elmer "Moon" Mullin, sprawled in the lobby of the hotel, was remembering the day he fell asleep in Adak, Alaska. That was 35 years ago, when he was 16. He lay down on the grass on a hillside. When he woke up, his ship, the USS Indianapolis, was gone. It had been moored down there in the bay. It had weighed anchor without him. "I chased that ship all down the coast," he said. "I hopped a tanker to Seattle but it had already left by the time I got there. I went to Frisco and I missed it again. Then I got on a big drunk. I'm not a real religious person, but it had to be meant for it to be gone and me not on it. After it sunk, I felt real lucky. I knew a lot of the guys."
He paused. Somewhere in him flickered the feeling that he had missed what might have been the biggest show in his life. "Being that I wasn't a survivor," he said, "I called over here -- I live in Indianapolis -- and said I had been on the Indianapolis and would be all right if I came. They said sure."
The caravan of four buses of survivors and family and friends left for the memorial ceremony in downtown Indianapolis at 9 a.m. They were escorted by two policemen, one of whom caught his wheel on a curb and spilled. A bus also got a flat tire.
There were servicemen at attention as the buses emptied. A military band played. The survivors all sat together. Friends and family flanked them. A rear admiral delivered an address. A wreath was laid on the black granite cenotaph in the center of a square formed by four black marble obelisks on which four eagle statues perched, wings vertical. There was a gun salute, and Giles McCoy read the names of the survivors who had since died, as a Navy man tolled the bell of the cruiser Indianapolis. It had been removed before her last voyage.
"Baldrige, Clovis r.," said Giles McCoy. It was the first of 36 names.
The bell tolled, and he continued down the list, a name, a toll of the bell.
"Mereidith, Charles E.," he said. In the audience Gladys Meredith sobbed. Men who survived the Indianapolis wept quietly. Some heads fell into hands.Survivor Glenn G. Morgan of Franklin, Tex., played taps, and the notes drifted up into an overcast sky.