Their ordeal is the stuff of legend. Torpedoed by a Japanese submarine, the USS Indianapolis sunk in 12 minutes, and, unbelievably, was not noticed missing by the U.S. Navy. Lou and Bob, and approximately 900 other men, were left to float amid attacking sharks for five days before their rescue, which occurred by accident when a plane spotted the half-dead men bobbing below. In the end, only 317 men, out of a crew of 1,196, survived.
It was the proximity of Lous and Bobs deaths, within a day of each other, that made me think of them. Their lives after their rescue had seemed a miracle, a second chance, and now they were dead. There really was, after all, an end to this thing we call life. I had always promised Lou a wall-eye fishing trip in northern Michigan, where I live. It didnt happen. I wanted to keep in closer touch with Bob McGuiggan, and for a while, we did. But lifework and babies for me; grandkids and the challenges of age for himkept us all apart after awhile. I regret that it did. Every week, we are losing more and more men like these two, and we are poorer as citizens for their passing. Why?
I remember in the days immediately following 9/11, wondering how men like Lou and Bob were handling this calamity. What I found was that, of course, they were responding like every other American, with a mixture of disbelief and awe at the audacity of the attack. They had lived through Pearl Harbor. Beneath their speech there was a sturdy layer of past experience. When you met Lou and Bob, unless you asked, you did not learn that each day since their rescue, theyd never, seriously, had a bad day.
Oh, theyd had terrible days, lousy days, days of sadness, sickness, loss, and disaster, but theyd never had a really bad day. Their rescue had felt like a resurrection. You wouldnt know this because they didnt wear their hearts on their sleeves. Never completely trust a man who tells you hes giving a gift; hes often expecting a favor. Always befriend the man who will, instead, share his gifts with you. There is a very big difference. And the gifts these men shared, in an unspoken way, by raising large families, by doing good workin short, by showing up for life in the face of a horrible past filled with an unspeakable disaster-- was that life goes on. No matter what.
When I heard of Lou and Bobs death, I reflected that whats missing today, in my city, my neighborhood, is a sense of shared sacrifice as our friends and neighbors go off to service in Iraq and Afghanistan. Knowing Lou and Bob, and WWII veterans like them, however, lessened that feeling. We often learn best by learning from those whove come before us, and on this Veterans Dayon any day, for that matter -- when you have a chance to reach across the grocery aisle and help someone out, for example, do it. Be selfless, even if you dont feel like it. Selflessness is not a virtue much celebrated lately, except by the men and women who are dying overseas. For the rest of us, the word can seem as blank as a piece of paper. However, we write on that paper, even unknowingly, with the acts of our lives.
Let me give an example. At points throughout their ordeal, many of the men floating in the water heard the voice of someone who earlier in their lives, before the war, had told them that they mattered: these people-- neighbors, coaches, teachers, parents-- had made these young men feel worthwhile; they made them feel they had something to give, big or small, to the people around them. And at that moment, when many of their shipmates were choosing to end their lives rather than suffer anymore, men like Lou and Bob heard such a voice-- call it the music of their charactersand they chose, miraculously, not to swim away from the bedraggled groups to certain drowning or shark attack. Memories like these, of being made to feel that they belonged somewhere, were lifelines to these men, by which they pulled themselves back into the world, and into the future of America.
A hero is someone who does the right thing even when no one is looking -- especially when no one is looking. A man grasps, ironically, the measure of his life by giving up his life in service to others. Helping to organize one of the first veterans groups from the WWII era, Lou Bitonti and Bob McGuiggan and their shipmates worked for 56 years to clear, in the halls of Congress and the US Navy, the name of their ships historically court-martialed captain. Against all odds, in 2001, they succeeded. What strikes people most is the degree of humanity and tenacity in their quest for Captain McVays good name, a quest that never was tainted with bitterness or weighed by helplessness.
For these men, adversity often seemed an opportunity to exercise the angels of their better nature. After I met Lou and Bob and their shipmates, I wondered what I had ever said to anyone that they might use as a lifeline in a time of need. I realized that as a writer, as a husband, a father, a citizen, a neighbor, that this was the most important question I had ever asked myself.
And Lou and Bob had made me ask it.
Doug Stanton is the author of the New York Times bestseller In Harms Way: The Sinking of the USS Indianapolis and the Extraordinary Story Of Its Survivors.