TRAVERSE CITY — Alison Metiva will never forget meeting survivors of the USS Indianapolis.
“You can’t be in the room with so many people that are intimately connected and touched by that experience and not be moved by it,” said Metiva, who attended a reunion of survivors and their families July 28-30 in Indianapolis. "It caught me off guard that it was so emotional.”
Metiva was at the event as community relations director for the Grand Traverse Regional Community Foundation, which manages a scholarship for family members of the Indianapolis and its rescuers. The education award was established by Anne and Doug Stanton, local author of the best-selling book, “In Harm’s Way.”
The book chronicles the July 30, 1945 sinking of the World War II heavy cruiser after being struck by Japanese torpedoes on the way back from its secret mission to deliver components for the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.
In 2007 the scholarship was permanently endowed with a gift from the family of Navy Lt. Wilbur C. (“Chuck”) Gwinn, the pilot who spotted the wreckage and survivors of the ship’s sinking days later.
By the time of their rescue only 317 of the crew of 1,196 aboard were still alive. Hundreds of others died from dehydration, starvation, exposure, salt-poisoning and shark attack. The sinking was one of the worst naval disasters in American history.
Until meeting some of the remaining survivors, Metiva knew the high points of the story. But to her it was just that: a story.
“To sit in a room and hear about the story from seven men who lived through it gave me a new level of understanding,” said Metiva, who brought along her family to the reunion. “Seventy-two years have passed yet the intensity of emotion was still there."
Until recently the location of the ship’s wreckage remained a mystery, like how it sank in just 12 minutes and whether its vulnerability to attack was through captain error. But a scant three weeks after Metiva returned from the reunion a team of civilian researchers led by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen discovered the cruiser’s wreckage on the floor of the North Indian Ocean.
“It was very strange for me because I had just spent time immersed in this story," said Metiva, whose reunion experience included attending a memorial service for the men who died, and viewing the memorial to them on an Indianapolis canal.
Doug Stanton learned about the Aug. 19 discovery during a TV news broadcast and soon after was contacted by CBS and Newsweek, which reprinted an essay he’d written about the disaster.
“I’d heard that several groups had been looking for it,” said Stanton, who interviewed at least 40 survivors for his book and later attended and spoke at many of their funerals. “Obviously Paul Allen saved the day. He and his team did the country a huge service. That event was really a bookend for World War II. But we’ve never known where the ship is or why it sank so fast.”
Stanton said the discovery is important not only to help answer questions about the event but to keep alive the story of “ordinary people doing the right thing to try to survive” and of their individual moments of heroism.
“It puts the ship back on the map both physically and symbolically and prompts us to talk about the men and clear the captain’s name,” he said.
The Indianapolis’ eventual discovery was a topic at the recent survivors’ reunion, said Dick Thelen. The Lansing native has missed only one annual reunion since 1960 and saw two of his daughters receive the scholarship administered by the Grand Traverse Regional Community Foundation.
“I felt kind of strange because for years they’ve been looking for it,” said Thelen, the last Indianapolis survivor from Michigan. “I thought it would be impossible because the (sailors) were scattered in an area two miles wide and 12 to 15 miles long because of the currents. But a guy at the reunion said, ‘We’ll find it, because we have better technology now.’”
Thelen, now 90, was sound asleep shortly after midnight when the force of a torpedo sent him airborne. He recalls having just enough time to cut down a life boat and reach for a life vest before hitting the water wearing only his shorts. But it was dark and there weren’t enough lifeboats for the men so he drifted instead.
“We went four days and five nights without food and water,” said Thelen, who joined the Navy at 17 after promising his father he’d return. “Every time I wanted to give up in the water it was my dad’s face I’d see. He brought me back.”
For now the ship’s exact location is being kept a secret by the U.S Navy, which owns it. But U.S. law regards a sunken warship as a military grave not to be disturbed. In any case the ship’s graveyard more than 18,000 feet below the surface of the Philippine Sea would make visiting the site prohibitive.
Still, Stanton foresees other ways survivors and families could eventually get closure.
“What if you could fly there on Google Earth?” he said. “There are other ways to go there other than physical travel.”
Meanwhile the author is considering adding a chapter to his book when more details about the find come out.
“There’s more news to come from the survey as they photograph it,” he said. “I’m really curious about how the ship sank.”