Author Doug Stanton and USS Indianapolis survivor Giles McCoy
Doug Stanton is the author of "In Harm's Way," the story of the sinking of the USS Indianapolis. He is also a contributing editor at Men's Journal. Giles McCoy is a survivor of the USS Indianapolis that sunk on July 30, 1945 after being hit by a Japanese torpedo in the South Pacific. They joined CNN.com chat room from New York.
CNN: Good afternoon Doug Stanton. Welcome to CNN.com Newsroom.
DOUG STANTON: Thank you, and welcome to everybody as well. I have with me Mr. Giles McCoy, a survivor of the USS Indianapolis, today, on the anniversary of its sinking.
GILES McCOY: I'm pleased to be here as well.
CNN: What drew your interest to the story of the USS Indianapolis?
STANTON: I have to admit that what I really knew about this was what I gleaned from the movie "Jaws" as a teenager. It does not appear in our history books, and it should, because it was the last major ship sunk during World War II, and it's a bookend of WWII, with Pearl Harbor being the first. So, when I arrived on assignment from Men's Journal Magazine in July of '99 at a reunion of the survivors and met Giles and his shipmates, I began what really for me has been a life-changing event. As a writer, this is more than a book for me. It's an eye-opening experience about the World War II generation, and has really made me rethink my own responsibilities as a citizen, as a parent, as a friend.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: How many survivors of the Indianapolis are still alive?
McCOY: We think that there's probably around 93 or 94 left out of the 317 of us. This is our 56th anniversary here, July 30th. August the 15th and 16th in Indianapolis, they're having our reunion. It's a memorial reunion, for the men who died on The Indianapolis. I was the founder and chairman of it from 1960 to 1995. We built a beautiful memorial in Indianapolis. The people of Indianapolis raised $1.3 million to help us. It's got our names engraved, the history of The Indianapolis, the history of the sinking, and it's frequented by tourists and by schoolkids on field trips, who can read the history. I think WWII veterans saved the world, and kept us from being dominated by Germans and the Japanese, and I think that schoolkids should know this. I've always wanted to build a monument in Indianapolis, never dreaming it would be so beautiful and so big.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: Mr. Stanton, didn't Navy intelligence know about the Japanese sub in the area?
STANTON: Yes, they did. And what I didn't know before writing "In Harm's Way", and what we've learned about what went wrong, but at the forefront of that, a paper was declassified, called an ULTRA-intelligence report, and that report identified that the Japanese submarine. There were four in the area, but the I-58 ended up sinking the ship and it was reported to be in the area.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: Why did it take so long to rescue the crew?
McCOY: That's what Capt. McVay wanted to know. He kept asking why they waited so long before finding us. There were so many screwups that Mr. Stanton so expertly explains in his book.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: How did it change the lives of those who survived? You must have been so very young and terrified when this happened.
McCOY: Yes, of course it changed us all. We realized how lucky we were. Whenever I go to the memorials, I just thank God for letting me have my life, and my children and grandchildren. I think about the guys who died on the ocean during those five long days. They didn't get that. They missed all that. I've thoroughly enjoyed my life with my sisters and my mother. My mother kept me going. I didn't want her to lose her only son. It made me appreciate living. I get upset with young people today who can't get along with one another. Even with the conditions we had out there, we tried to help each other. That's what our young people today need to know-- how to get along and respect one another.
CNN: After more than 50 years, how did you research this story? Did you have cooperation from the military?
STANTON: I wanted to write "In Harm's Way" from the young men's point of view of being in a raft, or hanging in a life vest with just their nose poking above the water. To do that, I traveled and spent almost a week with Giles McCoy at his house, talking with him and his wife Betty, and with Harlan Twible in Florida, and Ed Brown by telephone. I traveled around the country, going to their houses and talking around the kitchen table. It was an emotional experience.
When I was interviewing Dr. Haynes, it was very emotional... he said at one point, "Let's stop, Doug, I need to take a nitroglycerin pill." We were getting to the point in the story where he was saying the Lord's Prayer over deceased soldiers who had either died of their wounds or of salt water ingestion. He was about to say the prayer during our interview, and that's when he got so choked up. He passed away March 11 of this year, and I spoke at his funeral. His kids told me that he was still dog-paddling in his sleep, when he'd have dreams of The Indianapolis.
When I said earlier about how moving this project has been, it meant coming into contact with personal lives, realizing that this is a famous story and ship, but what I kept hearing was that no one had really asked them what it had been like to get along in the water, as a focus of a story. You can also think of this as a military blunder, pure military history, but I'm glad I approached it as I did. It's how I responded to the story.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: Giles - how did you stay alive? Float on something?
McCOY: Most of the men he was talking about with Dr. Haynes's group, they started out with about 400 men, and 93 wound up surviving. I started with 17, and we wound up with 5. To stay alive, you had to have a drive behind you, and to really want to be the last to die. It was easier to die than to stay alive. That's what drove me-- my love for my mother. I didn't want to disappoint her and have her lose another son. So, we helped one another.
In the organization today, we help one another. Help those who can't financially make it to our reunions, we support them when they're ill, and remember them when they die. So many of us are dying off now, because of our ages. The main story of the Indianapolis is love of country, and the honor that we felt in serving it. That's one of the things that spurred me on in getting Capt. McVay exonerated. I started in 1964, and just now got to the point where Secretary of Navy England booked all the big brass and admirals, and exonerated Capt. McVay, and put it into records.
We had the help of a young boy in Pensacola, Florida, by the name of Hunter Scott. He got into the minds of Senator Smith and Senator Warner. And so last October, they got passed in the Senate hearing, where we all went up to Washington DC, and we testified against the Navy Department and the Senate enacted a bill that President Clinton eventually signed, but the Navy wouldn't do anything about it. So it wasn't until Secretary England got in office-- he had the audacity to go against the Navy Department -- and accept the exoneration of Capt. McVay. We're sorry that it took 56 years.
Captain McVay was court-martialed for hazarding his ship by failing to zigzag, but the Navy regulations gave him the discretion to zigzag or not zigzag, and it was very overcast, and he stopped zigzagging. So, we could never understand why they court martialed him for something that they gave him privilege to do. They never would own up to it. That's where we are today, and I'm thankful for the Secretary of the Navy for exonerating Captain McVay, who, after the years of torture, committed suicide in 1968. Even though he's not here today to enjoy his exoneration, we have fought to reinstate is honor. That's what we're doing now. He's entitled to this. He wasn't entitled to the court-martial.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: Do you feel the government should retribute the family members?
McCOY: That's so hard to do. I don't know how they can do that in an act of war. We felt we were sunk through an act of war. We are disturbed because there were so many screwups that we were lost out there. They never did find us. We were accidently found by Chuck McGwinn flying over. He saw the oil slick and the bodies and the shark attacks, and he went to investigate it, not knowing who it was. He could see it was a lot of people being attacked by sharks, and he radioed back, and that was the beginning of our rescue. Mr. Stanton did such a great job in his book of describing the rescue, and the people who participated. He so expertly researched it, and put it down just exactly how it happened.
CNN: Do you have any final thoughts for us today?
McCOY: I'd like to have the American people really understand those who gave tremendous sacrifices for our freedoms. And especially our young people, who haven't found respect for each other, and enjoy the old WWII people who will soon be gone, who gave them the freedoms and wealth we have in our nation.
STANTON: When people ask me why I wrote the book, I finally realized that it was something I struck upon in my interviews. That if you're floating out there and you realize that no one will pick you up, because they would have been there by now, and you're 18 or 19, and you're faced with the thought of living or dying. And a number of the young men decided to not continue any more. They weren't crazy, they were just beaten down by the elements and exhaustion, and thought death was imminent. It was easier to die than to live.
When you're going there, one of the things I take from this story, is remembering Ed Brown, a survivor, remembers that his dad always told him not to quit. One of Ed's buddies swam away, gave up. He either drowned or was attacked by a shark. Ed considered doing the same thing, but then remembered what his dad had told him. What I realized was I wondered if I'd ever said anything to my kids or friends that they would lean on if they were in a similar circumstance. That really makes it a story about responsibilities. None of the survivors preached this, but it's an unspoken theme of the book, where you realize against the odds you can survive what seems insurmountable, simply because you believe in your ability to do so.
Also, you may be interested to know that Barry Levinson is set to direct a movie based on "In Harm's Way" for Warner Bros. and actor Mel Gibson is talking to him about playing the part of Captain McVay.
CNN: Thank you Doug Stanton and Giles McCoy for joining us today.
Mr. Stanton and Mr. McCoy joined the CNN.com Newsroom from New York. CNN provided a typist. The above is an edited transcript of the interview on Monday, July 30, 2001.
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