Dad and the USS Indianapolis
by Jeffrey McCall
The USS Indianapolis.
The heavy attack cruiser, USS Indianapolis, was launched in November, 1931. It went on to serve with distinction during WWII, earning ten battle stars. It was the flagship of the Fifth Fleet, commanded by Admiral Raymond Spruance. The ship was torpedoed and sunk by a Japanese submarine in the waning days of the war. Of the 1,196 men on board, only 317 survived the sinking, making the loss of the USS Indianapolis the US Navy’s largest tragedy at sea. Only the USS Arizona lost more men in its sinking at Pearl Harbor, but the USS Arizona was in port at the time and not at sea. At the time of the ship’s sinking, it was over 550 miles from the nearest land. The ship sunk in less than fifteen minutes. Many of the men who escaped the burning ship later died in the water due to exposure, dehydration and shark attacks. The survivors drifted in the sea for four and a half days because the Navy failed to notice the non-arrival of the ship in the Philippines.
In addition to its many battles during WWII, the USS Indianapolis is mostly known for having conducted a top secret mission to deliver the component parts of the first atomic bomb to an airfield on the western Pacific island of Tinian.
Donald C. McCall, Seaman Second Class
Don served on the USS Indianapolis beginning in the summer of 1943 through the ship’s sinking on July 30, 1945. He grew up in rural eastern Illinois and tried to enlist in the Army at the age of 17. He was turned down for service at that time, but was later drafted into the Navy. He did his training at Great Lakes Naval Training Center near Chicago. Upon completion of basic training, and a short leave to say goodbye to family at home, he rode a train to San Francisco where he boarded the USS Indianapolis.
Don was originally assigned to manual labor and kitchen duty on the ship, but was quickly transferred to a new duty as an air-sea lookout. In this role, Don served on the Captain’s bridge, scanning the sea and skies for enemy ships and planes. He was put in this role, in part, because he had 20-20 vision and was from the Midwest, so that when he reported what he saw through his binoculars, he could be understood without any accent typical of other regions of the United States. Don was on the USS Indianapolis as it earned eight battle stars.
General David Shoup, Unites States Marine Corps
Don’s first battle action was at the Americans invasion of Tarawa in the Pacific Gilbert Islands. It was quite an experience for an 18 year-old to observe the battle through binoculars, and the memories haunted Don throughout his life.
The Marines landing on Tarawa had very tough going. A particular Marine Colonel who helped turn the tide at Tarawa was David Shoup. Shoup led the 2nd Marines during the battle, being wounded several times, and earning the Medal of Honor for his leadership. Shoup was a graduate of DePauw University, and grew up in rural Tippecanoe County, Indiana. Shoup would later become Commandant of the entire Marine Corps, and serve on the Joint Chiefs of Staff for presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy.
Navy pilot Lieutenant Chuck Gwinn
After the sinking of the USS Indianapolis, the sailors drifted in the sea for four and a half days. They were eventually spotted from the sky by Lieutenant Chuck Gwinn, flying a PV-1 Ventura bomber on routine patrol looking for enemy submarines. Lt. Gwinn then radioed for help and alerted the Navy that he had spotted survivors in the water. The rescue effort was thus begun, even though nobody knew at the time the men adrift on the sea were crewmen of the USS Indianapolis.
Navy Lieutenant Commander Adrian Marks
Adrian Marks was born in Ladoga, IN and became a Navy aviator. He flew an amphibious PBY-5A Catalina patrol plane that was capable of landing on water. His plane was the first rescue plane to arrive on the scene for the USS Indianapolis survivors. Even though the plane had the capability of landing on water, standing orders were that pilots were not to engage in such action. Seeing the struggling men in the ocean, Marks decided to land his plane to begin the rescue. He later received a Navy Air Medal for his bold decision. Marks and his crew pulled 56 sailors out of the ocean. He radioed for more help and informed his base that he was picking up men from the USS Indianapolis. That sparked a more complete sea rescue. Marks’ plane suffered damage in its landing on the sea, and was later destroyed at sea by the Navy destroyer USS Doyle. After the war, Marks became a prominent attorney in Frankfort, Indiana.
Admiral Ray Spruance at the Purple Heart ceremony for USS Indianapolis survivors.
After being rescued, all USS Indianapolis survivors spent time in Navy hospitals. They were eventually all processed through the Navy base at Guam, where Admiral Spruance conducted a ceremony at which all survivors received their Purple Heart medals. Also attending and witnessing the ceremony was Bob Albright of Putnam County, who was stationed at the Guam Navy base. He later returned home to Greencastle become Putnam County Sheriff and Mayor of Greencastle.
Although the USS Indianapolis was the flagship for Admiral Spruance, he was not on the ship when it was sunk. The USS Indianapolis had been hit by an enemy kamikaze plane during the battle at Okinawa and was sent back to California for repairs. Admiral Spruance transferred his flag at that time to the battleship USS New Mexico. The repairs to the USS Indianapolis had just been completed at Mare Island Naval shipyard near San Francisco when it was selected for its secret mission to deliver the component parts for the atomic bomb to the western Pacific.
Governor Mike Pence greets survivors of USS Indianapolis at reunion in 2015.
Beginning in 1960, the survivors of the USS Indianapolis met periodically in Indianapolis to share stories and hold a memorial service for their lost shipmates. Indiana Governor Mike Pence attended the reunion in 2015 and spent time greeting each of the survivors in attendance, including Don McCall, as seen in this photo.
Don McCall in his later years.
Don McCall recovered from his war experiences and returned to east central Illinois, settling in Champaign, where he met and married Rita Mattingly. They raised four children. Don became a bricklayer, a volunteer coach of youth sports, and an avid outdoorsman.
The memorial to the USS Indianapolis on the canal in Indianapolis.
The survivors of the USS Indianapolis worked many years planning and raising funds to build a memorial to their ship. The memorial was dedicated in August, 1995. A museum exhibit about the USS Indianapolis is housed at the Indiana War Memorial north of downtown in Indianapolis.
Key books about the USS Indianapolis include:
by Richard F. Newcomb
In Harm’s Way
by Doug Stanton
by Lynn Vincent and
The Museum thanks Dr. McCall
for sharing this story with us.
Jeffrey M. McCall is a Professor of Communication at DePauw University. He is a recognized authority on media ethics and journalism standards, having been interviewed by over 150 news organizations, including the Associated Press, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, USA Today and others. He is a contributing op-ed columnist on contemporary media issues, his columns appearing dozens of outlets such as The Hill, Indianapolis Star, USA Today, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and Providence Journal.
McCall is a frequent guest on radio and television shows, appearing on Fox News Channel, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Voice of America and regional radio stations such as WGN (Chicago), KTRH (Houston), WWL (New Orleans), and KABC (Los Angeles).
McCall has professional media experience as a radio news director and a contributing correspondent for National Public Radio. He has also worked as a newspaper reporter and political media consultant.
He teaches courses in electronic journalism, media law, communication ethics, and media culture. He is the faculty supervisor of WGRE-FM, DePauw’s nationally recognized radio station that involves over 200 students each school year. He has received teaching awards from Mortar Board, Student Congress, and the Sears-Roebuck Foundation for Teaching Excellence. He is an editorial consultant for the Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media.
McCall is a graduate of DePauw University, where he was a Rector Scholar. He earned a master’s degree from the University of Illinois and a PhD from the University of Missouri.