INDIANAPOLIS — Accounts of how many people died in the sinking of the USS Indianapolis during World War II have long varied by one. Were there 1,195 sailors and Marines aboard the ill-fated ship — or 1,196? Did 879 men perish in the attack, in the water, or after rescue — or 880?
Now two historians have collaborated on a paper that helps explain the discrepancy: One young man, sometimes included on the ship’s roster, did not actually sail on that fateful journey in July 1945, because of a last-minute change of plans.
In the paper, the two report that a Michigan couple was among the heartbroken who received news in mid-August 1945 that they had lost a son in the Japanese torpedo attack on the heavy cruiser on July 30.
Co-authors Richard Hulver, a Naval History and Heritage Command historian, and Sara Vladic, a filmmaker and historian, cross-checked all the names associated with the Indianapolis to sort out the misunderstanding. They published their findings on March 20 in an issue of the U.S. Naval Institute’s Proceedings Today.
But Charles and Ruth Donnor had spoken with their son, Clarence, since that date and knew that he was actually alive, well, and in training in the United States. While they informed the Navy of its mistake immediately, the paper recounts, the clerical error persisted in some accounts, resulting in the confusion.
“To an outside observer, this small casualty discrepancy might seem insignificant,” they write. “To survivors, descendants, friends and the Navy, it is not. ... This entire event shows the inherent difficulties in accounting for casualties in the fog of war.”
Hulver and Vladic’s work will help set the record straight for posterity. They explain in their paper why they undertook their painstaking research.