INDIANAPOLIS — When Sara Vladic attended her first USS Indianapolis reunion, 117 of the 316 veterans who survived the sinking of the U.S. Navy battleship at the end of World War II were still alive.
Now, 18 years later, only a dozen remain.
And just seven — including Art Leenerman, 95, of Mahomet — made the trek to downtown Indianapolis this weekend for the annual USS Indianapolis Survivors’ Reunion.
“I’ve gone to a lot of funerals. It’s like losing your grandparents. They’ve lived incredible, long lives,” said Vladic, who attended her first reunion at age 21, after being moved by a documentary that briefly mentioned the tragedy and left her yearning to know more.
Now, she is one of the foremost experts on what remains the event that resulted in the greatest loss of life at sea, from a single ship, in U.S. Naval history. Years of research and countless hours of interviews led to a documentary, then later a best-selling book: 2017’s “Indianapolis: The True Story of the Worst Sea Disaster in U.S. Naval History and the Fifty-Year Fight to Exonerate an Innocent Man,” co-authored by Lynn Vincent.
Vladic and Vincent were two of the guests at a luncheon Friday at the Columbia Club in downtown Indianapolis for survivors and their families.
Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb made an impromptu visit during the luncheon, chatting briefly with each of the survivors on hand and making a few remarks. Holcomb, who has attended these reunions in previous years, said it’s “beyond inspirational” to be in the same room as the heroes gathered for the four-day reunion.
“You really define what it means to be a patriot,” he told them.
Friends to the end
Leenerman posed for a picture with the governor wearing his USS Indianapolis hat and jacket. He sat at a table between son Greg Leenerman, who traveled from Denver to take his dad to the reunion, and fellow survivor Jim Jarvis of Ohio.
“We’ve been kind of buddies for years, just real good friends,” Leenerman said of Jarvis.
“It’s been a lot of years since we got sunk.”
The two men didn’t know each other on the ship but met years later, at one of these survivor reunions, the first of which was held in 1960.
Leenerman was in the radar area of the USS Indianapolis, part of a crew of about 1,195 who were on one of the most highly-classified naval missions of the war. The ship was responsible for delivering the fissionable components of the atomic bomb, Little Boy, to an island south of Japan.
They accomplished their mission. But not long after, on July 30, 1945, the USS Indianapolis was struck by two torpedoes from a Japanese submarine in the Philippine Sea.
About 300 crew members went down with the ship; the other 890 were left to fend for themselves in shark-infested waters, 280 miles from the nearest land.
After four days and five nights, just 316 men survived — rescued after being spotted by a U.S. plane flown by Lt. Wilbur “Chuck” Gwinn.
Gwinn’s daughter, Jane Gwinn Goodall, attended Friday’s luncheon with her husband. She said her dad, like a lot of veterans from that conflict, didn’t voluntarily talk about the war.
“They just lived their lives and raised their kids,” she said.
Greg Leenerman can relate. He said a long time passed before his father spoke about his experience surviving the sinking of the ship.
“We know how important it is for him to come,” Greg Leenerman said of the reunions. “He enjoys coming, so we make a point to get him here.”
It wasn’t until Goodall saw the movie “Jaws” — which includes a scene recalling the sinking of the USS Indianapolis in shark-infested waters — that she asked her dad about that event.
At the first reunion she attended, she watched in awe as one survivor after another, who referred to her father as their angel, rushing up to him crying, so thankful for his spotting the oil slick in the water that he first thought was a submarine.
That experience “made an impression on me,” Goodall said. “I looked at my dad with a different pair of eyes. It was monumental.”
Now, Goodall is involved with a family foundation that awards scholarships to the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the crew of the USS Indianapolis. Despite her dad being gone for more than 25 years, she and her husband remain regulars at these reunions.
And though just five survivors were at Friday’s luncheon — with two more slated to arrive later in the day — the small band of brothers was surrounded by a large group of friends, family and fans.
The reunions are a labor of love for Peggy Campo of Urbana, whose survivor father, Don McCall, died two years ago. She’s an integral part of organizing the annual event, even though her father is no longer with her.
“To honor my dad and his shipmates is truly my honor,” Campo said, “and I love that we can bring them together.”