Salisbury woman keeps memories of USS Indianapolis alive
By Steve Huffman
This month marks the 63rd anniversary of the end of the Second World War.
It also marks the 63rd anniversary of one of the U.S. military’s more embarrassing moments. That involved the sinking of the USS Indianapolis along with its almost-1,200-man crew, members of which were missing for four days before the Navy realized anything was amiss.
The ship’s sinking was mentioned in the movie “Jaws” (remember Capt. Quint?) and has over the years been the subject of a handful of books and films.
But to a large extent, the event remains largely unknown to many Americans.
And Mary Brady thinks that’s a shame.
Brady, who lives with her husband, Bill, off Stokes Ferry Road in eastern Rowan County, read a book about the sinking of the Indianapolis in the mid-1980s.
She was moved.
The story is certainly horrifying. The Indianapolis was a Portland-class cruiser, the flagship of the Pacific 5th Fleet. It delivered parts for the first atomic bomb as the war was winding to an end.
Following the delivery, the ship was torpedoed in the Philippine Sea in the wee hours of July 30, 1945. The huge ship sank in just 12 minutes.
About 300 men died when the ship was torpedoed, but another 900 survived and went into the ocean. They experienced four days of hell, most dying due to a combination of exposure, dehydration and shark attacks.
Only 320 men were pulled from the water and four of those died in the following days.
Ultimately, of a crew of 1,196, only 316 survived.
“They were coming out in pieces at the very last minute,” Brady said of the ship’s survivors who were being plucked from the water even as sharks continued to feed upon them.
Numbers vary, but it has been estimated that shark attacks accounted for about 200 deaths among those who served on the Indianapolis. The elements and dehydration took the rest.
The ship’s captain, Charles McVay, was court-martialed, though consensus among most is that he was made a scapegoat for the Navy’s incompetence.
Regardless, of the almost 350 Navy ships sunk in World War II, McVay was the only captain to be court-martialed.
The book that Brady read in the mid-1980s about the Indianapolis included a list of survivors. Brady was so emotional after reading the tale that she wrote thank you letters to those nine or so survivors who lived in North Carolina.
She didn’t have addresses for the survivors, but sent the letters to their hometowns and counted on the local post offices to do the rest.
“I told them my name and told them I’d read the book,” Brady recalled of what she wrote those men. “I told them I wanted to thank them from the bottom of my heart. That was about it. The letters were short.”
Brady received responses from about five or six of those survivors. But over the years, she tucked most of the letters away in a book that she’s not able to get her hands on.
The book that contains those letters, Brady said, is stored away among the thousands ó Brady describes herself as a “voracious” reader ó there in her house.
“I’ll find them one of these days,” she said of those missing letters.
When Brady, 76, was reminded of the sinking of the Indianapolis, she could find responses from only one of the survivors ó Alex Nuttall of Cordova, a small town in Richmond County.
Nuttall wrote Brady twice, once in 1985 and again in 1991 when a television movie, “Mission of the Shark,” detailing the Indianapolis ordeal was aired.
“Thank you for the letter we received yesterday,” Nuttall wrote Brady in their first correspondence, mailed in 1985. Nuttall was referring to him and his wife, Lois.
“It brought tears of thanks and appreciation to the eyes of both of us,” he continued.
In 1991, when Nuttall wrote Brady again, he said he’d seen a preview of “Mission of the Shark” in the week before its release and said the movie was mostly accurate.
He said survivors of the Indianapolis met annually in Indianapolis. Nuttall referred to Wilbur Guinn, the pilot who happened by accident upon the survivors, as “our angel.”
Guinn found the survivors only after observing a huge oil slick in the ocean, causing him to swoop low to investigate.
He was amazed by what he found.
Brady said she hasn’t had any contact with Nuttall since 1991. He was 74 at the time and has apparently since died.
Efforts by the Post to track him down were unsuccessful.
Brady has kept track of much involving the Indianapolis, including a 1991 article from the Charlotte Observer that featured Nuttall. That article was published to coincide with the airing of “Mission of the Shark.”
According to the article, Nuttall was 27 at the time the Indianapolis was sunk. He and his wife already had a 2-year-old son.
“I felt I had something to come back to,” Nuttall was quoted as saying.
In that same article, Nuttall’s wife said families with loved ones serving aboard the Indianapolis weren’t informed of the ship’s sinking until almost two weeks after the survivors were rescued.
Ironically, they learned of the sinking in the newspaper, the same day that Japan’s surrender was announced.
At the top of the front page of the local newspaper was a huge headline reading: “Peace!”
But at the bottom of the page was a smaller headline that read: “U.S. cruiser sunk, heavy loss of life.”
“Everybody was celebrating the top of the paper,” Lois Nuttall was quoted as saying, “but I was worried about that bottom part.”
Brady has continued to track the story of the Indianapolis, even clipping from the Salisbury Post in 2001 a list of the New York Times bestsellers that included Doug Stanton’s “In Harm’s Way,” subtitled, “The Sinking of the USS Indianapolis and the Extraordinary Story of its Survivors.”
Brady said she remembers well the end of the Second World War, but said no one in her immediate family served, thus the conflict’s finale didn’t affect her the way it may have otherwise.
“I remember lots of parades,” Brady said of the conclusion of World War II. “It touched me more later when I read books about it all.”
Brady is retired from the Rowan-Salisbury School System and said she worked over the years in various school libraries, the one at Granite Quarry Elementary, included.
She said she learned early on that children ó boys, especially ó were much more interested in reading when the subject matter was something that drew them in.
Thus, Brady said, she tried to read as much as she could about World War II in hopes of passing along to students suggestions about books that might interest them.
“My goal was to introduce to young boys the love of reading,” Brady said. “Boys love the military.”