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!

Friday, July 8, 2016

How a Writer's Decision to Give a Character Backstory Altered a Little Slice of WWII History: Part 2

If you missed Part One of this blog post, Click Here

So how did giving Quint backstory alter a slice of World War II history? According to an article from, an uncredited writer working on the Jaws script decided Quint needed motivation for hating sharks so much. He came up with the premise that Quint had been a survivor of the U.S.S. Indianapolis.

But what’s that? you might say--as did Steven Spielberg. The story of the U.S.S. Indianapolis is one of tragedy, valor and incredible survival—and one of the biggest disasters in U.S. Naval history. She was a cruiser with a top secret mission—to deliver the components of the atomic bomb that would end World War II. But after she delivered her cargo to Tinian Island and made it to Guam, she was ordered to go to Leyte Gulf in the Philippines to prepare for the invasion of Japan. The captain asked for an escort but was denied, and tragically, as the Indianapolis crossed the Pacific waters, she was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine. It only took twelve minutes for the ship to sink, and those who survived the sinking were left to persevere in the water, fighting against thirst, hunger, exposure . . . and sharks. 

The true horror of the Indianapolis was that when the ship went down, no one was looking for her. Nobody missed her return. It is estimated that around 900 men survived the sinking. The men suffered at sea for not one day or two days, but for four nights and five days. By the time a passing plane found them by chance, the number of survivors had dwindled to a little over 300. 

For any shark fans out there (and I admit I love a good shark attack story, as morbid as that may be) the firsthand accounts from the survivors of the Indianapolis are both fascinating and terrifying. Men with fresh burns, covered in oil and floating with their buddies, watched the dorsal fins come and go, felt the sharks bump up against them and wondered who might be picked off next. The men huddled in groups, fending off the sharks and trying to resist the temptation to drink the salt water, which led to insanity and certain death. You read their stories and feel humbled by the tales of bravery and sacrifice, and I am incredibly grateful to these men who suffered so much as a result of defending our great country. 

Fast forward thirty years and actor Robert Shaw delivers Quint’s Indianapolis speech with perfection (redeeming himself from the previous day of shooting, where he thought he should drink to get into character and let's just say it didn’t work out so well).

Some say that this scene became Steven Spielberg’s favorite scene.

It was a powerful scene.

And it was this scene that an eleven-year-old boy watched in his living room years later, when he turned to his dad and asked, "Is that true?"

And so began a series of events that altered a slice of World War II history . . . 

Stay tuned . . .