Hometown Heroes

Ship Found, Memories Stirred

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Episode #486 of Hometown Heroes, airing August 25-27, 2017, focuses on the discovery of the heavy cruiser USS Indianapolis, 72 years after it was sunk by a Japanese submarine. You’ll hear briefly from billionaire philanthropist Paul Allen and members of the team from Research Vessel Petrel, which found the ship more than three miles deep on the floor of the Philippine Sea.

This spare parts box from Indianapolis rests 16,000 feet deep. (Photo courtesy of Paul G. Allen)

The accomplished ship earned ten battle stars during World War II, and had just completed a secret mission to deliver components of the atomic bomb to Tinian, when Japanese submarine I-58 torpedoed the Indy on July 30, 1945. The Indianapolis sank in approximately 12 minutes, with roughly one-fourth of her crew going down with the ship. The horror was just beginning for those who survived the sinking. Since there was no distress call and there were no other ships in the area, the sinking went unreported. The Navy didn’t know the ship had sunk until four days later, when a PV-1 pilot named Chuck Gwinn spotted some survivors floating in the water. By that time, two-thirds of the approximately 900 men who had made it through the sinking, had succumbed to exposure, exhaustion, starvation, or sharks. It remains the the most devastating and deadly shark attack in recorded history. Ultimately, 317 men survived it all, of whom 19 remain alive today.

The 2016 documentary USS Indianapolis: The Legacy tells the ship’s story through the memories of survivors. The award-winning film is the culmination of a decade-long quest by director Sara Vladic, who conducted more than 100 interviews during the process. You can watch the film online through the link above, or even host a screening in your area. Now, a year after that long awaited film’s release, survivors have something new to digest: the unexpected discovery of a sunken ship that had long eluded search efforts.

“Harpo” Celaya with Hometown Heroes host Paul Loeffler at the University of Arizona, where Celaya led Florence HS to an improbable state basketball championship in 1947.

USS Indianapolis survivor Adolfo “Harpo” Celaya of Florence, AZ, who first shared his story on Hometown Heroes in 2010. You’ll hear some brief excerpts from that interview before Celaya’s reaction to the news of his ship’s discovery, which he received from the widow of the pilot who had spotted survivors 72 years ago.

“Memories come back and everything’s kind of building up again,” you’ll hear Celaya explain. “Then you start thinking how many of the shipmates went down with the ship.”

For the families of the 879 men killed in the Indianapolis disaster, the finding of the sunken ship has the potential to bring closure, as well as the hope that long unanswered questions may finally be resolved. Paul E. Loeffler, Jr. was a 28-year-old seaman who had finished his watch on the cruiser’s bridge just minutes before the torpedo attack began. Despite extensive effort, his family has never been able to find out what exactly happened to the Alabama native, who left behind a wife and two young sons.

The ship’s bell is visible in this view of the wreckage. (photo courtesy of Paul G. Allen)

“It was just a huge surprise because I didn’t know anybody was even looking for her,” says Paul Loeffler III of his father’s ship. “I felt this euphoria that she had been discovered.”

He was just four years old when his father was reported missing in action, his mother receiving that horrifying news on the same day that America celebrated victory over Japan. Loeffler III, a retired Army lieutenant colonel, says the find has him hopeful of new developments to come. “We never knew whether he got off the ship, whether he went down with the ship, and so that’s why these emotions came to the surface,” you’ll hear him say.

“The biggest emotion that I now have is a gratitude and a gratefulness to Paul Allen for what he did to find the Indy.”

Paul E. Loeffler, Jr. was one of 879 men lost at sea in the USS Indianapolis disaster. Displays like this one are found at University Military School in Mobile, and the Fairhope American Legion hall.

Paul E. Loeffler, Jr.’s remains have never been recovered, but this marker honors him at the Catholic Cemetery in Mobile, AL.

The Indianapolis find is not Allen’s first effort to preserve World War II history and honor those who died. His late father, Kenneth Allen, served in the Army in Europe during the war, receiving the Bronze Star for valor. Paul Allen has developed the Flying Heritage & Combat Armor Museum in Seattle, and preserved veterans’ oral histories through the Chronicles of Courage program. Paul Loeffler III hopes that Allen will help facilitate further connections between survivors and the families of the fallen. Whether or not Loeffler ever develops new details about his father’s final hours, the discovery of the Indianapolis only brings him a new opportunity and new motivation to continuing honoring the sailor’s legacy.

“He’s part of that Greatest Generation who saved the United States,” you’ll hear him say of his late father. “I’m proud of the fact that he died in the service of the United States.”

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