Hollywood often takes artistic liberties with history. Case in point, the movie Jaws, in which the character Quint recounts the sinking in the waning days of World War II of the U.S.S. Indianapolis and the fate of hundreds of sailors devoured by sharks.Giles McCoy, for one, thinks the salty Quint exaggerated the number eaten by sharks. And he ought to know: A shark glanced off his chest as he and other Indianapolis survivors clung to life during a five-day ordeal in the Pacific.Recently, Ken Burns salvaged the story of the sunken ship in his documentary The War, recounting its delivery of the components for the first atomic bomb to the Enola Gay, and its final voyage, the worst single-incident loss of life at sea in U.S. naval history.
And while Burns' account left much of the harrowing ordeal on the cutting-room floor, McCoy will unreel the details during a talk about the doomed ship at the Orange County Regional History Center on Tuesday."The better ones to tell the stories," said McCoy, 82, of Palm Coast, one of a handful of Indianapolis survivors who now call Florida home, "are the ones who lived it."Commissioned in November 1932, the U.S.S. Indianapolis represented the height of naval engineering of the time. A Portland-class heavy cruiser, it was 610 feet long and capable of cruising at 32 knots. After Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, the Indianapolis joined in several missions including the battle for Okinawa, in which a Japanese kamikaze plane crashed into the ship's port side about 50 feet from the gun placement of McCoy, one of 39 Marines aboard.After the ship was repaired and overhauled in dry-dock in California, the Indianapolis was tapped to ferry the fruit of the Manhattan Project, including components for "Little Boy," the atomic bomb that would devastate Hiroshima. Crew members weren't aware of the nature of its cargo."If I had known what they were [the bombs] I don't think I would have sat on them," McCoy says now.After off-loading its cargo on Tinian, a U.S.-held island in the Western Pacific, the Indianapolis re-supplied in Guam. There the crew was ordered to rendezvous with the U.S.S. Idaho. On July 28, 1945, the Indianapolis left Guam unescorted with its nearly 1,200 sailors and Marines to rendezvous with the Idaho.McCoy had assumed watch duty about a half-hour before midnight, giving the sentry he relieved a cup of coffee and advice to sleep topside because it was so hot.Seaman 1st Class Clarence Hershberger also had sought relief on deck.At 12:14 the morning of July 30, Giles was sent sprawling by an unmistakable jolt. Two torpedoes from the Japanese submarine I-58 had ripped the ship."After I got myself up, I could hear the men screaming and see all the lights were out."By the time he reached his battle station, the ship was tilting, her bow underwater. Men dove overboard and bounced off propellers. McCoy hit the water wearing his kapok life jacket but was sucked under. An air bubble from the sinking ship blasted him to the surface.All McCoy could see was a "mountain of foam" where the Indianapolis once stood. She sank in 12 minutes.About 900 crewmen made it into the oil-slicked water.McCoy and 16 others shared a tattered life raft. Hershberger was among a group of maybe 400 men, bobbing in pairs.They tried to "keep the other going," said Hershberger, 82, of DeLeon Springs. "We reminisced about the past and our future."That future looked bleak when no rescue ships appeared on the horizon; it looked grimmer still when sharks appeared.McCoy remembers the sound of air leaving the lungs of the sailor attacked by the shark that bounced off McCoy's chest.Not only were the men fighting sharks, but also exposure, hunger and thirst.By the fourth day, "I knew I was going to die," McCoy said.However, on Aug. 2, Lt. Chuck Gwinn, an American pilot on anti-submarine patrol, spotted by chance the sunken ship and radioed for help. McCoy was among the five in his raft that survived. So did the 19-year-old Hershberger.Of about 900 men who braved the Pacific, only 316 made it out alive, according to the Naval Historical Center, although other sources put the number of survivors at 317.The story of the Indianapolis has been chronicled in books such as In Harm's Way and on Aug. 2, 1995 -- the 50th anniversary of the rescue -- set in stone with a memorial in the city that lent its name to the doomed ship. And the story lives on in memories of survivors such as McCoy."These things," he said, "should be told and people should listen.""They just don't teach this in school anymore," McCoy said. "Tell the story and let people know what a great country we have."