The normal routine was to zig-zag in order to render the battleship less a target than one beating a direct course. The captain decided, however, to forgo the evasive maneuver as dusk set in and it seemed safe to do so.
A Japanese I-58 submarine was patrolling those waters, and the lone U.S. battleship was sighted, sailing alone without any escorts that could prove dangerous to him. The submarine captain was delighted. He gave orders, submerged, observed the battleship on the cusp of midnight, then decided the gods had favored him and his vessel with a victory that would cast glory on their bones for centuries to come.
In less than a minute the American battleship was struck mortally, blew up in midships, and leaned over. Neither the submarine commander nor anyone aboard the doomed battleship saw the torpedoes hit, however. There was only a small flash of reddish light after the torpedoes missed the target in the now fast-darkening waters.
The order aboard the stricken vessel was to abandon ship. Hundreds of men began to jump into the water. In minutes the ship went down and left the water full of swimming men and debris and burning oil. The submarine, unable and unwilling to take on any survivors, moved away and left the men to their doom in the dark.
The first night, hour by hour, passed very slowly for the men in the water until the first light of dawn brought some relief. Though life-jackets would keep them afloat, they noticed that the longer they stayed in the water the more shark activity they saw. Their dangling legs were tempting bait, so they drew up their legs as far as they could, and stayed in a close group of two thousand or so.
Early in the morning, the naval station at their destination noted that the U.S.S. Indianapolis was late in appearing, but did not send out any ships or planes. They did not attempt to make radio contact with the ship. Only late in the day did they call, and there was no answer. Still they did not send any search planes.
The second day was harder for the men. They were tired, and also very thirsty. Some had taken in salt water when they dove into the sea off the ship, and these were the first to go crazy. They began babbling about seeing fountains of fresh water and began swimming away from the group. At the edge the sharks were prowling, and these men were the first to be taken.
The blood drew even more sharks, which all moved in closer to the men. They knew that they needed to stay together, for the sharks seemed to be intimidated by so large a number, but if the men separated the sharks moved in on the loners immediately and finished them off.
But the men, after another night on the open sea, were fast losing hope and stamina. Men drifted away from the group and were taken by sharks. The cries of the doomed men were terrible to hear. Others went crazy from thirst or from drinking salt water. They too were attacked by sharks as they began thrashing about, drawing the sharks’ attention.
The number of survivors plummeted swiftly on the third day. By then the men were exhausted and frantic for a sip of fresh water, though they were almost drowning in an ocean of water. A thousand or more men had already perished from shark attacks by this time, and hundreds more began to drift away from the group and they too fell to sharks.
By the third day the naval station was beginning to rouse itself regarding the non-appearance of the battleship. A search plane was sent out, and the men saw it make one pass without giving any sign that they were spotted.
Hours more dragged by, and hundreds more perished. Then a second search plane, a Clipper with a captain in charge who was more determined to find the U.S.S. Indianapolis, made a final search of the area—and spotted them. Though he was in danger of the Japanese submarine attacking him, he set his airship down, then pulled aboard as many as they possibly could, after radioing the position.
A destroyer soon appeared and rescued the remaining survivors, including the captain who had been thrown out into the water with the crew and officers when the ship broke up. Out of over 3,000, there were only 800 survivors. Man after man had lost all his buddies or teammates, as they discovered when they finally were aboard and able to see who had made it and who had not.
Report of the disaster-—the greatest loss of life at sea by any American vessel since Pearl Harbor-- was radioed to the press back home, but Margaret Truman’s musical debut before a rather small, mostly paid audience at Carnegie Hall swept it off the front pages. Congress was enraged when the first pictures of the survivors began to reach American shores, and a board of inquiry was set up. The Navy, knowing it had some explaining to do, set up its own board immediately. The Secretary of the War Department was obliged to face questions by the press on the catastrophe, but he refused to acknowledge any negligence by naval authorities in that part of the war theatre. Soon after he received an award from the President. The whole disaster was treated as if it hadn’t happened, except that the captain was stripped of his assignment and retired early, after a reprimand for not using evasive maneuvers in submarine-infested enemy waters.
After a long, hard struggle (longer than Truman liked, since not one superweapon of a number being considered proved feasible after all), the Japanese were subdued. Holding on to its own secret superweapon, the neutron bomb, for a future confrontation with the West, Soviet Russia was no help in that regard.
As for the death ray, it was deployed over chief Japanese centers, but each time some freak storm occurred that diverted the ray and it struck harmlessly on the mountains or the sea. Giving up the idea, America sent in more troops and did the job conventionally, with hard, bloody, house to house fighting and with tanks and artillery, where in the few places the mostly mountainous terrain permitted it.
Enjoying air supremacy, they were able to bomb and firebomb most of the cities they were attacking, adding to the vast numbers of citizenry killed, but it could not be helped without the use of a superweapon.
Unconditional surrender finally came, and the papers were signed aboard a U.S. warship in Tokio harbor.
According to prior agreements, Soviet Russia, for its part, received Northern Japan including Hokkaido, while America and Britain occupied and governed the main islands of Honshu and Kyushu and the islands south of them. The U.S.S. Indianapolis lay in its watery grave, surrounded by the thick cloud of secrecy thrown over the disaster by the U.S. naval high command and the equally tight-lipped Truman Presidency.
Since the disaster (and scandal reaching to the highest echelons) was never properly reviewed, the scapegoated captain was held responsible and the matter was held closed. But the survivors, when they were discharged, gathered together at veterans’ organizations and began to compare notes on what had happened.
Many had psychological and physical disabilities as a result of the ordeal at sea, and they had been refused VA compensation. It did not seem fair to them, for some reason. They also began to resent that nothing was said about the sinking, as if it hadn’t really happened.
They all respected their captain and knew that his decision to drop evasive maneuvers was not cause enough for his disgrace—for they should not have been marooned at sea for three days.
The naval station that should have sent out search parties failed to do so, until it was nearly too late.
If seem to some that there was something of a conspiracy, to sink them out of sight and mind. But why? It took many more years for enough survivors to come to any conclusion on that question.
The U.S.S. Indianapolis began meeting every year for discussion and fellowship at prepicked sites. They once toured Pearl Harbor together. Another time they met in Washington, to see if they could get the VA’s attention with a paper formerly drawn up calling for a second investigation.
No one would receive the paper at the Pentagon or the VA headquarters.
Disillusioned, the men broke down and nothing more was done
The following meeting in the next year met to discuss strategy for Congress. They decided that they had to do something more than issue a formal proclamation calling for a second inquiry. America’s two parties showed no interest in the case whatsoever, they had found. Would the courts? They decided to sue the Navy for gross negligence as well as conspiracy to withhold prime evidence.
The unusual class action suit drew front page coverage in all the Hearst papers and even some London tabloids. Randolph Hearst, the owner of the chain, America’s most influential arbiter of public opinion, had directed his editors to “puff U.S.S. Indianapolis See if there’s anything to top Navy brass in cahoots with politicians to keep this thing under wraps. And don’t forget WHY!”
Though all the military service papers shunned them, Hearst reporters flocked to the residences of various spokesmen for the Indianapolis survivors. Unused to so much attention after being ignored for decades, the men spoke out freely—perhaps too freely in one case.
One particular interview that was printed nationally gained the most notoriety (and, unfortunately, put an ax to the movement just when it had promised to gain credibility for the first time in the eyes of the American public). It concerned an eye-witness account of something strange that had happened while the men were struggling in the water on the second and third days, seeking to ward off the cruising sharks.
The reporter looked around the meager furnishings of the one-room tenement apartment, which was crammed with naval pictures, a framed U.S.S. Indianapolis along with other memorabilia, and turned to his host.
“You can’t forget your service to your country in the war years, obviously!” he commented.
“Would you like to forget what happened, though, to you and your buddies at sea after your ship went down? After all, it must have been very unpleasant at the time.”
The old sailor’s eyes didn’t seem to register as he gazed at the reporter, a young man with a pen, notepad, and a camera. Instead the man’s attention seemed to linger on the pictures of lost buddies.
Noticing, the reporter shifted in his uncomfortable wooden chair. He noticed too that the sailor was in his stockings, and they had holes, and smelled none too good.
Rather than repeat himself, he continued on, hoping to make the interview a short one and still get the necessary “mud” to sling at anyone the paper’s owner happened to dislike in Washington.
“As I was saying, sir, everyone knows you and your fellow survivors have been virtually blacklisted in Washington—do you have any idea why and also could you explain why your group doesn’t accept the findings of the naval department boards of inquiry that investigated the incident back in 1947?”
The veteran’s eyes now sharpened in focus. He saw the reporter this time and was prepared. “The first investigation was a sham! It covered for the head of the War Department, who was covering in turn for the authorities at the station where we were supposed to check in after leaving Tinian. Nobody wanted to lose their ranks and possibly be court-martialed. It was more convenient for them to—“
“—hang all the blame on the captain?” the reporter broke in.
“You got it!”
The seamen’s eyes clouded over, and he seemed on the verge of tears. “I lost so many friends. I have never gotten over that. If you could have been there, while it was all happening to us, you would know why we can’t let this rest, why—“
“—why you are carrying forward this suit against the Navy and VA?”
The man didn’t reply. After a long pause, he turned his eyes up to the pictures on the wall. “It’s not the money. I’m too old to care about it, though I could use more medical benefits now that my health is shot. It’s just that the truth has never come out, so that people can know what really happened.”
The reporter leaned forward, smiling confidentially and sympathetically, as he had been trained by his office.
The vet didn’t seem to see him any longer. He began talking freely, as if he were describing the event to a close friend and not a stranger. “Sure, I’ll tell you.” He said with a sigh. “You might as well know everything. I’ve always wanted to tell the whole thing. Maybe the captain made a mistake in not taking evasive action until it was completely dark, but that wasn’t the cause for our dying—not by a long shot. We all landed in the water alive, and all of us would have survived except for the fact no one was sent out to search for us—not hours but days after they knew something was wrong. That is the truth. We were left for the sharks to eat—on purpose! If was as if—-no, I’ll say what I mean-—it was their deliberate plan to get rid of us after they realized we had been sunk. They had hoped for no survivors, and so they waited for the third day before sending out any search planes. If that one captain hadn’t disregarded orders and reflown over the area that we went down in, I wouldn’t be here telling you the truth. Since he set down in our midst, they had to do something, you see, or look very bad to the American people, so they finally sent out a ship to pick us survivors up.”
The reporte shifted on his chair and would have liked to go, for the “truth” was beginning to bore him. Just to look like he was interested, he moved his pen across the notepad and took a few random notes. “Left them on purpose, he says.” “The Navy brass hoped for no survivors, he claims.”
“But why didn’t they want to save your lives? You haven’t told me.”
The veteran shook his head at the young man’s stupidity. As if speaking to a child, he spoke very slowly and distinctly despite his ill-fitting, Tiajuana dentures. “The superweapon—-that’s what we carried to Tinian! They didn’t want anyone left alive—not one soul-—in case it didn’t pan out. That is how much prestige of theirs they had riding on the project. If it worked, they would all be rewarded, but if it didn’t? Well, they would be ruined and have to share the blame. It was judged best to keep the whole thing as secret as possible, so they would be covered if the thing went wrong. And it went wrong all right-—“
“It did? What was it, by the way?” For the first time the reporter was terribly interested. “Surely, you can tell me! After all these years, what does it matter that you were sworn to secrecy, as I’m sure you all were!”
The old seaman smiled, for he could see the bored young reporter from the big city paper was now all ears. “Why should I break my oath to the service and tell you? What good would that do? I might be compromising the case, which is still pending.”
The reporter shrugged. “Still loyal to the old Navy, I see! Oh, well, be loyal! A lot they have done for you!”
The reporter looked with scorn around the impoverished man’s apartment, then began to rise.
The seaman wasn’t surprised, and he got up, by degree, for his knees had gone bad with arthritis. Grinning with pain, he showed the reporter to the door, which was only a few feet from his chair.
“I didn’t tell you the last part?”
The reporter paused. “Oh?”
“Yes, the angels we all saw. I never seen so many, circling round in the sky overhead. As if stationed there, as long as they did that it kept the sharks from diving straight at us. Only if we left the shadow of the ring they made were we vulnerable to attack. As long as we stayed within the circle of their wings' shadow, we were safe.”
The seamen followed him a few steps, however, continuing to talk. “It was interesting, as you say! But guys went crazy, drank seawater, and they wouldn’t stay in the circle, and then the shark got ‘em. I lost all my best buddies that way. “
“Crazy old guy!” the reporter thought as he hurried away to the stairs that took him down out of the old hotel in San Francisco. He returned to the editor who was anxious to run the story. When handed the first draft in, the editor took a quick scan and then threw it back at him.
“This is pure crap, Hagedorn! You aren’t saying anything we didn’t know already! Do it right, or I don’t want to see your face again!”
The reporter picked up his meager, triple-spaced typed interview. “Well, sir, there really wasn’t anything sensational about anything he could tell me, except—“
The editor, with the sure instinct of a shark for blood, shot forward in his swivel chair, ramming his belly against the desk. “—‘except’ what, you idiot? Spill it!”
The reporter shook his head, his face showing his scorn and discomfort concerning the whole idea. “Well, he kept talking about angels at the end. How they were everywhere, flying around or standing in the water, protecting the men, so to speak.”
The editor sank back in his chair, staring at him. The reporter grew quickly hot under his collar. He backed toward the door. “He said it, sir! I am just repeating it, since you demanded to know everything. And that’s exactly what he said. He claimed he saw angels protecting the men, like in a circle, and as long as they stayed in the circle they were safe. But most didn’t make it, because they left the angels’ circle.”
A thick paperback book of Roget’s antonyms and synonyms was launched and flew from the editor’s desk at that moment, and the door slammed behind the rookie reporter just in time.
Surprising the writer even in a racket where he could identify no known rules of logic, the story was run after all, with major attention being given the remarks about angels and how they had protected the men. Hagedorn’s veteran sailor was quoted (though Hagedorn had written no such thing) as concluding that no one would have survived if the angels hadn’t intervened.
Later, after being commended for the article by a memo from the Big Boss himself, the dumbfounded rookie dared to pay a visit to his editor without first being summoned.
“What is it now? You did your piece, we printed it, and I heard the Big Man liked the ending—so what do you want now, a raise and promotion? That is just one story, remember! You gotta do a lot more before you’re gonna get a raise out of me! Maybe in a couple years if you work hard enough and--”
Hagedorn nodded, barely controlling his disgust and anger. “What I want to know, sir, is why the story was run since it mentioned—um—angels. I got the impression you hated angels!”
The editor swiveled round to face his window, which happened to afford him a nice view of the Oakland bridge, where it leaped across to the island in midbay. “Me hate angels? Where did you get that crazy idea, Hagedorn? I don’t hate angels. They just make me puke! But that was the only interesting part about your asinine article, in my opinion, so that’s why I ran it. And you were lucky. I guess it was the bit about angels that caught the Boss’s attention. He must have thought it would please religious readers—you know, a bunch of Catholics nowadays still believe in angels and miracles and things like that. They buy a lot of papers and run ads, Hagedorn.”
The reporter saw himself out, and he felt a little sick as he sat back down in his cubicle. All around him was cigarette smoke mixed with the scent of acrid sweat and the deafening sound of clacking typewriters as hack reporters like himself labored hard at work turning out the copy for the next issue. His work station alone was silent, as he thought through some things. Here he was baptized a Catholic, but he had never before ever thought of angels as real entities since his mother read him nursery tales. Were they actual living beings as the old man had claimed? Did they really protect people like that, when they were doomed to get eaten by sharks at sea?
Now, with hard reality of the working world all around him, he still couldn’t deny the truth of the man’s report. What had the man to gain from telling him the truth? Nothing! Rather, he shouldn’t have told him anything about angels if he wanted his group’s case to succeed in court. With this story going out, the case was doomed. They would be laughed out of court. That was just too bad. He himself felt bad—for letting that one little slip about angels reaching his “editor,” a nice name for a cannibal and an infidel.
He felt miserable. But what could he do now?
Thoughts about angels, and others he had about it, gripped him so much that he quit his job a few days later and enrolled in a Pentecostal Bible College after selling his car to pay the tuition. He was engaged to a young lady he was about to give up to be a priest, so this was the next best way to get closer to angels, he reasoned. He just had to get closer to angels. He went back to the quarters of the old man, but he was moved out, and the drunken neighbors on the floor said he had burst a blood vessel and died on the way to the hospital.
Just as he figured, the case was thrown out, thanks to his sensational story about angels protecting the U.S.S. Indianapolis disaster’s survivors.
He wondered what would happen to them, after this latest setback. He went to see some U.S.S. Indianapolis survivors he knew, for whom he had been given addresses when he still worked for Hearst.
The men weren’t very pleased, when they heard his name. Some were so bitter they slammed doors in his face. But one let him ask a few questions after he explained how it happened the damaging article came out the way it did, and that he had quit his job in consequence.
“Did you see the angels?”
“How many were there?”
“There was one, originally, for each one of us.”
“You mean, then, there were thousands?”
The man nodded to the astonished ex-reporter.
“Each time a man was lost, what happened?” he asked, with sudden inspiration for a lead for a story he knew he would never write.
The man seemed reluctant to reply. Slowly, he answered as Hagedorn, who was sweating now in anticipation, waited on the man’s doorstep. “Oh, something strange happened. We saw a bigger angel take the man’s name down with a gold pen on a sort of rolled up paper.”
“A scroll, you mean?”
“I suppose you call it that. He took each name down, that’s all we saw him do.”
“How do you know that? Did you read the scroll yourself?”
The man looked at Hagedorn as if he were crazy, then he relented. “Oh, that’s right—-you weren’t there to hear it them.”
“Each time the name was written, a choir sang the man’s name—-we couldn’t see who was singing, but it was wonderful—-you should have heard it—it was like out of heaven! It was a kind of roll call set to music, as if all those who had died were being recruited in some kind of special brigade!”
Hagedorn nodded, then stumbled away. He nearly pitched on his head, hardly noticing where he was walking as the street, like so many in town, plummeted downwards toward the bay at a very steep angle.
That revelation settled it for Kevin Hagedorn. He forgot all about his engagement and lady love and flew to Chicago. It was a reporter’s instinct that led him to the residence of the one man alive who could explain everything he needed to know.
The former commander of the U.S.S. Indianapolis led him into his study and shut the door.
Kevin was offered a drink, but he declined.
The ex-navyman took his drink and poured it into his glass after emptying his first.
“So what is it you came all this way to find out?” the ex-commander said bluntly, without any sign of the double shot of whiskey influencing his calm voice.
Kevin didn’t know where to begin, strangely enough. It was so strange, coming to this man’s home, expecting to find a ruined man, but the ex-captain looked like he had just stepped off a golf course, his face was tanned, and he looked strong and healthy for his age.
“Well, I sort of expected you to look older, and—“
The captain laughed. “Yeah, all reporters do! What they can’t understand is I just decided I would go on with my life, despite what they tried to hang on me! Fortunately, I found I had a knack for business, and I started several lucrative businesses in my garage that made quite a pile of money even before I moved them to warehouses and finally sold out to bigger companies. But that isn’t what you wanted to know, was it? You are a reporter, aren’t you?”
“Well, I was a reporter,” Kevin said ruefully. “But doing a story on the sinking of your ship, well, I discovered that I didn’t want to stay with journalism after all. I am still interested in the facts of the case, however. But this won’t get in any paper or magazine, I can assure you. I just had to find some peace of mind, and only you—“
The ex-captain looked him over in a new way. “Okay. That’s good you said that. I can tell you what you probably are seeking. The missing piece, I mean. I have it.”
The man looked at Kevin, who couldn’t disguise his surprise.
“Well, you’ve come to ask me about my role in the disaster, but that won’t help you very much. I saw the angels you wrote about in your article a while back, by the way. As for the suit, it failed, thanks to that very article.”
“Sorry about that! I really mean it!”
The ex-commander turned away and faced the curtained window. “I’m sure you are sorry, but I am more sorry for the men who won’t receive help they need financially, or more medical benefits. I am fixed enough to help some of them, but I can’t help all of them. The suit, if we had gained the compensation they deserve, would have seen to that. As it is, nothing can help them now. But if it were only money and benefits, that would be relatively easy to let go. It is not being recognized, or, rather, being written off as “not having happened,” that is so hard for all us survivors to take away from this incident. If only there was real evidence for what happened, but my ship lies at the bottom of the sea, so we may never know what really happened to it.”
“What do you mean, sir?” Kevin burst out.
The ex-commander spun smartly around on his heels. He tapped his desk with a golf club he had just plucked from a stand. “Just this! I’ve been suspecting all along that we were never hit by that Jap sub. They missed us by a mile in the dark! Something else got us! Something else!”
Kevin must have looked pale and about to faint, for the ex-commander offered him a chair, and he took it gladly.
“I mean, there was mortal damage done to my ship, anyone can see that, but no one saw torpedoes from the sub strike anywhere along my hull, yet we blew up and went down in less than eight minutes. Only something else could have put us under so quickly. It must have been a secret weapon from a third party in the war—if you can believe that. I just don’t have any other explanation. “
Kevin stared at the ex-captain, who wasn’t looking at him but had gone to the window, drawn the curtain, and opened the French doors. Putting down a tee in the door frame, he stood with a club as if he were going to make a shot from there into his big lawn in back. After a couple trial swings, he did make a shot, and the ball sailed up over the hill in back after what sounded like a rifle shot. Only then did he turn back to his guest, smiling a victor’s smile.
“I know that wasn’t what you expected to hear from me. But I am telling you the truth. Scientists had somehow come upon a new death ray, a superweapon which dissolves atomic structures and can even fuse human flesh to metal over a vast distance of miles. Don’t ask me how they came up with it? I’m no scientist. Anyway, since the atomic bomb didn’t work out, this was to be Truman’s knock-out punch to the jaw of the Imperial Japanese! My assignment was to transport the parts of the superweapon from a California laboratory to the secret facility on Tinian, an island in the Marianas Chain. I had it locked in a steel box bolted to the deck of my cabin for safe keeping. I didn’t find out until later that we were one of two vessels sent out, so that if one were lost the other would get through. They didn’t trust air transport as much as a fully-armed destroyer, you see. On Tinian they were to assemble the parts of the death ray and then deploy them during the first main invasions as a means to demoralize resistance. Well, it didn’t work out, due to adverse weather, but that wasn’t anticipated. What they had anticipated was my return to port, and news of the superweapon leaking out to the American public. They couldn’t allow that to happen. So, and this may sound cynical but I can’t help it, we were made expendable. As for the other vessel, it too was lost at sea, without any survivors. The only thing that saved us—well, you’ve heard about the angels, so why should I repeat it!”
On leaving, Kevin Hagedorn shook hands with the ex-captain. “I’m sorry my article messed up things for your men! Is there anything I can do?”
“No,” the man replied, grimly. Then he smiled brightly. “Now that you know the full story, just don’t write it down. You can imagine the trouble you would cause if the American people were told the full truth about how the top brass treat their fighting men. Am I not right? We’re nothing but guinea pigs in the estimation of a lot of generals and Pentagon heads. They were always experimenting on us, with one fool thing or another, and I doubt if anyone will ever find a way to stop them. Oh, I wasn’t happy about the suit, but it seemed the only way at the time to get help for them I couldn’t afford to give so many. But now it’s out of my hands. God will have to help them. It’s too much for any one man, even if I am well off.”
Kevin nodded, his thoughts spinning. What they had been taught about the war, he could see now, was completely opposite to what had really happened. But how could he begin to tell people what had happened? He realized the captain was right. It was best now to leave sleeping dogs lie in a society and nation he had just now clearly begun to see had fatally lost its moorings.