Their tale began just after midnight July 30, 1945, when a Japanese torpedo sank Indianapolis in 12 minutes. About 900 of the 1,200-man crew managed to abandon ship, only to fight off hallucinations, shark attacks and the urge to drink salty seawater. After a chance sighting by a pilot flying on routine anti-submarine patrol, 316 men were rescued.
In the disaster’s aftermath, survivors did not blame Capt. Charles McVay for the loss of the ship, yet the Navy court-martialed him for negligence. For years, survivors and others - including The American Legion - fought to set the record straight and exonerate McVay, who committed suicide in November 1968.
History might still blame McVay if not for a curious Florida sixth-grader who began looking for the truth in 1997, after watching “Jaws.” A school research project ended up clearing McVay’s name and putting young Hunter Scott on the path to serve as a Navy helicopter pilot.
The American Legion Magazine caught up with Scott at last summer’s Indianapolis reunion and asked him how his research shaped his life and career.
Take me back to the beginning, when you were watching “Jaws” with your dad.
I was looking for a topic to enter the National History Day competition. There’s a scene where Capt. Quint and the others are comparing scars, shark bites and tattoos they had. And it led into a five-minute soliloquy by Quint about the USS Indianapolis. I said, “Is that a true story?” My dad didn’t know, but he was working on some research for his dissertation at the time, so I went to the library with him. He is a lifelong educator, so he thought this would be a good opportunity to teach me how to do some research. For the next several years, I continued to research the Indianapolis.
Was it hard to track down information for the project?
I had a very difficult time finding information. I was able to get a hold of a survivor, Maurice Bell, who lived maybe five minutes from my house. Despite the generation gap, we hit it off. He showed me his Purple Heart and other artifacts from when he was in World War II and on the Indianapolis, and he gave me a list of all the other survivors. So I went down the list, and eventually I was able to contact every single one of them; 156 were still alive at the time. And the more I began to dig, the more I found out that something really didn’t add up in terms of who was responsible for the sinking and why the captain was court-martialed.
What happened at the history competition?
I was disqualified due to a minor technicality. They had changed the rules. And my history fair coordinator gave me an old copy of the rulebook. I had two notebooks full of interviews with the survivors. He said, “If you put these on the floor in front of your display board, I promise you that the judges will be impressed.” But it was now against the rules to have a floor display on your display board. They highlighted that section of the rulebook and set it on my easel afterward and told me I was disqualified. At that point, I was pretty distraught. I spent some time crying after that competition because I had put so much into it.
What happened next?
I took my display and got it set up in Joe Scarborough’s office; he was my congressman at the time. Since Pensacola is a big Navy town, people came in and started looking at all the research I had done. I told him the story about the contest and that I still wanted to help these men. His office helped draft legislation (and) get it introduced to Congress. A few years later, the captain was exonerated and the crew finally received the recognition they deserved.
Did you work with McVay’s family on his exoneration?
His son, Kimo, lived in Hawaii and passed away one week before his father was exonerated. There was another son, Charles, who was alive at the time. Kimo gave me Capt. McVay’s dog tags when I came to visit him in Hawaii. I carried the dog tags with me to the congressional hearing.
Did your experiences with the research project lead you to your career choice?
Without a doubt. Otherwise I would not have considered a career in the military. It was not a part of my life growing up.
Describe what these men mean to you.
I describe it as having a bunch of grandfathers. These men have taken me in. They are my heroes. From the moment I met Maurice Bell, I wanted to try to do something for these men. They made sacrifices, and some of their shipmates made the ultimate sacrifice, for me. Because of that, I am proud to serve in the military. It is a coincidence that my primary mission as a Navy pilot is anti-submarine warfare.
Henry Howard is deputy director of The American Legion Media & Communications Division.