Sunday, July 17, 2016

Yes, Even a Kid Can Make a Difference

This blog post is a continuation of my first two posts entitled How a Writer's Decision to Give a Character Backstory Altered a Little Slice of WWII History. If you missed Part One of this blog post, Click Here. If you missed Part TwoClick Here.

So how does an eleven-year-old boy watching Jaws have an effect on World War II history? If you’re Hunter Scott, you decide that Quint’s story is pretty fascinating, and would make a very good History Fair Project. If you’re Hunter Scott’s dad, you tell him to go to the library to do research, as Google was not yet a verb. So Hunter searched the history books, old newspaper articles and scoured the Internet but couldn’t find much information about one of the worst disasters in U.S. Navy history, and Hunter and his dad found this kind of … strange

Hunter didn’t give up in his quest for information, though. He advertised in a local Navy newspaper that he was looking to interview survivors of the U.S.S. Indianapolis and found a survivor who lived close by. This man’s firsthand account of surviving for five days in shark-infested waters made Quint’s story sound like a casual swim. He gave Hunter a list of names of other survivors, many who were happy to connect with this eleven-year-old boy and tell their stories—stories that some had kept buried deep inside for years. Hunter recorded the tales of these heroic men, who had suffered on a level that’s hard for most of us to fathom. Their stories are grave reminders of the true horror of war, as well as inspiring testimonials of how the human spirit can triumph against unspeakable odds. And as Hunter interviewed survivor after survivor, he heard one common concern that was voiced repeatedly. These men insisted that their captain had been unfairly court-martialed. 

You see, the night of the sinking had been dark with poor visibility. Warnings of Japanese submarines in the area had not been taken seriously, so were never passed along to Captain McVay. In fact, he had been denied his request for an escort and was told he could zigzag at his discretion--indicating that the Navy did not think their route was dangerous enough to take these precautions. Zigzagging is something a captain would do in conditions of clear visibility and a high probability of enemy submarines in the area; however to Captain McVay’s knowledge, neither situation applied. However, after the tragedy the Navy decided they needed someone to blame. Instead of focusing on a series of errors that could have prevented the tragedy, the Navy court-martialed Captain McVay for hazarding his ship by not zigzagging. 

Sadly, Hunter couldn’t interview the captain to hear his defense. Captain McVay had committed suicide years after the sinking. The other survivors could defend him, though, and they wanted to clear his name. But how could they make the Navy listen? They’d been trying to for decades, without success. 

Could an eleven-year-old boy make a difference?

To make a long story short the answer is yes, he could – and he did. Hunter had put his Indianapolis History Fair Project on display in Congressman Joe Scarborough's local office. (This was in the days before Joe made a living bickering with Mika Brzezinski each morning on MSNBC). People started visiting Scarborough's office just to see the display, and eventually he offered to help Hunter and the Indianapolis survivors in their quest to clear Captain McVay’s name. Legislation that exonerated Captain McVay was drafted and introduced to Congress and eventually Hunter's and the Indianapolis survivors' persistence paid off. The legislation was passed and signed by President Bill Clinton.

I have only skimmed the surface of this story, but it really is a good one that’s an awesome reminder  of how just one person – even a kid – can make a difference in a world that I think we all can agree is getting crazier by the minute. It’s also a reminder to be thankful to our men and women who serve, past and present. As the saying goes, freedom isn’t free, and sometimes it’s easy to take their sacrifices for granted. 

For more on this story, I urge you to read Hunter’s book, Left for Dead.

It’s been years since I’ve read it, but it obviously has stuck with me.

Lastly, you might hearing a lot more about the U.S.S. Indianapolis in the coming months, as a movie is being made about it starring Nicholas Cage. However, as I researched for this blog post I came across another film that looks really interesting. Films by Serendipity has been interviewing survivors for the past ten years, allowing them to tell their stories and now made a documentary called The U.S.S. Indianapolis: The Legacy.  Very cool, if you ask me!

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