USS Indianapolis – July 1945

USS Indianapolis
USS Indianapolis

Hooper: You were on the Indianapolis?

Brodie: What happened?

Quint: Japanese submarine slammed two torpedoes into our side, Chief. We was comin’ back from the island of Tinian to Leyte… just delivered the bomb. The Hiroshima bomb. Eleven hundred men went into the water. Vessel went down in twelve minutes…. Noon the fifth day, Mr. Hooper, a Lockheed Ventura saw us, he swung in low and he saw us. He’s a young pilot, a lot younger than Mr. Hooper, anyway he saw us and come in low. And three hours later a big fat PBY comes down and start to pick us up. You know that was the time I was most frightened? Waitin’ for my turn. I’ll never put on a lifejacket again. So, eleven hundred men went in the water, three hundred and sixteen men come out, the sharks took the rest.

USS Indianapolis. We all remember the scene from the movie Jaws. Gruff Captain Quint, young Marine biologist Hooper and Police Chief Brodie sit in the cabin of the small boat, drinking and comparing scars… as they wait in the dark for the Great White to surface, Quint tells the story of how a shark nearly took him. Sounds incredible, but the story is true, except for the date.
On July 15th, 1945 with the surrender of the Nazis and the war in Europe being over, America had turned their attention to the continued conflict with Japan. At Mare Island that morning 46 year old Captain Charles McVay of the USS Indianapolis had, in a secret meeting with Admiral William R Purnell and Captain William S Parsons received his orders regarding a mission that he was to command. Three days previously he had been given the order to muster his crew of 1196 men, some veterans, some new, some somewhere in between. The mission was to sail out on the Pacific with a package of unknown description, which he was to pick up at San Francisco, Hunters Point Navy yard. His destination would be revealed at some point during the crossing.

Just four months previously, the Indianapolis had suffered a kamikaze attack off Okinawa which had left nine dead and twenty nine injured. The ship was seriously damaged and following some quick temporary repairs had limped home for a proper refit. Now some of the crew were transferring off, stating she was unlucky. When the crew were mustered, on 16th July Indianapolis set sail for the pick-up at Hunters, where they loaded a large wooden crate approximately five feet by five feet by fifteen feet, into the forward hangar, and two crew carried between them a heavy black canister up the gang-plank, and from there out on the Pacific. McVay had commented on biological warfare not being used, to the man assigned to take charge of the crate, Captain Nolan, who after seeing it padlocked down onto the deck, and stated he would be keeping the key, and received no reply. Captain Nolan and his assistant Major Furman were in sole charge of the crate and the canister, guarded around the clock by 39 armed marines.

At 5am the Indianapolis prepared to set sail. At 6.30 as she entered the outer harbour, she stopped. Nobody knew why, but shortly afterwards a marine launch pulled up and a message was delivered to Captain McVay instructing him on Presidential order that the cargo was to be delivered without exception to its destination. Without knowing it, the crate contained the parts of “little boy”, the canister $300 million worth of Uranium-235, half of the available fissible amount in the USA at the time. The destination: Japan. The brief pause had been for the test taking place 1300 miles away in New Mexico. Once its success was confirmed, the go-ahead was given to commence. Should the nuclear test have failed, Indianapolis would have been ordered to return to her berth. McVay was not aware at the time, but Nolan and Furman were actually members of the small unit who worked with Robert Oppenheimer and his team, developing and building the components for the Atom bomb which was destined to drop on Hiroshima less than 3 weeks later. As the ship steamed out into open water, President Truman and Winston Churchill were preparing to issue the Potsdam declaration to Japan.
The destination of the cargo to Tinian was received as the ship ploughed its way through the Pacific. And the journey was relatively without incident. They reached their destination on schedule and the cargo was offloaded. Following a six hour break, Captain McVay was informed that his crew were to receive scheduled training at Leyte and set sail for Guam where he would pick up his directions for Leyte. Once there, the ship and her crew would be prepared to join the Pacific invasion which was under preparation. Commands via coded messages had been relayed by wire to all concerned, to expect the arrival of the Indianapolis. Except something went wrong.

The message to notify Rear–Admiral McCormick, under Vice-Admiral Oldendorf to whom McVay was to report at Leyte on board the USS Idaho, was mis-read by the decoding wireless operator. He made a simple mistake, he mis-read the name for who the message was intended, and did not bother to finish the rest of the message. The other officers in their various stations were aware of the planned movements of the Indianapolis, but not the dates she was expected. The Idaho did not get the message at all, and so was not expecting her arrival in Leyte.

After reaching Guam, his stopping point before the 1300 mile trek to Leyte, McVay was given his routing orders, these included the ruling that due to the possible threat of enemy vessels, his course was to zig-zag, which was thought by the men at the top to make it harder to hit, in practice it made little difference, McVay requested an escort. He was denied, as it wasn’t considered necessary. The last intelligence suggested that there had been no confirmed enemy sightings for the previous week. What McVay wasn’t told, as in the decryption of the German Enigma code, which led to the decision of the military top brass in England to withhold information of the proposed Luftwaffe bombing of Coventry, as to make preparations would reveal to the enemy that their code had been cracked forcing them to change it, was that the Japanese code PURPLE had also been cracked. And that one US ship had already been lost on a convoy three days previously with the loss of over 100 lives.

An unaccompanied, unexpected USS Indianapolis left Guam on the 27th July, without the protection of sonar detection – it wasn’t fitted as the escorts usually carried this equipment and so it wasn’t thought required – and aimed for the standard Peddie route, travelling at a standard rate of knots in an effort to protect the engines following their break-neck voyage from San Francisco. What he was also unaware of was that somewhere in the distance, 36 year old Lieutenant-Commander Mochitsura Hashimoto, on board his submarine I-58, was watching, waiting and desperate to secure a kill before the war ended. Having yet to successfully take an enemy target, Hashimoto knew Japanese defeat was imminent.

On July 29th after a stop at Apra, which had resulted in the somewhat successful notification to Rear Admiral McCormick that the Indianapolis was expected at Leyte, which he chose in the first instance to disregard as he had not received the first communication sent two days earlier, he believed that the information was incorrect, and a notification that successfully reached Vice-Admiral Oldendorf about her expected arrival, but not when, Indianapolis was reaching the final stages of her voyage. That night, due to poor visibility, as per his instructions, McVay gave the order to stop zig-zagging, and went to bed at 11pm.

At 12.04 am the call came out on board the I-58 that a possible enemy ship had been sighted roughly three miles away. Excited, as he used his supplied chart to try and work out what kind of ship he was up against, Hashimoto gave the order to steer slowly and stealthily toward the target and had six torpedoes loaded and ready to fire. His Kamikaze Kaiten pilot loaded himself ready and his second made ready. After spending a minute using his sonar to calculate the rough speed of the ship using the revolutions of the engines, Hashimoto gave the order to fire the torpedoes. In three second intervals, six missiles shot out of the submarine, at a speed of 48 knots, each loaded with 1210lbs of explosive. The snuck through the water at a depth of 16 feet leaving a visible wake. By now the Indianapolis was less than a mile away.
At 12.05 two torpedoes hit the Indianapolis, lifting her clean out of the water, spinning her southwards and setting her back down, still moving at a speed of 17 knots. The Ship had most of her bow missing and had been sheared almost in two. 3600 gallons of stored high-octane aviation fuel had ignited and a fire raged as it gushed out of the ruptured tank. One torpedo had hit the boiler room which provided the steam for engine room number one, powering the forward engine, and blown the powder room which contained the powder magazines for the eight inch guns on board.

With all but one of the propellers out of action and tons of seawater being taken on board, Indianapolis was listing heavily. As it become obvious that she could not be saved, and that they were now alone in the middle of the Pacific Ocean with no emergency radio, the order was given to abandon ship. There were few survivors from the forward section of the ship, most had been vaporised as the first torpedo hit. Those further back were slightly more fortunate, although some blinded by aviation fuel, burned and bleeding. Bodies littered the remains of the ship. Just 8 minutes after she was hit, the order was given to abandon ship. Many of the surviving crew had already mustered on the deck and stood by the rail watching horrified as they rose further out of the water. The engine powered lifeboats had either been blown apart or upended, rendering them immovable, and the men were reduced to grabbing the available cork and canvas life-rafts that were stacked around them. These life-rafts were big enough to hold 25 men, and should carry provisions for each man to last a few days, including water. Unfortunately only 12 of these rafts made it off the ship, and in their haste to depart Hunters Point, they had not been stocked with necessary provisions.

USS Indianapolis Memorial
USS Indianapolis Memorial

As the survivors grabbed life vests, which as luck would have it, had been over-supplied, meaning there were more than twice as many as needed, they jumped off the port rails into the sea 80 feet below in darkness. On the far side of the ship, those men simply stepped off the starboard rail into the water with which it was level and swam away. Many of the men were forced to swim through the oil slick which had pooled around the stricken vessel. It stuck to them like thick black treacle, coating their skin, getting in their mouths and up their noses and then began to burn.

Radio room number one had been put out of action, all the wires and antennae destroyed. But radio room two was still viable. Unfortunately the equipment in this room was for receiving messages, not transmission. After watching Chief Radio Electrician L. T Woods for a minute or two, young radio technician Jack Woods understood that by flicking a switch on the incoming transmitter, they were able to transmit a series of signals, using Morse code. They worked rapidly, hoping someone at the other end was receiving their S.O.S. call, giving their co-ordinates.

Unknown to them, three of these messages were received. One was given to a sailor on security detail for Commodore Jacob Jacobson, at Tacloban, Leyte. He read it and delivered it urgently, waking Jacobson up to read it to him by torchlight. Jacobson asked if a confirmation had been sent, and a reply received. Young confirmed that they had sent a request to confirm the details from the Indianapolis, but no response had been received. Jacobson laid back down and instructed Young to wake him again when they heard back from the ship. The second message was received 12 miles away from Tacloban in Tolosa, and given to an officer who read it and immediately despatched two navy tugs to go to the co-ordinates. Commodore Gillette in command of Tolosa heard of the decision as he played bridge on a nearby island and order the return of the tugs, now seven hours out, as he hadn’t given the order. Another 14 hours would have seen them arrive on scene and rescue could have begun. The third message was received by a landing craft on Leyte harbour, after eight minutes a duplicate message was received. It was forwarded through standard channels and subsequently ignored.

300 men were estimated to have been killed in the initial impact of the torpedoes. 900 men went into the water. As they watched their ship sink, in just twelve minutes, in the darkness, praying for help to arrive, the I-58 in the distance did a cursory check to confirm the hit. They found nothing. After an hour they gave up and moved on. As the sun came up, and the survivors were able to see more, many of them realised they were not alone. Effort were made to regroup as others were met. Many men were suffering horrific injuries, some were weak, and later drowned. The first day, Monday was spent organising themselves into bigger groups, and watching the passing debris for anything useful, food, flares, water, life-jackets.

As darkness fell again, they were somewhat comforted in the knowledge that the next day they had been due to arrive at Leyte. When they failed to appear, they were certain a rescue party would be sent. They were unaware of the confusion on the island as to the date or accuracy of the Indianapolis’ arrival at all. As they drifted off to sleep, against the rocking of the ocean, and the bumps of their companion’s legs in the water, they were also unaware that these weren’t limbs banging against limbs, but the inquisitive nudges of the sharks that were moving in.

On the first day, they had feasted on the dead bodies as they sunk under the water. Or picked off the single survivors, isolated from the larger groups now forming. But on the second day, they moved on to the main congregated survivors. As Tuesday turned into Wednesday, those on Leyte moved the marker for Indianapolis from the expected slot to the arrived list. Her departure marker likewise had been moved at her starting point. Nobody checked whether she had actually arrived, but for one man who went around the berths each day marking the ships as they arrived from his list. Noticing the absence of Indianapolis, she was recorded as overdue. Nothing was reported. Those aware, presuming her arrival had been delayed by other orders.
Wednesday drifted into Thursday and the survivors decreased in number hourly. Many succumbing to their injuries and drowning, some gone mad from the heat, the lack of water, the terror. Now surrounded by a flotsam of half eaten bodies and chewed limbs, many started to hallucinate, turned violent, turned on each other. Several chose to commit suicide, taking off their lifejackets and swimming out a way before calmly stopping and allowing the ocean and the predators to take them. Through the day they waited, watching as the sharks swam through lunging at the tattered remains of what were once men. Many of the survivors were missing limbs, already victims to the endless circling mass of hundreds of sharks.

As Thursday drifted into Friday, Indianapolis had still not been acknowledged as missing. Patrol bomber Lieutenant Chuck Gwinn, flying a Lockheed Ventura PV-1 over his routine patch between Peliliu Island and the Japanese Mainland flew over what he initially thought to be a small oil slick left behind by some unknown ship. He got a little excited thinking there could be an enemy submarine in the area and began preparations to ready his bombs. Suddenly the slick grew bigger and he noticed something else in the water. He flew around and in lower and was astonished to see a small group of men, caked in oil, clinging to the remains of a life raft. He gave the order to abort the bombing and did several circles of the group. Dipping his wings to acknowledge he had seen them, away in the distance he began to pick out more of these groups. It suddenly occurred to him that there must have been a substantial wreck, for the numbers of men he was seeing. As Japanese submarines carried less than 100 men, this could in no way be enemy survivors. But he hadn’t been detailed of any American ship being damaged or sunk in the area. Nobody had.

Gwinn gave his co-ordinates and outlined a possible shipwreck with many survivors. He circled and dropped everything the plane carried. As he watched and circled, he saw that the men were encircled by hundreds of sharks. For as long as he was able he watched horrified as the sharks picked off the men. One attack saw thirty sharks take around 60 men from a raft in one violent frenzied raid. Gwinn’s signal and message back at his base confirmed that some disaster had happened and rescue would be needed. A squadron of Catalinas – able to land on water – were fuelled and ready to be despatched. Gwinn’s superior officer telephoned and requested one be sent immediately to relieve Gwinn who was getting low on fuel, the duty officer, having not had official word of any catastrophe denied the request. Lieutenant Attebury, not having had time to notify Admiral Murray in Guam, in whose jurisdiction the wreck was, sent word and readied his Ventura, with a crew of four and set off. It was now midday on Friday 2nd August, five days after the Indianapolis had sunk.

Attebury, once up in the air received another message from Gwinn, requesting naval support for a rescue of an approximate 150 survivors. He wasn’t able to pass on the message, but he figured seeing as he was only an hour away, it didn’t matter. It didn’t matter, as the message was picked up by Peleliu and on its receipt the Navy went into over-drive. The biggest rescue mission of the US Navy was underway.

The first person to receive the notification was Captain Granum, whose superior officer Commodore Gillette had received one of the SOS calls five days before as the Indianapolis sank, and chose to recall the tug boats that had been sent to search for and rescue the survivors. Granum, now concerned, called down to Gibson at Tacloban, who had two days earlier ignored the non-arrival of the ship when it was already one day overdue. The other person to receive word was Vice Admiral Murray on Guam. He immediately sent two ships. An amphibious navy plane on a routine flight went over the rescue area, and saw the life-rafts and Gwinn’s plane in the distance. He requested to put down and pick up survivors. His request was denied. He flew over the spot and dropped everything he had that could help.
As Attebury reached the disaster area, he sent Gwinn back to base. Whilst circling, he heard the voice of Lieutenant Marks over his radio. Marks had been one of the Catalina crew that Attebury had requested to assist. He had taken it upon himself to fly out with the emergency plane. After hearing what the situation was during his flight, he had contact with a destroyer in the area, who asked Marks about his mission. Captain Graham Claytor aboard the USS Cecil J. Doyle was only 200 miles away but had received no word about the rescue mission. Operating without further command, Claytor turned his ship around and headed for the survivors. It would take him 10 hours at full speed to reach the mission.

Survivors aboard Bassett
Survivors aboard Bassett

Finally CINCPAC in Manila radioed all ships to break radio silence and report their positions. Three turned out to be missing from Leyte, Indianapolis was one of them. Gillette, McCormick and Granum nervously messaged between themselves, requesting correlating information on her movements. Once confirmed, they took a deep breath and launched all available resources. Marks meanwhile had put the Catalina down, in what can only be described as a rough landing, which damaged some of the seams. He then began the process of loading the survivors on board. Once full, he wrapped further men in parachutes and lashed them to the wings of the plane, and as darkness fell, with no further room, sat back and prepared to wait the night out.
Other survivors, had managed to fight their way to some of the inflatables which had been dropped by the passing planes. 300 survivors were still adrift. At just before midnight, the Cecil J. Doyle arrived, closely followed by the Bassett, the Ralph Talbot and by dawn the Madison and the Dufilho were also in the area. The vessels spent the majority of the next day searching, with the aid of reconnaissance planes, for firstly survivors, and once all possibilities had ended, began the grim task of collecting what remains they could for identification, before giving them burial at sea. The survivors were transported by boat to hospital, where the long recovery process for many of them began. Burns, kidney malfunctions, broken or missing limbs, malnutrition. For some, complete mental breakdown. Telegrams were sent out notifying families, but a media blackout was placed on the incident, until after the Japanese surrender some days later.

Captain Charles McVay survived the Indianapolis sinking and the following days forgotten about at sea. But he never forgot the crew members he lost. Following his recuperation, McVay was made a scape-goat, despite witness accounts of his conduct, the poor visibility which enabled his decision to stop zig-zagging, as per naval directives, including testimony from Hashimoto who was flown in especially to give his evidence at McVay’s court-martial. Hashimoto stated that zig-zagging would not have made a difference to his ability to torpedo the Indianapolis that night. This was backed up by an expert who cited that the benefits of such a manoeuvre were actually negligible. In the first court-martial of an officer as a result of an act of war, McVay was found guilty. His career was over, the sinking and the aftermath were officially his fault. Of 1196 men on board, with 300 estimated killed on impact, 321 survivors were picked out of the water five days later. Four more of these would die in the next few days.

Mention was not given to the catalogue of errors committed by those in charge who failed to highlight the ship’s non-arrival at Leyte, the SOS messages being disregarded, and the initial lack of official rescue efforts when the disaster became known. Those involved received letters of admonishment and other restrictions. Charles McVay was publicly held up to be responsible. Relatives of the dead now had someone to blame. Hate letters arrived daily for him, he kept each and every one that his wife was unable to intercept. Each and every one served to remind him that he had failed his men. In November 1968, aged 70, after losing his wife to cancer, and his grandson a few years earlier, and following a new, perhaps knee-jerk marriage in response, Charles McVay laid down on the front step of his lodge in a quiet town in Connecticut, and with his beloved dog to witness his final moments, shot himself in the head.

He was found with his head reclining on the step, his hands by his side and his toes facing down the path, giving all the appearance of a man floating in the sea.


 Johnny Cash


Johnny Cash faced a lifetime of hardships and tribulations and it all started in the small town of Kingsland, Arkansas on February 26, 1932. Born John R. Cash to a family of sharecroppers that included his parents, Ray and Carrie Cash, and his 6 brothers and sisters. Life on the farm was not easy nor was sharecropping was not a lucrative business, and as a result the family was poor, forcing the children to help their parents farm their crops. The hard work was a blessing in disguise as this is where John would find his love of music. Carrie would sing in the fields, often folk songs and hymns but he was also influenced by the hired farmers and the workers who sang on the railroad yards nearby his home.

This life of living in these conditions continued in Dyess Colony, Arkansas where his family moved when John was only 3 years old and he stayed there until the time he graduated from high school in 1950. Not only was John forced to work, he was also quoted as saying in later years that there were times that he feared that he would die from starvation as a young boy. After graduation, John left for Pontiac, Michigan to look for work in an automotive plant, and although he was successful in his search, John only spent a small duration of time in Michigan due to his enlistment in the U.S. Air Force.

Stationed in Germany, John bought his very first guitar, used for $4, and started his first band, the Lansberg Barbarians. After serving 4 years in the service, John returned to the states and married his girlfriend Vivian Liberto whom he had met only one month prior to being sent to Germany. Vivian kept over 10,000 pages of letters that the two wrote back and forth to one another during his enlistment which she arranged in her later book “I Walked the Line”. Another milestone that occurred in 1954 was that John and Vivian moved to Memphis, Tennessee where John would audition for the famous Sam Phillips of Sun Records, changing his life forever. In the spring of 1955, John walked into Sun Records with The Tennessee Three where they recorded Johnny Cash’s first release, “Hey Porter”. By 1958 Cash moved his family to Encino, CA after signing with Columbia records, finally settling in Ventura throughout the 1960s.

The first recording was all that was needed for Johnny’s career to take off. Throughout the 1950s Johnny was able to release hit after hit, as well as playing 200 shows per year . By the mid 1960s he was playing 300 shows per year but this hectic schedule created numerous issues for Cash, including a neglected marriage and an increasing addiction to narcotics.

The drug addiction that took its hold on Cash really seemed to peak in 1965 and 1966 when a series of events started affecting not only Cash’s music but his personal life as well. Contrary to popular belief, Cash never passed out on stage from taking excessive amounts of drugs, but in 1965 he did smash the floor lights with his microphone at the Grand Ole Opry. This event was caused by a drug induced rage that resulted in Cash’s banishment from the venue, one of the few artists who have ever been banned from the Opry.

The same year on October 4, Cash was arrested in El Paso, Texas on misdemeanor charges of possession of illegal drugs that landed him in jail for 1 night. The federal narcotics agents found 668 Dexadrine tablets and 475 Equanil tablets in his luggage, a combination of “uppers” and “downers”.

The next year he fared no better when Vivian filed for divorce in the summer, separating from Johnny after 12 years together and 4 daughters. The divorce was granted late in 1967, the year in which Cash was finally able to beat his drug addiction with the help of his singing partner, June Carter. While the two had known each other since the 1950s, it wasn’t until 1968 that the two married. June and Johnny’s marriage lasted until June died in May of 2003 after post-surgery complications from a heart operation. Only 4 months later, Johnny Cash met his final resting place on September 12, 2003 after associated complication from diabetes.

While the Man in Black may have had turbulent times, he was still one of the most influential voices of the 20th century. Throughout his career, Cash had 30 singles to chart the top 100 list with 14 of those in the number 1 position. In his life he has not only left his mark in the music world but also as an actor in movies, as well as his own t.v. program, and as an author, writing his own autobiography “Cash” in 1997.


War breaks out in American colonies

An artistic representation of the Battle of Lexington in April 1775
An artistic representation of the Battle of Lexington in April 1775

In 1774, following the infamous Boston Tea Party the previous December, when residents had dumped a cargo of imported tea into the Harbour at Boston, Massachusetts, the British governor to the state had been ordered, using amendments to the Massachusetts Colonial Government Charter, to disband the locally elected councils in favour of members appointed by the Governor. In retaliation, a shadow patriot government, the Massachusetts Provincial Congress was set up by the dissenters. They compiled their objections, the Suffolk Resolves, named so after Suffolk County, where Boston was the main city, to refuse to obey the Massachusetts Government act and threatened to boycott imported goods from Britain, unless the ‘Intolerable Acts’ were repealed.

The Intolerable Acts or Coercive Acts, were a series of Acts passed by the British Government to place taxes on the colonial states to raise revenue. This revenue would be used to pay colonial governors to remain loyal to Britain, and included the Stamp act which forced colonists to pay for a watermark on all their paper, and the Townsend Acts which among others included a tax to pay for a British Militia presence in the Colonies, despite them already providing their own trained army, and the Quartering Act which forced them to provide living accommodation and provisions for the British Militia. Massachusetts was unique among the colonial states in that they had the power to elect their own executive council. The Massachusetts Government act removed that right, alongside the already tough restrictions forced by the King and British government in response to the Boston Tea Party in an effort to suppress the mounting discontent. The British Government mistakenly believed the independent local government of Massachusetts was responsible for the unrest.

In October 1774, British Governor Thomas Gage attempted to use the Act to dissolve the provincial assembly. They retaliated by setting up their own alternative which controlled everything outside Boston. The City itself, containing the Governor and his small army, was left under his control. In response, by February 1775, Massachusetts was declared to be in a state of rebellion by the British Government, and under Lt-Col Francis Smith, an army of 700 men were amassed, and began to prepare for hostilities. The patriot militia had begun preparing for conflict a few months prior. Smith’s men were given orders to covertly capture and destroy rebel supplies that were believed to be stored at Concord. The Patriot leaders however had obtained this intelligence, and had as a result moved their ammunition and so on to other areas. They also discovered when the British were to mount their attack and were able to warn each area’s militia. Historians today believe the intelligence source was Gage’s wife Margaret who was not only New Jersey born, and so a colonial sympathiser, but she was friends with Joseph Warren. At dawn on the morning of the 19th April, the two armies met, and the colonials were under instruction to remain in formation and not fire unless fired upon but to allow Smith’s men to conduct their search for weapons. Unfortunately, a shot or shots rang out, source unconfirmed and several of the colonial militia were injured or killed.

Although being outnumbered initially, through the day as more militia joined the action, and the British forces retreated towards Boston, the casualties mounted in a series of skirmishes, around Lexington, Concord, Arlington, Cambridge and their surroundings. The Americans employing cover tactics, whilst the British forces formed and shot from the open. As the militia force grew, they allowed the British forces to withdraw and retreat to Cambridge as night fell. By the next morning the colonial forces had increased to 15,000 men from throughout New England, their commander had been relieved, they had the town surrounded on three sides and further forces continued to arrive from the States of New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Connecticut. After the battle that day, rumours of several atrocities committed by the British troops circulated, not last the murder of innocent house-holders as they retreated, the ransacking of property and theft.

Gage attempted to influence the British government with his version of events, sent in his official report. However the colonial leaders took over a hundred depositions from the militia, the townspeople and the British Prisoners, and send them in packets on a faster ship, which reached England’s press and officials over two weeks before Gage’s report arrived. Instead of accepting responsibility for their mistakes, the Government chose to allocate blame to Gage and the British Forces in America followed suit by blaming both Gage and Smith.

The War of Independence (The Revolutionary War) had begun.


Darwin’s tortoises

Charles Darwin (Google)
Charles Darwin

While visiting the Galapagos archipelago in 1835, Charles Darwin (1809-1882) encountered the giant tortoise and observed that, as with the finches, each island had its own unique types of tortoise. The most notable difference, it turned out, was in the shape of the shell – some giant tortoises were able to extend their necks higher than others depending on what food source was available to them. They had evolved to survive on each particular island. The giant tortoise was a staple part of the diet of the indigenous peoples and also a source of money and goods from sale and trade – Darwin ate giant tortoise on James Island.

Forty eight specimens of giant tortoise were loaded onto the Beagle, but Darwin had yet to realise their significance to his fledgling theory of evolution – On the Origin of Species was not published until 1859 – and the tortoises were eaten and the shells, crucial to seeing the differences between the tortoises on each island, were thrown overboard.

Giant Galapagos Tortoise (Google images)
Giant Galapagos Tortoise
(Google images)

Two centuries of exploitation and unsustainable killing of the giant tortoise led to the loss of up to 200,000 tortoises, and by 1959 three of the originally identified populations were extinct with the remaining eleven groups seriously endangered. The establishment of the Galapagos National Park and the Charles Darwin Foundation, along with conservation efforts and captive breeding has seen the number of giant tortoises on the archipelago reach 20-25,000 today and there are currently fourteen species.


Gunfight at the O.K. Corral

Tombstone in 1881(Google images )
Tombstone in 1881(Google images )

“Fast is fine, but accuracy is everything. In a gun fight… You need to take your time in a hurry.”

Words couldn’t have been truer than those spoken by Wyatt Earp. A total of thirty shots were fired in thirty seconds in the most famous shootout in the history of the American Old West. I will of course follow this article up with more about Wyatt’s vendetta, and biographies of the key players, but for now I will concentrate on the infamous gunfight itself.

Tombstone, Arizona is located near the Mexican border. The Earps arrived on December 1, 1879, when the small town was mostly composed of tents as living quarters, a few saloons and other buildings, and the mines. Virgil Earp had been hired as Deputy U.S. Marshal for eastern Pima County, with his offices in Tombstone, only days before his arrival. In June 1881 he was also appointed as Tombstone’s town marshal. The Earps were not universally liked by the townspeople but they tended to protect the interests of the town’s business owners and residents. Cochise County Sheriff Johnny Behan was generally sympathetic to the interests of the rural ranchers and Cowboys. (the term “cowboy” generally meant an outlaw) Legitimate cowmen were referred to as cattle herders or ranchers. The Cowboys (supposedly led by Johnny Ringo) viewed the Earps as badge-toting tyrants who ruthlessly enforced the business interests of the town especially their own. The Cochise County Cowboys were not a gang but a loosely organized band of friends who committed crimes.

The long feud between Cowboys Billy Claiborne, Ike and Billy Clanton, and Tom and Frank McLaury, and opposing lawmen: town Marshal Virgil Earp, Assistant Town Marshal Morgan Earp, and temporary deputy marshals Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday finally came to a head after weeks of death threats by Ike Clanton (he reportedly drank a lot). An argument between Ike and Holliday reportedly started in the Alhambra Saloon. Morgan escorted Holliday out onto the street and Ike, who had been drinking steadily, followed them. Virgil arrived a few minutes later and threatened to arrest both Holliday and Ike Clanton if they did not stop arguing. Ike and Wyatt talked again a few minutes later, and Ike threatened to confront Holliday in the morning. Ike told Wyatt that the fighting talk had been going on for a long time and that he intended to put an end to it. Ike told Wyatt, “I will be ready for you in the morning.” Wyatt walked over to the Oriental Saloon and Ike followed him. Ike sat down to have another drink, his revolver in plain sight, and told Wyatt “You must not think I won’t be after you all in the morning.” Wyatt took Holliday back to his boarding house to sleep off his drinking, then went home and to bed. Virgil played cards with Ike Clanton, Tom McLaury, Sheriff Behan and a fifth unknown man, until morning.

At about dawn on October 26, the card game broke up and Behan and Virgil Earp went home to bed. Shortly after 8:00 am barkeeper E. F. Boyle spoke to Ike, who had been drinking all night, in front of the telegraph office. Boyle encouraged him to get some sleep, but Ike insisted he would not go to bed. Boyle later testified he noticed Ike was armed and covered his gun for him, recalling that Ike told him “‘As soon as the Earps and Doc Holliday showed themselves on the street, the ball would open—that they would have to fight’… I went down to Wyatt Earp’s house and told him what Ike said. Ike’s own testimony said that he remembered neither meeting Boyle nor making any such statements that day.

Later in the morning, Ike picked up his rifle and revolver from the West End Corral, where he had stabled his wagon and team and deposited his weapons after entering town. (When entering the town you had to deposit your weapons) By noon that day, Ike was drinking and once-again armed and told others he was looking for Holliday or an Earp. At about 1:00 pm, Virgil and Morgan Earp surprised Ike on 4th Street where Virgil pistol-whipped him from behind. Disarming him, the Earps took Ike to appear before Judge Wallace for violating the city’s ordinance against carrying firearms in the city. While Wyatt waited with Clanton, Virgil went to find Judge Wallace so the court hearing could be held. Ike was fined $25 plus court costs and after paying the fine left unarmed. He reportedly was able to pick up his weapons at the gun drop off location.

Annotated 1886 fire map of Tombstone indicating the actual shootout location (in green) and the O.K. Corral (in yellow) on the other side of the block. ( Google images )
Annotated 1886 fire map of Tombstone indicating the actual shootout location (in green) and the O.K. Corral (in yellow) on the other side of the block. ( Google images )

As Ike was released, Tom McLaury (who arrived in town the day before) ran into Wyatt, who demanded, “Are you heeled or not?”, McLaury said he was not armed. Wyatt testified that he saw a revolver in plain sight on the right hip of Tom’s pants. As an unpaid deputy marshal for Virgil, Wyatt carried a pistol in his waistband, as was the custom of that time. Witnesses reported that Wyatt drew his revolver from his coat pocket and pistol whipped Tom McLaury with it twice, leaving him prostrate and bleeding on the street. Saloon-keeper Andrew Mehan testified at the Spicer Hearing afterward that he saw McLaury deposit a revolver at the Capital Saloon sometime between 1-2:00 pm, after the confrontation with Wyatt, which Mehan also witnessed.
Wyatt said in his deposition afterward that he had been temporarily acting as city marshal for Virgil the week before while Virgil was in Tucson for the Pete Spence and Frank Stilwell trial. Wyatt said that he still considered himself a deputy city marshal, which Virgil later confirmed. Since Wyatt was an off-duty officer, he could not legally search or arrest Tom for carrying a revolver within the city limits. Wyatt, a non-drinker, testified at the Spicer hearing that he went to Haffords and bought a cigar and went outside to watch the Cowboys. At the time of the gunfight about two hours later, Wyatt could not know if Tom was still armed.

It was early afternoon by the time Ike and Tom had seen doctors for their head wounds. The day was chilly, with snow still on the ground in some places. Both Tom and Ike had spent the night gambling, drinking heavily, and without sleep. Now they were both out and about with head wounds, and Ike was still drunk. Around 1:30–2:00 pm, Ike’s 19-year-old younger brother Billy Clanton and Tom’s older brother Frank McLaury arrived in town. Both Frank and Billy were armed with a revolver and a rifle, as was the custom for riders in the country outside Tombstone. They had come to back up their brothers after they heard Ike and Tom had been stirring up trouble.They learned immediately after of their brothers’ beatings by the Earps within the previous two hours. The incidents had generated a lot of talk in town. Angrily, Frank said he would not drink, and he and Billy left the saloon immediately to seek Tom. By law, both Frank and Billy should have left their firearms at the Grand Hotel. Instead, they remained fully armed.

Sheriff Behan later testified that he first learned of the trouble while he was getting a shave at the barbershop after 1:30 pm, which is when he had risen after the late-night card game. Behan stated he immediately went to locate the Cowboys. At about 2:30 pm he saw Ike, Frank, Tom, and Billy gathered off Fremont street. Behan attempted to persuade Frank McLaury to give up his weapons, but Frank insisted that he would only give up his guns after City Marshal Virgil Earp and his brothers were disarmed.

A miner named Ruben F. Coleman told Virgil that the Cowboys had left the Dunbar and Dexter Stable for the O.K. Corral and were still armed, and Virgil decided they had to disarm them. (The actual gunfight did not happen by the O.K Corral) Virgil picked up his 10-gauge or 12-gauge, short, double-barreled shotgun from the Wells Fargo office around the corner on Allen Street. It was a cold and windy day in Tombstone, and Virgil was wearing a long overcoat. To avoid alarming Tombstone’s public, Virgil hid the shotgun under his overcoat when he returned to Hafford’s Saloon. He gave the shotgun to Doc Holliday who hid it under his overcoat. He took Holliday’s walking-stick in return. From Spangenberg’s, the Cowboys moved to the O.K. Corral where witnesses overheard them threatening to kill the Earps. For unknown reasons the Cowboys then walked out the back of the O.K. Corral and then west, stopping in an the narrow, empty lot next to C. S. Fly’s boarding house.
Virgil was told by several citizens that the McLaurys and the Clantons had gathered on Fremont Street and were armed. He decided he had to act. Several members of the citizen’s vigilance committee offered to support him with arms, but Virgil said no. He had during the prior month appointed Morgan as a Special Policeman. He had also appointed Wyatt as a Special Policemen while Virgil had been in Prescott on business. He had also called on Doc Holliday that morning for help with disarming the Clantons and McLaurys.

The Earps carried their usual revolvers in their coat pockets or in their waistbands. Wyatt was carrying a .44 caliber 1869 American model Smith & Wesson. Holliday was wearing a nickel-plated pistol in a holster, but this was concealed by his long coat, as was the shotgun. The Earps and Holliday walked west, down the south side of Fremont Street past the rear entrance to the O.K. Corral, but out of visual range of the Cowboys’ last reported location. The Earps then saw the Cowboys and Sheriff Behan, who left the group and came toward them, though he looked nervously backward several times. Virgil testified later that Behan told them, “For God’s sake, don’t go down there or they will murder you!” Wyatt said Behan told him and Morgan, “I have disarmed them.” Behan testified afterward that he’d only said he’d gone down to the Cowboys “for the purpose of disarming them,” not that he’d actually disarmed them.

Graves of Tom McLaury, Frank McLaury and Billy Clanton at Boot Hill (Google images )
Graves of Tom McLaury, Frank McLaury and Billy Clanton at Boot Hill (Google images )

When Behan said he had disarmed them, Virgil attempted to avoid a fight. “I had a walking stick in my left hand and my hand was on my six-shooter in my waist pants, and when he said he had disarmed them, I shoved it clean around to my left hip and changed my walking stick to my right hand.” Wyatt said I “took my pistol, which I had in my hand, under my coat, and put it in my overcoat pocket.” The Earps walked down Fremont street and came into full view of the Cowboys. Wyatt testified he saw “Frank McLaury, Tom McLaury, and Billy Clanton standing in a row against the east side of the building on the opposite side of the vacant space west of Fly’s photograph gallery. Ike Clanton and Billy Claiborne and a man I don’t know (Wes Fuller) were standing in the vacant space about halfway between the photograph gallery and the next building west.”

Virgil testified that he immediately commanded the Cowboys to “Throw up your hands, I want your guns!” Wyatt said Virgil told the Cowboys, “Throw up your hands; I have come to disarm you!” Virgil and Wyatt both testified they saw Frank McLaury and Billy Clanton draw and cock their six-shooters. Virgil yelled: “Hold! I don’t mean that!” or “Hold on, I don’t want that!” The single-action revolvers carried by both groups had to be cocked before firing. Who started shooting first is not certain; accounts by both participants and eyewitnesses are contradictory but at 3:00 p.m. the gunfight commenced. No one actually knows which side actually drew their guns first but its believed that Virgil Earp pulled out his revolver and shot Billy Clanton in the chest at point-blank range, while Doc Holliday killed Tom McLaury with a blast from his double-barreled shotgun. Wyatt Earp shot Frank McLaury in the stomach, and the wounded man staggered out into the street but managed to pull his gun and return fire.

When the gun smoke cleared Billy Clanton and both McLaury brothers were killed. Ike Clanton, who had repeatedly threatened to kill the Earps, claimed he was unarmed and ran from the fight along with Billy Claiborne. Virgil, Morgan, and Doc Holliday were wounded, but Wyatt Earp was unharmed.
The bodies of the three dead Cowboys were displayed in a window at Ritter and Reams undertakers with a sign: “Murdered in the Streets of Tombstone.” The Tombstone Nugget proclaimed:

“The 26th of October, 1881, will always be marked as one of the crimson days in the annals of Tombstone, a day when blood flowed as water, and human life was held as a shuttle cock, a day to be remembered as witnessing the bloodiest and deadliest street fight that has ever occurred in this place, or probably in the Territory.”

The funerals for Billy Clanton (age 19), Tom McLaury (age 28) and his older brother Frank (age 33) were attended by around 300 people who had joined in the procession to Boot Hill and as many as two thousand watched from the sidewalks. Both McLaureys were buried in the same grave, and Billy Clanton was buried nearby. Ike Clanton filed murder charges against the Earps and Doc Holliday. The lawmen were eventually exonerated by local Justice of the Peace Wells Spicer after a 30-day preliminary hearing, and then by a local grand jury famously known as the Spicer Hearings on November 30. Spicer did not condone all of the Earps’ actions and criticized Virgil Earp’s use of Wyatt and Holliday as deputies, but he concluded that no laws were broken. He said the evidence indicated that the Earps and Holliday acted within the law and that Holliday and Wyatt had been properly deputized by Virgil.

Unfortunately, that was not the end of the conflict, December 28, 1881, Virgil Earp was ambushed and maimed in a murder attempt by the outlaw Cowboys. On March 18, 1882, Cowboys fired from a dark alley through the glass door of a saloon and shot Morgan Earp, killing him. The suspects in both incidents furnished alibis supplied by fellow Cowboys and were not indicted. Wyatt Earp, newly appointed as Deputy U.S. Marshal in the territory, took matters into his own hands in a personal vendetta. He was pursued by county Sheriff Johnny Behan (his county posse composed mostly of Cowboys), who had received a Tucson warrant for Wyatt’s shooting of Frank Stilwell. Behan’s posse never caught up with the much smaller federal posse. The Earps especially Wyatt left Tombstone under a cloud of suspicion not as heroes as many fictionalized accounts would have you believe.