Editor’s Note: The story of the WWII service and ultimate loss of USS Indianapolis (CA 35) is an important chapter in the story of the U.S. Navy. Days after delivering components of the atomic bomb later dropped on Hiroshima to a base in the Pacific, the cruiser was attacked by a Japanese sub just after midnight on July 30, 1945. Sinking within minutes, more than 880 of the ship’s Sailors and Marines went into the water. After four to five days of exposure, drowning, and shark attacks, only 316 survived.
75 years later, remembering the resilience of the crew is still important. Peggy McCall Campo is the daughter of Indianapolis survivor Donald C. McCall and Secretary of the USS Indianapolis (CA 35) Survivors Organization; she graciously agreed to share with Naval History and Heritage Command the impact Indy’s crew made in her life and the importance of the Survivors Organization in honoring the crew, of which eight are living today.
By: Peggy McCall Campo, Secretary, USS Indianapolis Survivors Group
As a boy, my Dad didn’t necessarily dream of being in the Navy. He had read about Sergeant York, Moby Dick, and the Rime of the Ancient Mariner, so he knew there were adventures to be found outside of his small hometown in Central Illinois. Having grown up during the Great Depression, he came from very meager surroundings and often food and a warm place to sleep were hard to come by.
Like most boys after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Dad had a fierce love of country and wanted to join the fight. He tried to enlist twice but was turned down due to bronchitis. When his draft number came up, to his surprise, he sailed right through the enlistment process. When asked what branch of the military he wanted to serve in, he replied “the U.S. Navy.” And, as he said it, “they put me in the Navy and boom, I was off to Great Lakes Naval Training Station.” Dad went on board USS Indianapolis CA-35 in September 1943 and served in the Navy until the Fall of 1945. In his nearly two years on Indianapolis, he participated in eight of Indy’s major battle campaigns.
So, how did I know Dad was in the Navy? When I was a girl growing up, my brothers and I would play outside and ride bikes, and sometimes we got to wear Dad’s white Sailor cap. There was also a Navy uniform hidden away in the front hall closet—it was in a special plastic bag from the cleaners. Other than the cap and the uniform, there was no discussion of Dad’s military service. Don’t get me wrong, the fact that he didn’t talk of his time in the Navy didn’t mean he wasn’t proud to be a Navy man. It was just something he wasn’t ready to talk about.
In July 1960, my mother arranged for a babysitter for us kids and she and Dad planned a getaway to Indianapolis. As they made the two hour trip from our home in Champaign, IL, to Indianapolis, IN, I still had no idea that they were attending the first ever reunion of USS Indianapolis (CA 35) survivors. Many years later Dad told me how apprehensive he was about seeing his shipmates. Memories he had tried to stifle would now be brought to the surface.
That first meeting would set off a series of reunions held over the past six decades. And, it’s the reason that, today, Indy families and friends gather to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the great ship Indianapolis and her brave crew. For the survivors, reunions are a time of fellowship and healing. The men are bound together by their shared experience. It’s also a time for them to remember their 879 shipmates who were lost at sea. And, at each reunion it is our time-honored tradition to pay respect to the survivors who have passed.
Of the crew of 1,195 men on board Indianapolis that fateful night, July 30, 1945, 316 survived. The crew spent nearly five days in the ocean, but carried the horror and pain of their experience with them throughout their lifetime. Many survivors never spoke of their ordeal. There were some men who never found peace—impacting not only their lives but the lives of their families. To the families of the men who were lost at sea, the memories of their loved ones are more faded, but no less important.
Dad was always resilient. As the years rolled by, he became more comfortable telling the story of his military service, and his survival at sea. Family, friends and strangers alike sat silently trying to absorb every word as he told of his small role in the history of our nation. Dad was never boastful. People often referred to him as a hero. Dad was quick to correct them by saying “I’m just a survivor, the heroes didn’t come home.”
My Dad passed away in 2017 at the age of 92. Just a couple of weeks before he died, he told my brother he dreamed he was at Tarawa—a battle that would remain in his mind until his death.
As citizens of the United States, we owe a debt of gratitude to our service men and women throughout history. As sons and daughters of the Indianapolis crew, we are their legacy. We vow to keep their story alive for future generations.
And to all the men and women who currently serve, may God bless them, protect them, and bring them home to a grateful nation.