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Saturday, May 08, 2004

Quint 

The other day I helped an Irish building contractor hunt down the city code specifications for building a handicap ramp. He looked and sounded exactly like Quint, the Captain Ahab character from Jaws. For the rest of the day all I could think about how inappropriate it was that my dad took me to see that movie when I was only seven years old and the sinking of the USS Indianapolis, one the largest naval war disasters in the history of the United States.

Quint, the leathery seaman portrayed by Robert Shaw, was a USS Indianapolis survivor, and his two comrades discover this when they set out to sea to hunt down the Great White that is preying on the town’s coast. Late at night on the boat the three men are drunk and are raucously sharing scar stories. One of them notices what looks like a burn on Quint’s arm and demands the story behind it. Quint falls silent and tells them that it’s a scrubbed tattoo of the USS Indianapolis, and then delivers one of the most hair raising and riveting monologues in the history of cinema.

Japanese submarine slammed two torpedoes into our side, chief. It was comin' back, from the island of Tinian Delady, just delivered the bomb. The Hiroshima bomb. Eleven hundred men went into the water. Vessel went down in twelve minutes. Didn't see the first shark for about a half an hour. Tiger. Thirteen footer. You know, you know that when you're in the water, chief? You tell by lookin' from the dorsal to the tail. Well, we didn't know. `Cause our bomb mission had been so secret, no distress signal had been sent. Huh huh. They didn't even list us overdue for a week. Very first light, chief. The sharks come cruisin'. So we formed ourselves into tight groups. You know it's... kinda like `ol squares in battle like a, you see on a calendar, like the battle of Waterloo. And the idea was, the shark would go for nearest man and then he'd start poundin' and hollerin' and screamin' and sometimes the shark would go away. Sometimes he wouldn't go away. Sometimes that shark, he looks right into you. Right into your eyes. You know the thing about a shark, he's got...lifeless eyes, black eyes, like a doll's eye. When he comes at ya, doesn't seem to be livin'. Until he bites ya and those black eyes roll over white. And then, ah then you hear that terrible high pitch screamin' and the ocean turns red and spite of all the poundin' and the hollerin' they all come in and rip you to pieces.

Y'know by the end of that first dawn, lost a hundred men! I don't know how many sharks, maybe a thousand! I don't know how many men, they averaged six an hour. On Thursday mornin' chief, I bumped into a friend of mine, Herbie Robinson from Cleveland. Baseball player, bosom's mate. I thought he was asleep, reached over to wake him up. Bobbed up and down in the water, just like a kinda top. Up ended. Well... he'd been bitten in half below the waist. Noon the fifth day, Mr. Hooper, a Lockheed Ventura saw us, he swung in low and he saw us. He'd a young pilot, a lot younger than Mr. Hooper, anyway he saw us and come in low. And three hours later a big fat PBY comes down and start to pick us up. You know that was the time I was most frightened? Waitin' for my turn. I'll never put on a lifejacket again. So, eleven hundred men went in the water, three hundred and sixteen men come out, the sharks took the rest, June the 29, 1945. Anyway, we delivered the bomb.


One major fact the monologue gets wrong is that the USS Indianapolis did manage to send out a distress call before the ship sank, but through a tragic series of inexcusable naval blunders the survivors were left abandoned for 4 days in the ocean, where the majority died horrifically of shark attack, exposure, and dehydration in the oil slicked water. At least 3 SOS calls were made to naval command, but they were all dismissed as a Japanese trap or simply ignored. One commander was even under orders not to be disturbed because he was sleeping off a drinking binge. It was not until a plane happened to spot the survivors by chance that help was sent.

The most inexcusable part of this travesty was that the Navy, desperate for a coverup and scapegoat, court martialed the ship’s captain, the only captain to be tried for losing a ship in WWII. The Navy accused Captain McVay of not taking precautionary, evasive zig-zagging measures. The Navy called the Japanese submarine commander as a witness against McVay, but he surprised the prosecution be saying that zigzagging would not have made any difference. Even so, the Navy court martialed him in what was basically a kangaroo court. Captain McVay eventually committed suicide with his service revolver on his front lawn.

An 11 year old named Hunter Scott was watching Jaws on television in the 90s and became fascinated by the story and decided to do a history project about the tragedy, which by then had become an obscure historical event. Through research and the study of declassified naval documents, he discovered what the grave injustice dealt to the men and Captain McVay, and became determined to clear McVay’s name and honor the men of the USS Indianapolis. He eventually testified before a congressional hearing and was responsible for having McVay posthumously exonerated. A well reviewed book recently came out about Scott’s crusade and the plight of the USS Indianapolis called Left for Dead. So, let us all take a lesson from young Scott. No one should ever believe that one person can’t make a difference.

And one more thing. Do we really give the soldiers who served in WWII enough credit for what they endured? Not to be too toadying and fawning like the fulsome Tom Brokaw, but you have to wonder when they're watching TV in their well deserved golden years and the channel happens to fall on MTV beach party or that stupid whore Jessica Simpson if they believe all of that sacrifice was worth it. Veterans, on behalf of my generation, I thank you as well as apologize.

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