The uncle I never knew
James McLaurin Harrison, 1924-1945
By Buddy Bynum / editor
May 27, 2002
The uncle I never knew, James McLaurin Harrison, died aboard the USS Indianapolis shortly after midnight on July 30, 1945, a Seaman first class who would never celebrate his 22nd birthday. His remains were claimed by the warm waters of the Pacific Ocean about 450 miles from the island of Leyte.
Our family believes to this day that he died quickly in one of the explosions that rocked and sank the great heavy cruiser after it was struck by torpedoes from a Japanese submarine in the final days of World War II. We believe that under the circumstances he was among the fortunate sailors aboard the U.S. warship that only 11 days earlier had delivered components of the atom bombs that would end the war.
Under a shroud of secrecy, and with a contingent of U.S. Marines guarding a mysterious cargo whose identity was not known to its sailors, the USS Indianapolis sailed from San Francisco Bay on July 16, 1945, headed for a dot in the western Pacific called Tinian Island.
The ship arrived after a 5,000 mile journey accomplished with record speed to deliver uranium-235 and other components of the atomic bombs that would be dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
On July 28, 1945, the Indianapolis departed from Guam bound for the Philippines, 1,500 nautical miles to the west, scheduled to arrive in Leyte three days later. Moments past midnight on July 30, in overcast conditions about midway between Guam and the Philippines, the Japanese submarine under the command of Capt. Mochitsura Hashimoto struck.
The USS Indianapolis ripped by what Capt. Charles B. McVay, its commanding officer, said in a letter to my grandparents were "two heavy under-water explosions on the starboard side forward" that left "gaping holes forward in her under-water body" sank in 12 minutes.
As the 610-foot ship filled rapidly with water, hundreds of sailors spilled out over several miles of open ocean. The ship sent no distress message the blast knocked out all power. And the Navy command in Leyte didn't even take note that the ship was late for port, so rescue was delayed.
McVay, himself the son of a proud Navy family, would be court-martialed and convicted of hazarding his ship failing to zigzag, a back-and-forth maneuver designed to help avoid enemy detection. The Navy brought Hashimoto over to testify, and he said zigzagging would have made no difference.
McVay was returned to active duty in 1946, but the conviction remained on his record. Twenty-four years after the court-martial, and despite efforts of survivors to clear his name, McVay killed himself with a Navy-issue .38 caliber revolver.
In the predawn hours of that fateful day, the worst single disaster in U.S. naval history, wounded and dying sailors clung to whatever they could find to keep their heads above water. The Indianapolis carried 1,196 servicemen. Some 900 men, many of them covered with burning fuel oil or with other injuries, went into the water; 316 survived.
After three days in the warm salt water, many survivors had only shreds of flesh on their bodies, not enough to hold their bones in place. They suffered hideous wounds, thirst and hunger, salt water ulcers, serious sunburns, temporary blindness and infections.
There is no official count of the men who were the victims of a feeding frenzy by sharks that made random selections.
And that is why my family chooses to believe McVay's assessment that Uncle Mac died aboard the USS Indianapolis on July 30, 1945.
Hopewell Cemetery sits in an unassuming forest of pine trees on a paved road off Highway 494 just five miles into Newton County from the Lauderdale-Newton county line. The Baptist church from which the cemetery takes its name has grown over the years, adding on and making new space for worship.
But the cemetery, bordered by a chain link fence, remains peaceful, quiet, serene, the absolute opposite from what must have been my uncle's final moments on this earth. The roots here in the red clay hills of rural Newton County are deep and strong and run through generation after generation of war and tragedy, of life and death.
About this time every year, I make sure to visit Hopewell Cemetery, drawn somehow to the final resting place for many relatives from my mother's side of the family. Marion B. Harrison and Fannie Eula Harrison had 10 children. The Harrisons and Smiths and many of their friends from families named Scott, Williams, Deen, Graham, Dean, Williamson, Estes, Hitt and Sheehan buried there, making it impossible to pay your respects without feeling a tangible connection with generations past.
A simple marker stands in lasting tribute to Uncle Mac, the dates of his life etched on metal March 7, 1924-July 30, 1945. His memorial is placed at the foot of the graves of Mama and Papa Harrison, positioned between the two as if he still shares their sheltering embrace.
And perhaps he does.
As I stood before the simple marker that lies in tribute to Uncle Mac, I am reminded, again, of how proud I am of his service in the U.S. Navy and to his country. He was the only one of three strapping Harrison boys, my mother's brothers, to lose his life in war, and for that there is a measure of gratitude.
When I was born, almost seven years after Uncle Mac died, my parents honored me with the James Laurin, without the "Mc," part of his middle name. Later, my cousin, Paul McLaurin Harrison, would also inherit our uncle's legacy.
It is enough to keep his memory alive and, on this day of all days, we vow anew to honor Americans who gave this country the gift of all they had or would ever be.