Moral Lessons From the Crucible of the Sea

When they were miraculously rescued, having been spotted by a 24-year-old pilot named Chuck Gwinn, whom in later years they affectionately called their “angel,” they felt they had been reborn. The second half of the 20th century was powered by this restless energy, possessed by millions of other Americans also returning from war. When I ask the survivors about this ordeal’s effect on their lives, they consistently remark that since their rescue, they’ve “never had a bad day.”

Reflecting on their struggle to survive feels instructive. When I look at Lake Michigan each July, I imagine the men of the Indianapolis visible on the horizon; dark heads, struggling arms, a cry and whirl of a world being remade. I feel an overwhelming sense of sadness, accompanied by a desire to yell out that they will be rescued. At the same time, I know that many were rescued. But the sadness always comes.

What I feel I’m watching, in my mind’s eye, is the work of people struggling to stay alive and, in the process, struggling with what it means to be a moral person, even after they emerged from the crucible of the sea.

Capt. Charles McVay of the Indianapolis was court-martialed, making him the only captain in American history to be court-martialed for losing his ship in an act of war. Giles McCoy, a founder of the U.S.S. Indianapolis Survivors Organization, promised his captain that the Navy one day would exonerate him. But in 1968, outside his stately home in Litchfield, Conn., Captain McVay took his own life.

The survivors and other advocates struggled for years to clear Captain McVay’s name. When I asked Mr. McCoy why his shipmates stood behind Captain McVay, he said, “The skipper never blamed anyone but himself.” This is despite the fact that the Japanese submarine commander who had sunk the ship, Mochitsura Hashimoto, testified during the court-martial that there was nothing Captain McVay could have done to stop it.

Captain McVay, steadfast in his own moral universe, believed otherwise. Forgive yourself, we want to say, but we know he won’t. His sense of duty was profound, and the survivors’ efforts to clear his name can be heard as an elegiac counterpoint to his suffering. Finally, on July 13, 2001, 56 years after the ship’s sinking, the Navy announced that Captain McVay was not culpable for the disaster.

Last night I swam out beyond the buoys, looked up at the sky and felt the dark, pliable hand of the night water take hold. I do this every year: Five minutes floating alone in the dark, unable to touch bottom, is the barest glimpse of the ordeal that those 316 men of the Indianapolis survived. But I recommend it.

Swim out where the bottom swoops to the deep and dog-paddle. Even though you’re certain you’re safe, the mind skips a beat. I promise, you’ll tell yourself: Tomorrow will be a good day.

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