Lost in coverage of the eclipse and the day-to-day deluge of politics and partisanship was a remarkable discovery – one that should, at the very least, offer some perspective.
On Saturday, naval researchers announced that wreckage from the USS Indianapolis — a World War II cruiser sunk by a Japanese submarine in 1945 — had been found more than 3 miles deep in the Philippine Sea.
Near the end of the war, the Indianapolis ran a top-secret mission to an island in the Pacific Ocean, delivering parts that would be used in the atomic bomb that was eventually dropped on Hiroshima, Japan.
Returning to the Philippines, the ship was torpedoed and sank. There were 1,196 sailors and Marines on board. About 800 survived the initial strikes and sinking, but after four days adrift in shark-infested waters, some on rafts, some floating with life preservers, only 317 survived. It was and has remained the Navy’s worst disaster at sea.
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There have been searches for the wreckage off and on since the Indianapolis went down, to no avail. But finally, a team led by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen found her, including a piece of the hull with a white “35” still visible, after scouring a 600-square-mile area of open sea.
Allen’s website quotes Capt. William Toti, spokesman for the survivors of the Indianapolis: “For more than two decades I’ve been working with the survivors. To a man, they have longed for the day when their ship would be found, solving their final mystery.” He said the site is now a war memorial and called it “one of the most tangible manifestations of the pain and sacrifice of our World War II veterans.”
I spoke with Edgar Harrell, a 92-year-old survivor of the Indianapolis who now lives in Tennessee, and he said he got a call from Toti not long after the discovery was made: “I said, ‘Praise the Lord.’ And then from there I’ve been inundated with calls and emails.”
Harrell is one of only 19 living survivors, and like many of them, he has worked hard to keep the story of the Indianapolis and its crew alive, even authoring a book about the tragedy titled “Out of the Depths.”
I think that’s how the mission continued for many of these sailors and Marines. They survived unimaginable conditions at sea, watched their brothers in arms pulled under by sharks or die of dehydration, and were finally rescued after a bomber pilot on patrol spotted them.
The war ended soon after, and the sinking of the Indianapolis was somewhat lost in all the stories of World War II. But people like Harrell never gave up hope that the ship would be found.
“It’s great news, just to know that it has been located,” Harrell said. “And yes, it brings some closure to the saga.”
He added this: “But it fails to change any outcome of the disaster and the trauma of that experience.”
And that’s where I think we get some perspective.
The sailors and Marines aboard the Indianapolis, like all who fought in World War II and all who have worn a uniform and served since, were willing to die for this country. And more than 800 of them did, while the rest survived conditions I can’t begin to imagine.
That’s bravery. And sacrifice. And true patriotism.
Matt Bierzychudek is a project strategist with U.S. Bank in Chicago and the grandson of a late Indianapolis survivor. He has a sleeve tattoo covering most of his left arm, all dedicated to the Indianapolis — to the ship, and the sea and the men on board.
He recalls hearing stories about the tragedy and seeing how the Indianapolis was such a huge part of his grandfather’s life.
“I think he was proud,” Bierzychudek said. “He was proud to have served his country. My grandparents were both extremely patriotic. That was their lives, talking about the Indianapolis.”
He continued: “These are guys as young as 17 — some had even lied about their age to serve their country. My grandfather was from Chicago, went to San Francisco and saw the ship; it was the biggest thing he had ever seen. It wasn’t about politics at that time; it wasn’t about hating the enemy. It was about protecting and serving your country. And a lot of them made the ultimate sacrifice. And he just never gave up. They were in the water and never knew if the rescue would come, and he just never gave up hope.”
Bierzychudek’s mother hadn’t been born yet when the Indianapolis went down: “Had he not survived, I wouldn’t have been here.”
We all owe something to people like Bierzychudek’s grandfather, and to Harrell and to the men of the Indianapolis who didn’t survive. They’re a reminder of what binds this country together, and of the things that make it worth fighting for in the first place.
I hope the discovery of the wreckage of that ship raises interest in that tragic moment and in the sacrifices that were made.
But I also hope Americans can pause a moment, as we wade through our troubles and divisions and daily dramas, to gain some perspective on life, on honor and on the people we decide to call our heroes.
Rex Huppke is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.