“This is Dad’s letter!”

On October 26, 2019, a Naval History and Heritage Command (NHHC) Outreach team composed of Archivist Amanda Shaw, Public Affairs Specialist Alura Romero, Historian Dr. Richard Hulver, and Curator Tonia Deetz Rock. attended the commissioning of the newest Indianapolis into the Navy, LCS-17.

Attending such events is part of the NHHC mission—to preserve and present an accurate history of the United States Navy. For this specific event, the primary goal was to place the legacy of ships named Indianapolis into historic context. This is especially important for lost World War II cruiser CA-35. With around 10,000 people expected in attendance, the day proved to be very busy and rewarding for the NHHC team. The event also highlighted how participation by the whole NHHC enterprise brings history to the Navy and the public in a meaningful way.

In the following blog, Dr. Richard Hulver and Ms. Amanda Shaw share their experience during a recent trip to the commissioning of USS Indianapolis (LCS 17).

Histories (Dr. Richard Hulver, Historian)

For several years, I have conducted extensive research into USS Indianapolis (CA-35). Some of my projects include helping determine a more accurate position for her sinking, rectifying casualty discrepancies, and preparing a documentary history of the loss—A Grave Misfortune: The USS Indianapolis Tragedy (GPO, 2018). All of this work has put me in close contact with what I call the “Indianapolis Community”, which is made up of USS Indianapolis survivors along with lost-at-sea family and friends. As a naval historian, being able to answer longstanding questions and provide some semblance of closure to this group is an incredibly rewarding experience, and one I’m thankful for.

USS Indianapolis (CA 345) at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, circa 1937. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph.

When asked if I would like to be a part of NHHC’s outreach team attending the commissioning of USS Indianapolis (LCS-17) in Burns Harbor, Indiana, I immediately said yes. I wanted to be there to see the fourth Indianapolis officially enter the Fleet and to help the audience understand the legacy of the ship. I also hoped to see and make new CA-35 acquaintances. I’ve come to learn with any Indianapolis event, you never know what to expect, and this event reaffirmed that.

Prior to our trip, Amanda asked if I might have some relevant documents we could display at the LCS-17 commissioning. My mind immediately went to a collection of letters written by survivors to the Navy shortly after CA-35 was lost. Of the 185 letters collected by the Navy in 1945, Indianans wrote seven. From this group, I selected two of the more descriptive letters with clear handwriting. I thought that they could potentially be a moving visual display for natives of the state, and my expectations ended there.

Very early into our day, a steady stream of visitors approached our table. One gentleman perused our materials silently. Not wanting to disturb him, I waited until he reached the letters before approaching and explaining what he had been viewing. He indicated that he knew the story well because he was the son of a survivor. Being familiar with many of the names, I asked for his father’s name, and he replied, “Richard McVay.”  The name sounded very fresh in my mind, and I quickly connected the dots. I pointed to one of the letters and told him with disbelief, “I’m pretty sure this is your father’s letter. He wrote it to the Navy shortly after he was rescued in 1945.” The man looked at me with a mix of skepticism and surprise and then began reading.  His face showed that he immediately recognized the handwriting and his father’s signature. Skepticism quickly turned to enthusiasm with an exclamation of “this is Dad’s letter!” A flood of emotions followed as he excused himself from the table. 

Photo of Y3c Richard Calvin McVay submitted by his family to the United States Navy Memorial Log. McVay served from February 1944-April 1946.

When he returned to the table, we had a lengthy discussion. He introduced himself as Brian McVay, and we spoke about his father’s service.  He told me he had not seen the letter before, and seeing it at the Indianapolis commissioning brought back a flood of memories for which he was thankful. We insisted that Mr. McVay visit us before heading home to take our display copy of his father’s letter.

“Correspondence Relating to the Sinking of USS Indianapolis,” RG 24, Box 1, NARA II, College Park, MD. This is part of a collection of letters written to the Navy Bureau of Ships shortly after the loss in order to determine the cause of the sinking.


I was in the executive officer’s office as the explosion happened. There were two of us sleeping,  one being the other yeomen. The door was closed and locked. As the explosion went off the smoke and sparks was very thick bad. Also it blew the door open with a tarrific blast. We grabbed our life belts & went to the fantail. Later on when we arrived at the fantail the other yeoman first class, went back & got to get the muster roll of the crew. I wdid not see him after the [sic] left me to get the muster roll.
            I later on jumped off the fantail to the water.
 
                                                            Richard Calvin Mc
Vay Y3 S2c
                                                                                    955-30-22

I still have trouble believing this serendipitous moment took place. Almost 74 years from the date a CA-35 Sailor wrote of his ship’s demise, his son read those words, in their home state, with the newest Indianapolis moored proudly in sight.

This was the highlight of the trip for the entire outreach team.  NHHC collects, preserves, and interprets the Navy’s history—each and every day. We all know how important our work is, but on rare occasions such as this, we are able to make a personal connection that reaffirms the value of what we do. Throughout our trip to Burns Harbor, we saw the power of history.  During our tour of LCS-17 (with CA-35 lost-at-sea families) the commanding officer, executive officer, and crew all showed reverence for CA-35 and SSN-697. Veterans of both vessels heightened the spirit of the day with their presence. The controversies surrounding CA-35’s loss were absent. All thoughts focused instead on admiration for their fighting legacy and commitment to serve.

Ms. Amanda Shaw, Archivist

For my entire career as an archivist, I have been lucky enough to work with archival materials that document the stories and contributions of the people who have helped shape the history of the United States. The names of most of these people cannot be found in American history books, but their stories and contributions form the bedrock of the history of this country. As a digital archivist at the NHHC Navy Archives, I mostly work with digital materials that tell the stories of those who have served in the U.S. Navy, both past and present.

Every so often, I get the opportunity to support the work of the NHHC Outreach Team.  When I support the NHHC Outreach Team, I like to promote the NHHC Navy Archives and our collections by bringing reproductions of archival materials for display. I like to pull archival materials that document events that relate in some way to the outreach event. 

For the commissioning of the newest USS Indianapolis (LCS 17), I knew I wanted to bring reproductions of archival materials to tell the story of the 1945 sinking of USS Indianapolis (CA 35). I approached NHHC Indianapolis expert, Dr. Richard Hulver, and asked him to recommend some archival materials. I initially hoped he would point to materials in the collections of the NHHC Navy Archives. However, because of official policies, the NHHC Navy Archives no longer maintains original records of the Navy from the World War II era.1 Most of the archival materials Dr. Hulver sent me were reproductions of records that are part of the collections at NARA. The materials he provided included two charts, a page from a deck log, and a page from an oral history transcript. There were also two letters written by two survivors from the state of Indiana. The letters document the experiences of the survivors in the immediate aftermath of the attack on July 30, 1945, and were a welcome addition to our display at the commissioning. Through his own words, each survivor was able to ensure his place in the history of the Navy and the greater history of this country would be remembered.

Almost everyone who visited our table at the commissioning was fascinated by the archival material on display. At one point during the event, I noticed Dr. Hulver interacting with an individual who was holding one of the survivor letters. From my perspective, it looked like an emotional exchange. Our colleague informed me that the individual holding the letter was the son of the survivor who had written the letter. Immediately, my eyes started tearing up. The exchange between Dr. Hulver and the son of the survivor ended quickly, but when the son returned later that day, we gave him the reproduction of the letter and promised to send him a digital copy of the letter as well. I was able to share with the son how much the moment meant to me. It was highly emotional, and I once again had tears in my eyes. I will be telling the story of this day for years to come. 

Survivor Richard C. McVay at the 1960 Survivors Reunion (far left). Indianapolis CO, Captain Charles B. McVay, III [no relation] is the 3rd from the left. Photo provided by USS Indianapolis Survivors Group.

I feel beyond blessed that I get to help moments like these happen through my work for the Naval History & Heritage Command. Moments such as these illustrate the importance of the work we do and our mission.  Every staff member plays a vital part in preserving and sharing the stories of the individuals who have contributed to the history of the United States Navy.    

1. The NHHC Navy Archives maintains archival materials that tell the stories of the individuals who have shaped and contributed to the history of the United States Navy.  The NHHC Navy Archives collects personal collections that document the contributions of individuals.  These types of collections are typically referred to as manuscript collections.  The NHHC Navy Archives also collects official records from the Fleet and the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO).  These records are typically referred to as operational records.  In accordance with official policies, the NHHC Navy Archives is the permanent home of manuscript collections once they are donated.  Operational records, on the other hand, are only maintained at the NHHC Navy Archives for a set number of years.  Official policies dictate that these operational records must be transferred to the National Archives & Records Administration (NARA) on average 30-35 years after they arrive at the NHHC Navy Archives.