SUNK; Inside Story

The Mail on Sunday (London, England), October 29, 2000 | Go to article overview

SUNK; Inside Story


Byline: DOUG STANTON

On July 30, 1945, after delivering the bomb destined for Hiroshima, the USS_ndianapolis was sunk by a Japanese submarine. During the next five days, 880 men died in the water. Some drowned, some were eaten by sharks, and some were murdered by their own comrades. Two questions still haunt the survivors: Why didn't the Navy rescue them sooner, and why did their captain get the blame? A new film may reveal what happened on that terrible voyage, but will Hollywood be brave enough to make it?

On a windswept November morning in 1968, Captain Charles Butler McVay III, a 1919 graduate of the United States Naval Academy and a former commander of the World War Two cruiser USS Indianapolis, wakes alone in a draughty bedroom in his farmhouse near Litchfield, Connecticut. He is 70, in excellent health, with white hair and piercing blue eyes. Always dapper, always self-assured, he dresses in a pressed khaki shirt, khaki pants, and leather work boots - an ensemble that has become a uniform for him, a vestige of his life in the wartime Navy.

He descends the creaking staircase to the kitchen, where he's greeted by the housekeeper, Florence Regosia, who insists on calling him 'Admiral', an abbreviation of Rear Admiral, the rank he received upon his retirement.

McVay, however, usually insists on being addressed as 'Captain'. Perhaps it seems more honest to him.

Outside, he meets his gardener, and they work on the shrubs until lunchtime.

Inside, Florence is setting out soup and a sandwich on the dining-room table.

McVay's wife, Vivian, with whom he has been speaking less and less, is off somewhere in another room, eating alone. Before sitting down, the captain goes up to his bedroom, ostensibly to change into something suitable for an afternoon of playing bridge at a gentlemen's club in Litchfield. He closes the door.

Perhaps it's now that some small nerve snaps within McVay, a strand already stretched too far in his life. On the bedside table sits a holster containing a navy-issue, 38-calibre revolver. He picks it up.

For all McVay's usual good cheer, Florence has been worried about him. Later, she'll remark that his face had seemed glazed and flushed. A little while later, she walks into the dining room and the captain is nowhere to be found.

Upstairs, his bedroom is empty. Then she finds the empty holster on the nightstand. Frantic, she begins rushing through the house.

But McVay has already opened the front door, walking through a small wooden entryway on to the front step. Then he lies down, face up to a grey sky.

From the farmhouse, you can look out at the road heading south toward the main arteries leading to the sea. Many of the houses in Litchfield were built by 19th-Century sea captains. The village is sunk in a wooded valley, as if the wives of these captains had wanted to drag their husbands away from the sea. It's a place people usually come to in peace and prosperity at the end of their lives - somewhere to forget things.

The captain brings the barrel of the gun to his head. In his left hand is a set of house keys, and on the key-ring a metal toy sailor, which news reports will later describe as a good-luck charm. Whatever luck the captain has had, it's run out. America doesn't make many men like Charles Butler McVay anymore, men whose sense of duty transcends their sense of self, men who are willing to stand by quietly even as this duty eats them alive. The captain pulls the trigger and blows himself into history.

When word of McVay's death reaches the outside world, major newspapers carry an obituary describing an historic naval career - 'Pacific War Hero Dies at 70', reads one. In Litchfield, few people know why McVay has killed himself.

They also know very little about the life he lived before moving to the tiny insular community.

The truth is, Captain Charles Butler McVay was a survivor of the worst disaster at sea in American naval history. …

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