Sometimes Wonderful Just Comes Too Late
William Toti
October 1, 2017
In August 2017 I had the bittersweet task of notifying survivors of World War II cruiser USS Indianapolis (CA-35) that their ship had been discovered. After years of anticipation, I expected an exuberant reaction. This article describes how it really went down.
Within all the bad news coming out of Seventh Fleet these days, there was one bit of well-covered good news: the long-awaited discovery of the USS Indianapolis (CA-35). Of course, Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen’s expedition wasn’t the first attempt to locate the ship.
 
Back in 2000, the Discovery Channel funded an expedition to locate the wreckage of the Indianapolis. At that time, there were more than 200 survivors alive, most of them in their 70s, and the search for their ship was one of the most anticipated events in their lifetimes. I was the recently relieved skipper of the submarine bearing the same name.
 
It had become clear to me a few years earlier that, correct or not, the survivors were of the opinion that the Navy didn’t like them very much. This was partly because of the very public campaign these World War II heroes had been waging to effect the exoneration of their court-martialed captain, Charles Butler McVay, but that is a story for another day.
One survivor who I have known for more than 20 years couldn’t seem to remember who I was. This man had called me on the evening of 9/11, knowing I had been in the Pentagon during the at- tack, saying, “You were hit by a kamikaze just like us. You got too close to us and had to share our fate.”
While working in the Pentagon for the Vice Chief of Naval Operations, I began to understand why the survivors felt disenfranchised from the Navy. I was witness to several events where the service I loved slighted the Indianapolis survivors in ways large and small. (See Sara Vladic’s excellent 5 September article in Proceedings Today, “Lost Survivor of the USS Indianapolis Found,” for an example of where the Navy consistently came across as condescending to the survivors over a period of decades.)
 
Because I believed (hoped) that the factors dividing the survivors from the Navy were matters of misunderstanding rather than malice, I decided to play the role of interlocutor, adopting the survivors as their unofficial Navy liaison.
Or to be more accurate, they adopted me.
 
By the time the 2000 “search for the Indy” began, McVay’s exoneration had been passed by Congress and the survivors were in a particularly euphoric state. From their point of view, only one item remained undone—to locate their ship. This, then, became the focus of their efforts.
 
The gentleman leading that 2000 expedition, Curt Newport, recently had achieved some degree of fame in locating Gus Grissom’s Mercury space program capsule, Liberty Bell 7, which had sunk in the Atlantic in 1961. The latest in remotely operated vehicle technology was being used by Curt and his team, and four survivors of the sinking—Paul Murphy, L.D. Cox, Mike Kuryla, and Woody James—were going along on the voyage to provide perspective and commentary.
 
Emotions were high, and a great sense of anticipation prevailed. There were talks of the parties we would enjoy when the great day arrived, and the survivors even talked about leasing a cruise ship from which to conduct a memorial service at the site of the sinking, in honor of their lost shipmates. Better yet, they held out hope that some kind philanthropist would underwrite such a venture and that I could help arrange some of these things for them.
 
Unfortunately, that expedition did not succeed, for reasons that would not become apparent until more than a decade later. The survivors’ excitement about the potential for discovery waned a bit, only to rise again whenever rumors of another search would begin to take shape.
 
Every few years another explorer or TV network or documentary filmmaker would visit the survivors and announce their intention to reinvigorate the search. Paul Murphy, chairman of the survivors’ organization, would call me and say, “Bill, it’s a go! We’re going back!” Some of these searchers were legitimate and well-intentioned, some less so. Regardless of my attempts to modulate the survivors’ excitement to protect them from the incapable or unscrupulous, they always would want it to be true. The commissioned officer survivors like John Woolston and Harlan Twible would delve into matters of naval architecture and make suppositions on the condition of the wreck as it would be found on the bottom. Beers would be drunk and celebratory plans would be dusted off, only to be dashed again when the legitimate explorers began to fully comprehend the cost of such a venture or when the posers would vanish into the night.
 
Repeated, phantom promises are crueler still when one’s life has been full of tragic events.
 
And so it went for the next 15 years, until a chance sequence of events caught a historian’s eye, leading to a rethinking of the ship’s final track.
 
The key ingredient was one of God’s greatest creations: “the Google.” Or to be more precise, Google alerts.
 
Years ago, I set up a Google alert so that anytime news involving the Indianapolis—either the World War II ship or my submarine—arose on the “interweb,” an alert would be emailed to me. One such alert popped up a couple of years ago, generated by a posting on a small candy store website in small town America. The alert said something about the business owner’s father having once seen the cruiser Indianapolis while he was under way in the waning days of World War II.
I deleted the alert, finding it uninteresting. Dr. Richard Hulver of the Naval History and Heritage Command (NHHC) did not. Neither did retired Rear Admiral Sam Cox, director of NHHC and a caring leader who treasures our World War II heroes.
 
For decades, the Navy had shown disdain for all things Indianapolis. But this time it was different. Admiral Cox directed that this lead be followed.
 
Dr. Hulver tracked down the service record of the father of the business owner, learning that he served on LST-779. He then pulled the LST’s deck logs from the archives and ferreted out the ship’s track, finding that at the time of the sighting, the LST had been running well north of the Indianapolis’s track of planned intended movement.
 
He cross-referenced the report of the sighting by the LST against an oblique statement by Captain McVay about seeing an LST prior to the sinking, and he concluded that the Indianapolis’s self-reported location of the sinking was well south of her actual track.
 
Although Dr. Hulver didn’t say it, the fact that a zigzagging ship in World War II was north of where it believed it should be is not surprising, particularly given that the skies were overcast that night and the ship was unable to take a celestial fix when it got dark. Wind and currents, along with imprecise ship movements, are difficult to correct for using dead reckoning alone.
This new information was compared to new Japanese reference material, initiating revised drift analysis for the sinking ship, which was conducted by a Naval Academy midshipman.
 
Serendipitously, in 2015, prior to learning about Dr. Hulver’s research, Paul Allen had authorized the purchase of special remotely operated vehicle and autonomous underwater vehicle equipment that could reach the deepest parts of the Pacific, with the intention of reinvigorating the hunt for the Indianapolis, underwater archeology being one of his many philanthropic pursuits.
 
As so often happens, a series of chance events occurred: a website entry triggered a Google alert, which caught the eye of a historian, which then was used by Allen’s team to update their intended search location.
 
When Allen’s Vulcan team contacted NHHC early this year to say they intended to conduct a search for the Indianapolis this summer, Admiral Cox authorized sharing the new information on the ship’s track with them, and NHHC then connected Vulcan with me. Because I was aware of Dr. Hulver’s recent analysis, I was hopeful the updated position would give Allen a much better chance of success, but truth be told, I held out little hope.
 
And so, when I was notified by the Navy early on 19 August that the ship had been found and I was authorized to notify the survivors in advance of the news being released, I was overjoyed.
 
I realized we had only a couple hours to complete notification before the news became public, so I canceled my solar eclipse plans for that day and immediately enlisted the help of “USS Indianapolis: The Legacy” documentary filmmaker Sara Vladic. Despite it being 4 a.m. California time, she answered my call and jumped in to help notify survivors.
 
I had expected our news to generate absolute exuberance from the survivors, even better than the joy I’d witnessed during our “near-miss” events of years past. To a man, they were all grateful for Paul Allen’s largess and happy their ship had been found. But although their words expressed joy, their tone seemed to convey a different emotion. Muted. Melancholy. Even a bit of sadness, perhaps.
 
At first, I presumed the news might be bringing up thoughts of their lost shipmates, and I began to inquire about this. No, I was told. They had processed those emotions decades ago.
 
One survivor who I have known for more than 20 years couldn’t seem to remember who I was. This man had called me on the evening of 9/11, knowing I had been in the Pentagon during the at- tack, saying, “You were hit by a kamikaze just like us. You got too close to us and had to share our fate.”
 
Another survivor didn’t seem to understand what I was telling him.
 
Another said simply, “I wish Paul Murphy was still around to hear this. You know there are only 22 of us left.” I couldn’t bring myself to tell him the actual number was 19.
 
Then it occurred to me that what was happening as I played this event out for them is that they were replaying in their heads conversations they had had with other survivors in years, even decades, past. All those people—Paul Murphy, L.D. Cox, Giles McCoy, Glenn and Gene Morgan—were now gone.
 
And those who remained, now in their 90s, had perhaps exhausted their supply of patience and joy, waiting for this event to happen.
 
They all thought it was wonderful.
 
But sometimes, wonderful just comes too late.