U.S.S. Indianapolis

Nearly two weeks ago, on August 18, 2017, the wreckage of the U.S.S. Indianapolis was discovered by the research team of Paul G. Allen, Microsoft co-founder, more than 18,000 feet below the surface of the North Pacific Ocean. The discovery made headlines across the land, and I read about the history of this vessel for the first time.

“The Indianapolis was tragically lost in the final days of World War II when it was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine in the early morning hours of July 30, 1945. The Indianapolis sank in twelve minutes, making it impossible to deploy much of its life-saving equipment. Prior to the attack, the Indianapolis had just completed its secret mission of delivering components of one of the two nuclear weapons that were dropped on Japan. Of the 1,196 sailors and Marines on board, only 316 survived.” (www.paulallen.com/uss-indianapolis-history-and-discovery-materials)

The reports struck a chord. I’d known nothing of those long-ago events, but I should have known. The mission of the Indianapolis—its crucial role in delivering parts of the atomic bombs that only days later destroyed the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and brought an earlier-than-anticipated end to World War II—had a direct effect on my young life. I was not yet five years old. I knew my daddy only from a photograph. He had gone to war in the Philippines only months after my birth and had been missing in action ever since December of 1941.

“On October 20, 1944, a few hours after his troops landed, MacArthur waded ashore onto the Philippine island of Leyte. That day, he made a radio broadcast in which he declared, ‘People of the Philippines, I have returned!’ In January 1945, his forces invaded the main Philippine island of Luzon. In February, Japanese forces at Bataan were cut off, and Corregidor was captured. Manila, the Philippine capital, fell in March, and in June MacArthur announced his offensive operations on Luzon to be at an end, although scattered Japanese resistance continued until the end of the war, in August.” (www.history.com/this-day-in-history/macarthur-returns)

That “scattered Japanese resistance” consisted of more than 150,000 Japanese soldiers, under command of General Tomoyuki Yamashita, who had withdrawn into the highest reaches of the Cordillera Central mountains in North Luzon and were committed to fight to the death. Although short on food, they were positioned deep inside bunkers, tunnels, and caves, were armed with machine guns and automatic weapons, and were going to have to be dug out, a few at a time, the type of fighting the military dismissively termed “mopping up operations.”

My dad’s guerrilla organization, the United States Armed Forces, North Luzon (USAFIP-NL), along with General Walter Krueger’s Sixth Army and close air support provided by the Far East Air Force, were responsible for the mopping up. The going was slow, the battles brutal, and every day men were wounded and killed, including American guerrilla officers. It wasn’t anticipated the job could be successfully concluded before the end of December, perhaps even longer, and no one single individual could be confident he would live to see it through to the end.

Then came the men of the U.S.S. Indianapolis, delivering their unique cargo, components of America’s newly perfected atomic bomb, the weapon destined to put an end to World War II. For days ahead of time, the Allies dropped leaflets on the intended targets, warning civilians to evacuate, but many would not, or could not. On August 6, 1945, an American B-29 bomber, the Enola Gay, dropped the first atomic bomb, “Little Boy,” on Hiroshima, killing tens of thousands. When Japan still refused to surrender, on August 9 a second atomic bomb, “Fat Man,” was dropped on Nagasaki, killing tens of thousands more. Finally, on August 15, Japan agreed to an unconditional surrender, and slowly, over the course of several weeks, 32,000 Japanese soldiers still alive in North Luzon emerged from their holes with their hands in the air, including General Yamashita himself, who was later convicted of war crimes and hanged for his treachery.

The morality of the destruction of so many Japanese civilians became the subject of heated discussion after World War II—and is still debated more than seventy years later—but nearly all agree that except for the two atomic bombs, the Pacific war would have lasted much longer, perhaps even years, and many thousands more American (and Japanese) lives would have been lost.

In the future, whenever I hear of the U.S.S. Indianapolis, I will remember with reverence the 880 brave men who died when she went down, the ones who gave their lives to successfully complete a mission that, in the end, allowed my daddy to survive and return home to us.