Mercer County connection to "Worst Naval Disaster in U.S. history"

Staff Writer
Aledo Times Record

The USS Indianapolis delivered the components of the world's first operational atomic bomb to the island of Tinian on July 26, 1945. A man born in Mercer County was on that ship when it was torpedoed and sank 70 years ago, just four days after playing a key role in ending World War II.

A mere two weeks after the Indianapolis sank, Japan surrendered on Aug. 15, 1945, after atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It was too late to save most of the crew of the Indianapolis.

Nearly 300 of the ship's crew of about 1,200 went down with the ship. Of the 900 who made it into the water, only 317 survived. Chief Ship's Clerk Virgil C. Huntley, one of the sailors who was lost at sea, was born in Viola in 1904.

It was, according to ussindianapolis.org, "The worst Naval disaster in U.S. history."

Despite the enormity of the loss, few people today seem to remember the tragedy.

Matt DeShane of Aledo, along with his children Gage and Carley, literally stumbled onto Mercer County's connection to this forgotten part of history about eight years ago. Deshane said Gage, then about 11, and Carley, about 8 at the time, liked to go to the park at the Aledo Cemetery. They'd often end up in the cemetery, checking the markers for possible relatives.

"We'd been doing that a couple of years before that. They'd wonder when they were young, what happened to these guys" buried in the cemetery.

On this particular day, things were slightly different.

"They wandered a little farther away than usual," DeShane said, "below the hill from the mausoleum."

As he followed, he happened upon the final resting place of Pearl G. Huntley, who was born in 1882 and died in 1953. What caught DeShane's eye was Pearl Huntley's monument was dominated by a dedication to her son, Virgil Huntley. The words, "Killed in action aboard USS Indianapolis" caught the attention of both DeShane and his children. The kids were aware of the fate of the ship because of a mention of it in the movie, "Jaws."

"I thought 'Pearl Huntley.' I wondered where she was born. The story wouldn't go away. I was intrigued by it," he said, wondering if the woman's son also was born in Mercer County.

He found the woman's obituary with the help of the Mercer County Historical Society. DeShane said he made a number of trips to the Mercer County Courthouse to try to learn more of Virgil's story.

Eventually, DeShane learned Minnie Pearl George married George E. Huntley on Dec. 25, 1900, in the College Avenue Presbyterian Church in Aledo. Another son, George L. Huntley, who also served in the Naval Reserves, was born in Gilchrist in 1902.

DeShane located George L. Huntley's daughter, Carol Huntley Thompson, with the help of Aledo resident Jodene Diverney Huntley. Jodene is the widow of one of Carol's brothers. Carol now lives in Moline.

"I thanked him for his interest," Carol said, "because I found out some family history."

She said she began looking through old photos and papers after DeShane called.

"My grandmother, Pearl, I didn't even know she had remarried," Thompson said of that part of the family history. "We probably would have never known had this fellow not taken an interest in my uncle and the Indianapolis."

According to ussindianapolis.org, the ship was sunk at 12:14 a.m., July 30, 1945, after being hit by two torpedoes fired by the I-58, a Japanese submarine. The website says the second torpedo struck "near midship on the starboard side adjacent to a fuel tank and a powder magazine."

According to an article in Stars and Stripes, it took just 12 minutes for the 14-year-old cruiser to sink.

The Indianapolis was on its way to join the USS Idaho in the Philipines in preparation for the invasion of Japan. Capt. Charles McVay III's request for a destroyer escort was denied, even though no other ship lacking anti-submarine detection equipment was asked to make its way across the Philippine Sea without an escort during all of World War II.

Capt. McVay was court-martialed on Dec. 3, 1945, on two counts: Failure to issue timely orders to abandon ship, and failure to take evasive action. McVay was convicted on the second count.

"Materials declassified years later add to the evidence that McVay was a scapegoat for the mistakes of others," according to the USS Indianapolis website.

DeShane and his children were not the only ones interested in the reference to the Indianapolis in "Jaws." According to the July 25, 2014, article in Stars and Stripes, in about 1995, "a sixth grader from Florida became interested in the USS Indianapolis after watching the movie "Jaws." A research project would lead to a five-year lobbying effort to clear McVay of his court-martial conviction."

In October 2000, legislation was passed and signed by President Clinton expressing the sense of Congress, "That Captain McVay's record should now reflect that he is exonerated for the loss of the Indianapolis and for the death of her crew who were lost," according to the website. In July 2001, The Navy Department announced McVay's record had been amended to reflect his exoneration.

Sadly, the action came much too late for Capt. McVay. According to Stars and Stripes, McVay killed himself in 1968 after he received, for years, "hate mail from family members of those who died in the disaster."

Virgil Huntley was the only brother of Carol's father, George.

"He (George) went to his grave believing it was the captain's fault," she said. "We wished he would have known (of the captain's name being cleared) before he died."

Carol, born in 1937, was still quite young when the events that claimed her uncle's life took place.

"I vaguely remember when all of this happened. We didn't have a home phone at the time," she said, recalling a neighbor coming over when her dad got the news.

"A lot of my memories (of that time), are they really memories or just things I heard?"

The family's tradition of service to the country through the navy continued.

"All five of my brothers were in the navy," Carol said. "And my husband, he wouldn't have considered any other branch of service, that's how much influence my dad had with him."

For DeShane, finding out a native of Mercer County was part of the tragedy and an opportunity to learn more about Virgil Huntley and his family was a journey he could not abandon.

"There's a satisfaction that comes from searching for something like this," he said. "The satisfaction was getting to talk to the family members, to put a face on these people, to get to know them a little better."