The Forgotten Sailors: A Veterans Day Story

Posted by on Nov 10, 2010 | No Comments

On a narrow canal in a Midwestern city lies a memorial to men who fought for our freedom, and then their own survival, on a wide ocean. Last September while attending a writers conference in that city I opted to skip breakfast and take a run, so that I could process some advice I’d received from a publisher the previous day.

Because I’d  worked on a project in this same city years before I knew about this memorial and sought it out. When I found it I had the same sense of being on holy ground that I had on my previous visit.

On July 30, 1945, the 1196 men of the USS Indianapolis were steaming toward the Philippines after delivering the first operational atomic bomb to the island of Tinian. At 14 minutes past midnight the heavy cruiser was torpedoed by a Japanese sub and went down in 12 minutes. About 900 men made it into the water where they were kept afloat by life jackets, and only a few rafts. Because of a series of operational errors and poor judgment by the US Navy, the sinking wasn’t known about for days. The first rescue crew discovered the survivors by accident nearly four days later and the rescue wasn’t complete until five days after the sinking. During that time nearly two thirds of the survivors perished from exposure, injuries, or horrific shark attacks.

My personal experience in the military was as an Air Force officer in the waning days of the Cold War. Although it often involved long duty days and time away from my wife, nobody ever shot at me. My most serious injury while on active duty was a sprained ankle while playing rugby for the combined city-base team in Great Falls, Montana.

Men like those who served on the USS Indianapolis made incredible sacrifices. Nearly 900 gave their lives on that mission. The 316 that survived lived with the horror of watching many shipmates slip away into the waters or be eaten alive by sharks.

USS Indianapolis Memorial at Night

As I left the memorial I had a new perspective. No troubles that I ever suffered in my military, civilian, or writing careers compared to those who served on the USS Indianapolis. As I approached the conference hotel in downtown Indianapolis a Carillion was playing “Amazing Grace.” One of those touches to a story that has to happen in real life, because frankly, it would be considered too sappy to write into fiction.

On this Veterans Day please remember those who served to keep us free in wars long past. And take time to thank those who continue to risk their lives today so that we can live in a land of liberty and even extend that liberty to others.

Related post: Keeping the People In (a story about the last days of the Cold War)


My favorite book on the USS Indianapolis: In Harm’s Way by Doug Stanton

Visit the USS Indianapolis website for more information

In the movie Jaws the character Quint told a story of being a USS Indianapolis survivor.

Not entirely accurate, but a fascinating scene about a true story.


  1. Momma Mindy
    November 10, 2010

    My family loves WWII history, although the stories are so heartbreaking, we feel an urge to know, understand and not forget. Thank you for sharing a story I wasn’t familiar with and how it touched you. We felt the same way standing above the USS Arizona last year, we’ll never lose the impact of that moment.

  2. Connie Mace
    November 11, 2010

    Thank you Dennis, for reminding us of the sacrifices of our veterans. My husband was a Vietnam vet who chose to remain in the country to finish his commitment even though his brother had just died while serving in another part of Vietnam. Steven’s feelings about Veteran’s Day was that people should work so the vets could have the day off:)

  3. Dennis
    November 11, 2010

    It is funny that lots of people get Veteran’s Day off…but not necessarily veterans! The vets from my little division go out to lunch each year. We may not get they day off, but we’re going to commemorate it. We’re just glad to have survived our service.

  4. Crystal Laine Miller
    November 12, 2010

    I just found your blog from your guest post on Blogging Bistro. I’m a Hoosier and of course with my love of history, Indiana and a deep respect for military, I was drawn to this blog. I, too, was at the ACFW conference in Indy, but then, I lived there for 7 years so sometimes it takes someone coming to the city with a fresh perspective and curiosity to show us what was there all along. Thanks so much!

    • Dennis
      November 12, 2010

      That was a great conference and I’m glad I got to revisit one of my favorite sites in the city. Both the conference and the memorial were real inspirations!

  5. Richard Norrell
    November 19, 2010

    Thank you for reminding me of how important it is to reflect on this country’s great and proud history and the men and women that have truly sacraficed to give it to us. It is so easy to get overwhelmed with the trivial details of life that bombard us daily, the perspective this sort of reflection provides helps keep things in balance. It is a shame that I must admit that I do not often celebrate the days set aside to remember our veterans even though I served as long as I did. Life just seems to get in the way if you let it. Thanks for this somber reminder of what is truly sacred about the men and women that have gone before us.

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