Michael William Emery never met his uncle and namesake, Seaman 1st Class William Friend Emery.
Yet a strong and, at times, inexplicable connection has driven Michael Emery to devote a substantial portion of his life to remembering -- and honoring -- his "Uncle Bill" and the more than 800 shipmates who died with him during the single-largest loss of life at sea for the U.S. Navy.
So when Emery learned last month that the USS Indianapolis had been found 72 years after it sank, the 56-year-old was overcome.
Researchers find wreckage of lost WWII warship USS Indianapolis
"I almost felt the Indianapolis would never be found, and as a lost-at-sea family, I had mixed emotions because it is a graveyard," said Emery, a Massachusetts resident who regularly visits the Boothbay area where his family owns a summer cottage. "I dropped the phone and I got very emotional. I couldn't believe it. ... It was happy tears and also sad tears."
At top, the USS Indianapolis is underway in Pearl Harbor in 1937, eight years before Japanese torpedoes sank the ship in the single-largest loss of life at sea for the U.S. Navy. Above, Seaman 1st Class William Friend Emery appears in a photo from the 1940s. A search team located the ship wreckage last month in the Philippine Sea. Staff photo by Brianna Soukup
For the few remaining survivors of the Indianapolis and their family members, the discovery of the shipwreck 18,000 feet deep in the Philippine Sea brings both closure and re-exposure to one of World War II's many tragedies.
A Portland-class cruiser that had distinguished itself multiple times during battle, the Indianapolis was returning from a top-secret mission to deliver components of the atomic bomb that would be dropped on Hiroshima weeks later. Two torpedoes from a Japanese submarine slammed into its hull just after midnight on July 30, 1945, causing so much damage that the 600-foot-long ship sank in less than 15 minutes.
The ensuing nightmare of the survivors has been recounted many times in recent weeks.
Between 800 and 900 of the ship's nearly 1,200 crew members managed to abandon ship, only to be left adrift for four days. Most of the survivors of the torpedo attack would die of exhaustion, dehydration and shark attacks before rescuers finally arrived.
Seaman 1st Class William F. Emery was not among the 300-plus survivors plucked from the waters. Like many of the sailors' families, Emery's would not receive official notice that he had been declared dead until October.
Michael Emery is still unsure what happened to his uncle at sea 72 years ago, although he suspects -- perhaps hopes -- that his uncle, who was a strong swimmer, may have tried to help others stranded after the Indianapolis sank.
YEARS OF RESEARCHING UNCLE'S LIFE
Getting details about his uncle's life and death at the age of 19 has not always been easy for Michael Emery.
His uncle's parents had lost another son to disease a few years before the war, so the death of a second son hit all that much harder, especially because William Emery's father, a lieutenant commander in the Navy, worked to get his son placed on the Indianapolis, thinking it would be less likely to find itself in harm's way, given its service. And Michael Emery's father -- himself a World War II Navy veteran -- never wanted to talk much about the loss of his brother.
"My family was a very stoic family," Michael Emery said. "We did not talk about the pain."
So he started doing his own research into the Indianapolis and his uncle. Emery, who shares a striking resemblance to his Uncle Bill, always felt a strong emotional, spiritual and "metaphysical connection" to his uncle, to the point where he remembers dreaming about him as a child.
Michael Emery, visting Southport last month, has made it his mission to teach people about the USS Indianapolis to honor the legacy of his uncle, Seaman 1st Class William Emery. Staff photo by Brianna Soukup
After years of research, Emery eventually attended a reunion of Indianapolis survivors and their family members. He said he was overcome by the warm embrace of the reunion attendees and now goes to every event. He even "stands watch" over the USS Indianapolis National Memorial -- dedicated along the Canal Walk in Indianapolis by survivors and families in 1995 -- in tribute to his uncle and shipmates.
"I'm just sharing the story and reminding people that freedom is not free," he said.
On a recent trip to Boothbay "to decompress" after the ship's discovery, Emery shared some personal effects and family keepsakes from his uncle: photos, his uncle's posthumously awarded Purple Heart, the last letter he sent to his grandparents back in Connecticut.
In the letter, Uncle Bill asked for "a big favor."
"Mother tells me that my strong box was sent to your place with the other stuff that was sent there," he wrote. "Well, I am enclosing the key to the box and if you will open it you will find in there a little blue ring box with a ring in it. I bought the ring some time ago to give to my girl when I went away and I want her to have it now. So if you will mail it to her I would appreciate it very much."
NO NAVY SEARCH FOR MISSING SHIP
William Emery had joined the crew of the Indianapolis in March 1945, in time to see action at Okinawa, where the ship was damaged by a bomb dropped by a Japanese fighter. Four months later, at sea again after repairs, the Indianapolis was returning from the island of Tinian, where it had deposited its top-secret cargo of the uranium and other components for the atomic bomb "Little Boy." That's when the Japanese submarine's torpedoes blew two massive holes in the ship's hull.
Because of a string of mishaps and negligence by Navy officers and sailors stationed elsewhere, the Navy never mounted a search for the missing ship. The dwindling number of survivors were spotted by happenstance, floating in the Philippine Sea four days later.
Japan announced its surrender on Aug. 15, 1945, less than a week after the United States dropped a second atomic bomb, this time on Nagasaki. Seventy-two years later, a team of researchers announced that it had finally found the long-lost Indianapolis based on newly discovered Navy records that showed the location of the ship less than 12 hours before the torpedo attack.
Fewer than two dozen of the 317 rescued Indianapolis crew members are alive today. Michael Emery said he and others are committed to honoring those men and their shipmates so future generations can learn their story.
As for the ship itself, Emery said he is glad the wreck is located so far below the ocean's surface that only research vessels can realistically reach it.
"From my perspective, we do not want that wreck site touched," he said. "It should be treated with the dignity and respect that it deserves."
Kevin Miller can be contacted at 791-6312 or at:
Twitter: KevinMillerPPH ___
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