Georgia Men Among the Crew of the Ill-fated USS Indianapolis in 1945
Seventy-five years ago, only minutes past midnight on July 30, 1945, the Imperial Japanese submarine I-58 launched two torpedoes in the dark waters of the south Pacific. They sped toward the USS Indianapolis striking her in the bow and at midship. The story of what transpired following the attack is well known to navy veterans and WWII historians and popularized by the chilling account of the fictional ship’s captain Quint in the 1975 thriller Jaws. It was a test of wills and endurance and resulted in a tragedy that nearly defies description.
Although the Indianapolis sank within twelve minutes of being hit and took almost 300 men with her, 900 of the crew made it into the water. For five days the men, many burned, wounded, and cloaked in bunker oil, fought the elements. Six hundred of the nine hundred lost their battle, succumbing to their injuries, dying from exposure, exhaustion, dehydration, saltwater poisoning, or simply giving up and allowing their bodies to slip below the waves. Horrifically, many fell prey to a series of shark attacks.
Finally, on August 2, a US pilot patrolling the area for submarines spotted the survivors and dropped a life raft, radio transmitter, and supplies. It would be nightfall, however, before rescue ships arrived and began pulling the 316 survivors from the sea.
Aftermath of the Disaster
Information about the fate of the Indianapolis and her crew was scarce immediately after the incident. Nagging questions persisted: Why was the ship not taking a zig-zag course—a routine maneuver for avoiding enemy submarines and torpedoes? Why was there no response to the ship’s distress calls? Why was the ship not reported missing when it failed to reach the Philippines on July 31? Why was notice to the public delayed for 15 days?
The answers to the questions were slow in coming. One reason offered for the delay was the secrecy surrounding the Indianapolis’s mission. Unbeknownst to the crew, with the possible exception of Captain Charles B. McVay III, when the Indianapolis departed from San Francisco on July 15 she was carrying a top secret cargo. In her hold were the components of Little Boy, the atomic bomb that would be dropped on Hiroshima, Japan on August 2. After unloading the secret cargo at Tinian Island in the Marianas on July 26, the ship set a course for Guam with orders to sail on to Leyte Gulf in the Philippines. Another reason was politics—President Truman wanted to announce the surrender of Japan before disclosing the devastating loss of the Indianapolis.
Navy protocol and the “fog of war” were other factors in the delay. While it was standard procedure to monitor ships’ departure and arrival schedules, larger combat ships such as heavy cruisers were frequently diverted rendering schedules imprecise and not a cause for concern. In addition, there was confusion over who had responsibility for tracking the Indianapolis.
Investigations into the events occurred, with a court of inquiry in August 1945 and a trial of Captain McVay by court martial in December 1945. McVay was convicted on a charge of negligence for not zig-zagging on his course, but because of his excellent record, his sentence was remitted and he returned to active duty. Regardless, although many of the survivors defended their captain, claiming he was a scapegoat, his reputation was forever tarnished. In 1968, he took his life. Forty-six years after the incident, in 2001, McVay was exonerated of the charges, the decision to not zig-zag acknowledged to have been at the captain’s discretion based on the circumstances. Unfortunately for the captain, the exoneration was too late.
In 2017, the wreck of the Indianapolis was located in the south Pacific, 18,000 feet below the surface. The ship’s precise location has been kept secret but declared a memorial. Finally, in December 2018, congress awarded a Congressional Gold Medal to the crew of the Indianapolis.
The Survivors – 12 from Georgia – Tell Their Stories
As the years passed, the survivors recounted their tales, and a flood of books emerged to tell the of the events and address unanswered questions. Still, with the chaos that shrouded the ship’s last moments, the failing memories of the aging veterans, and the sheer number of fatalities, not all stories have been told. We know some crewmen only by their name, rank, and serial number.
But we know twelve men from Georgia were among the crew on the Indianapolis. Seven of the twelve perished, either trapped aboard the ship or, later, in the water. Like so many of their fellow crewmates, they were mostly young men who had barely made their mark on life, and most perished without leaving a photo or any significant personal information behind.
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The seven Georgians who perished were:
Arthur Bishop, Jr. Seaman 2nd Class, from Midville (1927-1945)
Thomas Edward Davis, Signalman 2nd Class, Savannah (1921-1945)
Felix Hayles, Cook 3rd Class, Wadley (1922-1945)
Andrew Jackson Kennedy, Jr. Seaman 2nd Class, Savannah (1920-1945)
Alvin Wilder Rahn, Storekeeper 3rd Class, Savannah (1910-1945)
Jack Anderson Roland, Pharmacist’s Mate First Class, Crawford (1918-1945)
Leonard T. Woods, Chief Petty Officer / Chief Radio Technician, Wrightsville (1918-1945)
The five survivors, all of whom have since passed, were:
Marvin Foulk Kirkland, Seaman 1st Class, from Marietta
Kenley MacKendree Lanter, Signalman 3rd Class, Thomasville, (1924-2013)
James Edward Mitchell, Seaman 2nd Class, Savannah (1919-1986)
William Hafford Sharp, Seaman 2nd Class, Morrow
William Howard Dryden, Machinist’s Mate, Austell.
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Reconstructing their Stories
The USS Indianapolis’s official website, navy records, survivor reunion sites online, and books on the sinking of the Indianapolis allow a tiny window into the lives of two Georgians—one who perished, Leonard Thomas Woods (photo below), and one who survived, Marvin Kirkland.
Chief Petty Officer Leonard Thomas Woods, from Wrightsville, was a Radio Technician Chief aboard the ship. “Woods exuded the quiet authority of a man much older than his twenty-six years,” write Lynn Vincent and Sara Vladic in their book, Indianapolis: The True Story of the Worst Sea Disaster in US Naval History. His shipmates remembered him as “absolutely tops” while his actions in the dire situation confirm the deserved accolade. Despite damage to the ship’s communication equipment and a loss of power, Woods restored operation to a transmitter and manually toggled a radio switch on and off, sending an SOS and the ship’s coordinates. Shortly, however, the Indianapolis listed dangerously to starboard, forcing the men in the radio shack to leave. Woods reportedly yelled, “Okay, abandon ship,” to those around him who did as he ordered. Woods was never seen again.
Interestingly, inquiries after the incident claimed no ship or shore station had received any distress signals. Later the navy found the signals were transmitted and received, but, incredulously, they had been ignored.
In September 1945, Captain McVay recommended the navy award medals to several of the crew, including a bronze star medal to Seaman 1st Class Marvin Kirkland, from Marietta. McVay’s request asks recognition of Kirkland’s “heroic service in connection with operations against the enemy while attached to a United States heavy cruiser which was sunk–. Although suffering from exhaustion, exposure and a fractured jaw, he, in the company of another man, supported a survivor who was ill from internal bleeding and exposure for two days, thereby saving his life. His unselfishness and heroic conduct throughout were outstanding and in keeping with the highest traditions of the Naval Service.”
Of the others from Georgia, we have discovered only fragments of their stories.
Arthur M. Bishop, Jr. (photo below) was from Appling County where he was born in 1927 to Arthur and Myra Lee Bishop. His body was not recovered, but his family placed a headstone for him at the Bishops Chapel Cemetery in Summertown, Georgia. At 18 years old, he was the youngest of the group of Georgians.
Thomas E. Davis was born in Savannah in 1921, the son of Marion and Agnes Davis. He had finished his second year of high school and was working as a laborer when he joined the navy. He served as a signalman aboard the ship.
Felix Hayles was born in Wadley in 1922 to Drucilla Johnson Hayles and his father, whose name is not known. He enlisted in the navy from New Jersey and served as a cook third class like the Medal of Honor recipient Doris Miller who also served aboard the Indianapolis for a brief period. (Later, Miller transferred from the USS Indianapolis to the USS Liscome Bay on which he perished when that ship was sunk in 1943).
Andrew J. Kennedy Jr. was born in Bulloch County on July 7, 1920 to Andrew and Ruth Kennedy. Andrew married Edna Ruth (Kennedy) and joined the navy serving as a seaman second class. Andrew was one of two Andrew Jackson’s aboard the ship, although, there is no way to know if his path ever crossed that of Andrew Jackson Holloway, also a seaman second class.
Alvin W. Rahn (photo below) was from Savannah and born on September 26, 1910 to Jacob and Missouri Rich Rahn. He married Clara Hunt Rahn. Alvin joined the navy and sailed aboard the USS Indianapolis as a storekeeper third class.
Jack A. Roland was from Crawford and born on February 15, 1918 to Mr. and Mrs. Arthur Gray Roland. He was serving as petty officer first class / pharmacist’s mate first class.
Thanks to a small, but growing group of volunteers, memorials for each of the fallen of the Indianapolis can be read or will soon be available online. Their work is part of a national effort on behalf of volunteers from forty states and five countries to write the stories of every one of the 400,000 plus US WWII fallen. The group is under the auspices of the Stories Behind the Stars Project (www.storiesbehindthestars.org) in partnership with Ancestry.com and its affiliate Fold3.com and is the brainchild of Don Milne. In the coming months, Milne plans to create a smart phone app to allow visitors to US war memorials and cemeteries to scan the names of a fallen WWII soldier and read their story.
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Rona Simmons is a Georgia resident, volunteer with Stories Behind the Stars, freelance writer and author of, most recently, The Other Veterans of World War II: Stories from Behind the Front Lines. Don Milne is the founder of Stories Behind the Stars. Anyone who would like to volunteer to help document WWII fallen soldiers’ stories, is encouraged to contact Don Milne at email@example.com.
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Note: Excerpts of this article appeared in the Marietta Daily Journal on July 30, 2020 and in the Savannah Morning News / savannahnow.com on August 2, 2020.