Community Forum: Be sure to hug your veteran
This week’s writer is Win Smith Jr., owner of the Sugarbush ski resort in Warren and former chairman of Merrill Lynch International.
Just before Veterans Day in 1968 my stepfather, dressed up in his Navy uniform and holding a toy sailor, put a revolver to his head and committed suicide on our front steps in Litchfield, Conn.
Admiral Charles Butler McVay III was in need of hugging, but instead he took his own life to ease his pain. Charles had a distinguished naval career until the night of July 29, 1945. As captain of the USS Indianapolis, he was ordered to sail as quickly as possible from San Francisco to the island of Tinian in the South Pacific carrying a secret cargo guarded by marines around the clock. This cargo was the atomic bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima on Aug. 6 of that year. After dropping the cargo, the Indianapolis was ordered to sail to Leyte to join up with the rest of the fleet. Charles requested a destroyer escort as was the norm, but this request was denied and he was told there were no reports of enemy submarines along his route. This was not true.
Near midnight on July 29, Japanese submarine I-58 surfaced and Captain Hashimoto spotted an indistinct object. Betting that it was an American ship, he fired two torpedoes that moments later hit the Indianapolis broadside. It severed the communication system and the ship sunk within 12 minutes, killing nearly half of the sailors onboard. My stepfather was thrown off the bridge and into the sea and spent the next four days adrift with members of his crew. Nearly half of the survivors perished, many of them eaten by sharks.
Incredibly, the Navy had “lost” the Indianapolis and did not realize that it had never made port. Only a lucky sighting by a naval aircraft that spotted an oil slick and descended to take a closer look allowed the remaining sailors to be rescued.
Charles often said he wished he had gone down with his ship or perished with the others in the sea. That would have been better than the betrayal he endured at the hands of his beloved Navy. They needed a scapegoat to cover up their egregious mistakes. Charles was court-martialed for “failing to order abandon ship” and “failing to zigzag” when even the enemy submarine captain testified that it would have made no difference. Shockingly, Captain Hashimoto had been called to testify by the Navy against my stepfather but his unexpected opinion was ignored.
My stepfather was found guilty on the charge of failing to zigzag. The court sentenced him to lose 100 numbers in his temporary rank of Captain and 100 numbers in his permanent rank of Commander. In 1946, at the behest of Admiral Nimitz who had become Chief of Naval Operations, Secretary Forrestal remitted Charles’s sentence and restored him to duty. But his naval career was over. He was never fully exonerated but did serve out his time at a desk job in the New Orleans Naval District and retired in 1949 with the rank of Rear Admiral.
Charles and my mother had known each other in their youthful years in Washington, D.C. After both their spouses passed away, they were reacquainted and married in 1962.
Charles did not speak about the Indianapolis very much, but even as a young boy I sensed it pained him greatly, and I heard his story from my mother and brother. He was brought to tears at times when he received hate mail from the parents of sailors who had perished. Believing the court-martial verdict, they held him responsible for the death of their sons. The survivors, however, had a different viewpoint based on their firsthand knowledge. They held an annual reunion in Indianapolis, Indiana and invited Charles to attend, which he finally did once in 1960. When he entered the room, they all saluted. He was greeted with affection and respect by all. The survivors knew him as a good captain who looked out for them, and they knew he had been made a scapegoat. One told him, “If the war had continued, all of us would have been proud to serve under you again. Not one of us ever blamed you for a second.” They tried in vain for years to get him exonerated. Ultimately that happened in 1998. Unfortunately, that was 30 years too late.
Charles was well liked in our hometown of Litchfield, Connecticut. He loved bridge and hunting and fishing as well as carving small wooden boats and working around our farm. The last time I saw him was when he came to watch me play soccer. A few days later he was dead. It was a shock, and I could not fathom why he did this. I knew that Charles and my mother were not getting along that well anymore, but I did not understand his loneliness and his pain. Only years later did I appreciate what I missed and how I could have helped this good but tortured man. I wish I had understood this earlier. I wish I had hugged him. I wish our government had hugged him. I wish everyone who knew the story of this courageous veteran had hugged him. Had we, I think he would have lived to see his exoneration.
This story of my stepfather may be unique in some ways but it is also similar to what so many veterans experience. This Friday, Nov. 11, hug all the veterans you know. You might save a life.