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Remarks by Rear Admiral Sam Cox on the Occasion of the Unveiling of a Statue in Honor of the Last Living Survivor of USS Indianapolis (CA-35), Harold Bray

Benicia, California

7 July 2023

“Harold, Mayor Young, Ladies and Gentlemen – in the interest of time, all previous greetings and salutations remain in effect. However, I would like to give a shout out to the band (crowd cheers loudly) for their truly inspiring medley from the 1950s TV show – “Victory at Sea.” (crowd cheers loudly again.)

I would note that when I was a very young kid, in Indianapolis, my punishment for being bad was to not be allowed to watch re-runs of “Victory at Sea.”

It is an incredible honor and privilege to be here today, and I am exceedingly grateful for the opportunity. I am also humbled by the size and enthusiasm of this crowd, which – as it should be – I know is here for Harold and not me.

Whether you realize it or not, everyone here is contributing to the defense of the United States. I spent my career as an intelligence officer, and when I look ahead to the future I see numerous dire threats. In any conceivable future, this nation needs a strong Navy in order to preserve our way of life. However, there were times in the past when the Navy was in decline. This wasn’t because our nation couldn’t afford a strong Navy – it was because we chose not to afford a strong Navy. We will not have the Navy the nation needs if we do not have the support of Congress. And, we will not have the support of Congress if we do not have the support of the American people. That is where you come in. My mission is to tell an accurate story of U.S. Navy history to as many people as I can reach, for the purpose of enhancing the combat readiness of the U.S. Navy. Every one here who passes on the stories of the valor and sacrifice of the crew of the USS Indianapolis, and of the U.S. Navy, assists in that mission – and I thank you. If we do not maintain a strong navy, we risk being at a severe disadvantage, as we were at the start of World War II, in any potential future conflict.

When I first addressed a USS Indianapolis reunion, it was 2016 and I believe there were about 21 living survivors. I stated then that we have an increasingly rare chance to personally thank those members of the generation who fought and ended the most terrible war in the history of mankind – over 60 million people killed around the globe – and to whom all of us today are deeply indebted for the freedom that too many take for granted. For the great majority of ships that served in World War II, there are no crewmen left. For the larger ships, like USS Houston (CA-30) and USS Arizona (BB-39,) only one crewman remains. And this is the case for USS Indianapolis.

Today, we honor the career, sacrifice and survival of Harold Bray. Not only did he survive the sinking of his ship, but the almost-five-day ordeal in the ocean. After the war he then went on to serve and protect the citizens of Benicia as a member of law enforcement, arguably as dangerous an endeavor as the armed forces. It is clear from the terrific turnout here today, just how much the people of Benicia appreciated your service, sir.

Most World War II veterans will say that they were not heroes. They will say that they were just doing their job. They just did what had to be done. They will say that the real heroes were the ones who didn’t come home. And perhaps the families of those who didn’t come home were the real heroes, they had to live with the pain of incalculable loss. I would argue, however, that the term hero, whether to those who lived or those who died, is not mutually exclusive. (crowd cheers.) They were all heroes – every one who had a hand in defeating the tyranny of fascism and imperial aggression.

This is particularly true for those who serve on ships, where everyone from the captain to the most junior seaman shares the same danger. For whether one lives or dies in a battle at sea is about as random event as can be. If an enemy projectile has your name on it, there is literally nothing you can do. In fact, if Harold had been sleeping in his normal spot, neither he nor the rest of us would be here today. On a ship there is no rear area, there is no place to hide, there is no safe space. Death can come from bombs from above, shells from the side, and torpedoes and mines from below – or all at the same time. When Indianapolis was hit by a kamikaze off Okinawa, the ship’s gunners had less than 25 seconds to react and although they hit the plane, the bomb penetrated clear through the ship and exploded under the hull; those nine men who died from a bomb from above were in the deepest part of the ship, some of them drowned inside their own ship by oil from ruptured tanks. Harold wasn’t aboard yet for that event, but the danger was even greater when he was.

It is a little bit different after a ship sinks and the surviving sailors are afloat in the sea. There is still a great deal of randomness…those who have serious injuries are not going to last very long. The sharks get a choice too, although the sailors do not. But a difference in water can be whether someone has an indomitable will to survive – as Harold did – and reasons to go on despite the extreme physical pain of burns, sunburn, sun blindness, sickness from ingesting fuel oil, body blisters, hypothermia, hunger and extreme thirst – thirst, which may be the biggest killer of all, for those literally dying of thirst, surrounded by clear water all around, who succumb to drinking salt water, which causes hallucinations and paranoid delusions leading to certain death, sometimes in violent ways. The extreme misery of being adrift at sea hundreds of miles from anywhere is beyond what the rest of us can comprehend. In the case of the Indianapolis, the misery, and tragedy, was compounded by the delay in rescue, when sailors who might otherwise have lived, did not.

So, the rest of us are in awe that Harold and 315 others survived that horrific ordeal. And it is right that we honor his courage and sacrifice.

It is just as important, though, to remember the 880 from Indianapolis who did not make it home, as well as their families, who made the ultimate sacrifice. Most of them never had a chance, others were driven by fever, sickness and pain beyond the capacity of normal human endurance.

Because I’m the director of Naval History I can get away with saying this – those who survived and those who died on the Indianapolis participated in the most important mission by a single ship in the entire war, and in the entire history of the U.S. Navy for that matter. There is no conceivable realistic way that the war with Japan could have been brought to an end without massive loss of life – American, and certainly Japanese. Whether by continued fire-bombing of cities, blockade and mass starvation, or a bloody invasion with horrifically high casualties on all sides, there were no good options. By delivering critical components of the first atomic bomb to Tinian, Indianapolis played a vital role in bringing the war to a quick end, by enabling the option that killed the fewest Americans, and in the long run killed fewer Japanese than any of the other bad options. As terrible as that weapon was – and we should all be exceedingly grateful it has not been used again – there are literally millions of descendants alive today because that war ended when it did, and because Indianapolis accomplished her mission.

One of the near-miracles of that war was how fast the United States and Japan went from implacable foes to friends and allies – because the quick end to the war enabled us to be magnanimous in victory rather than vindictive.

Nevertheless, about 36,000 U.S. Navy sailors were killed in action during that war, and almost that many were killed in operational accidents or other causes. The great majority of those KIA and many of the rest are still at sea, with only their sunken ship as a memorial, if any. As we are about to unveil an impressive statue of Harold, and because there are no headstones at sea, I would suggest that this statue not only honor Harold, but all the crew of the Indianapolis, and all those U.S. Navy sailors who fought and died for our freedom.

So to close, I would like to read something that I believe captures the essence of why we are all here today.  

Those who are very familiar with the Indianapolis story will have heard of USS Underhill (DE-682) which, a few days before Indianapolis was lost, sacrificed herself and 113 crewmen (including her commanding officer) by ramming a Japanese manned suicide torpedo in order to protect a convoy filled with thousands of U.S. Army soldiers who had survived months of horrific combat on Okinawa. The skipper of LST 647 witnessed this extraordinary act of courage and wrote the following in his after action report:

“Peace loving people throughout the world today are grateful to those who have given their lives to further the cause of freedom and democracy. But to the men whose very lives have been saved by the heroic deeds of their fighting comrades, this gratitude assumes the strength of an unpayable debt. Everlasting are the vivid memories of thousands of us who have seen their comrades sacrifice their lives so that we may live. If only the entire world could feel the same personal indebtedness toward these heroes, it would be a great impetus toward attaining the free and peaceful world for which these men were fighting. The attainment of this goal can be our only reasonable tribute.”

The following passage is from an inscription on a monument to British soldiers who fell fighting the Japanese in a god-forsaken jungle on the India-Burma border, but I believe it expresses universal sentiment regarding all of our fallen veterans.

“When you go home, tell them of us and say,

For your tomorrow, we gave our today.”

So, when you go home, tell them of Harold, and the Indianapolis, and all those who proved that freedom isn’t free.

Thank you all for being here today.”

Note; the USS Indianapolis (CA-35) reunion was held 6-9 July in Benicia, California, the hometown of Harold Bray, the last living survivor of the ship’s final crew. The theme of the reunion (which now obviously is mostly family and friends) was “The Last Liberty – Honoring Her Final Sailing Crew.” Indianapolis received her sailing orders on 15 July 1945 and departed Mare Island the same day, stopping briefly at Hunter’s Point (San Francisco) to embark components of the first atomic bomb. During the weeks prior to her sailing, Indianapolis had been undergoing repair at Mare Island from the kamikaze hit off Okinawa, so the “last liberty” for her crew would have been in the Mare Island/Vallejo/Benicia and San Francisco area.

The Benicia Community Foundation, along with a long list of other benefactors, commissioned a statue in honor of Benicia’s home town hero, Harold Bray, which was unveiled on 7 July in Benicia to an outdoor ceremony with a crowd of at least 1,000, and included reading a proclamation by Benicia Mayor Steve Young, along with a 21-gun rifle salute and Taps. The band that played “Victory at Sea” was the Greater Vallejo Recreation District Band and Volunteers.

Published: Wed Jul 19 13:57:56 EDT 2023