There’s a moment in Steven Spielberg’s seminal hit Jaws, where time stops still for a few minutes.
Out at sea and preparing to face the movie’s Great White foe, shark hunter Quint, played by the late Robert Shaw, tells his crew mates about his experience as a survivor of the USS Indianapolis disaster.
It’s as iconic a scene as you are likely to find and one that came as the result of a phone call between Spielberg and his long-time friend and fellow director John Milius.
Keen to make the scene more dramatic, Spielberg had asked Milius for help and quickly got it, with the latter apparently dictating the memorable monologue over the phone then and there with Shaw later adding a few touches.
It’s a story that not only offers a fascinating insight into the making of a Hollywood classic but also a brief glimpse of arguably one of the darkest and most brutal incidents in US Naval history, which is about to be brought back to the fore with the release of USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage starring Nicolas Cage and Tom Sizemore.
To say the USS Indianapolis played a significant role in the Second World War would be an understatement. Under the command of Captain Charles B. McVay III the ship had just successfully transported enriched uranium (around half the world’s supply of Uranium-235 at the time) to Tinian island.
This uranium would go on to be used in the manufacture of the atomic bomb Little Boy, which would later be dropped on Hiroshima.
Leaving Guam for Leyte just a few days later, the Indianapolis was struck by two Type 95 torpedoes from a Japanese submarine just after midnight on July 30 1945.
It took just 12 minutes for the vessel to sink, with around 300 of the 1,196 crew on board going down with the ship. However, for the survivors left adrift, it was only the beginning of the horror.
For almost five days or 108 hours the survivors, which included McVay, went without rescue.
Dehydration, hypothermia, skin shedding, and salt poisoning took many lives over those few days but that was only the half of it. Shark attacks, suicides and delirium took even more.
Of the 880 men who survived the initial sinking of the Indianapolis, just 317 lived beyond those five days in the water in an incident that stands as the most shark attacks on humans ever recorded.
And yet, at least some of that loss of life was avoidable.
According to declassified records, as many as three stations received distress calls from the USS Indianapolis, yet all three failed to respond.
They all had their reasons: one thought it was a Japanese trap, another had asked his men not to disturb him while the third had simply been drunk.
Lieutenant R. Adrian Marks did do something about it though.
In control of a flying boat, Marks had been asked by his superiors to “report on the situation” but, seeing the carnage below, landed and rescued the most vulnerable stragglers and lone swimmers, filling his plane as much he could while tying additional survivors to the wings via parachute cords.
It’s estimated that his rescue accounted for around 17% of the total number of survivors from the tragedy. There was to be one final twist in the tale though
When the remaining seaman were finally rescued, McVay found himself court-martialled and convicted of “hazarding his ship by failing to zigzag.”
It didn’t matter that the commander of a Japanese submarine later testified that zigzagging would have made no difference – McVay was made a scapegoat, with a once-promising naval career left in tatters and McVay left to live out his days in disgrace.
In 1995, the USS Indianapolis Memorial was opened at a location near to the city’s downtown canal.
Five years later, in October 2000, Congress passed legislation, signed by then-President Bill Clinton to the effect that McVay’s “military record should now reflect that he is exonerated.”
It was bittersweet though. The legislation could not clear the conviction from McVay’s record due to Congress regulations while, for McVay’s son, the Presidential pardon was simply too little, too late.
“It looked for a scapegoat and it found one,” Charlie McVey reflected at the time.“You can’t pardon someone for something he never did.”
Despite helping countless men live through the ordeal, McVey died without the recognition he so richly deserved. The only hope now is that this film changes that.