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Editor’s note: The following is the first of a series of monthly columns about historical incidents from Trimble County’s past. The column title is taken from the ripples that still roll across the remains of the old Milton dike long submerged in the Ohio River. Many of the long-forgotten events of our past still cast shadows over our way of life today and create ripples that continue to lap at the shores of the river of life upon which we are all mariners.
George Stanley Abbott, Seaman first class, United States Naval Reserve, was getting ready for his 12-4 a.m. watch on a 40 millimeter gun mount aboard the U.S.S. Indianapolis. The night was cloudy and visibility was minimal as he left his sleeping berth and came on deck. Only occasionally did the moon peer through the clouds and cast an eery, dim light across the vastness of the dark sea.
“Stan,” as he was known to friends and family in Trimble County, was inducted into the Navy at the age of 18 on May 24, 1943, at the naval recruiting station in Louisville. Later that summer, after boot camp and subsequent training, he had been assigned to the large cruiser-class warship, the U.S.S. Indianapolis.
The U.S.S. Indianapolis participated in the World War II Pacific battles at Gilbert Islands, Tarawa, Marshall Islands, Eniwetok, Kwajalien, Marianas, Saipan, Guam and Tinian. In Jan. and Feb. 1945, she supported U.S. aircraft carriers in the bombing of Tokyo. The Indianapolis was also in the battle at Okinawa where the Navy suffered the heaviest losses of the war. The ship sustained a hit by a Japanese kamikaze aircraft during that battle. It was badly damaged in this attack, in which nine lives were lost and several were injured.
Following this battle, the ship returned to Mare Island, Calif., for repairs, which required two-and-a-half months. This gave Stan an opportunity for 15-days leave at home, only the second leave he had had since “boot” leave. Home was the Trimble County farm of his parents, Postmaster and Mrs. Wilbur Abbott. He enjoyed the visit with his parents, his married sister Lois Leach and her little daughter Mary Ann, and four brothers: W.R, Leslie, Graham and Benny.
Stan then returned to Mare Island where he and his shipmates prepared for their next mission, a top-secret voyage to the island of Tinian in the Northern Mariana Islands. On July 6, he sent a telegram to his father requesting that $30 be sent to him before the ship was scheduled to depart.
“Leaving soon,” he had written. “Have a few more liberties. Want to make the best of them.”
The U.S.S. Indianapolis departed Mare Island on July 16, 1945, and set a new speed record in her dash to Tinian. The war in Europe had wound down and the Allied armies were preparing for what was expected to be a costly invasion of Japan. Onboard the Indianapolis, Ed Harrell, an eighteen year old Marine had been assigned to the ship as a part of guard detail for the crates containing the secret cargo.
“We didn’t know what was in the crates,” Harrell explained years later. “We just knew it was highly secret and two Air Force officers accompanied the big crates.” Harrell explained after they had delivered the packages they found out the supposedly two Air Force officers were actually scientists from Los Alamos, New Mexico. The crates had contained uranium and other components comprising the business end of the atomic bombs that in August would level the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and cause Japan to surrender.
From Tinian the ship returned to Guam and received orders to set sail without escort to the island of Leyte in the Philippines.
“On Sunday night, the 29th of July, we had been zigzagging [an evasive movement, making the vessel a difficult target for torpedoes fired from submarines] up until dark,” recalled the ship’s commanding officer, Capt. Charles B. McVay, III. “We did not zigzag thereafter. We had intermittent moonlight, so I am told, but it was dark from about 2330 until sometime earlier the next morning.”
The ship was about 450 miles away from Leyte when Stan Abbott and fellow gunner F.J. Outland came on duty at midnight.
“We were both on the fifth directory and worked on the same 40mm gun mount for about six to eight months,” Outland later said in a letter to Abbott’s parents. “He was one of the finest friends I had on the ship. We had the 12-4 a.m. watch on the 40mm gun. George had the starboard side and I had the port.”
Most of Abbott’s Navy buddies knew him as George rather than Stan.
Seaman Woody James was to have been on watch from eight to midnight in another section of the ship but was relieved 15 minutes early. He recalled that Sunday as “a quiet day. The sea was running five or six feet waves, just a beautiful day out.” James went to his berth, retrieved a blanket and went topside to sleep under the overhang of the forward gun turret.
Marine Giles McCoy was guarding the brig, or jail, in the aftermost part of the ship called the fantail. “We had two of our cooks got into trouble on shore, and they had a 10-day captain’s court-martial and so they were serving their 10 days time in the brig,” he recalled. “And so the Marines had to guard them 24 hours a day so you go four on, four off.”
Newly assigned to the ship was Ensign Harlan Twible, a recent graduate of the Naval Academy, who had boarded just prior to leaving Mare Island on July 16.
Abbott and Outland had only been on watch a short time when “two heavy underwater explosions occurred on the starboard side forward,” Capt. McVay recalled. “She filled rapidly with water through the gaping holes in her underwater body caused by this explosion.”
Manning the 40 mm gun Outland and Abbott “were just excited as the other people on the ship,” Outland recalled. “George said, ‘I’m going to get a life jacket.’ I had on the battle phones and I couldn’t leave so I asked him to bring me one back and he did and I think that’s why I’m here today. When he gave me my life jacket he went over to his directory and I never saw him again. He was one of the best boys I ever knew. He gave me the life jacket that saved my life.”
When the explosions occurred, “all controls went out -- that means all lights, all communication,” McCoy said.
James had just gotten comfortable under the forward turret using his shoes for a pillow when the explosions rocked the ship.
“I started to walk forward to see what I could see and what I seen was about 60 feet of the bow chopped off, completely gone. Within a minute and a half, maybe two minutes at the most the bow is starting to do down. It filled up with water that fast. Everything was open below deck and the water just flooded in and we were still under way, just scooping water.”
With no communications equipment operable, there was “total and complete chaos all over the whole ship,” James said. “Screams like you couldn’t believe and nobody knew what was going on.”
By word of mouth came the order to abandon ship as the Indianapolis rolled over on its side. Many men lost their lives almost instantaneously.
James became entangled in some lines but eventually kicked himself free and “swam out away from the ship, probably fifty yards, maybe one hundred yards, I don’t know. I flipped over on my back and looked back and about two thirds of the ship was in the water, bow first and leaning to the right, the propellers were still turning.”
After McCoy managed to climb out of the brig compartment and reached the main deck the ship was rolling on its side and he jumped into the water. “I had to swim through the oil,” he said. “We had about two to three inches of oil on the water. And you swallowed that and saltwater … I got real sick. I was vomiting and throwing up all this oil. And I could feel in my belly, I could feel explosions under the water where the Indianapolis was exploding as it was sinking. And I could feel the concussions hit me in the groin and in my abdomen.”
Of the 1,196 men aboard about 900 had made it into the water. Several men below decks died instantly in the explosions. Very few of those in the water had life rafts.
(Next week: The conclusion to Seaman first class Stanley Abbott’s story.)