If you have seen the movie, “Jaws”, you have heard one of most famous monologues in cinematic history. Robert Shaw, as shark hunter Quinn, tells a sea story about the sinking of the USS Indianapolis and how the crew survived massive shark attacks and the extremes of the open ocean for nearly five days. That is all most people know about the sinking of the Indy (CA-35); but local writer, director, and producer Sara Vladic has felt for years the public needs to know more about the ship, its importance in World War II, and the incredible stories its final crew has to tell.
Sara, her producing partner Melanie C. Johnson, and a small crew including Sara’s husband, have spent more than 10 years interviewing 104 survivors, rescuers, and family members of those lost at sea. Sara led the team to produce a feature length documentary titled, “USS Indianapolis: The Legacy”. The documentary received its first screening December 6th in front of a packed auditorium at the Dove Library in Carlsbad. Sara first heard the story of the USS Indianapolis when she was 13 years old, and it captured her attention.
After graduating from Pepperdine with a degree in film, she worked on various film and TV productions, but always kept the hope alive that someday she would make a movie about the USS Indianapolis. A trip to Indianapolis in 2001 led her to attend the first of many USS Indianapolis survivor reunions, and marked the beginning of a journey she could never have imagined. In 2005, Sara acquired the rights to tell survivors’ stories, and began to record one-on-one interviews with the men. Her goal was to research and understand the story well enough to write an accurate screenplay and do the story justice. Ten years later, with the screenplay completed, Sara and her team decided that the research footage of these men couldn’t be lost. It needed to be shared. Those 170 hours of original interviews have been edited into a unique documentary in which the survivors individual stories are woven together. Through careful editing by Sara and her team, the survivors complete each others’ sentences to relate the story without the interference of any narration.
At the present time, there are only 29 living survivors. Six of them having passed away this year. The youngest living survivor is 88 years old. Over the years Sara has traveled to 19 states to sit down with the families and men of the Indianapolis. She noted that initially, many of the men did not want to talk about how they survived what has since been called both the largest single loss of life at sea in the history of the U.S. Navy, and the largest loss of life due to shark attacks. She met first with Paul Murphy, the chairman of the USS Indianapolis Survivors Organization, and told him and his wife, Mary Lou, of her desire to put their story on the big screen. A few years later, while having breakfast at Denny’s, Paul and Mary Lou gave Sara their blessing to tell the story, saying they knew that if anyone could get it right, it would be her.
Sara’s work to get this story told properly led to several media projects. The documentary is the first to be completed, but she is currently co-authoring a book with New York Times bestselling author Lynn Vincent. It will be published by Simon and Schuster with a tentative release date of May 2017. Sara has also written a full-length feature screenplay that she is working to produce with Melanie C. Johnson, soon after the book release.
The story and controversy surrounding the sinking of the USS Indianapolis and rescue of the survivors is one of the most amazing stories to come out of World War II. The USS Indianapolis was the flagship for Admiral Raymond Spruance, and the Ship of State for President Roosevelt, earning 10 battle stars during the war. In
March of 1945, the Indianapolis was almost sunk just prior to the bombardment of Okinawa, when a Japanese Kamikaze plane hit the ship. The plane released a bomb that went through the deck, the crew’s mess hall, the berthing compartment, and the keel, exploding in the water underneath the ship. The flooding was sealed off, but the ship listed to port and sailed to Mare Island for repairs. After the repairs, the Indianapolis was ordered to proceed to Tinian Island. The ship was loaded with a mysterious, large crate on board, guarded by a platoon of Marines. Unknown to the sailors on board, inside the crate was the housing for the atomic bomb Little Boy, set to be dropped on Hiroshima. In two smaller canisters placed in the Admiral’s quarters, were the heart of the bomb, the enriched uranium.
After delivering the crate, the Indianapolis was then sent to Guam to off load some of the crew and pick up supplies and fuel. On July 28, 1945, the ship left Guam to sail toward Leyte, but on July 30, shortly after midnight, the Indianapolis fell victim to a torpedo attack from the Japanese sub I-58, under the command of Mochitsura Hashimoto. The explosions did massive damage to the ship, causing it to list and settle by the bow. It would only take twelve minutes for the ship to roll, stern in the air, and plunge into the depths of the ocean. The ship sank so quickly, many of the sailors did not even have time to get life preservers, many jumping from the sides of the ship. The total number on board was 1,197 men, including Capt. Edwin Crouch, a passenger. It was estimated that approximately 300 went down with the ship, and 880 would enter the water. For the next 4 ½ days these men would face hypothermia, dehydration, hypernutremia, starvation, suicide for some, delirium, hallucinations and shark attacks. The survivors would eventually be scattered over a 25 sq. mile area. It would be 4 ½ days before rescue arrived. Of the nearly 900 that went into the water, 321 would be rescued and 317 ultimately survived.
But, it would not end here. The captain of the Indianapolis, Charles B. McVay III, survived the sinking and in December of 1945 he was court-martialed for “hazarding his ship by failing to zigzag”. The Navy even brought in commander of sub I-58, Mochitsura Hashimoto to testify. Hashimoto testified that zigzagging would have made no difference in his ability to sink the ship. Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz remitted McVay’s sentence and restored him to active duty. McVay retired in 1949 with the rank of Rear Admiral. The events of 1945 would haunt him, and he continued to receive numerous letters from crew family members accusing him of wrong doing. In 1968, using his Navy issued revolver, Charles McVay would take his own life.
After nearly 60 years of fighting for their captain, the USS Indianapolis crew members, with the help of several others, finally succeeded in encouraging Congress to pass a resolution clearing Captain McVay’s name in October of 2000. The bill stated that Captain McVay was exonerated for the loss of the USS Indianapolis, and President Bill Clinton signed it into law.
Sara Vladic and her colleagues want to make sure we do not forget the courage, valor, and dedication the men of the USS Indianapolis displayed in this ultimate test of survival. These men, part of “the Greatest Generation”, are rapidly dwindling in number, so we must continue to learn as much as we can about their commitment to our ideals, and the importance of their involvement in World War II. It is for this reason Sara filmed as many of the remaining survivors as she could, and created this documentary. She continues to work to tell their story through her future projects, including an upcoming book, and cinematic projects with her team at Films by Serendipity.