Tuesday, January 06, 2009

January is Robert Shaw Month

"I'll never put on a life jacket again..."

Actor and Author Robert Shaw (1927-1978)

There were several actors from years ago who vaguely reminded me of my dad. I think of David Janssen in particular, and even Frank Sinatra in some ways. One of those actors who most reminded me of him was the late Robert Shaw. He was roughly the same age as my father and they both died the same year.

My dad and I went to see Steven Spielberg's movie Jaws when it came out in 1975. This all comes to mind, as sort of a follow-up to the Pacific War reference in the previous post, because I've been recently looking over Richard F. Newcomb's 1958 bestseller, Abandon Ship! The Saga of the U.S.S. Indianapolis, the Navy's Greatest Sea Disaster. It's the horrific story of the heavy cruiser USS Indianapolis, which was sunk in the closing days of World War II by a Japanese submarine shortly after transporting the atomic bomb (that would later be dropped on Hiroshima) from the West Coast to Tinian Island.

In this scene from Jaws the shark-obsessed skipper Quint (Robert Shaw) is sitting in the cabin of his boat with marine biologist Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) and Amity Island Police Chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) while they're taking a break from hunting the Great White. Quint and Hooper are comparing old "battle scars" and Brody briefly considers whether he should bring up his appendectomy or not... Anyhow, it comes out that Quint happened to be a crewman aboard the USS Indianapolis, and he goes on to tell the true tale of the harrowing fate that was endured by the sailors who entered the water... One has to suppose it explains his vendetta against sharks. It's one of my favorite movie monologues.

Quint's Monologue from Jaws on the Fate of the USS Indianapolis Crew

During World War II, the Indianapolis served as the flagship for Vice-Admiral Raymond Spruance's 5th Fleet. She was heavily damaged by a kamikaze attack during the Battle of Okinawa and was sent back to the States for repairs. After being being repaired and refitted in San Francisco, she was chosen for the top-secret mission of delivering the components and uranium core for the first operational atomic bomb to Tinian Island. The bomb was successfully delivered and assembly was finished at the airfield at Tinian. The Indianapolis then stopped shortly at nearby Guam and was given orders to sail onwards to the Phillippines (Leyte) for more training.

Shortly after midnight on July 30, 1945 she was hit by two torpedos from the Japanese submarine I-58 and sank in just twelve minutes in some of the deepest water in the Pacific Ocean.

Spielberg (through Quint) tells the story pretty well, but he does get a couple of details wrong.

Quint claims that "the mission was so secret, no distress signal was sent out." That's not really true. The mission was top-secret, but once they delivered the bomb they were back on standard operating procedures. The first torpedo that struck the ship tore off the bow, and the second knocked out most of the ship's electronics and all of its radio communications. She sank very quickly but the crew was able to get off some SOS signals. Recently declassified Navy documents seem to indicate that the signals were picked up at various points but were ignored as a Japanese ruse.

Quint also makes it sound as if most of the crewmen who survived the initial sinking were devoured by sharks in the aftermath. The ship had a crew of 1,196. Out of those, about 900 made it into the water alive. Out of that 900, only 316 were eventually rescued after being left exposed in the ocean for over 96 hours.

Many of the crewman were eaten by sharks, it's true, but a great many others succumbed to wounds, exposure (blazing sun and heat during the day, frigid temperatures at night), thirst, from drinking salt water, and from drowning (their kapok life jackets were not designed to last more than a couple of days).

Eventually, the men were only discovered at all by mere chance. A plane running a routine anti-submarine patrol spotted them. Far from being a nefarious plot based upon the secrecy of their mission, the reason for their prolonged agony was just plain incompetence and a set of poorly thought-out procedures. In those days, only the arrival of convoy ships was tracked at destination points. The arrival of combatant ships was not, ostensibly for security reasons. When the Indianapolis didn't show up for training at Leyte as expected according to orders, no one thought this was particularly unusual. There were all kinds of reason why countermanding orders might be made for a combatant ship. Nobody thought much of it. To cap things off, the ship had been ordered to leave Guam without an escort even though her Captain had requested one.

However, despite all that, heads needed to roll for it and there was an inquiry and a court-martial... Rather than placing blame on higher-ups for the negligence embodied in their own procedures, and for the whole Navy's lack of interest in the whereabouts of a missing flagship cruiser, the skipper of the Indianapolis, Captain Charles Butler McVay, was chosen to take the fall. Who else? Specifically, he was faulted for not sailing in a zig-zag pattern at the time the ship was struck, even though the Japanese submarine captain testified at the trial that he would have had no trouble sinking the unescorted ship whether she was zig-zagging or not.

Years later, haunted by the memories, and hounded by those who considered him a villain, McVay took his own life. From wiki:
While many of the Indianapolis survivors said McVay was not to blame for the sinking, the families of some of the men who died did. The guilt that was placed on his shoulders mounted until he committed suicide in 1968, by using his Navy issue revolver. McVay was discovered with a toy sailor in one of his hands on his front lawn.

The whole atomic bomb connection with this story makes it especially creepy... I'm not much into the image of a wrathful God dishing out earthly punishments for man's transgressions, but when you look at Hiroshima and this improbable story, you almost have to wonder...

More information can be found at ussindianapolis.org


crystal said...

I remember that scene from Jaews - really disturbing. I haven't seen many Shaw movies - are you going to write about Black Sunday?

Speaking of the atomic bomb, I saw that the commander of the plane that dropped it on Hiroshima said he had no regrets and he went on to have a sucessful life, dying in his 90s. I wonder if he was the exception or the norm among the others who participated. Creepy.

Liam said...

Great monologue from Spielberg's best movie. The rest of the story is interesting too.

Jeff said...


Was that Commander Sweeney? Yes, I'd heard him interviewed before. He seemed oddly sanguine and matter-of-fact about the whole thing. It must be very difficult to have that hanging over you. I can imagine how it would really play games with your head.

Robert Shaw was in Black Sunday? I don't think I ever saw that. Depending what's out on Youtube, I had a couple of other movies in mind. :-)


You know what my favorite Spielberg movie was? One of his first ones, made for TV with Dennis Waever - Duel. The ultimate in of road rage.

crystal said...

Black Sunday was written (the book) by the guy who wrote The Silence of the Lambs. I signed up for it at the library ... maybe it will be good. I think Shaw played the main Israeli agent in the movie.

cowboyangel said...


Fascinating post. And that is one of the best all-time monologues.

Black Sunday is great. I loved it as a kid and re-watched a couple of years ago. Shaw is good, as usual, but Bruce Dern is fantastic in that.

Unfortunately, the actual Super Bowl footage used is from SB X, when the Steelers beat the Cowboys. so I had to re-live the pain of my childhood.

Crystal, I didn't realize Harris wrote the novel Black Sunday. i didn't even know there was a novel. Interesting.

Shaw's great. I always liked him when I was young, and still do. Going over his IMDB filmography, I've seen him in the following: Force 10 from Navarone (1978)
The Deep (1977)
Black Sunday (1977)
Swashbuckler (1976)
Robin and Marian (1976)
Jaws (1975)
The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974)
The Sting (1973)
Battle of the Bulge (1965)
From Russia with Love (1963)

I would like to see:
The Birthday Party (1968)
A Man for All Seasons (1966)

Jeff said...

Oh, you should see A Man for All Seasons, William. Great film.