Canton Repository

May 4, 2001

WWII vets divided over Navy award 

Copley Washington correspondent

WASHINGTON — When William Ault went into the sea after a Japanese submarine sank the USS Indianapolis near the end of World War II, the sharks scared him the most.

“When anyone would see sharks they would yell ‘shark’ and everybody would kick their feet and try to scare them away,” said Ault of Canton, among 123 Indianapolis survivors nationwide who are in line to receive a commendation from the Navy.

The Navy announced recently it will honor the Indianapolis crew for delivering the components of the atomic bombs dropped on Japan. But it still refuses to clear the name of the captain, Charles B. McVay, who survivors of the July 30, 1945, catastrophe say was unjustly convicted of negligence by a court martial.

Of the 1,196 who were on the ship, just 316 were rescued after four days in the water. About 300 went down with the ship, while an estimated 900 escaped before it sunk. Some fell prey to sharks and many others died of exposure under the hot sun.

No one near Ault was attacked by a shark, the retired Timken Co. foreman remembers. But he added, “When the sea was clear, you could look down through and see them (sharks) below you.”

How did he make it through the experience? “I don’t know how I did it,” said Ault, 81. “I just made up my mind I was going to be one of the last ones there.”

Ault is among a handful of area survivors, including Albert Morris of Akron, James Jarvis of Uniontown, Thomas Goff of Canal Fulton, Harold Shearer of East Canton and Robert Justice of Hartville, according to the survivors group and congressional sources.

While Ault plans to accept the commendation, some say they will refuse it unless McVay is cleared.

“I’m going to tell them to keep it,” said Morris, 75. 

Jarvis, 79, said he will accept the award as long as it is also given posthumously to McVay.

According to Navy spokesman Lt. Steve Curry, the award will be given to McVay and all other deceased members of the crew, as well as those alive.

About one-fourth of the survivors are against accepting the award unless the captain is cleared, at least for now, said Paul Murphy, chairman of the survivors group.

Navy officials say they have no authority to reverse the conviction, which was final. The group supporting McVay also is seeking a presidential pardon, and wrote to President Bush in January after sending an earlier request to President Clinton.

The award came after pressure from Congress, which put language in a defense bill last year saying the court martial charges “were not morally sustainable” and recommending a commendation for the crew.

The Navy court concluded McVay was negligent for failing to steer a zigzag course to avoid enemy submarines.

U.S. Rep. Tom Sawyer, D-Akron, said the commendation shows the Navy is “at long last responding to the clearly expressed message from Congress that it is never too late to right a wrong.”

Sawyer supported legislation during the past four years to clear the captain and recognize the crew.

Former crew members heard the commendations will be given out during a survivors reunion in Indianapolis in August. But the Navy said no time or place has been determined.

When attacked, the Indianapolis was on its way to the Philippines from Guam. Days earlier, it had completed a secret mission, delivering atomic bomb components to the island of Tinian. U.S. forces dropped an atom bomb on Hiroshima on Aug. 6 and on Nagasaki three days later.

Jarvis remembers sleeping just feet from the crate that contained the bomb components.

“It was marked ‘radio gear’ — we didn’t suspect nothing,” he recalled. But Jarvis added, “We wondered why they kept a Marine guard on it 24 hours a day.”