This is the first entry in a four-part series I wrote a couple of years ago. I was reminded of it today by a “this day in history” note in the NY TIMES.
After surviving a kamikaze attack on March 31, 1945, and spending some three months in drydock for repairs, the heavy cruiser USS INDIANAPOLIS was ready to return to the war in the Pacific.
And what a return it was. Unknown to most of the 1196 men aboard, INDIANAPOLIS carried, when she left San Francisco in July, the deadliest cargo any warship had ever carried: the main assembly of “Little Boy”, the atomic bomb that would lay waste to Hiroshima, Japan on August 6, changing the rules of war and one-upmanship forever.
Most of the crew of INDIANAPOLIS would never know what happened to Hiroshima. Their cargo was offloaded at its destination–Tinian, in the Marianas Islands–on July 26, and their orders called for them to return to operations in the Philippines. Unaccountably, the ship was not given the customary destroyer escort; nor was her captain warned of Japanese submarine activity in the area through which she would sail.
On July 30, INDIANAPOLIS was fatally wounded by Japanese torpedoes, fired by submarines. Some four hundred of her crew died with her; of the eight hundred who managed to abandon ship, only three hundred sixteen would be picked up alive.
The radio crew managed to send out three distress calls before they were forced to abandon ship. Not one was answered.
So say the the history books. But for me, the story of USS INDIANAPOLIS will forever begin in mid-August, with a nine-year-old boy dawdling on his way to school.
He was the only surviving child of a loveless second marriage, the baby of the family, more than a little spoiled, and he did not like school. This was not because he was unintelligent or even especially lazy; he would rather be in the woods with his dog, honing the skills that would one day make him an army sharpshooter. Moreover, he was not blessed with the most inspiring teacher in the world; the one at the little one-room country school he attended was the stereotypical old maid schoolmarm, unsuited by both temperament and education for the profession she had chosen.
August in the knobs is generally hot and dry and dusty. On some days, thunderheads will pile up seventy thousand feet in the air and produce awesome rumbles of thunder and lethal lightning, but never a drop of rain; on others, the sky will remain a cloudless, unsettlingly brassy blue, and the road in front of you will fool you with mirages of pools of water and heat rising in visible waves from dirt, gravel or asphalt.
He never said which kind of day this one was: only that he hoped that just maybe, in honor of the great news that had broken upon the world that morning, the teacher would dismiss school early. Word had come that at long last, the war that had begun, for the United States, with the attack on Pearl Harbor, was over, with the surrender of the Empire of Japan following a second atomic bomb drop on Nagasaki.
He got to school, finally, a little after eight thirty, expecting to hear a joyous hubbub. Instead, everything was deathly quiet, except for the muffled sobbing of some of the “big girls” up front.
He slipped into a seat at the back of the room and in a whisper asked a friend what was wrong. And that was when he learned that one of the older boys from the school, away in the war, was dead.
to be continued